You are on page 1of 7

Theories of Family & Relationship Support

The Making & Breaking of Affectionate Bonds.
Bowlby,J ( 1979) in his work The Making and Breaking of Affectionate Bonds outlines
some of the main theories and concepts which inform the use of the Attachment Model.
This explores some theories of attachment which are relevant in general therapy,
bereavement issues and in family and relationship work. Bowlbys work was based
both on Ethological Theory ( the importance of biological and instinctive roots ) and on
research of orphaned children and their disposition to form attachments. His ideas
arise out of Object Relations Theory and deal with how we relate and get attached to
objects (often significant people) and the ways that we react to loss or separation.
This brief note will examine some of the concepts and ideas of the Attachment Model
and relate these to helping Individuals, families and particularly couples.
Bowlby maintains , as do others like Rutter(1981) and Schaffer & Emerson (1954) , that
the seeking and maintaining of proximity to others is a normal activity or impulse for all
primates. This impulse may also apply to inanimate objects. Consequently, we can
define attachment behaviour as one that results in a person attaining or maintaining
closeness to some other individual who is conceived or perceived as better able to
cope with the world. This is further clarified by the following characteristics of
Characteristics of Attachment
of attachment:

Bowlby proposed four distinguishing characteristics

Secure Base - The attachment figure(s) provides a secure base from which the child
can explore the surrounding environment
Maintain Proximity This is a desire to remain/maintain being near our Secure Base
we are attached to.
Safe Haven - This is the tendency/need to return to the attachment figure(s) for
comfort and safety in the face of any fear or threat.
Separation Distress - The absence of the Attachment Figure ( for children this is
normally a parent / caregiver) Anxiety occurs and in extreme cases can lead to
complications in later life with consequential problematic Attachment Styles.

The figure overleaf shows the above in further detail

Peter Creagh (2105)

Bowlby.doc 2015


Theories of Family & Relationship Support




4 Characteristics


Bowlbys 4 Characteristics of Attachment

ATTACHMENT THEORY - Some of the Main Concepts
Bowlby noted that at around six months the baby begins to discriminate between the
people who belong to his/her world. At this stage the baby begins to recognise
significant people and to form relationships with them. This is particularly true of the
primary care giver a relationship which has probably already begun to bond.
It is important to note that attachment is distinct from feeding and nurture.

The attachment figure is one who provides closeness and reassurance, particularly in
times of anxiety. The task of primary care givers ( normally the parents ) is to help the
child in the ( early ) years to accept longer periods of separation. This is in order that
he/she will grow up to be happy in forming close relationships and become both
independent and confident as an individual. In early childhood substitute attachment

Peter Creagh (2105)

Bowlby.doc 2015


Theories of Family & Relationship Support

figures ( teddy, comfort blanket etc ) often fill the gap left by the primary care giver as
and when the child is left alone.
Unreliable or Absent Attachment Figures. When the attachment figure is absent or
unreliable or if there is a significant disturbance in childhood e.g. going into hospital or
care or particularly the loss of a significant attachment figure,. This can lead to protest,
despair and (often) detachment. The consequences of the above can lead to the
growth of some or all of the following traits in later life.
Fear of Intimacy As an adult we can often become a compulsive detacher,
preferring animals or inanimate objects to people, since these do not let you down.
Fear of Separation
As an adult we can often become a compulsive attacher,
preferring any relationship to none.
Ambivalent Attachment There are also ambivalent attachers who search for the
ideal attachment figure until they become disappointed with the reality, rejecting them
and searching for a new figure.
Anxious Attachment
Another possibility is anxious attachment. This is often
rooted in a previous relationship where the significant figure kept coming and going.
Let us now look briefly examine 4 main 'types' or 'states' of attachment
Secure Attachment:
Ideally, from the time infants are six months to two years of age, they form an emotional
attachment to an adult / caregiver (normally a parent) who is sensitive empathic,
responsive to their needs. It is vital that this attachment figure remain a consistent
caregiver and thereby provide the necessary Secure Base
During the second year, children begin to use the adult as a secure base from which to
explore the world and become more independent. A child in this type of relationship
thus has a Secure Base and therefore develops the trait of Secure Attachment.
Avoidant Attachment
There are adults/caregivers who, often because of their attachment history , are
emotionally unavailable and both insensitive to and unaware of the real needs of their
child, particularly when the child is anxious or distressed. Their coping mechanism or
Parenting Plan A, is to discourage the child from either crying or showing distress and
encourage premature independence.

Consequently, their children develop into little adults who try to take care of
themselves. They tend to emotionally distance themselves and display /convey a
message of I do not need anyone else, I am self-contained and self-sufficient. They
have the tendency to form and display an Avoidant Attachment trait.

Peter Creagh (2105)

Bowlby.doc 2015


Theories of Family & Relationship Support

Ambivalent/Anxious Attachment:
Some parents/caregivers are inconsistent in their emotional response to children. At
times they are sensitive and nurturing but at other times they are insensitive and
unresponsive. Consequently the child becomes confused and insecure and lacks
trust . However, their resultant anxiety can cause them to act clingy and seemingly
desperate. These children develop and display the trait of Ambivalent/Anxious
Attachment .
Disorganized Attachment:
When a parent/caregiver is physically or emotionally abusive the child experiences this
as extreme fear and strong neural pathways are laid down. i.e. their Limbic System
becomes hyper-vigilant. At the same time the child faces a terrible dilemma. Their
Flight- Fight- Freeze instinct is aroused and yet she/he desperately needs to connect
with the parent/caregiver who is the cause of the distress.
Consequently, this can cause the child to disassociate from themselves and to detach
from relationships. In short they are in a conflicted state and develop the trait of forming
Dis- organised Attachments.
Attachment behaviour is at its most obvious in early childhood, but can be observed
throughout the life cycle and especially in crisis or emergencies. Some of its main
features are :

Maintenance of proximity with the attachment figure and the restoration of

the same.

A tendency towards symbolic messages to mark the importance of this

particular relationship. e. g. inappropriate and /or frequent Letter writing ,
sending cards , email , ringing up, giving presents etc.

The above is stronger at certain times (when in crisis ) and particularly so

in young children and teenagers where it is a normal behaviour pattern for
these stages of life.

The above behaviours can be particularly significant and helpful when examining both
family dynamics , relationships between parents and children and the couple

After separating from parents during adolescence, most people choose a new
attachment figure as an adult. In these relationships they attempt to balance the needs
of intimacy and independence, depending upon their previous experiences. Further
aspects will now be examined.
Peter Creagh (2105)
Bowlby.doc 2015


Theories of Family & Relationship Support

If a close adult relationship ends, the grieving process is similar to the reaction of a
child who has lost its primary care giver. To some extent the same process is involved
with all lost objects e.g. job, health, teddy bear etc. If any of these losses are ignored, a
subsequent loss can be the stimulus for grieving for both losses and the person who is
mourning is very often unaware of the connection between the losses. Then what often
occurs is a process of grief
Grieving Process
A grieving process starts with the loss, referred to as the EVENT. There then follows a
serious of deepening and distressing emotions, usually bottoming in depression and
despair before beginning to recover and reach some resolution. This the leads to a
return to some normality of life. This process is shown in the diagram below






Peter Creagh (2105)

Bowlby.doc 2015


Theories of Family & Relationship Support

The process outlined is only a proposed model. Every human being is unique and can
process loss in different ways and at different rates of progress. However, the model
does outline some of the more common and universal impacts of loss of people.
What can be reasonable accepted is that grief causes deep emotions for all forms of
life on our planet. Both humans and animals display signs of grief and loss. So for us,
as human beings, some of these emotions are so painful that we can try to avoid them
and thus repress, delay or obstruct the grieving process. This can occur either
consciously or unconsciously. Strategies of avoidance include :

Instant replacement of a new object/relationship. Very often we can

rush to fill the void. This can be very dangerous because the
grieving process often blocks us from making and taking wise
decisions. However, if and when this subsequent relationship fails
the subsequent grieving is more intense


Very often we try to avoid by using denial. Because we find it

difficult to cope we use drugs, alcohol or medication
( tranquilizers etc). Now, the short term use of medication can
help but they are not a long-term option. Because , if we
continue to use denial the grieving remains incomplete


Avoidance of despair by turning to drugs and/or alcohol

Some similarity with denial but we are more aware of our


This can often lead to a cycle of Protest Resignation

( depression) Detachment ( defensive ) Anger etc.


NOTE: Although the following is based on the Authors 25 years experience as a
Relationship Therapist, many of the points can be readily ap;plied either to individuals
and/or parents and children.
The following may be some indication / clues for the Helper that there are attachment
Difficulty with endings and beginnings. ( Both in life and in Sessions with the

Severe detachment from primary caregiver in early life ( death, separation etc)

Frequent references by client(s) to concept of COMMITMENT , REJECTION ,


Peter Creagh (2105)

Bowlby.doc 2015


Theories of Family & Relationship Support

Inaccessible primary carergiver(s) ( depression, alcoholism, incapacity etc )

Recurrent patterns of losses and separation

Anxious attachment by client ( over familiarity with Helper )

Detached client ( missed sessions, walk outs , avoidance of challenge etc).


The Helper may wish to be guided by the following

Build up a picture of losses and grieve where necessary and possible

Facilitate recall of childhood ( birthdays etc )

Examine feelings around abandonment and separation.

Examine the ending process

Examine the individuals and/or couples expectations re bonding in relationship.

Model security in the whole process of the sessions and the therapeutic contract.


Remember that there are often shared attachment problems within a close
relationship ( such as a couple or parent ; child etc.. possibly one is anxiously attached and the other is
ambivalent / disorganised/avoidant


Bowlby, J ( 1988)
Bowlby,J ( 1979)
ButlerC & Joyce, V
Laverack & Laverack
( 1994)

A Secure Base
The Making & Breaking of Affectionate Bonds
Counselling Couples in Relationships
The Essential Red Guide to Couple Relationship
Counselling Theory

Peter Creagh (2105)

Bowlby.doc 2015

Routledge, London
Tavistock, London
Wiley, New York