Why Attachment Matters

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I started this blog without a title writing about where I’m up to and lamenting that I’ve not been making time to write. It morphed into writing about attachment, something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, so I’ve cut the first part and for once here’s a piece that’s not all about me! In these scary times we need more than ever to understand what makes people tick and why they do what they do. I believe the Dynamic Maturational Model (DMM) of attachment theory is the best thing we have to help us do that so this is an introduction to what it’s all about.

Attachment is the system nature has put in place to help us survive in a dangerous world. Staying alive and keeping our children alive and thereby our genetic potential is the bottom line. That statement alone tells us how important attachment is. The joy of becoming a grandparent is in part because of this I think. You’ve made it in attachment terms and you’re not responsible for making sure this one lives! When I took my mum to see her first great grandchild she commented wistfully ‘to think all this started with me and your father’. I think she was expressing her deep joy at the survival of her genes.

The human infant takes a lot longer than other mammals to be able to survive independently (if we can ever be truly independent of others), so it’s no surprise that our attachment system is complex and evolves as we mature. Our basic attachment needs are protection from danger and comfort. When we are small it helps a lot if our attachment figures understand this as meeting our every need. This has to kick in right away at birth or our chances of survival are not going to be great. So we are born with attachment signals built in. A newborn baby’s cry will melt most people quickly and they will rush to them. That’s what it’s supposed to do. A mother pretty much always wants to protect and comfort their baby – intentions are nearly always good to start with and shouldn’t be confused with outcomes as the two things are often very different. So attachment is in one part the behaviours we use to illicit the care and attention that we need and the responses our carers give back. It’s not ‘in’ one person; it’s what happens between them. As this signal and response dance happens the infant is processing this information about the world and learning how it is for future reference. So our attachment system is also how our minds process information; how we think, how we feel, how we see the world. It’s the lens we view everything through. That lens can be clear and accurate or it can be distorted in some way. Our attachment system colours all aspects of our experience.

Life is not inherently safe so how threat and danger are dealt with by our caregivers determines whether we psychologically adjust rather than whether we are exposed to threat and danger per se; as everyone can be though not equally for sure. Not everyone is traumatised by their traumatic experiences. The impact of them is mediated through our attachment relationships; when young with our parents or carers and when older with our partner, friends and ourself. If parents are not a source of comfort or worse still are the source of the danger; a child must find the best way he can to maximise his chances of them protecting him or comforting him to survive literally and psychologically. To do this their minds need to distort the information coming in (from their body and their environment) which it can do in different ways to create the most helpful conditions in these terms.

There are 2 basic forms of information – cognitive and affective. Cognitive in this context means predictability, order in time. Affective means feelings, bodily sensations, emotions. Our nervous systems take it all in and in a nanosecond decide what to do with it. Remember the primary purpose is safety and protection at all times. What our nervous system and brain need to know is what is about to happen – the future. It can’t know that so it makes its’ best guess based on the past. So every experience we have is through the lens of our past experiences. How we perceive the present depends on what we’ve experienced in the past. Perception is in large part memory based; and dangerous experiences imprint more powerfully than any other kind.

Let’s imagine 3 newborn babies in their cots bombarded with physical sensations – maybe hunger, cold, wet. Our first baby cries and someone comes and sees to his needs. He feels more comfortable. This happens repeatedly and the baby is learning that when he expresses his needs someone predictably meets them and soothes his nervous system. They regulate him as he can’t yet regulate himself. By 6 weeks this baby has learnt that both his feelings (affective information), and predictability (cognitive information) are reliable just as they are in shaping life so it is safe and comforting. He is on his way to a B strategy – balanced and all is well.

Our next baby has the same sensory experiences but when he cries in his cot either no one comes until he falls asleep exhausted or someone predictably comes and does something other than comfort him; shouts, jiggles him vigorously, feeds him when he’s not hungry or hits him. This baby is learning that his feelings and the expression of them does not reliably get his needs met; getting him no response, the wrong response or an aversive response. This baby learns to suppress his feelings, to disconnect from his body. He is distorting affective information by minimising, dismissing or denying it. This is why I get so angry about the ‘sleep training’ of newborns by leaving them to cry espoused by some parenting books. When it’s “worked” from the parents perspective and the infant no longer cries the baby has learnt there is no value in communicating their distress and this is not healthy development. He will also struggle with regulating himself. This process is the origins of the avoidant (A) strategy. What they are avoiding is their feelings, in particular negative ones (anger or desire for comfort) and their bodies. We Brits are a lot like this – stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on, boys don’t cry. You get the picture? Like all the strategies as we get older it can evolve into a different behavioural manifestation with a different level of distortion of the information going on in the mind; but all the A strategies have in common an over reliance on cognitive information and a disregard for affective.

Baby number 3 cries and sometimes someone comes but not always. When they come they sometimes do what the baby needs, sometimes something different. They might be cooing and sweet or angry and mean. They are not predictable. This baby learns that there is no order to how things happen so all he has to rely on are his feelings and the expression of same. If he cries loud enough and hard enough someone just might come. He will also have trouble regulating himself. This is the C (coercive) strategy whereby the baby learns that amplifying his expression of feeling is his best chance of getting a response which might be the one he needs. As he gets older this gets more sophisticated; amplifying anger whilst denying a need for comfort or flipping between the two. The toddler who is kicking their mum then bursts into tears and looks vulnerable when the mum gets angry. The teenager who angrily protests that he doesn’t care and doesn’t need you anyway. Showing one feeling whilst denying the other. This style of parenting and the problems it brings are what most parenting programmes are good at addressing; increasing the predictability and sensitivity of parental responses. They work a treat when this is the underlying process going on and it’s not too extreme.

It’s worth mentioning that when Bowlby and Ainsworth did their work figuring this stuff out; the ABC classification wasn’t meant to convey meaning or value and the words to describe them got added later. One strategy is not better than any other – it depends on your circumstances at any given time. The B strategy is most likely to lead to an accurate assessment of the situation. The A strategy is more rigid and can be non-adaptive in ever changing circumstances. The C strategy can make it hard to learn from your experiences as it all depends on how you’re feeling in the moment. It’s also worth saying that in this model of attachment there is no D for disorganised. The ABCD model places most troubled people in the disorganised category. If humans were disorganised in their response to danger we would not survive. I really think it’s as simple as that. In the DMM model we have increasingly complex but strategic responses to danger that might look crazy and disorganised but they are not. This is a really important point. Troubled people’s seemingly disturbed and unhelpful behaviours, thoughts and feelings are their solution to whatever life has thrown at them. It represents the best they could do in their unique set of circumstances. It’s how they have survived. The trouble comes when they are no longer able to adapt their response to new or changing conditions, or are unable to adapt when it’s clearly not working for them. Stuck in a groove if you like; can’t change the record. The same response whatever is going on. It’s not the symptoms necessarily that are the problem but the lack of flexibility in the minds’ responses. We see this with Donald Trump now. All he can do in response to an ever increasing threat is more of the same – blame others, big himself up and lie. To do this his mind is distorting the information available to him – probably in his case to a delusional extent. Actually in his case the symptoms are most definitely a problem as well as their persistence. The tragedy is he’s taking a nation down with him.

So that’s how the 3 basic strategies come into being. A colleague once said that she had a problem with reducing our understanding of the complexity of humans to 3 basic patterns. I thought this was a valid point until I thought about the 3 primary colours and how many actual colours there are in the world. Infinite possibilities. How we blend and combine our attachment strategies probably has the same degree of unique potential. Pat Crittenden has the model as a 2 dimensional circle but I think it’s probably 3 dimensional in real life. The value of the circle is that we can identify where a person is predominantly on it by analysing the way they talk. How we talk about our experiences reveals how we process information. How we process information informs how we behave in our relationships. Thus we can understand ourselves and others better and from understanding comes the ability to change. We no longer act unknowingly or unconsciously. Change isn’t always easy though because when we are threatened the old patterns are triggered before you know it. We need time to change our habitual responses and we need to feel safe enough to take that time. Reflective capacity comes from security. This is the basis of good therapy – creating a safe and secure attachment relationship with the therapist so we can begin to explore different possibilities, experience different responses and create new neural pathways, new strategies for dealing with life. It’s why short term interventions don’t work for anyone other than mildly troubled people who are the least in need of the help in the first place. It saddens me greatly that the majority of our mental health services offer interventions that are not suitable for the people who need them the most. There are less opportunities to do the long term work therapeutic work that many of us need to truly heal.

If you’ve liked this and want more I’ll do some further posts exploring the different strategies and any other aspect people might be interested in. For more information check out Pat Crittenden, http://www.iasa-dmm.org or Family Relations Institute.

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12 Comments

  1. Healthy attachment is such a huge predictor of how well we manage in life, as is lack of attachment. It is really very sad when you consider the damage that can be done to an innocent human. I teach child development to pregnant and parenting teens and I can’t emphasize it enough. Unfortunately, many of them suffer from not developing healthy attachments. We can try to break the cycle through education though, right?💕

    Liked by 1 person

  2. wow, thanks for the excellent summary, that was so instructive and a nice change from the usual “attachment styles folk psychology/self development” stuff we read everywhere. This is the real stuff lol!!! I loved the expression “signal and response dance” which captures the relational essence of the process really well, as well as the the primary color analogy, which conveys the infinite nuances that can emerge from the original triad 🙂 Do you have any reading tips for the way attachment strategies are revealed in language? (“we can identify where a person is predominantly on it by analyzing the way they talk”). I’d love to read more about that 🙂 xxx anyway hope you’re doing well 🙂 xxx Anne

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Really informative, useful post. For me what has been interesting is how many young people I worked with seemed on the surface to have had secure attachment styles from their carers and yet were showing signs of anxiety and depression. What emerged time and time again was that many had had their primary needs met but not their emotional needs, so were often confused as to why they never felt OK. I now see this in many adults; an ostensibly safe, secure upbringing without trauma or abuse but missing the emotional validation we all need and then suffering the confusion of never feeling complete despite the surface normality. Jim x

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Jim – I’ve worked with many people as you describe and they end up concluding that they are wrong, faulty etc. Of course their parents didn’t have their emotional needs met either – I think we are shifting culturally but in our age of plenty emotional needs gets conflated with having what you want which of course is not the same and causes a different set of problems! Times they are a changing right now though so let’s hope! 💞💞

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yep it’s that feeling of being wrong, faulty that so many people have ( and I include myself in that) and then feeling guilty for feeling like that when one apparently has had a “good “ life. I agree, I think times are a changing. X

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