Attachment is often described as a process that acts like a blueprint for our relationships. What we learn in our first – and most formative – relationship becomes the basis for every subsequent relationship we have, and we either spend the rest of our lives enjoying the benefits of secure attachments, or trying to fill the holes in our insecure attachments.
In her new book, The Attachment Bond: Affectional Ties Across the Lifespan, Virginia M. Shiller, a licensed psychologist and assistant professor at Yale University Child Study Center explores the enduring emotional and relational patterns that influence us and are influenced by the world around us.
Like many clinicians, particularly those with a psychoanalytic background, Shiller was fascinated by the work of attachment theory pioneers Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby. However, Shiller also realized that their work left out some very important variables such as the role of the father, the mother’s mental health and the quality of the marital relationship.
“Attuned, responsive mothers are most likely to be happy women who feel supported in their role. Women who wish to work outside the home but are unable for one reason or another to do so may well parent differently than women who choose to stay home,” writes Shiller.
How a mother parents a child, and how available and responsive she is to the child’s needs forms the basis for the attachment pattern that results. What the child takes away from this experience is a working model of relationships. Working models, Shiller writes, work outside of conscious awareness, and yet influence feelings, cognition, behavior, and attention and memory.
While attachment patterns were previously thought to be stable – that is, once they were developed they didn’t change – Shiller clarifies that, in fact, attachment patterns are much more fluid.
“Given the importance of the capacity for change, it is perhaps no surprise that children can change their attachment patterns if caregivers change their behavior,” writes Shilller.
In her review of several studies of children and the relationships they have with their teachers, Shiller found that children tended to elicit reactions from teachers that could perpetuate the non-optimal relationships they had with their parents. Yet, when careful interventions are made at this stage, children can make remarkable progress.
Shiller describes Tommy, an aggressive four-year-old who seemed to take pleasure in inflicting pain upon others, while also remaining out of reach to those around him. When his teachers carefully looked for opportunities to develop a relationship with him – even staying with him when he needed to be isolated from other children – in time, he developed a strong attachment to one teacher, while also making remarkable progress in all other relationships.
One feature that may be especially helpful to a child in developing a secure attachment pattern is his or her mother’s capacity for “reflective functioning.” Reflective functioning, which is the ability to look reflectively at one’s own mind, Shiller explains, seems to set the stage for a child to learn how to express and regulate emotions.
Without recognizing how one is interacting in relationships, a person is likely to misinterpret the intentions of others. Shiller cites the work of Mario Mikulincer, who showed that people with avoidant attachment patterns consistently attribute hostility to others’ benign behavior. The physiological result of this is that people who had less sensitive mothers also experience more stress-related arousal during conflict with their current romantic partners.
Attachment patterns also influence how we respond to our romantic partners. Secure partners are able to discuss their feelings in an open, contained, and coherent manner, whereas avoidant or anxious partners tend to either dismiss their relationship concerns, or become angry or confused about the relationship. Further, securely attached adults appear to handle stressful life events much more effectively.
In some cases, Shiller writes that marriage can offer a new caregiving environment, and one in which a secure partner can help an insecure one develop a greater sense of trust and stability within the relationship. And the more secure the relationship between partners, the more likely their children will develop secure attachment patterns.
“The relationship security in the parental state of mind and child attachment security appear to be a fairly universal phenomenon,” writes Shiller.
Because attachment patterns influence not just mental health, but also the relationships that we develop with our romantic partners and the ones we create with our children, it seems that every effort should be made to better understand them. The Attachment Bond offers perhaps the most informative summary to date of attachment theory, and its implications on the relational experiences that we carry throughout our lives.
The Attachment Bond: Affectional Ties Across the Lifespan
Virginia M. Shiller
Lexington Books (2017)
Hardcover, 203 Pages