“Bonding” and “Attachment” … Are They the Same?

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Q – An article I read recently made a distinction between “bonding” and “attachment.” Are they the same or different?

A – The terms “bonding” and “attachment” are often used interchangeably. There is considerable confusion surrounding these terms. Many use these terms in very “vitalistic” or “folklore-esque” kinds of ways as if to say “loving” or “caring.” At an attachment conference, Sir Richard Bowlby (John’s son) told me that his father actually thought about calling it “love theory.” However, John Bowlby quickly realized that the scientific frame that he was trying to promote would be pulled into the folklore that surrounded love. According to Sir Richard, his father picked the word “attachment” as a way of trying to stay in the scientific realm. Unfortunately, it didn’t work and now “attachment” is often used in vitalistic ways to refer to love or caring. It’s a huge PR or public relations nightmare. Attachment as defined by the theory means something very specific. Very simply put, attachment (as Bowlby defined it) refers to a biologically-based behavioral system—sculpted in large part by the processes of evolutionary adaptation—that has as its primary goal or teleology the identification, preservation, and expression of environments that are conducive to safety. Most do not get these specifics. It’s a case of science being co-opted by the lay world, which often happens. And Bowlby’s work has been co-opted by camps opposed to Bowlby’s politics (like the RAD or reactive attachment disorder camp) mainly because (in my opinion) these camps do not want Bowlby’s work to be used in a political way against them. I guess you could say that the best defense is an offense.

For a great article that talks about the political foundations of Bowlby’s work, see Ben Hayew’s 2006 article entitled Between Love and Aggression: The Politics of John Bowlby. This article appeared in the journal History of the Human Sciences (vol. 19 no. 4, pages 19–35). Hopefully Mayhew’s article will convince you that not only is attachment very political, but Bowlby himself took a very political stance when it came to his work (a point that many Bowlby followers conveniently forget). Peter Marris wrote a great book on the politics of attachment entitled The Politics of Uncertainty—Attachment in Private and Public Life. I wrote a summary of Marris’s book. Use the CONTACT US link above if you would like a copy of my summary. Again, it’s too bad but the politics of attachment is the white elephant in the middle of the room. Off the top of my head, here are the different “flavors” of attachment that I can think of, and, yes, they all have a particular ideological bent behind them:

  • A Bowlbian take on attachment
  • A Freudian take on attachment
  • A reactive attachment disorder (RAD) framing of attachment
  • An “attachment therapy” (i.e., holding or rebirthing therapy) framing of attachment
  • A neurobiological framing of attachment
  • An “attachment parenting” framing of attachment
  • A Buddhist meditation framing of attachment
  • A temperament theory framing of attachment
  • New Age framings of attachment (which is where many treatments of grief and self-esteem are going)
  • Feminist framings of attachment
  • Postmodern framings of attachment
  • A cognitive-behavioral framing of attachment
  • A hormonal framing of attachment
  • A social justice framing of attachment

In sum, you can’t simply ask if “attachment” and “bonding” are the same without first looking at the ideological frames and world views that are being used to couch these terms.