Bowlby’s book “The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds”—A Multi-part Review

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I admit, I have not read all of John Bowlby’s many books and articles. At the end of Suzan van Dijken’s 1998 book entitled John Bowlby: His Early Life, there’s a listing of Bowlby’s works: (153) books and articles by himself, (26) with others, and (23) unpublished works. I find it hard to make a dent in John Bowlby’s reading list because Bowlby constantly challenges you to gain familiarity in so many areas such as evolution, biology, ethology, cybernetics, control theory, spatial cognition, organic systems theory, not to mention the obvious areas such as developmental psychology, psychiatry, and Freudian psychodynamics. Simply reading Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment is no easy feat. Throw in the 900-plus-page book edited by Tanner and Inhelder entitled Discussions on Child Development (in which Bowlby figures prominently) and you can see that finishing off the John Bowlby reading list would be a huge undertaking.

I offer up the above as my excuse for why, until now, I have never read Bowlby’s 1979 book entitled The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. I’ve known about Affectional Bonds for some time. I also knew that it was a collection of talks given by Bowlby spanning twenty years starting in 1956. My ill-informed impression of Affectional Bonds was that it rehashed information presented in Bowlby’s trilogy. Sure, Affectional Bonds does mention Bowlby’s trilogy, but it offers up so much more. In my opinion, Affectional Bonds represents Bowlby’s attempts over a twenty year period (1956 – 1976) to sell his theory of attachment to both psychology researchers and clinicians. And, in many ways, Affectional Bonds represents Bowlby’s attempts to sell attachment theory to the general public. I’ll admit, I’m sorry I did not read Affectional Bonds sooner.

This is the first in a multi-part series wherein I present a review of Affectional Bonds. The format is simple: Each part will focus on one particular topic and will be relatively short (approximately 1,000 words or less). Part one will focus on Sir Richard Bowlby’s introduction to Affectional Bonds, which was added in 2005. Let’s dig in.

I have heard Sir Richard Bowlby speak three different times back when I was still attending attachment conferences. I wrote a summary of the talk that Sir Richard gave at a two-day conference up in Canmore, Alberta Canada back in 2005, which was at about the same time he penned the introduction to Affectional Bonds (contact us for a copy of my Sir Richard summary). Suffice it to say that Sir Richard is a great champion of his father’s work. Let me pull a story from my Sir Richard summary because it nicely ties to one of the main points Sir Richard makes in his introduction to Affectional Bonds: Bowlbian attachment theory is upsetting to most people.

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Before the workshop started, I was fortunate to speak informally with Sir Richard. I was crestfallen to hear that Sir Richard had to “pull the plug” on his plans to release a video on attachment theory. Sir Richard told me that he did indeed finish the video (which we viewed during the workshop) but that the reactions and feedback he received from test viewings were less than favorable. Sir Richard told me, “The video was just too painful for people. It hits too close on a personal level.” Sir Richard continued by saying, “Providing information on attachment theory—even if it is delivered in the most non-threatening way—is like telling people how to love. It also causes people to reflect on the type of love they received as children, and this type of reflection can be very painful.” Sir Richard finished our brief chat by saying, “When it comes to the general public, you can’t talk about attachment theory in a direct way. You have to come in ‘under the radar’ so-to-speak.”

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In his introduction to Affectional Bonds, Sir Richard makes the same point: Bowlbian attachment theory is upsetting to most people. But I think Sir Richard hits on a key point: you cannot come at Bowlbian attachment by the front door. You cannot say in essence, “You abuse substances or engage in violence with your intimate partner because your mother did not form adequate affectional bonds with you.” To make such a statement would only serve to incite myriad Freudian defenses to riot: projection, scapegoating, denial, etc. As Sir Richard puts it, to reflect on whether one received love, care, and affection early in life is simply too painful. My read of Affectional Bonds suggests that John Bowlby principally came at the topic of attachment through the front door, the “front door” being science.

It’s no secret that Freud couched much of his theory of psychodynamics using concepts and images drawn from mythology and even philosophy (i.e., the Oedipal conflict). Why? Well, Freud, early in his career, tried to come in the front door by saying essentially, “You’re hysterical because you were sexually abused as a child by adults who were close to you.” Freud got slammed for his controversial views delivered during a time of hyper but yet waning puritanical morality. I remember hearing a story that Freud gave a university lecture once a week on the same evening to one person (his assistant) because his position as a university professor required that he do so. To say that Freud was a pariah during this early stage of his career would be an understatement.

Freud was shrewd. He came back by entering through the backdoor, the “backdoor” being mythology and philosophy. And John Bowlby does acknowledge Freud’s shift from the front to the backdoor during one of his talks presented in Affectional Bonds. John Bowlby also makes it clear that his work was about taking Freud’s backdoor frames and translating them over to the front door of acceptable science. In my opinion, John Bowlby on some level probably thought that it was safe to come in through the front door owing to the fact that he lived in a post-puritanical time. Sadly, as Sir Richard talks about in his introduction to Affectional Bonds, many professional and lay people are still not ready (as of 2005) for a scientific framing of something that comes close to the topic of love, especially mother love.

As a final observation, for a front door scientific approach to the topic of affectional bonds, see John Bowlby: For a backdoor clinical approach to healing the psychological damage often associated with disrupted affectional bonds early in life, see Sigmund Freud (that is if your health care plan allows you to). I do not mean to disparage Freudian psychodynamics by calling it “backdoor.” The mere fact that you have to come through the backdoor to heal early affectional trauma only serves to support the importance of psychodynamics. Come in through the front door and psychological defenses start flying. During my Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) training, I was told that the AAI is designed to “surprise the mind,” that is to say, enter through psychodynamics. (1)

In part two, we’ll hear Bowlby speak about how women could approach squaring their desire to enter the workforce with the motivations often associated with the attachment behavioral system, namely, to provide care and nurture to their infants and young children.


John Watson conducting the Little Albert experiment

(1) – John B. Watson, arguably the father of behaviorism, was well aware of psychodynamic principles. Watson did not care for psychodynamic motivations let alone the motivations arising from an innate behavioral system such as attachment. In Watson’s world, it was the job of rational willpower to lord over such things as unconscious motivations or even base biological motivations such as sex. If one was not able to lord over his or her so-called animal instincts, then one was considered to be “weak of willpower.” The main objective of behaviorism is to not just enter through the front door but to smash it in and take command. In his trilogy on attachment, Bowlby devotes several pages to one of Watson’s only research projects: the Little Albert experiment. To the left is a picture of baby Albert during the experiment conducted by Watson (who is seen leering from the left). Suffice it to say that Bowlby viewed the Little Albert experiment dimly because Watson incorrectly framed baby Albert’s fear reactions as part of a conditioning process (like Pavlov’s dogs) and not as part of a natural attachment process designed to regain proximity to a safe and secure attachment figure. Today, behaviorism rules, as in “cognitive behavioral therapy.“ Why? Because behaviorism encourages “taking control of” and “ruling over” emotions and not reflecting on them. Just say “no” to emotions. Behaviorism fits with a Western mindset. And health care insurance companies love that it does.