I’m having to study Attachment at the moment.  That is, the attachment that a baby forms to its primary care giver, usually its mother.  It is quite uncomfortable for me, having to read about the problems that a child is left with when attachment goes awry.  It makes me feel intensely sad.

The quality of attachment that a child has is usually measured only in relation to the child’s mother (or primary care giver).  In reality it seems to me that a child’s experience of attachment is more complicated, since generally a child will know two parents and will experience two attachment styles which may be different.  The attachment style of parents tends to determine the quality of attachment that a child experiences, though there are other reasons why things might also go wrong (such as a long period of illness in early infancy or postnatal depression in the mother).

Attachment is at best “secure”.  The majority of children are fortunate enough to experience a secure attachment with at least one parent, or so the studies show.  Though things are, for example, much less rosy in Germany than in most other countries.

If there is no secure attachment, then there is only an insecure attachment.  Children with only an insecure attachment to their mother tend to fall into two types.

There are those children who become “dismissive” or “avoidant” of any attachment with their parent.  These children might show some of these characteristics:

Intense anger and loss
Critical of others
Sensitive to blame
Lack of empathy
Views others as untrustworthy
Views others as undependable
Views self as unlovable or “too good” for others
Relationships feel either threatening to one’s sense of control, not worth the effort, or both
Compulsive self-reliance
Passive withdrawal
Low levels of perceived support
Difficulty getting along with co-workers, often preferring to work alone
Work may provide a good excuse to avoid personal relations
Fear of closeness in relationships
Avoidance of intimacy
Unlikely to idealize the love relationship
Tendency toward Introjective depression (self critical)


Then there are those children who become “anxiously attached” to their parent.  These are the characteristics that one might expect to find in such a child:

Compulsive Caregiving
Feel overinvolved and underappreciated
Rapid relationship breakups
Idealizing of others
Strong desire for partner to reciprocate in relationship
Desire for extensive contact and declarations of affections
Overinvests his/her emotions in a relationship
Perceives relationships as imbalanced
Relationship is idealized
Preoccupation with relationship
Dependence on relationship
Heavy reliance on partner
Views partner as desirable but unpredictable (sometimes available, sometimes not)
Perceives others as difficult to understand
Relationship is primary method by which one can experience a sense of security
Unlikely to view others as altruistic
Sensitive to rejection
Discomfort with anger
Extreme emotions
Views self as unlovable
Suicide attempts
Mood swings
Tendency toward anaclitic depression (dependent depression)

Generally it is thought that attachment styles are stable over a lifetime.  Which is, frankly, not only determinative but also very depressing.  It means that a child who has experienced an insecure attachment with his mother will be likely to go on to have an insecure attachment with his children. Studies of romantic attachments have found strong correlations between childhood and adult attachment patterns with much poorer adult outcomes for those with insecure childhood attachments.

I’d say that my attachment to my mother was almost non-existant.  Search as I do, I cannot find any feelings of attachment in my memory, only feelings of shut-off or cut-off.  I suspect that as a child I kept trying to find succour but failed and so I stopped trying.  I don’t really know how to categorise these feelings.

It seems as if it might have been rather a good thing for my survival that my father was around, for all that he was inconsistent and frightening.

In relation to my father, I think that the “anxious attachment” label fits best of all, but I think his own attachment style is “dismissive”, which makes me wonder whether gender has not been taken sufficiently into account in the psychology studies that I’m reading about since I can think of lots of women I know who demonstrate anxious attachments, and lots of men who demonstrate dismissive attachments.  There are sex differences between small children, and girls generally seek closer relations with their parents than boys.  Boys are readier to explore.  Might these not translate into different outcomes for the manifestation of insecure attachment?

There are some studies on gender differences in attachment patterns.  One interesting article,’Differential Attachment Responses of Male and Female Infants to frightening Maternal Behaviour: Tend of Befriend versus Fight or flight’ by David and Lyons Ruth of Yale and Harvard Medical School respsectively, is available here:


Anyway, the miracle is that I am securely attached to my husband, though this is the work of twenty years.  As far as I can tell, my daughters are also securely attached to both of us.

I don’t understand how, if my own experience was so disastrous, I have found the capacity to form secure attachments.

Except there is a tendency in all humans to seek out secure attachments, even amongst those who have experienced insecure attachments as children.  It is as if there is some intuitive understanding of what a secure attachment feels like, and a desire to find it.  If we are lucky we do find those who are able to show us secure attachment patterns and contain our anxiety or dismissiveness.

There is also a tendency in humans (at least, according to Freud) to repeat earlier unsatisfactory experiences.

I have experience of both tendencies.  I note in myself that there is little tendency to seek substitute mothers amongst older women and, unusually for a women whose mother has died, I have not had any friendships with older women.  I’ve shied completely away from allowing any woman to nurture me.  I’ve mothered myself, and been blessed with friendships with women my own age who have strong maternal sides, but I seem to have had no hope that I would be mothered by anyone older than me.  Had this been the whole story, I think I would have remained a very self-contained, isolated individual with poor female friendships.

Fortunately for me, I was lucky enough to come across a series of “father-type” figures at various times from the age of sixteen or so, who were entirely reliable and never let me down, and who never ever showed any inappropriate interest in me.  They were all interested, involved, loving fathers in their own families.  I owe them a great debt.

And becoming a mother seems to have thrown a switch in my brain.  I think a fortunate relationship with my husband was an essential prerequisite that meant I was able to risk forming a secure attachment with my baby and I became able for the first time to form close, intimate, female friendships. I also started to become painfully aware of what I had missed out on, though not consciously so. For many years my own strong nurturing internal parent and adult ego state kept my child in check.

I have, in my life, also found myself embroiled with people whose experience of attachment was probably as disastrous as my own.  Perhaps, as fellow sufferers, we saw each other’s pain and sought to try to heal each other.   And invariably failed.

I think we tend to be lop-sided – heavily invested in being good parents to our children, but having our younger selves limping along behind.  In transactional analysis terms, I think our nurturing parental ego state saw the sad child in the other person, knew their pain, and was drawn to it and vice versa.  So my child is drawn to the nurturing parent in the other person just as their child is drawn to my nurturing parent.

So far, so good.

But the child is not immediately healed and plays out some of his or her earlier insecure attachment behaviour.  The child with a dismissive attachment style starts to withdraw.  The child with the anxious attachment style starts to cling.  Almost impossible to know which happens first.  There are only small signs at first, and hope tends to insist that these are disregarded, because, as Freud predicts, we want to resolve that conflict this time.

But what I think then happens is this.

Say, for example, that I am trying to nurture the dismissive child in another person.  His dismissive child will not be healed immediately, but will first start to behave as he always has, by withdrawing.  I ought to be able to experience this behaviour as the behaviour of the sad child, but, disastrously, the child inside me experiences it as the withdrawing, unloving parent, and this child becomes more and more anxious and more and more clingy.

Now I wonder whether the dismissive pattern is often due to an overinvolvement of the mother.  If this speculation is true, then my anxiously attached child who has now activated clingy cloying behaviour, is not experienced as a child by the other person, but instead as their overinvolved mother.  And so they distance even more.  And the circle becomes more vicious and more painful until it burns itself out.