Trying to understand the research and literature on secure and insecure attachment patterns seems to me to be a bit like this image:
Picture a cold winter day. Someone comes out of their house, shuffles through the snow to a wood pile, brushes a pile of snow off of a corner of the tarp that covers it, pulls the cover back and begins to pile stove size logs into their arm. They pull the tarp back over the pile, return to their house, and go through the process of adding the wood into a fire. All is well, warmth is achieved, and life goes on.
When attachment specialists write about attachment styles and patterns they divide their thinking in half. Half talk about how attachment can be ‘measured’ for infants at about a year of age. The other half talk about attachment styles and patterns in parents as they relate to their infants that created the attachment styles and patterns one can measure in the infants.
I have found no clear description about how the birth to age one experience an infant has with its earliest caregivers BUILDS its age-one attachment pattern that continues through to create the attachment patterns it has in adulthood. The topic of attachment is chopped into pieces just like a tree needs to be if its pieces are going to fit into a stove.
Going back to the image I just presented of the woodpile as it might relate to the study of attachment. To get the WHOLE picture we would have to include a lot more information. Where did the seed come from that grew into the tree that eventually found itself in pieces heading into a wood stove or a fireplace? What were all the steps that had to happen for the seed to find itself into the ground, for it to crack open into life, grow into a sapling, into a tree big enough to use for firewood? What was the process that went on as someone found the tree, cut it down, hauled it home, chopped it up, and made a covered pile of firewood?
Where do we turn for the whole story about human attachment from conception to death?
Dr. Daniel J. Siegel has written what is, I believe, the only book that approaches parenting from an attachment point of view: Parenting From the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell. Please read this book for a fuller understanding of what I am going to write about today.
Today I scanned in 13 pages for your study taken from another of Siegel’s books, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (The Guilford Press, 1999)) — available for purchase by clicking on the title link –
These pages can be seen at this link:
As critically important as this attachment information is, I still think it is dense, complicated, hard to read, hard to understand, and hard to relate to anyone’s ongoing experience of their life with others and with their own self.
Because these early attachment experiences actually build the foundation of the human social-emotional brain (and direct the development of the body), it is critical to understand that the attachment patterns that can be ‘measured’ at age one happened one tiny step after another from birth. The same patterns that can be seen in a one year old continue to operate for a life time – because they built the body-brain-mind-self of the person from the start.
All the specialized fields of research are themselves each like a single piece of firewood cut from a whole tree. The fields of study examine and report on their little piece of the tree, but nobody seems willing or able to put the whole picture together and look at the whole.
Attachment, in my thinking is the whole tree from which all other aspects of being human connect to and originate from. Every single other facet of study concerning ‘the human condition’ stems from this tree.
Nowhere along the line of a lifetime, from conception to death, can attachment be ‘simply’ considered to be like the pile of firewood under the tarp. Human attachment is about the entire process of the journey of each of us – like the firewood — from seed to ashes. And just as the entire journey of our proverbial tree was influenced by the conditions within its environment from start to finish, so too are we.
In yesterday’s post I laid out which of all the horses related to the betterment of the human condition I would lay my money on. Coming to understand the attachment continuum of our lifetime – what it is, how it operates, how it determines the manifestation of our genetic potential, how it directs the building of our body-brain-mind-self’s foundation, how it affects our relationship with our own self, with others of our species, and with the entire environment we live and die within – is, in my belief, the most important conscious learning we can ever pursue and accomplish.
Improving our ability to experience safe and secure attachment will improve the quality of our life. Finding ways to overcome whatever our degrees of unsafe and insecure attachment will be the most effective tool we can have to improve our degree of well-being within our own self and within the world we live in.
Yet where in the fragmented, disjointed, cut-into-tiny-pieces world of academic information can we look for the attachment-related facts we need to improve our lives?
Sadly I would have to say – nowhere.
Siegel’s book on parenting (link above) is probably the most complete effort anyone has accomplished to help us understand how our adult attachment patterns affect us as parents. His work cannot possibly be comprehensive in my thinking (give us a picture of the whole of the living tree) for several reasons.
First of all, as you will notice if you follow the link to the 13 scanned pages, the terms used to describe attachment patterns seen in infants does not match the terms used to describe attachment patterns in adults. This fact has made it difficult for me to think about the life continuum of attachment.
Pneumonia is pneumonia, diarrhea is diarrhea, and cancer is cancer no matter what age is of the body that might be suffering from these conditions. Attachment patterns ARE physiological patterns within the body-brain. They are not imaginary events that can be arbitrarily called one thing for an infant and something else for an adult.
In addition, as you read the 13 scanned pages you will be learning about the two accepted measurement tools available to measure attachment accurately – one for infants at about a year of age and the other for adults. Both of these measurement tools are designed for use in a professional research setting. To my knowledge, no one has ever yet designed accurate assessment (rather than measurement) tools that can be used in public settings to either assess infant or adult attachment patterns.
Most people can read the information about how attachment is measured in infants and think about what we know in our real life about infants and their caregivers. We can imagine the clinical experience as it happens around us in our lives. We can begin to use our common sense to make the connection between the information about early mother-infant brain building interactions that Schore describes and the year-old patterns of interactions an infant has with its mother as presented in these 13 scanned pages.
This still does not leave us with any clear idea about how we could translate the clinical measurement tool so anyone could assess infant attachment in the ‘real world’.
Nor does the presentation of information about adult attachment measurement presented in the 13 scanned pages give us any everyday working idea about how we could assess our own adult attachment patterns. It does not present a means to assessing adult attachment ‘on the streets’ or ‘in the trenches’ so that ordinary people could better come to understand how attachment patterns are affecting all our relationships – everywhere – every day and every night of our lives.
We are left reading the 13 scanned pages and trying to imagine an ordinary context in the same way we might be able to imagine the whole story about how a seed was planted that eventually ended up in firewood pieces giving warmth within someone’s home.
This scanned table about adult attachment refers to something called Grice’s maxims. Here is the clearest description of these maxims, which originated historically in Kant’s philosophy, that I can find:
Grice’s Conversational Maxims
Maxim of Quantity:
1. Make your contribution to the conversation as informative as necessary.
2. Do not make your contribution to the conversation more informative than necessary.
Maxim of Quality:
1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
Maxim of Relevance:
Be relevant (i.e., say things related to the current topic of the conversation).
Maxim of Manner:
1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
2. Avoid ambiguity.
3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary wordiness).
4. Be orderly.
These maxims are considered to be reflected within rational ‘cooperative discourse’, and have been incorporated into the rating structure of the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) used clinically and in research to assess adult attachment.
The AAI is a research tool. People who administer the interview and rate it must go through specialized training. This tool’s usefulness even in research is complicated because there are many factors about it that cannot be easily controlled, such as how the environment where the interview is given influences responses, how the person of the interviewer interacts with the ‘subject’, how interviewer’s biases might influence ratings, etc.
If I go back to my wood pile analogy and change the ‘end result’ of a tree’s lifetime into a toothpick or a piece of toilet paper instead of a log of firewood, and then expect us to be able to exactly imagine the entire process accurately that the seed went through to get to its end, we have a more accurate picture of how hard it would be to connect the results of an Adult Attachment Interview back through all the experiences of a person’s life back to their beginnings. That would be if we even believed that the results of an AAI accurately described an adult’s attachment pattern in the first place.
In the end, the simplest description of what an adult’s insecure attachment pattern might look like ‘on the streets’ or ‘in the trenches’ has to do with having some ability to tell a coherent life story – or not.
If I look at the piece of toilet paper version of how an AAI result might look, I would consider the ‘lowest’ grade of adult attachment that is not even mentioned in the 13 scanned pages. It is called the ‘Cannot Classify Category’ and looks something like what 1998 research article describes:
“This brief report focuses on the emergence of a new Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) category, Cannot Classify. The Adult Attachment Interview classification system is discussed with emphasis upon differences in AAI categories as they relate to strategies or lapses in strategy for the integration and focus of attention and memory. The Cannot Classify category is understood to differ from the other AAI categories in that it appears to represent a global breakdown in the organization and maintenance of a singular strategy for adhering to the discourse tasks of the AAI.”
“strategies or lapses in strategy for the integration and focus of attention and memory”
This is what the researchers are looking for when they try to pin down what varying styles of adult attachment patterns look like. That doesn’t give the rest of us much to go by in terms of learning about our adult attachment patterns, does it?
The fascinating point is that right within the few words of that sentence lies the heart of our concerns – TRAUMA. What happened, when it happened, how it happened, what strategies either did or did not exist to integrate the experience of trauma, how these trauma experiences influenced and were influenced by attention and memory processes are all connected to attachment patterns.
Attachment patterns are patterns of dealing with trauma. If trauma built the early brain in the first place, these patterns show up in infant insecure attachment patterns such as the 13 scanned pages describe. If trauma built the early brain, the same trauma-formed patterns continue into adulthood and manifest themselves in the disruptions of conversation about one’s self in one’s life that the AAI is designed to define.
Because our concern is with ‘trauma dramas’ that repeat themselves throughout a person’s lifetime, it is essential that we recognize what we are looking FOR as we find it in what we are looking AT. We are looking for early infant-caregiver traumatic interactions (or their absence in safe and secure attachment) that built social-emotional brain in the first place because that is where the seed of who we are as a body-brain-mind-self originated. We can tell the trauma was there at the beginning and that it influenced all later development if an insecure attachment pattern exists – in infant-children and in adults.
So, if I disappoint my readers my not being able to clearly describe what adult attachment IS, let alone how it operates, how we identify the patterns, or how we change them, I hope you will be patient. I might as well take what I have on hand and go into my back yard thinking I can build myself a space shuttle that actually works.
Humans had the capacity to figure out how to fly to the moon long before we did so. We have the capacity to find a way to clearly assess human attachment, but we haven’t done so yet. Because most of what goes wrong in human lives can be traced to the quality of attachment that formed the brain foundation and lies at the root of all of our social interactions – including the one we have with our own self – I believe this field of study should become the single most important one we pursue.
I have faith in US. WE can figure this out – if and when we want to. After all, as members of a social species our attachment patterns determine WHO we are in the world because they determine HOW we are in the world.