Humans beings are apes (primates) and what’s more, we are highly social apes. As such, we are hard-wired to bond with each other and attach to each other. One of the first people to write about this was a British psychiatrist called John Bowlby. Writing in the 1950’s, Bowlby began to explore the idea that we have an inbuilt need for attachment to a primary care-giver (usually the mother) and that when this attachment becomes disrupted it can affect our mental and emotional health. This became known as attachment theory.
Bowlby disagreed with the two dominant theories of attachment at the time;
- Sigmund Freud’s theory of attachment which was called the cupboard love theory. (Freud saw infants attachments to their mothers as mostly motivated by the need for food.)
- B.F. Skinner’s behavioral theories of attachment, which saw attachment as resulting from familiarity between the infant and the mother (in other words “mother equals food”.)
Bowlby believed instead, that attachment to a specific primary care-giver was an evolutionary survival strategy which had developed in various species (mostly mammals) to protect new born infants from straying too far from their mothers and being eaten by predators. This instinct evolved over millions of years and was therefore innate.1 (In other words – we were born with it!)
Attachment theory’s central ideas are as follows;
- Between the ages of six months and two-and-a-half-years, we form emotional attachments to a primary, permanent and reliable care-giver (again, usually the mother).
- We use this primary care-giver as a secure base from which to begin exploration and play (as do other mammals such as apes, monkeys and elephants).2
- The formation of emotional attachment at this age then becomes a blueprint for all adult relationships. In other words, the quality of the attachments that a child experiences (with his or her mother or other care-giver) influences the way he or she will behave towards other people later in life.
- Any event which threatens or disrupts attachment to primary care-givers, such as sudden or unexplained separation, or the inability of the primary care-giver to respond appropriately to the child’s needs, can cause significant damage to young children and have long-term consequences on their development which extend well into adulthood.
Bowlby’s pioneering work with under-privileged children in Islington, North London, seemed to bear this out. For example, he found a strong link between children who had been separated from their primary care-giver in infancy and criminal behavior in their teenage years. These findings overturned the prevailing theories and practices of social work at the time, which were highly punitive (punishing) and which grossly under-estimated the amount of distress caused to children by separation from their mothers.
For attachment theorists then, much of what constitutes behavioral and social problems in adults (such as addiction) can be traced back to infancy and early childhood, and to events which threaten the relationships that are supposed to ensure our survival, and most especially the mother-child relationship.
Attachment theory has since gone on to exert on enormous amount of influence on the way that psychologists and counselors view adult pathology particularly in the field of addiction treatment.