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The Birth of Attachment Theory


The Birth of Attachment Theory

July 27, 2022

John Bowlby began his clinical observations of attachment behavior in the 1960s while working in a home for maladjusted boys.  Two relationships in particular profoundly impacted his subsequent theorizing on the importance of the early, primary relationship between the infant and the mother.  Based on his experiences with two boys who had distressing relationships with their mothers, Bowlby posited that early disruption in the mother-infant dyad was a key contributor to subsequent psychical disorders.  Additionally, Bowlby noted children who were exposed to prolonged periods of deprivation, were essentially “affectionless” (Bowlby, 1979, p. 8; Fonagy, 2001).  This affectionless affective orientation is somewhat static, Bowlby observed, in that dulled affect witnessed in infants did not profoundly shift toward animation in later life, despite environmental alterations.  Bowlby concluded his third volume of his trilogy on attachment (1980) by writing, “Intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person’s life revolves, not only when he is an infant or a toddler or a school child but throughout his adolescence and his years of maturity as well, and on into old age” (p. 442).

Bowlby (1980) observed, in this population of affectionless children, signs of what he termed “partial deprivation” and “complete deprivation” (p. 9).  Partial deprivation resulted in an excessive desire for love or revenge, guilt, and depression, whereas complete deprivation gave rise to feelings of listlessness, unresponsiveness, developmental disruptions, and a lack of focus and concentration.  Subsequently, Bowlby organized his findings into a theory centered on infantile reactions to separation (Bowlby, 1980).  These sequential reactions are as follows: protest which leads to despair and eventual detachment.  Protest begins when the infant comprehends that there is a potential threat of separation.  Behaviors during the protest phase may include crying, anger, and a deliberate search for the mother.  If the infant is not attended to in a timely manner, protest turns to despair.  Despair is marked by diminished physical movement, visible sadness, withdrawal from contact, and possible bouts of acting in a hostile way toward other children or a favorite object.  Eventually the child starts to mourn the loss of the attachment figure.  Detachment, the final phase of the reaction to separation from the primary caregiver, is one of turning away altogether from adults in general.  If or when the caregiver returns, an abnormal reunion takes place between the infant and the mother which may result in clingy behavior, pointing to a relentless fear of imminent and future abandonment (Bowlby, 1980; Fonagy, 2001).

As a consequence of various relational behaviors that Bowlby witnessed in his clinical work, he emphasized the survival value of attachment.  Proximity for protection purposes- feeding, learning about the environment, and social interaction are some examples of key factors in an infant’s motivation toward survival vis-à-vis attachment (Bowlby, 1979; Fonagy, 2001).

In the 1970’s, Sroufe and Waters elaborated on the motivational viewpoint embedded in attachment theory by stating that “the set goal of the attachment system is ‘felt security’, rather than physical distance regulation” (Fonagy, 2001, p. 13).  Moreover, feelings and/or fantasies are relevant to how the child responds to separation, in addition to environmental events and the overall social context.  The birth of the concept of felt security allowed for attachment theory to engulf the entire lifespan, therefore not solely applicable to infancy or infant development (Ainsworth, 1989; Bowlby, 1979).

Bowlby’s (1980) later work focused on symbolic and metaphoric communication of abandonment.  For example, if a mother threatens to leave her child or to kill herself or says something like, “you will be the death of me,” a child is likely to experience this as a concrete potentiality which would damage mother’s availability forever.  These kinds of threats, as well as actual violent acts that get played out in the home in front of a child, may result in wide ranging developmental difficulties.  As a result, the link between the fear of mother being harmed and the anticipation of unavailability has a deleterious impact on a developing mind (Bowlby, 1980; Fonagy, 2001; Siegel & Hartzell, 2003).

In the late 1970s and 1980s, attachment research grew increasingly concerned with physical and sexual abuse.  An additional attachment classification, disorganized / disoriented, was added to Ainsworth’s secureambivalent or anxious resistant, and anxious-avoidant attachment categories to reflect childhood experiences wrought with extensive trauma and environmental and emotional unpredictability (e.g., Main & Hesse, 1990; Main & Solomon, 1986).  The frightening behavior of the caregiver was negatively correlated with attachment outcomes.

The attachment figure being at once the signal of safety and of danger can be readily seen to potentially undermine the  entire attachment behavioral system.  Moments of dissociation or strange, frightened expressions have been observed in parents of infants whose Strange Situation behavior was classified as disorganized.  (Fonagy, 2001, p. 16)

Bowlby’s (1973) concept of “working models” highlights the “internal residue,” or the psychodynamic complexity that takes place within the developing baby as a result of the attachment experience (Mitchell, 2000, p. 83).  As a consequence of the early attachment relationship, babies internalize and concretize that which they are exposed to early in life, carrying it into subsequent conceptions of the self.  Mary Main (1995) noted that the concept of “working models” was a shift toward a relational attachment perspective which did not exist previously in the psychoanalytic realm.  If the parent is experienced as frightening, for example, the child may expect that other people will be unsafe and unpredictable as she ventures forth into the world outside of the family.  In essence, the lack of an original safe base potentially results in a fearful orientation toward the world more generally.

Without the presence of a stable, dependable attachment figure, an infant has difficulty making sense of her self, resulting in the potential for the development of problematic affect regulation and reflective functioning capacity (Fonagy, Gergely, Jurist, & Target, 2002; Mitchell, 2000).  In an effort to modulate herself and the world around her, “the child tends precociously to fill in the missing parental function and opportunities for a worry-free surrender to one’s own experience is foreclosed” (Mitchell, 2000, p. 95).  The lack of a consistent object during infancy may directly influence the child’s future aptitude for connectedness, playfulness, and spontaneity (Winnicott, 1971).


Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1989). Attachments beyond infancy. American Psychologist, 44(4), 709-716,

Bowlby, J. (1979), The making and breaking of affectional bonds. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Bowlby, J. (1980). Loss, sadness and depression: Volume 3. New York: Basic Books.

Fonagy, P. (2001). Attachment theory and psychoanalysis. New York: Other Press.

Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E., & Target, M. (2002). Affect regulation, mentalization, and the development of the self. New York: Other Press.

Main, M. (1995). Recent studies in attachment: Overview with selected implications for clinical social work. In S. Goldberg, R. Muir, & J. Kerr (Eds.), Attachment theory (pp. 407-474). Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Main, M. & Solomon, J. (1986). Discovery of an insecure-disorgazined/disoriented attachment pattern. In T.B. Brazelton & M. W. Yogman (Eds.), Affective development in infancy (pp. 95-124). Norwood: NJ: Albex.

Mitchell, S. (2000). Relationality: From attachment to intersubjectivity. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Siegel, D. J. & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York: Penguin Books.

Winnicott, D. W. (1971). Playing and reality. London: Tavistock Publications Ltd.

Jessica Zucker, Ph.D. Bio

Dr. Zucker specializes in women’s health, postpartum mood disorders, and early parent-child bonding.

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