+WHAT IN THE WORLD IS ADULT ATTACHMENT?

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Because I am in a holding pattern today waiting for someone my landlord told me yesterday would show up today to ‘look at’ the frozen water pipe situation at this house – although it’s already half an hour past when that person was slated to arrive – I can’t quite think straight about anything else.  (Of course I am realistically fearing the worst on this pipe situation.)

In the mean time I thought I’d take a diversionary trip into an area I believe I will at some point in my book writing have to take a serious and thorough look at:  Adult attachment.

I found an interesting website whose information I am going to post here today FOR INFORMATION and EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY.  It’s on a British website that is a Register of Trauma Specialists in London.  The title of the piece is Four Patterns of Adult Discourse Observed in the Adult Attachment Interview written by Paul Renn.

Coherence is a central construct in attachment interviews. Coherent discourse is based on what the linguistic philosopher Grice calls the ‘Cooperative Principle’. This has four maxims, namely:

> Quality: be truthful and have evidence for what you say

> Quantity: be succinct, yet complete

> Relevance: be relevant

> Manner: be clear, brief and orderly

The Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) is a semi-structured interview devised by George, Kaplan and Main, based on Grice’s principle. It provides researchers with a standardized method to assess adult mental representations of childhood attachment experiences, the influence of these experiences as perceived by the interviewee and the current relationship with one’s parents. The participant is also asked about loss of loved ones and about other traumatic experiences. During the interview, the interviewee is faced with the dual tasks of producing and reflecting upon memories related to attachment while simultaneously maintaining coherent discourse with the interviewer.

Bowlby drew attention to the ways in which information is stored in distinct systems of memory. Episodic or explicit memory consists of information that is stored in the form of temporally dated autobiographical details. Each remembered event or episode has its own distinctive place in the person’s life history. By contrast, semantic or implicit memory consists of generalised information about the world and the person’s sense of self in relation to significant others. Such generalised information is encoded in internal working models and mediates the person’s attachment-related thoughts, feelings and behaviour in a largely non conscious or procedural way. Implicitly encoded information may be at great variance with information stored in the explicit memory systems. This gives rise to cognitive and emotional conflict and to gross inconsistencies between the generalisations a person makes about his or her parents and what is explicitly implied or actually recalled in terms of specific episodes. Such conflict and inconsistencies indicate the operation of parallel memory systems and the dissociation of painful affect. The AAI is designed to detect conflict and inconsistencies in the discourse and narrative style of the interviewee.

The AAI operationalizes Bowlby’s construct of the “internal working model” as a “state of mind with respect to attachment”, as expressed in discourse about early relationships. The researcher shifts attention from the content of autobiographical memory to the form of discourse in which those memories are presented. For example, the mother’s state of mind in respect of her attachment history may be classified as secure-autonomous and her child as securely attached, despite her having experienced early trauma in the form of separation, loss and/or abuse. Such findings indicate the resolution of trauma and the attainment of ‘earned security’ via subsequent secure attachment experiences which, of course, may include a therapeutic relationship. AAI classifications, then, reveal differences in discourse style, in access to attachment memories, and in ability to coherently discuss past attachment experience.

The following four patterns of adult discourse in the AAI have been observed:

Secure-Autonomous: Adults termed secure-autonomous provide discourse that is open, free, coherent and collaborative, presenting even difficult early attachment experiences in clear and vivid ways. Discourse includes no contradictions between semantic and episodic memories of childhood attachments, a focus on the goal of the discourse task and rich use of language and expression. The interviewee demonstrates an ability to discuss and reflect upon personal attachment experiences in collaboration with the interviewer without disorganization, lack of memory or passivity of thought. These interviews are characterized by recognition, acceptance and forgiveness of imperfections and injustices in parents and in self, reflecting an integration of positive and negative feelings. As noted above, even adults with extreme and abusive attachment histories, who have come to understand coherently their early difficulties, may provide a coherent and autonomous narrative.

Discourse termed insecure or non-autonomous may show one of three patterns:

Dismissing: Transcripts coded as dismissing tend to be excessively brief and are characterized by notable contradictions in the interviewee’s discourse about early attachments, with generalised representations of history being unsupported or actively contradicted by episodes. Strong idealization of caretakers is common, along with contradictory and impoverished memories of actual events. The interviews are notable for restriction in coherence and content, indicating a deactivating strategy with respect to potentially painful memories. Some adults in this group minimize the importance of close relationships and derogate or dismiss the influence of attachment experiences, emphasizing, instead, extraordinary self-reliance.

Preoccupied: The transcripts of adults termed preoccupied may be excessively long and embellished, including information that is irrelevant to the discourse task. Interviewees are not able to describe their attachment biography coherently and show an inability to move beyond an excessive preoccupation with attachment relationships. There are frequent examples of passive speech, sentences begun and left unfinished and specific ideas that disappear in vague expressions. The boundaries between present and past and self and other are often confused. There is a diffuse self-concept and a notable inability to reflect upon experience. In some transcripts coded as preoccupied there is notable anger, passivity or fear, which is displaced from past childhood events to the present discourse task, indicating a continuing intense involvement and preoccupation with attachment experiences. The reliving of the affective experience of historical events interferes with the interviewee’s consciousness of the current discourse task.

Unresolved: Transcripts of adults are termed unresolved/disorganized when there is evidence of substantial lapses in the monitoring of reasoning and discourse, specifically surrounding the discussion of traumatic events involving loss, physical or sexual abuse. The interviewee may briefly indicate a belief that a dead person is still alive in the physical sense, or that this person was killed by a childhood thought. The individual may lapse into prolonged silence, engage in eulogistic speech or enter a trance-like dissociated state. It should be noted that the unresolved classification is made solely on the discussion of trauma, abuse or loss experiences and is superimposed on one or other of the three main attachment classifications.

Findings from research utilizing the AAI show that psychopathology is associated with non-autonomous patterns of attachment and that people classified as preoccupied and unresolved/disorganized are strongly over-represented in clinical samples.

All rights reserved – Copyright 2009 ©

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My own interest in thinking about the Adult Attachment Interview has to do with the largest picture of the writing and publishing work I am involved in.  I have an idea (I can hardly call it a theory) that the work we do to heal our own trauma story has great power to heal us.

I am deeply engaged in preparing for publication seven volumes of mostly by severely abusive psychotic Borderline Personality Disorder mother (as regular readers of this blog clearly know).  Mother Mildred left behind her a completely disorganized mess of letters and diary notes containing around a ½ million words.  Among these papers were some of her childhood stories, her age-19 diary, her early 1950s diaries, and her entire collection of saved letters about the details of her move to Alaska and of her homesteading experience.

Any mother as deeply troubled as Mildred was leaves behind in the body of her children patterns of the same broken trauma history stories that she had herself.  So broken were the patterns of our family’s life that until I did the work of organizing Mildred’s papers, which allowed me to create a time line of events including many, many moves that Mildred dragged her family through, her children had no way to place memories in either time or place.

No matter what good and bad events occur during a childhood, without having access to a coherent story as it provides a context for when and where those events took place, we cannot create for ourselves a coherent story of our own life.  I absolutely know that is true for me.

It seems to me that most often the facts about how our earliest attachment experiences conception to age 2 shape the way our body, brain, nervous system, stress-calm response system, memory storage and retrieval system, even our immune system and the way our genetic information manifests itself over the course of our lifetime, is left out of nearly all so-called ‘healing’ and ‘recovery’ work.  Very few therapists have training in what matters most.  Once we move through the corridor of the first 33 months of our early development we already have all the systems in our body physiologically set to follow the main course of our life.  Either we were made in, by and for a safe and secure world or we were not.

That these patterns can display themselves through how we tell our life story – through how we remember ourselves in our own life both consciously and unconsciously – seems extremely important to me.  However, I also deeply know that when the words of our story are not available to us for whatever reason, and available to us in a coherent form, these stories will tell themselves through DRAMA.  These trauma drama reenactments usually tell the story of our own and of our family’s unresolved traumas until these stories have been given words.

This suspicion I have about the healing power of healing our story suggests to me that given the fact that very, very few people in America can actually access or afford any kind of quality ‘mental health’ care, we are left on our own to figure out what we need and how to get our needs met.  Working out our story is something we can do on our own.  It is lonely, difficult and very scary work.  But this work MATTERS and I believe it is possible.

This is enough words right now.  I leave readers to ponder the British piece on adult attachment.  Although there is more to the story this is a very good place to start gaining perspective on the connection between how we FEEL in our body in our life – as it connects to what we know of our story.

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