Attachment Theory: The Elevator Pitch and A Micro-History
In my last post, I argued attachment theory is a corner piece of the family violence puzzle.
In May 2019, my colleague, Sina Hariri, and I conducted a book review of Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find - And Keep - Love for the Family Dispute Resolution Institute of Ontario (FDRIO). This book is written for people seeking to understand their attachment style in relation to their romantic lives. (Though we evaluated it as family law mediators.) During the review, we were challenged to present attachment theory in an 'elevator pitch', which was pretty difficult given that we were reviewing an entire book on the concept!
In this post, I’ll share my elevator pitch; and give you an extremely brief, or rather, micro-history of attachment theory.
Attachment Theory: The Elevator Pitch
"Attachment theory is this idea that we connect to those closest to us in an invisible way [that goes beyond time and space], forming attachment bonds. We first develop bonds with our caregivers as children, and continue this process throughout life. The way that we form bonds between ourselves can result in secure or insecure bonding. [According to the book, there] are three varieties of insecure bonding in adults: avoidant (which the academic literature calls dismissive), anxious (academically known as preoccupied), and anxious-avoidant (academically known as unresolved). We’re biologically wired to attach to others as a safety mechanism. (The book offers a couple of great evolutionary explanations as to the advantages of secure and insecure bond formations.) If we have formed insecure bonds, we display ‘protest behaviour’ in order to either fix or cope with the instability of the attachments. Protest behaviour can range from stonewalling another person all the way to outright violence."
Attachment Theory: A Micro-History
Attachment theory was first posited by John Bowlby and the theory of child attachment theory was validated by Bowlby’s colleague, Mary Ainsworth. Ainsworth designed and executed what is now commonly known as the “strange situation test”.
The test evidenced that infants show variations in how they ‘attach’ to their primary caregivers. (If you’re a visual person, imagine that invisible beam that I depicted in my previous post as I explain how we attach.) The two major attachment styles are secure or insecure, and I’ll explain these in more detail in later posts.
For a while, the psych folks thought attachment-related bonds were limited to children and their caregivers. (Bowlby did believe that attachment lasted from “cradle to grave” but did not go so far as to suggest that adults also displayed attachment behaviours.). Over time, as a result of Shaver and Hazan’s research, the field of psychology recognized that adults, too, have intra-adult attachments. The most significant of these attachments are within romantic relationships. Hazen and Shaver’s work characterized love as an attachment process, which they describe as “a biosocial process by which affectional bonds are formed between adult lovers, just as affectional bonds are formed earlier in life between human infants and their parents.”
Dr. Sue Johnson explains that attachment, whether between children and their caregivers, or between adults, exists because “love is, in actuality, the pinnacle of evolution, the most compelling survival mechanism of the human species.” Hence, love drives connection because connection is a safety mechanism for social species, such as ours.
Dr. Daniel J. Siegel tells us that "[t]he brain is a social organ, and our relationships with one another are not a luxury but an essential nutrient for our survival." He goes on to characterize part of this essential nutrient as "[t]he sensation of being with someone who knows you, who wants to connect, who has your best interest in mind".
Put roughly, we attach to form strong, love-based, relationships as a matter of instinct because group-belonging protects us. When we have people who love us, they are likely to protect us, provide for us, and look after us if something goes wrong, and vice versa. As far as evolution goes, love is a safety mechanism and attachment is how we activate this safety mechanism.
What does this have to do with family violence? As I noted in my previous post, we attach securely or insecurely. (Queue that visual: not all beams are equally stable and this can cause all sorts of faulty interactions / outcomes.) Insecure attachments have their place in how we treat and influence the people we love badly. For some, violently.
Stay tuned, I’ll explain some more attachment theory in my next post…