Affectional Bonds—Bowlby: Found in Translation

Share this Blog post

This is part V of my multi-part review of John Bowlby’s 1979 book The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. This will be the last installment in this series. Here’s a brief recap of the central topics covered thus far:

  1. Sir Richard Bowlby’s introduction, which was added in 2005
  2. Feminist criticism of attachment theory and Bowlby’s take on women entering the workforce
  3. Bowlby’s idea of Inner Working Models
  4. Bowlby’s thoughts on expectation fields

In this final part, I’ll look at Bowlby’s efforts to translate concepts found in other schools of thought (i.e., the psychodynamic concept of internal objects) over to concepts contained in attachment theory (i.e., Bowlby’s idea of Inner Working Models). In general, Bowlby spends considerable time in Affectional Bonds replacing vitalistic placeholders—such as internal objects—with those derived from scientific investigations—such as inner cognitive models or maps—and espoused by attachment theory. My read of Affectional Bonds suggests that Bowlby finds great value in the various vitalistic placeholders he speaks of, but also finds it time to translate these placeholders over to the world of empirical science. Let’s get started.

Bowlby offers up this blanket translation. Before the advent of attachment theory, the following phrases were often used to describe a securely attached person …

  1. has strong ego (Freud)
  2. possesses basic trust (Erikson)
  3. displays mature dependence (Fairbairn)
  4. internalized a good object (Klein)

Bowlby suggests that all of these phrases should be translated over to attachment theory. According to Bowlby, a securely attached person is “secure and self-reliant” and is able to act toward others in “trusting, cooperative, and helpful” ways. As Bowlby puts it, “In terms of attachment theory [the securely attached individual] is described as having built up a representational model [e.g., an Inner Working Model] of himself as being both able to help himself and as worthy of being helped should difficulties arise.” As talked about in part III, the idea of an Inner Working Model comes from the world of cognitive science. It would seem that Bowlby says something like the following to his audiences: “These earlier researchers certainly captured the vitalistic essence of ‘securely attached individuals’ and Inner Working Models, but now is the time to move vitalism over to scientism.” Hopefully the reader can get a sense for how such calls for translation could be viewed as offensive. And, yes, many (especially those in the psychoanalytic arena) did take offense.

Allow me to move to what I consider to be Bowlby’s most forceful translation. Bowlby writes:

A common assumption that runs through most psychiatric and psycho-pathological theory is that fear should be manifested only in situations that are truly dangerous, and that fear shown in any other situation is neurotic. This leads to the conclusion that, because separation from an attachment figure cannot be regarded as a truly dangerous situation, anxiety over separation from that figure is neurotic. Examination of the [empirical] evidence shows that both the assumption and the conclusion to which it leads are false.

In essence, Bowlby urges the psychological community to translate old conceptions of fear—many of which have no basis in fact—over to new conceptions of fear largely coming from the study of animal behavior (e.g., ethology). Bowlby continues thus:

When approached empirically separation from an attachment figure is found to be one class of situations each of which is likely to elicit fear but none of which can be regarded as intrinsically dangerous. These situations comprise, amongst others, darkness, sudden large changes of stimulus level including loud noises, sudden movement, strange people, and strange things. Evidence shows that animals of many species are alarmed by such situations (Hinde 1970), and that this is true of human children (Jersild 1947) and also of adults. Furthermore, fear is especially likely to be elicited when two or more of these conditions are present simultaneously, for example, hearing a loud noise when alone in the dark.

The explanation of why individuals should so regularly respond to these situations with fear is held to be that, whilst none of the situations is intrinsically dangerous, each carries with it an increased risk [emphasis in original] of danger.

As talked about in part III, as risk increases, thoughts and feelings about the “risk of risk” also increase. In other words, if we take on the risk that has just presented itself and we exceed our abilities, can we import help or aid into the biological system that comprises the self? When we ask ourselves, “Can I import help or aid into my overall biological system?” we are asking about the risk of risk. Do we know where aid is located? Can we ask for aid? Can we accept aid? I guess you could look at the “risk of risk” as some type of meta-risk. As Bowlby forcefully points out in Affectional Bonds, traditional conceptions of fear do not recognize that there is risk and the risk of risk, and that both are normal reactions to a frightening stimulus. Before the advent of attachment theory (and the ethological studies upon which it rests), the former fear was framed as normal whereas the latter was framed as pathological. Bowlby asks us to update our models of fear to include meta-risk and to frame meta-risk as normal and arising from activation of the attachment behavioral system. And I think these updates are taking place (slowly). Here’s one example.

Back in the mid-2000s I heard trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk speak on his efforts to help heal the trauma following the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center on 09.11.01. Van der Kolk told us that in many cases survivors were not as concerned for their own safety as they were about how quickly they could make their way back to their loved ones, to their home, to comfort. Van der Kolk told us that just after the attacks, a limited number of land and cell lines were jammed with calls (making it hard for first responders) because so many people were trying to get news about loved ones. That’s the attachment behavioral system expressed on a large but tragic scale. And I think we are slowly beginning to appreciate the importance of the attachment behavioral system and the huge role it plays in our lives. It’s too bad that it takes a national tragedy to drive widespread recognition of the importance of the attachment behavioral system in our daily lives. (1)

So, Bowlby spends considerable time trying to move the fear often associated with “unwilling separation and loss” from the realm of pathology over to normalcy. But Bowlby takes things a step further. Bowlby points out that when the normal fear associated with an activated attachment behavioral system is incorrectly labeled as pathological, the pathology label often comes with frames that are meant to demean the individual. Bowlby writes:

Once a child can provide for himself, say advocates of the theory of secondary drive, he should become independent. Henceforward, therefore, signs of dependency are to be regarded as regressive [my emphasis]. Thus … any strong desire for the presence of an attachment figure comes to be regarded as an expression of an ‘infantile need’, part of a ‘baby’ self that should have been left behind.

Bowlby flat out rejects efforts to frame the normal behaviors associated with activation of the attachment behavioral system (such as calling loved ones following a disaster of some kind) as being regressive or infantile in any way, shape or form. Here’s where Bowlby gets into some heavy-handed translation:

As terms and concepts in which to express the theory [of attachment] advanced here ‘dependence’ and ‘independence’ have a number of grave objections; they are therefore replaced by terms and concepts such as ‘trust in’, ‘attached to’, ‘reliance on’, and ‘self-reliance’.

In this next quote by Bowlby (which I quote at length), Bowlby almost sounds as if he has just come down from on high to deliver certain commandments concerning attachment theory and clinical practice informed by attachment theory:

All those who think in terms of dependency, orality, or symbiosis refer to the expression of attachment desires and behaviour by an adult as being the result of his having regressed to some stage believed to be normal during infancy and childhood, often that of suckling at his mother’s breast. This leads therapists to talk to a patient about ‘the child part of yourself’ or ‘your baby needs to be loved or fed’, and to refer to someone tearful after bereavement as being in a state of regression. In my view all such statements are mistaken both for theoretical and practical reasons. As regards theory enough has been said to make it clear that I regard the desire to be loved and cared for as being an integral part of human nature throughout adult life as well as earlier and that the expression of such desires is to be expected in every grown-up, especially in times of sickness or calamity [like the attacks on the Twin Towers mentioned above]. As regards practice, it seems highly undesirable to refer to a patient’s ‘baby needs’ when we are trying to help him recover his natural desires to be loved and cared for which, because of unhappy experiences earlier in life, he has endeavored to disclaim. By construing them as childish and referring to them as such, a patient can easily interpret our remarks as disparaging and reminiscent of a disapproving parent who rejects a child seeking to be comforted and calls him ‘silly and babyish’. (2)

Hopefully the above gives the reader a sense for how much effort Bowlby engaged in designed to translate concepts that, in his mind, were out-of-date and out-of-step with respect to empirical science (especially with respect to areas such as ethology and cognitive science). As a general comment on this series, I hope the reader gains an appreciation for how much time and energy Bowlby expended trying to promote his theory of attachment to researchers, clinicians, policymakers, and the general public.

I’ll officially end this series here. But for the politically adventurous, I’d like to add a short addendum on the politics surrounding the topic of regression. To whet your interest, Freud did not come up with the idea of regression. Yes, Freud popularized the concept but themes centered on regression were around way before Freud’s time. I think this is an important political point because if one decides to take on the topic of regression (as Bowlby clearly did) one is not just taking on Freud, he or she is taking on a topic that has a very long and entrenched political history. I’m not sure Bowlby was aware of how deep the roots of regression ran.


I’m about two thirds of the way through philosophy professor John Searle’s 2015 book entitled Seeing Things the Way They Are—A Theory of Pereception. Searle has a section on unconscious thought. As you might expect, Searle mentions Freud’s work in the area. Interestingly, Searle points out that Freud did not come up with the idea of unconscious thought. Searle writes:

On the Cartesian definition of the mental, a definition that dominated intellectual life for literally centuries, there could not be any unconscious mental phenomena. As early as the nineteenth century, there were people who challenged this conception and championed the idea of unconscious mental phenomena. Three examples are Dostoevsky in literature, and Nietzsche and Shopenhauer in philosophy. Freud certainly did not invent the idea of the unconscious, but he did more to popularize it than anybody else. It is hard today to recover the enormous influence that Freud had on intellectual life.

Like with unconscious thought, Freud did not invent regression. In his 1986 book entitled Idols of Perversity—Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture, art critic and historian, and political commentator Bram Dijkstra traces the idea of “regression to a primitive state” back to one of Bowlby’s heroes, Charles Darwin. As an example, Dijkstra tells us that Darwin wrote the following words in The Decent of Man: “[T]he female somewhat resembles her young offspring throughout life.” Consider this passage by Dijkstra:

Darwin, feeding off Vogt and Spencer, capped the argument in The Descent of Man by confirming that “with woman the powers of intuition, of rapid perception [which Gladwell today calls Blink], and perhaps of imitation, are more strongly marked than in man; but some, at least, of these faculties are characteristics of the lower races, and therefore, of a past and lower state of civilization.” Given man’s natural role as predator, it was inevitable that he would become the superior creature, for to survive he had to develop his imagination and his reason.

Suffice it to say that Dijkstra (using copious examples drawn from the world of art) traces out the long history of the concept of regression where regression is largely defined as both a return to a primitive state and an identification with nature and animal instincts. Again, I do not think that Bowlby was aware of this long, entrenched history. Again, Freud did not invent regression, but he certainly popularized the idea by giving regression a scientific patina. I’m not sure how many followers of Freud today are aware of how the concept of regression was used in decidedly misogynistic ways back at the turn of the last century (and even before then). Women’s studies professor Jane Caputi also spends considerable time tracing the roots of how the concept of regression was (is) used in misogynistic ways. Our Foundation funded Dr. Caputi’s film entitled The Pornography of Everyday Life. Dr Caputi’s film looks at how women today are often infantilized by associating them with nature and animal instincts. Conversely, infants and young children are often “adultified” as a way of bringing about the same regressive effect. I should point out that Bowlby in Affectional Bonds has a lot to say about such things as parentification, adultification, role-reversal and the such. I considered writing a blog post on these topics as a part of this series, however, I considered parentification, adultification, and role-reversal in my executive summary of Kay Hymowitz’s 1999 book entitled Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future—And Ours (contact the Foundation for a copy of my executive summary).

Now, you may well be asking yourself the following question (a question I have asked myself before): “In taking a stand against regression and by attempting to elevate the animal/human instinct of attachment to a higher level, it would appear that Bowlby was on the side of most feminists. Why then did most feminists reject Bowlby’s work?” Darn good question with a real simple answer: Most feminists (both during Bowlby’s time and now) reject(ed) the field upon which the regression issue was being played out: namely, biology. As Bowlby makes very clear, attachment (like all behavioral systems) is a biologically mediated behavioral system. In other words attachment is an innate behavioral system. Most feminists said (say) in essence, “No way … we are not going to accept the biology or innateness playing field. Instead, all of our arguments will be made on the field of sociology.” So, even though Bowlby was probably more of a friend to feminism than feminists would care to admit, Bowlby (and his thoughts) had to be dispensed with because his arguments were largely played out on the field of biology. Bowlby was thrown to the curb as many feminists moved toward sociological explanations framed principally by postmodern thought. As I have mentioned before, feminists—and with good reason (see Dijkstra’s book or work by Jane Caputi)—had to put as much distance between themselves and anything smacking of biological determinism. And, yes, attachment theory does carry with it the specter of biological determinism: we are all of us (humans and many higher order animals) born with and in many ways ruled by the attachment behavioral system. So, maybe we should say, “Bowlby: Found But Then Lost in Translation.”


(1) In 1993, Julia Vormbrock wrote an article entitled Attachment Theory As Applied to Wartime and Job-Related Marital Separation (Psychological Bulletin, vol. 114, no. 1, p 122–144). Vormbrock’s article came out just after the close of the first Gulf War, which ended in February, 1991. Part of Vormbrock’s study focused on putting wartime separations into a Bowlbian attachment theory frame. Since Vormbrock’s article came out, attention has been slowly focused on what long and multiple deployments can do to the affectional bonds of a family system. As you would expect, these efforts intensified with the start of the second Gulf War in 2003. In 2006, Stacy Bannerman released her personal account entitled WHEN THE WAR CAME HOME: The Inside Story of Reservists and the Families They Leave Behind.

In 2009, I wrote the following to a colleague after I heard of Bannerman’s work for the first time:

– – o O Start Excerpt O o – –

I was driving home listening to Mike Malloy on the radio. He was talking about an Op-Ed piece that appeared over at It was by Stacy Bannerman and it was about how the kids of military families were reacting negatively to parents (both mothers and fathers) coming and going as they go through multiple deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan. Apparently Bannerman’s husband had just returned from his second deployment, so this was a very personal account. As I listened to Malloy, all that I could think of is “this is ALL about attachment.” What really stunned me was Bannerman’s observation that kids as young as seven—yes, seven—are attempting suicide because of these traumatic deployment separations. Bannerman doesn’t use attachment terms and concepts, but she gets it. After I got home I found the piece over at Here’s the “showstopper” statement for me: “America’s military kids are in crisis, presenting acute, debilitating symptoms of deployment-related stress, virtual mirrors of their parents who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

– – o O End Excerpt O o – –

Bannerman and others have spoken out about what long or multiple deployments are doing to families. As an example, the following article appeared in 2007: War Deployments Raise Risk of Abuse. Again, it is too bad that it takes a national tragedy, such as long or multiple deployments, to point out how important affectional bonds are. If only we would learn these lessons, the same ones Bowlby tried to teach us with his writings.

(2) In note (2) of part IV, I mentioned that I worked with troubled youth in a residential treatment center (RTC) setting using behavioral techniques such as CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy. After the fact I realized that we (me and my fellow behavioral therapists) were potentially retraumatizing the kids we worked with because behaviorism too views all expressions of attachment need or desire as regressive. In hindsight, many of the troubled youth I worked with were probably trying to tell us how their attempts to have their attachment desires attended to were thwarted by the very adults who were supposed to provide care and comfort. And here we were recreating the same environment that earlier had caused these kids so much harm, an environment that denigrates any expression of attachment need or desire. This points out that the motto “do no harm” depends on which worldview you use. Within the worldview of behaviorism, the RTC was doing no harm. Within the worldview of affectional bonds, harm was likely to occur within that RTC milieu.