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Does my childhood attachment determine my fate?

By Dr. Sunita Rai

Attachment is a strong affectionate tie we have for special people in our lives that lead us to experience pleasure and joy when we interact with them and to be comforted by their nearness in times of stress (Berk, 2012). Infant attachment is linked very much to seeking closeness to the mother, trying to follow the mother in her movement and using crying to grab the mother’s attention in her absence. Psychoanalytic theory focuses on feeding as an important function in forming emotional bonds. Behaviourist link attachment to the theme of drive reduction whereby once the mother satisfies the baby’s hunger, her presence becomes a learned drive as it is paired with tension relief. We know however that this is not entirely true from research and personal experience as we do form close connections with people whom do not feed us (such as close friends and partners) and also objects (such as our favourite teddy bears).

Bowlby’s ethological theory is one of the most accepted view of attachment. He viewed the emotional tie that an infant had with his mother was an evolved response that promoted survival. In his ground-breaking three volumes on attachment and loss (Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1980), Bowlby wrote that attachment bonds have four defining features: proximity maintenance (wanting to be physically close to the attachment figure), separation distress, safe haven (retreating to caregiver when sensing danger or feeling anxious), and secure base (exploration of the world knowing that the attachment figure will protect the infant from danger) (Sonkin, 2005). Bowlby stressed that our early bondswith our key caregivers have a tremendous impact on our current lives and also our relationship with our partners and children.Attachment theory is the joint work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991). Ainsworth (1978) was influenced by Bowlby’s works and expanded the research and came up with three distinctive patterns: Secure, Avoidance and Anxious. Main and Solomon (1986) expanded the concept further by including a fourth pattern of disorganized-insecure. Hazan and Shaver (1987) shared that interactions between adult romantic partners shared similarities to interactions between children and caregivers.

Secure attachment style is linked to sensitive and responsive parenting. While parenting alone cannot determine a child’s attachment status, it does play an important role. If one were to grow up with parents who are non-nurturing or neglectful, a child might grow up being untrusting and withdrawn in relationships. They have friends but are cautious and weary of people’s intentions. However, this worldview can change. How? When one starts forming new and nurturing friendships, it can challenge the previous worldview that one has. Continuous education and spiritually helps one to have greater self-awareness, other-awareness and greater understanding of the relationship between the universe and oneself. Having a clear purpose in life also contributes towards breaking an insecure pattern and forming a more secure pattern in adulthood.

In studies recognizing three attachment classifications (secure, avoidant-insecure, and resistant-insecure), about 20% of American infants have been classified as avoidant insecure, 70% as secure, and 10% as resistant-insecure (Ainsworth et al 1978). Similar results were published by IJzendoorn and Kroonenberg (1988). However, studies in Germany, Mali and South Africa amongst others had different patterns. Grossman (et al 1981) found that in Germany, there were relatively high rates of avoidant-attachment style. These shows that besides attachment, one should consider many other factors such as culture, caregiver (such as father or domestic helpers in Singapore), peers and spirituality amongst others. Harris (1998) believes that parents do not shape their child's personality or character. Field (1996) challenged the attachment theory as ‘it does not consider attachments that occur during adolescence (the first love), during adulthood (spouses and lovers), and during later life (the strong attachments noted between friends in retirement)’. This is good news as one is not predetermined to only follow a consistent pattern based on genes or upbringing. We have the ability within us to change our patterns through awareness, self-effort, determination and a commitment to change. Does having a secure-attachment through child rearing help? Of course it does. One has a smoother and earlier start. However, a balance of nature-nurture is required in a healthy and secure relationship and attachment.


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