Placing “Couples and Affairs” Into an Attachment Theory Framework (Part 1)

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Sorry it has taken me so long to report on this workshop but I’m hoping “better late than never.” This workshop took place on January 13th, 2011, here in Albuquerque and was entitled Couples and Affairs: Managing the Clinical Challenges. The workshop was put on by Michael Ceo. I signed up for this workshop because the brochure said that the presenter would use attachment theory (among others) to frame the topic of Couples and Affairs. Ceo did not disappoint and made a number of interesting connections between affairs and attachment. This report will focus on the connections that the presenter made between affairs and attachment theory. Unfortunately, the presenter and I engaged in an awkward moment early in the workshop. Let me explain what happened.

Early in the workshop Ceo mentioned the work of Dan Siegel, Allan Schore, and Louis Cozolino. There is no doubt that these researchers are the current vanguard promoting ideas centered on attachment and neurobiology. But what Ceo said next caught my attention. He effectively said that this vanguard developed attachment theory. Whaaaaat? Sure, you could say that these researchers have extended Bowlby’s theory into the realm of neurobiology (a connection that Bowlby himself talked about in his trilogy), but to say that these researchers developed attachment theory is patently incorrect. Keep in mind that there were a number of neurologists and biologists (as well as ethologists, anthropologists, and psychologists), present at the Proceedings of the Meetings of the World Health Organization Study Group on the Psychobiological Development of the Child (Geneva, 1953–1956), which Bowlby (well-trained in biology and psychology himself) attended.

My hand flew up and Ceo was kind enough to call on me. I simply stated, “It was the British researcher John Bowlby, working in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, who formulated, developed, and principally promoted attachment theory.” A few other attendees nodded their heads as if to say, “Yup, that’s right.” Ceo looked rather confused. He simply said, “John Bowlby … never heard of him … probably should look at what he did.”

I mention this awkward moment because I think it points to a trend that I have witnessed firsthand over the last several years: John Bowlby’s name rarely if ever comes up at attachment conferences, and some of these conferences are large national affairs (no pun intended). I don’t blame Ceo because in all likelihood he went to one of these big attachment conferences and never heard Bowlby’s name mentioned once. I could see where he might get the impression that researchers like Siegel, Schore, and Cozolino were the chief animators behind attachment theory. Heck, I get that same impression when I go to attachment conferences. It would be like going to a conference and getting the impression that modern-day researchers such as Peter Fonagy and Jeremy Holmes (both of whom have written on bridging psychoanalysis to attachment theory) invented psychoanalysis and not Sigmund Freud. I give psychoanalysts credit because they always—and I mean always—tie their work back to Freud, for better or worse. I’m not sure why there seems to be this desire on the part of present-day attachment researchers to let Bowlby fade away but, personally, I find this to be a most distressing trend. Imagine what would have to happen for Freud to fade from consciousness (and, dare I say, into the unconscious). It would take a cataclysmic event that I can’t even imagine.  Allow me to belabor this point a bit longer because I think it is wildly important.

In the April/May 2006 issue of Scientific American Mind appeared an article entitled Freud at 150—Freud Returns by Mark Solms. Here’s a brief description of the article:

Neuroscientists are finding that their biological descriptions of the brain may fit together best when integrated by psychological theories that Freud sketched a century ago.

I mention this article because—at least within the realm of psychoanalysis—there’s this strong desire to maintain a sense of history and context. I don’t see any such desire in the realm of Bowlby’s attachment theory. Where’s Bowlby at 100—Bowlby Returns? That a well-meaning researcher like Ceo could get the impression that attachment theory is only at best 12 years old (back when Siegel, Schore, and Cozolino began publishing popular books on attachment theory) simply blows me away. Hopefully you can see why I try to bring Bowlby’s work to a new generation of thinkers. Without such efforts Bowlby may end up a footnote in the annals of psychology. I’ll end my diatribe and move on.

Let me start with a section Ceo entitled Infidelity and the Internet. Ceo made a statement that really caught my attention (and I paraphrase): “The narrow bandwidth nature of online relationships invites the Freudian psychological defenses of projection and displacement.” Simply put, these two defenses are about (psychologically) taking a conflict from a place where one feels powerless to do anything about the conflict, to a place where one can gain power and control over the conflict. You may ask what projection and displacement have to do with attachment theory. Lets recall that Bowlby cut his teeth on psychoanalysis, and that his first book (written with political activist Evan Durbin) entitled Personal Aggressiveness and War (1939) (which I will cover in more detail in future posts) focused on projection and displacement as the main psychological mechanisms in the process of bridging personal aggressiveness to societal forms of aggressiveness (mainly war). I would argue that Bowlby’s reflections on projection and displacement and their connection to aggression (both personal and societal) laid the foundation for Bowlby’s thinking with respect to patterns of attachment. Simply put, Bowlby (along with Durbin) argues that the individual mainly uses projection and displacement to discharge aggression. Ergo, I took particular note of Ceo’s comment that the low bandwidth nature of Internet relationships invites projection and displacement.

According to Ceo, Internet communication is so limited in its nature (a point that Neil Postman also makes in his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology) that in order to make it seem “full” and “real,” participants are encouraged to complete the picture through the use of the psychological defenses of projection and displacement. As Bowlby and Durbin point out, anyone (or any entity) who can control and direct the flow of projection and displacement at the personal level, can control and direct aggression at the level of society. Ceo intimated that many online affairs are about displacing and projecting anger from real marriages onto the idealized and romanticized “marriages” of online affairs. We see this pattern reflected in the AAI (Adult Attachment Interview) narratives of insecurely attached people who (out of consciousness) place idealizations cheek to jowl with expressions of anger. It’s sobering to think that Internet relationships (of all stripes) are channeling so much projection and displacement. As Gary Walls writes in the edited volume Psychoanalysis, Class and Politics, “Within dissociated realms of experience, we tend to alternate between different states of consciousness with access to conflicting experiences of reality.” Hmmm? Sounds like a good description of what happens when the Grand Bowlbian Attachment Environment (GBAE) (which, I argue, holds the often conflicting motivations arising from the behavioral systems of attachment, caregiving, and sex) begins to break down. For more on the GBAE, see my posts from February 1st and 24th, 2011.

Ceo asks a question that I think is most thought provoking in light of the current trend to use robots as caregivers (see my February 11th blog post on the “Singularity” for more on this theme):

In terms of brain neurophysiology, does the projective experience of one’s self onto another in cyberspace stimulate a different synaptic resonance circuitry of arousal/response loops creating a perceived sense of secure attachment?

In my blog post of February 16th, 2011, I point to research that suggests that many forms of substance abuse share a common core and a common desire: to get to the body core experiences of “relaxation, warmth, numbness, anesthesia, analgesia [e.g., relief of pain], orgastic release, energy” (quoting work by neurobiologist Antonio Damasio). Consider this excerpt from my blog post of February 16th, 2011:

This “uniform set of changes in the body” (quoting Damasio) came from the following forms of drug abuse: cocaine, ecstasy, and heroin. (Damsio allows that “alcohol produces more modest but comparable effects.”) Damasio gives us this “bottom line”: “The fact that the effects share a body core is all the more impressive considering that the substances that caused them are chemically different and act on different chemical systems in the brain” (emphasis in original). Translation: even though these different substances act on different parts of the brain, they all leave a common trace that is very body-based (e.g., relaxation, warmth, numbness, anesthesia, analgesia or relief of pain, orgastic release, energy). I’m using Damasio’s rather startling observation concerning the shared body core of substance abuse to suggest that the interaction of the behavioral systems of caregiving, attachment, and sex likewise will have a shared body core.

Using the above as a backdrop, I can reframe Ceo’s question thus: “Does a desire for an online affair represent a form of ‘substance abuse’—not unlike cocaine, ecstasy, and heroin (and, to a lesser degree, alcohol)—where the true motivation is a desire to get to the body core experience (e.g., relaxation, warmth, numbness, anesthesia, analgesia or relief of pain, orgastic release, energy) of  caregiving, attachment, and sex, all in harmony and bliss? In other words, can we live on “virtual” forms of secure attachment—cocaine, ecstasy, and heroin (and, to a lesser degree, alcohol and online relationships)—as opposed to “natural” forms of secure attachment (e.g., via safe and secure relationships with primary attachment figure(s))? The following table by Ceo (which I have tweaked for clarity) may provide some insight into a possible answer to these questions:

Opposing Features of Online Attachment versus Natural Attachment

Online Attachment Natural Attachment
low bandwidth high bandwidth
distance immediacy
anonymity self-disclosure
deception sincerity
discontinuity continuity
low physical investment high physical investment
low mental investment high mental investment

Interactive Whiteboards by PolyVision

The above table points out that to engage in “virtual” forms of attachment requires such things as distance (as in distanced attachment), low bandwidth forms of communication (e.g., those that essentially remove non-verbal or body-based forms of communication), low mental investment (e.g., low levels of mentalization—the ability to imagine other people’s minds), etc. I went to a workshop on autism spectrum disorders yesterday and, I hate to say it, but the above describes an autistic environment where self-soothing behaviors prevail. The presenter for the autism workshop essentially said that “social” networking sites such as Myspace and Facebook closely mimic what it is like to be on the autism spectrum. So, as more and more of our society jumps on the autism spectrum, then, yes, secure attachment may be “secured” (no pun intended) through such things as drugs (both legal and illegal), distance, low bandwidth communication, discontinuity, low levels of mentalization, and on it goes. As David Anderegg argues in his book Nerds: How Dorks, Dweebs, Techies, and Trekkies Can Save America and Why They Might Be Our Last Hope (summary available), in the not too distance future people with Asperger’s Syndrome (which is on the autism spectrum) will be the new neurotypicals (NTs), and us so-called normal people will have a pathological neurology. (This may be why currently there is a big political push to have Asperger’s Syndrome removed from the DSM or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.)

So, maybe virtual attachment is the attachment of the future—virtual relationships and marriages, robot caregivers, drugs, etc.. As I point out in my February 11th, 2011, blog post on the Singularity, attachment as we know it could fade away in 2045. Get your natural attachment while you can because it’s going fast. Writing in his 1996 book The Politics of Uncertainty: Attachment in Private and Public Life (summary available), Peter Marris reminds us that “scientific and legal assertions are peculiar because they do not depend upon the empathy which is an integral part of most social understanding [at least as it is currently defined]; and to put a relationship on a ground where empathy is irrelevant is already, in itself, a potentially intimidating and coercive step.” I would ask the reader to look at “Internet assertions” as occupying a space on the continuum that holds scientific and legal assertions. We all know the expression, “What were once vices are now habits.” Consider this paraphrase: “What were once psychological defenses are now, well, just normal psychology.” In the not-too-distant future, such things as empathy, openness, and adaptability, will be looked at as defenses against being absorbed by the norm of Internet assertions. Don’t laugh but the DSM-VII will probably contain the diagnosis of EDD (Empathy Defiance Disorder). Not only has the Internet (and other forms of digital communication and relating) concretized psychological defenses; it has collectivized them as well. The only thing left is to conventionalize them. I’d say we are well on our way toward psychological defense as social convention. Makes you wonder if therapists work with clients not so much to help the client but as a way of helping themselves try to preserve what’s left of the old analog, “face-to-face” way of life. What’s the big trend in therapy (nay, medicine in general)? Yup, Internet therapy (and telemedicine).

I’ll pickup my summary of Ceo’s workshop on Couples and Affairs in my next blog post. Stay tuned.