Affectional Bonds—Bowlby on Attachment Theory and Women (and Work)

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This is part II of my multi-part review of John Bowlby’s 1979 book The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. In part I, I talked about Sir Richard Bowlby’s introduction to Affectional Bonds, which he added in 2005. Let me start off part II by mentioning one more observation made by Sir Richard in his introduction. Sir Richard tells us that

In later life he [John Bowlby] became frustrated and rather disappointed by how reluctant people were to embrace his ideas for clinical applications. He would give some factual reasons for this, but I think he did not take account of how personally his ideas would be taken by clinicians, nor how upsetting the inferences could be. There have been many criticisms of attachment theory over the years and I believe most of them stem from the way it can press our most sensitive buttons, sometimes bringing back painful memories we would rather forget. Our sense of self is closely dependent on the few intimate attachment relationships we have or have had in our lives, especially our relationships with the person who raised us.

It is no secret that the harshest criticisms came from certain feminist groups. Bowlby worked on his attachment theory (the mid 1960s – late 1970s) at about the same time as the “second” rise of feminism in the US. Sure, attachment theory can press sensitive buttons, but, for certain feminists, there is no button more sensitive than the button of “biological determinism.” And attachment theory pushes the biological determinism button. Bowlby’s attachment theory rests firmly on the idea that there is something approaching an attachment motivational system, a motivational system on par with such motivational systems as hunger, thirst, sex, and care giving (receiving).  In women, the care giving motivational system is often referred to as maternal instinct. In many respects the feminist movement that surrounded Bowlby was about rejecting biological explanations in favor of sociological ones. This meant downplaying if not outright rejecting the notion of maternal instinct, which, by extension, meant rejecting the s0-called attachment motivational system.

Feminist psychoanalyst and noted author Susie Orbach writes the following in her 1999 article entitled Why Is Attachment in the Air?: “[W]hen writing about Women in the seventies and eighties it never occurred to me to read Bowlby let alone reference him because his known statements about women and the maternal were particularly problematic to a feminist at that time.” She continues by giving us this “bottom line”: “What I knew of Bowlby’s work, I’m far from proud to admit, could be encapsulated in two phrases: maternal deprivation and ethology.” A bit further along Orbach gives us this showstopper: “Feminist analysts … had a difficult time with what they perceived as Bowlby’s valourisation of the maternal [e.g., biological motivation] at a moment when we were trying to understand the relationship of women’s oppression to the structure of the nuclear family [e.g., sociological motivation].” Orbach goes on to bemoan the fact that many feminists, in rejecting attachment theory, threw the baby (and his or her attachment needs) out with the patriarchal water. Yes, Bowlby was often viewed as just another white professional male of privilege telling women what they should and should not do using the perceived whims arising from the attachment motivational system—born from the evolutionary stew—as a guide. It’s no wonder John Bowlby often sat frustrated at the family dinner table.

Given the above, I was somewhat surprised by the comments John Bowlby made in Affectional Bonds concerning attachment theory and women, and women in the workforce. Let’s listen in. Bowlby writes:

Let us not minimize the difficulties for women to which the necessity of meeting an infant’s needs give rise. In days gone by, when higher education was closed to them, there was less conflict between the claims of family and career, though the frustration to able and ambitious women was none the less great. Today [the 1970s] things are very different. We welcome women into the professions where they have come to play an indispensable part.

This probably is a good place to mention the obvious: Bowlby’s longtime collaborator was Mary Ainsworth. Yes, Ainsworth did play an indispensable part in the development of attachment theory. Some have argued that without Aisworth, there would be no attachment theory. And I would suggest that the above comment by Bowlby is a tip of the hat toward the very long and productive Bowlby-Ainsworth collaboration. I should also mention that Bowlby was in fairly regular touch with the developmental psychology research team of Jean Piaget and Bärbel Inhelder. (Inhelder co-edited the book Discussions on Child Development, which I mentioned in part I.) Bowlby had firsthand knowledge of the contribution that women like Ainsworth and Inhelder were making to the various psychological sciences. But Bowlby was the first to admit that squaring professional achievement with maternal demands would not be easy for women. Bowlby continues thus:

Yet this progress, like all growth and development, has brought its tensions, and many of you here tonight will know first hand the problem of regulating the conflicting demands of family and career. The solution is not easy and it ill becomes those of us fortunate enough not to be faced with the problem [e.g., men] to lay down the law to the other sex [e.g., women] how they should resolve it.

It would appear that Bowlby specifically states that when it comes to matters of family and career, men should not tell women what to do. As I read Affectional Bonds I did not get the impression that Bowlby was just another white professional male of privilege telling women what they should and should not do. Quite the contrary. I’ll give Bowlby the final word:

Let us hope that as time goes on our society, still largely organized to suit men and fathers, will adjust itself to the needs of women and mothers, and that social traditions will be evolved which will guide individuals into a wise course of action.

Next week I’ll look at two themes Bowlby talks about in Affectional Bonds: first, his idea that attachment relationships, especially early in life, lead to the development of Inner Working Models, and, second, Inner Working Models born from attachment relationships could be viewed as expectation fields.