Becoming Attached

What experiences in infancy will enable children to thrive emotionally and to come to feel that the world of people is a positive place? Attachment theorists believe they have some answers.
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The struggle to understand the infant-mother bond ranks as one of the great quests of modern psychology one that touches us deeply, because it holds so many clues to how we became who we are. I have a friend who does not want to be a father, because he fears he will be as emotionally stingy with his child as his mother was with him. This dread, that our character mirrors one of our parents', is very common, and the terrible certainty some of us have that we will re enact the worst aspects of our upbringing with our own children is not only widespread but seems distressingly well founded. The abused child does indeed often become the child abuser, and evidence suggests that many other behavioral and emotional tendencies are passed down through the generations.

Theories to explain this unwanted inheritance are plentiful. But scientifically verifiable explanations have been elusive. Indeed, until the past two decades nothing could be said with scientific authority about almost any dimension of the mother child bond, let alone how aspects of relatedness, good or bad, are transmitted. The multitude of voices confuses not only parents but also the judges and government agencies that make decisions about young lives.

What do children need, at a minimum, in order to feel that the world of people is a positive place and that they themselves have value? What experiences in infancy will enable them to feel confident enough to explore, to develop healthy peer relations, to rebound from adversity? What custody or foster care arrangements will best serve their emotional needs if the family should dissolve, and at what point do we decide that a neglectful or abusive mother is worse than a kind stranger? Which of us are at risk of being parents who will raise insecure children, and what can be done to minimize that risk? These are all questions of huge theoretical and practical interest.

Today, with mothers spending less time at home, with families falling apart and being reshaped in new combinations, and with debates raging about the emotional needs of schoolchildren and the advantages and disadvantages of day care, understanding all this seems more urgent than ever. One group of researchers and clinicians, known as attachment theorists, claim that they've discovered some answers and are on the road to finding the rest. But although they've dazzled many of their peers, altering some of our most basic attitudes toward early child care, their contributions have frequently met with skepticism, opposition, or rebuke.

In 1958 Harry Harlow reported a study that every student now learns of in Introductory Psych. Inspired by the pioneering work of the psychoanalyst Ren&eeacute; Spitz, who had shown that infants raised in foundling homes without handling or loving attention withered away and often died, Harlow, an animal learning theorist, devised an experiment with rhesus monkeys. He took infant monkeys from their mothers shortly after birth and raised them with two surrogate "mothers" — one made of bale wire mesh, the other covered with terry cloth. Either "mother" could be equipped with a feeding nipple. Even when the bale wire "mother" was the only one providing food, the infant monkeys became more attached to the terry cloth "mother," cuddling it, running to it when frightened, and using it as a base for explorations. The experiment appeared to disprove the assumption, common among both Freudian and sociallearning theorists, that infant attachment to the mother is mainly a function of feeding. To rhesus monkeys, at least, warm contact seemed more important.

As persuasive as Harlow's study was, experiments with monkeys can tell us nothing definitive about human attachment. And given the restrictions on what a researcher can do with human subjects, a more conclusive statement on the infant mother bond seemed unlikely.

But a decade after Harlow began putting infant monkeys through a variety of extreme deprivations in order to capture the essentials of mothering, Mary Ainsworth, with much the same goal, was conducting experimental observations of human babies in a Baltimore lab. Using a technique called the Strange Situation, Ainsworth embarked upon a longitudinal study of attachment during the infants' first year. In an approach that was extremely unusual at the time, researchers closely observed mothers and children in their homes, paying careful attention to each mother's style of responding to her infant in a number of fundamental areas: feeding, crying, cuddling, eye contact, and smiling. At twelve months the infant and his mother were taken to the lab and the infant was observed as the mother was separated from him. During two intervals a stranger was in the room; during another the baby was alone.

Ainsworth spotted three distinct patterns in the babies' reactions. One group of infants protested or cried on separation, but when the mother returned, they greeted her with pleasure, frequently stretching out their arms to be picked up and molding to her body. They were relatively easy to console. Ainsworth labeled this group "securely attached."

She labeled the other two groups "insecurely" or "anxiously" attached. One group of anxious babies, called "ambivalent," tended to be clingy from the beginning and afraid to explore the room on their own. They became terribly anxious and agitated upon separation, often crying profusely. An ambivalent baby typically sought contact with his mother when she returned, but simultaneously arched away from her angrily, resisting all efforts to be soothed.

The second group, called "avoidant," gave the impression of independence. They explored the new environment without using their mothers as a base, and they didn't turn around to be certain of their mothers' presence, as those labeled securely attached did. When the mother left, the avoidant infant didn't seem affected. And on her return he snubbed or avoided her.

Without the painstaking observation that had come before, Ainsworth's findings would have been relatively insignificant, no more than a demonstration that babies reacted differently when separated from and reunited with their mothers. But because Ainsworth's team had observed each of these mother child pairs for seventytwo hours over the prior year, they were able to make specific associations between the babies' attachment styles and the mothers' styles of parenting. Mothers of securely attached children were found to be more responsive to the feeding signals and the crying of their infants, and to readily return the infants' smiles. Mothers of anxiously attached children were inconsistent, unresponsive, or rejecting. The three patterns seen in laboratory observation proved directly related to the way the babies were being raised.

The importance of the Strange Situation was not immediately apparent when Ainsworth's article describing her research was published, in 1969. But her findings marked the beginning of a critical shift in perceptions about infancy and child rearing, set in motion a prolonged debate that divides infancy researchers to this day, and signaled a revolution in the field of developmental psychology the branch of psychology that studies the processes by which we progress from infancy to adulthood. Before Ainsworth, numerous methods had been devised to measure conceptual and cognitive development. Many of them had been introduced by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who showed the steps by which a child's mind grasps the complexity of his world. But almost no procedures were available for assessing or measuring an infant's social and emotional developmentcertainly none at this level of complexity. Although real life experiences were widely assumed to shape personality, no one had been able to demonstrate exactly which experiences mattered. Ainsworth, at a stroke, changed all that, and in subsequent research she and her followers laid siege to much of the received wisdom of the field, offering new explanations of how our inner world is developed and organized and what all this means in terms of security, personality, and future relationships.

In succeeding studies attachment researchers found that without intervention or changes in family circumstances, attachment patterns formed in infancy persist. At age two, insecurely attached children tend to lack selfreliance and show little enthusiasm for problem solving. At three and a half to five years, according to their teachers, they are often problem kids, with poor peer relations and little resilience. At six, they tend to display hopelessness in response to imagined separations. Reliable, statistically verifiable information like this about what infants need in order to feel secure and how they are likely to feel and behave in later years if they don't get it had never before been available.

Parents, too, were examined. Mary Main, a former student of Ainsworth's and now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, found that the way parents remember and organize their own childhood experiences is a powerful predictor of which attachment group their children will fall into. This was the first research both to show intergenerational transmission of secure and insecure attachment and to attempt to distinguish between adults who have retained the negative legacy of their childhood and those who have worked through it.

Questions about child rearing that had only been speculated about could now be answered with greater authority. For years mothers had been warned against picking up their babies when they cried. It seemed contrary to nature and intuition, but behavioral theory asserted that picking up the child reinforced the crying, and if you did it enough you'd have a monstrous crybaby on your hands. Attachment research seems to have disproved this, at least as a general principle.

Ainsworth's central premise was that the responsive mother provides a secure base. The infant needs to know that his primary caregiver is steady, dependable, there for him. (Throughout this article, for simplicity's sake, I'll refer to the primary caregiver as the mother though fathers and nonrelated adults can also be primary caregivers and I'll use the male pronoun for the infant.) Fortified with the knowledge of his mother's availability, the child is able to go forth and explore the world. Lacking it, he is insecure, and his exploratory behavior is stunted. This was an astonishing assertion in the behaviorist dominated atmosphere of the late 1960s, when most experts warned against spoiling children with too much responsiveness.

Warm, sensitive care, Ainsworth insisted, does not create dependency; it liberates, and enables autonomy. "It's a good thing to give a baby and a young child physical contact," she says, "especially when they want it and seek it. It doesn't spoil them. It doesn't make them clingy. It doesn't make them addicted to being held."

To many mothers, Ainsworth's prescriptions seem as natural as maternity itself. (Of course you pick up your baby when he cries!) But as pleasing as it is to discover that psychology is catching up to intuition finding that little children do indeed need nurturing and consistency, that the way you are with your baby will profoundly affect his personality development, that what happens to him when he's little will influence what he becomes later — it is equally displeasing to encounter a body of evidence suggesting that you yourself haven't been or aren't or won't be doing it right. Attachment theory, which seems implicitly to advocate a stay at home role for the mother, has thus provoked both rage and enchantment.

The day care issue has been the most explosive. Attachment theory proponents tend to see full time day care in the first year as a risk, and Jay Beisky, an attachment researcher at Pennsylvania State University, has voiced the concern that if you put your baby in substitute care for more than twenty hours a week, you are running a serious risk of his becoming anxiously attached which could skew his subsequent efforts to relate to the outside world. Such assertions, needless to say, have drawn heavy fire, and bristle with political implications.

In twenty years of Strange Situation research, stable middle class American homes have consistently produced babies of whom about two thirds are securely attached and one third are insecurely attached. As these numbers suggest, being securely attached hardly ensures that babies will grow up free of neuroses or even of insecurities. It means only that they have been given confidence that someone will be there for them and that they are thus at least minimally capable of forming satisfying relationships and of passing on that ability to their children. But in unstable homes, where parents, often single, are under great stress, and where neglect or abuse is more common, this minimal bulwark is often missing and the numbers of insecure children swell. Larry Aber, the director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development, at Columbia University, estimates that of the 100,000 four year olds in New York City today, as many as half may be insecurely attached. He believes that we need "dramatic preventive measures" to help these children and expects that attachment research will make its most important clinical contribution in the search for such measures. Other experts would reject both ends of this assertion.

The controversy adds urgency to the question of whether attachment principles can be justly claimed to have scientific validity. Resistance has certainly been vigorous among classical analysts, behaviorists, and those who favor a genetic view. Jerome Kagan, a developmental psychologist at Harvard, believes that the Strange Situation is not a reliable measure, and thus that much of attachment thinking is flawed. "Ainsworth had a very small sample," Kagan says; "it was restricted in variety; it's certainly not enough to build a theory on." Besides, he asks, can we really expect six minutes of reunion behavior in an unfamiliar room to reveal an emotional history between parent and child "comprising over a half million minutes in the home"?

Friendlier critics are concerned about a reductionist tendency to assume that quality of attachment is all important. They argue that other aspects of parenting, such as teaching, playing, and having fun, may go well even if attachment goes poorly. Others believe that in focusing so much on the primary caregiver, which usually means the mother, attachment theory has not paid adequate attention to the father's role.

Nevertheless, leading psychoanalytically oriented infancy researchers, such as Daniel Stern and Stanley Greenspan, acknowledge that attachment theory has filled in a piece of the puzzle. "It's too early to say how big a piece," Stern says, "but it's certainly a piece, and it's a nice piece." Psychotherapists are finding that familiarity with attachment concepts is helping them in their work with patients. "My training in the attachment interview," says Arietta Slade, of New York's City University, "has dramatically changed the way I listen to how patients talk." And attachment concepts have increasingly influenced the advice that baby doctors give both parents and lawmakers. T. Berry Brazelton, a famed Boston pediatrician who has popularized his own brand of attachment theory, says, "My whole thinking has been based on it."

Attachment theory was itself born of three unlikely parents: ethology, developmental psychology, and psychoanalysis — disciplines that have not traditionally troubled themselves with one another's findings. But in 1951 the biologist Sir Julian Huxley began talk 77 ing ethology to John Bowlby, the British psychoanalyst who originated attachment theory. Huxley urged Bowlby to read Konrad Lorenz, considered the father of modern ethology, particularly Lorenz's work on imprinting in newborn goslings, a phenomenon by which the infant birds attach themselves to the first moving object they see. Bowlby did so and became imprinted himself.

Captivated by ethological ideas, Bowlby now had a biological basis for his belief that a child needs a reliable ongoing attachment to a primary caregiver and that he suffers grievously, even irreparably, if that attachment is interrupted or lost. He developed the concept of "internal working models" to describe how the infant's sense of self and other unfolds through interactions with that primary caregiver. A brilliant synthesizer, Bowlby was the first theorist to exhaustively combine cognitive and emotional development, to build a bridge between Piaget and Freud. Having written the three volume work Attachment and Loss, he is the uncontested father of the movement.

But Mary Salter Ainsworth's Strange Situation put attachment theory on the map, by providing empirical evidence for a number of conclusions that until then had only been intuited. She made the bridge from Piaget to Freud sturdy enough for half the field of developmental psychology to traverse. "Our whole developmental approach was cognitive until she came along," Brazelton says, referring to the pre Ainsworth emphasis on such functions as perception, memory, and abstraction. "She enabled psychology to look at the emotional development of children in a reliable, quantifiable way." Says Bowlby, "Her work has been indispensable. It's difficult to know what might have happened otherwise."

Ainsworth, now seventy six, lives in semi retirement in a suburban home near the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where she taught for many years. "The fact that the Strange Situation was not in the home environment, that it was in the lab, really helped," she says with a laugh. "I only did it as an adjunct to my naturalistic research, but it was the thing that everyone could accept somehow. It was so demonstrable."

A bright eyed woman whose short brown hair is streaked with white and blond, Ainsworth has a face that changes gently from intellectual delight to feisty engagement to shy vulnerability. In discussing her work she reveals both pride and modesty, and an uncommon willingness to credit others. The penetrating gaze she trains on an interviewer is suggestive of her years as a teacher and a clinician.

Although she never had children of her own, Ainsworth is the matriarch of a far flung but close knit family of attachment researchers and theorists, many of whom have been intellectually nurtured by her since their graduate school days and still see her as a guiding force in their work. They, in turn, have helped make her one of the biggest names in developmental psychology since Piaget. Ainsworth is all but unknown to the public (and to many psychoanalysts and psychiatrists, who tend to be unfamiliar with trends in developmental psychology), and yet her fame in the world of infant development exceeds that of John Bowlby himself.

"I've always said that if there were a Nobel Prize for this kind of thing, she would get it," says Alan Sroufe, of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. "When I went to school, I was taught that only behaviors were real, not relationships they didn't exist. Ainsworth demonstrated that there can be a psychology of relationships and that relationships can be measured. That's why you get Nobel Prizes, isn't it?"

The Search for a Theory of Relatedness

By 1950, when Ainsworth and Bowlby first met, many researchers had grown dissatisfied with the lack of attention paid by classical analysis to the influences of relationships, especially in early life. It wasn't that Freud ignored relationships or failed to see that the way one was raised would influence one's emotional well being. But after discarding his trauma (or "seduction") theory about the origin of neurosis, he came to place more and more emphasis on the unconscious workings of the individual psyche and the instincts or "drives" that motivate it. Classical analysts retained this tight focus often ignoring Freud's speculative thoughts in other directions and in their writings the nature of the patient's relationships, past or present, often seemed incidental.

But Freud wasn't even in his grave before new schools of thought were generating new questions about our first relationships and their lasting impact on us. Soon interpersonal and social theorists, family systems theorists, and object relations theorists (in psychoanalysis the unfortunate word object usually means "person") were all struggling over the relational ground left uncharted by the classical Freudian model.

When, at sixteen, Ainsworth (then Mary Salter) entered the University of Toronto, in 1929, she quickly found that her first mentor, William Blatz, had his own ideas about relatedness. The subject matter of Blatz's abnormal psychology class consisted almost entirely of his "security theory," and, troubled by insecurity herself, she was drawn to it. "I was impressed with his idea that the child derives security from being near his parents," Ainsworth says. "That security enables him to move out to explore his world, to learn about it, and to acquire the skills to master what he encounters out there. I don't remember if he called that 'using the parent as a secure base from which to explore the world,' but that is how I finally came to phrase it."

Ainsworth recalls Toronto's psychology department as being imbued with a messianic feeling, one that she quickly came to share, and retains to this day: that the science of psychology could be used to improve the quality of human life fundamentally. She became a psychology major, did her doctoral dissertation on Blatz's security theory, and in 1939 became a lecturer at the university, before doing a three year stint as an army major in charge of personnel selection during the Second World War. In 1946 she returned to the University of Toronto, where she and Blatz co directed a team studying security in various aspects of adult life. She also began training as a diagnostician during those years, and later co authored a volume on ink blot technique with Bruno Klopfer, the leading Rorschach interpreter of the day.

Blessed with a quick mind and a keen eye, the young psychologist was a brilliant and eager researcher. But she had neither the hunger nor the disposition of a scientist on the make. Although intellectually tough, interpersonally she was often softer. In 1950, when she married Len Ainsworth, who was younger than she and had recently completed his masters degree in psychology, she readily dropped her work in favor of his education. "It didn't seem like a good idea for Len to remain at the U of T for his Ph.D., so we went to England. He got admitted to University College, London, and I went along."

If Ainsworth did not have destiny writ large in her features, the man who placed the help wanted ad that she answered in the London Times did. Bowlby had opinions, determination, and presence. Ainsworth's four years with him and his small team would alter the course of her career. She was taken not only with his ideas but also with his formidable and secure personality. "He made no bones about the fact that he was single handedly fighting the analytic establishment, that it pained him some, but that he was convinced he was on the right track. It was a long time before I felt any sense of getting close to him or being a friend. But I had no difficulty whatsoever making him into a surrogate father figure even though he's not much older than I."

During that first interview Ainsworth and Bowlby discovered that their interests coincided to a remarkable degree. It was the beginning of a professional marriage that would prove as fruitful and enduring as any in the history of psychology.

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