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What if Attachment Theory is wrong?

Updated: Apr 26

Thoughts which live rent free in my brain.

I often wonder if the story we tell about attachment theory is wrong.


The story usually starts with the Strange Situation. In the Strange Situation, a mother would leave her toddler with a stranger for a few minutes, then attempt to reunite with kid.

This reunion, or so the story implies, was what researchers were most interested in.


When Mom returned and approached her kid, some of the toddlers would run to Mom and reconnect. These toddlers were secure in their relationship with their Mom and were labeled securely attached.


However, sometimes the reunions didn't go as smoothly. Some moms would attempt to reconnect, and the toddlers didn't reconnect with their mother. They pretended Mom wasn't there. These toddlers were avoidant of their mom and were the same kids with behavioral issues. These were labeled avoidantly attached.


Another group of toddlers responded to mom's attempted to reconnect, but couldn't be soothed. They'd hug their mom, cling to her, and just keep crying. It was like they couldn't trust that she was there for them, so they remained anxious about the relationship. These were labeled anxiously attached.


The lesson we're supposed to take from the story is that these patterns are as true for adults as they are for children. And that they are the cause of many mental illnesses.


The story makes sense. I think many of us know the crazymaking anxiousness that hijacks us when we're not sure our partner will be there for us. And many of us know what it's like to be emotionally shut down and say we don't need anyone, while on the inside, we're dying.


Still, I sometimes wonder if this story about attachment theory is wrong.


See because the story focuses on reunions the basic message is, "what's most important in relationships is how we do comfort and connection." The Strange Situation after all is all about reunion and reconnection.


But what if the researchers hadn't studied reunions but departures?


What if they had looked at how parents leave their toddlers?


They could have set up an experiment where moms bring toddlers to the door and drop their kids with a stranger.


I'd imagine you'd have seen the same basic attachment styles.


Some toddlers would kiss Mom goodbye and go play, secure in their relationship with Mom. Others would just leave, seemingly unconcerned about Mom, avoidant of the impact of being left. A third group would anxiously cry as Mom left, unable to be soothed by the stranger or distracted by a toy.


So much of the content would have been the same. But I think the implication would be fundamentally different.


Instead of modern psychotherapy being so focused on reunion and connection, we'd be much more centered around supporting kids as they launch and go off to explore and live their own life.


Of course, researchers will say that one of the purposes of attachment theory is to create a secure base from where kids can launch. For them, this idea of launching is built into their ideas of attachment.


I don't think psychotherapists act this way. It seems to me, as a field, we are entranced with ideas of endless support and safety. I think this is a fundamental error because the world isn't safe, and all love ends in loss.


This doesn't mean that we don't need safety and support. Of course we do.


But one day, if things go well, I will die before my kids. I will leave them. They'll be left to fend for themselves. Because loss is inherent in love, I think we should be preparing them for this evitable departure.


I'll leave you with one final story [1].


I recently had a client who had done some really beautiful work in therapy. She had felt much better for a couple of weeks, so I asked, "How are you feeling? Do you think we're ready for termination?"


She immediately started crying. We wound up having a really deep conversation about how she'd always felt like it wasn't okay to leave and grow.


At the end of our session, I said, "You know, when you go, when you're done with therapy, I'll be right here if you need to come back. But I'll be cheering you on as you go."


We set our next session for two weeks out, then a following session a month after that.


She’d continued making progress even without weekly sessions, so I again brought up termination. She was fine with it. I asked her how she was feeling because I knew termination had been a tender topic. And she said, "You know, when you told me that you'd been cheering me on as I go, that meant a lot to me. I think I always felt my parents, on some level, didn't believe in me. But I don't feel that with you. It's like this belief that I can do it; that I am strong enough."


Best,


Jordan (the counselor)



-Fin-

Note:

[1] Identifying details have been changed or omitted to protect the privacy of this client. Also, this story was shared with permission.

 

If you liked this post, consider reading this next. I think you'll like it ;) It's more thoughts on loss and love.

 

Jordan Harris, Ph.D., LMFT-S, LPC-S, received his Doctor of Philosophy in Marriage and Family Therapy from the University of Louisiana Monroe. He is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist in the state of Arkansas, USA. In his clinical work, he enjoys working with couples. He also runs a blog on deliberate practice for therapists and counselors at Jordanthecounselor.com.

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