A Question of Attachment—Bowlby Less Traveled: The Book (part I of III)

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Part I—Announcing A Question of Attachment

Against my better judgement I’ve decided to write a second book (Bowlby’s Battle being my first). The working title is: A Question of Attachment—Bowlby Less Traveled: The Book. [1] In part II I’ll talk more about what’s driving this decision. I’ve decided to use Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform (KDP). So, yes, A Question of Attachment will only be available in eBook form through Amazon. Don’t worry, it will have a whopping list price of 99 cents. Although I have only sketched out a very preliminary outline at this stage, I’d like to use the question asked by insecure attachment as a guiding theme. In the rest of this post I’ll expand on the above. I describe the world of eBooks briefly in part III (if this is of interest to you).

My plan is to make Question (for short) chapters much like my BLT posts, about 2,000 to 3,000 words long (about the length of all three parts of this post). And, yes, I will “repurpose” previous BLT content. Of course I’ll give earlier content a present-day dusting off. I’ll be posting chapters (or chapter ideas) here at BLT, however, not in any particular order. Even though I have sketched out the topics that I think should be addressed in Question, I’m going to keep the connective tissue flexible for now and let it emerge (in a very systems theory way). I’m hoping that as I post book chapters or ideas, reader feedback (using the Contact Us link above) will help drive the creative process.

As mentioned above, the guiding theme (at this point) will center on the question I see asked by insecure attachment, one I have asked here at BLT many times before. At the risk of engaging in personification, insecure attachment asks the following question:

How do I find intimacy and connection while at the same time avoiding the pain that loss of intimacy and connection inevitably brings?

Hopefully you are able to get a sense that insecure attachment’s question has a “double bind” component to it: how do I do one thing while at the same time do another. Here’s how Wikipedia defines double bind:

A double bind is an emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages, and one message negates the other. This creates a situation in which a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other (and vice versa), so that the person will automatically be wrong regardless of response. The double bind occurs when the person cannot confront the inherent dilemma, and therefore can neither resolve it nor opt out of the situation.

An extreme case of the double bind was portrayed in the 1982 movie Sophie’s Choice: pick one child or the other to die, or they both will die. Wikipedia goes on to point out that Gregory Bateson, of family systems theory fame, first described double bind theory way back in the 1950s. Psychologists used to think that chronic exposure to double bind situations led to the development of such mental health maladies as schizophrenia (which loosely translates to “split mind”). Double bind theory fell out of grace with the advent of genetic determinism in the 1980s and 90s: there must be a schizophrenia gene out there somewhere.

Well, it seems that double bind theory is making a bit of a comeback. In his 2017 book chapter entitled Modern Attachment Theory (which appears in APA Handbook of Trauma Psychology), Dr. Allan Schore (whose work I talk about in my last post) brings back double bind theory by mentioning work by Mary Main (who helped to develop the Adult Attachment Interview) and Judith Solomon. Schore states:

Because infants inevitably seek the parent when alarmed, Main and Solomon asserted that the frightening parent places infants in an irresolvable [double] bind wherein they can neither approach the mother, shift their attention, nor flee. These infants are utterly unable to generate a coherent strategy to actively cope with their frightening parent.

Main and Solomon did their work in the area of disorganized attachment patterns back in the 1980s. Today, using brain studies as a background, Schore suggests that these types of double bind situations act as epigenetic assaults that impede proper brain development, function, and organization (as talked about in my previous post). It would appear that maladies such as schizophrenia, autism, and ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder) are not so much a matter of genetics as they are of epigentics.

Personally, I learned about the connection between attachment and double bind situations through my read of Peter Marris’ 1996 book entitled The Politics of Uncertainty—Attachment in Private and Public Life. I wrote an executive summary of Peter’s book. Actually, I’ve written a number of executive summaries over the years and I do plan on pulling from them as I write A Question of Attachment. Marris talks about what he calls self-defeating strategies. Simply, self-defeating strategies are one way of solving double bind dilemmas (as alluded to in the Wikipedia definition above). As Bowlby pointed out in his work (pulling from people like Mary Ainsworth and Mary Main), the organized (as compared to disorganized) patterns of attachment are strategies that we use (mostly unconsciously) to secure attachment for ourselves in our daily lives. When we use secure attachment strategies, our search for and (hopefully) achievement of attachment is a rewarding and life-affirming experience. Sadly, when we use insecure attachment strategies, the experience is that of defeating the self. I wrote the following in my executive summary of Marris’ The Politics of Uncertainty:

Marris gives us the paradox of insecure attachment when he states: “When everything in a person’s life is insecure, they may treat all events that affect their lives as being inevitable: what is beyond prediction or control becomes paradoxically certain. It becomes ‘our fate’ or even ‘God’s will.’ ”

Here’s the list of self-defeating defenses that Marris presents:

  • repudiating everything the power of the world stands for
  • retreating to other-worldliness existences
  • living only for the moment
  • various forms of resignation
  • imagining some form of invulnerability, like being a super hero
  • creating psychological spaces that can be protected and defended in which some sense of agency can survive

These are examples of how people answer the question asked by insecure attachment, that is to say, solve double bind’s dilemma. Here are other answers according to Marris (these of the “hard living” kind):

  • rootlessness
  • marital instability
  • heavy drinking and drug use
  • indiscriminate sexual activity
  • an indifference to the future

Answering insecure attachment’s question often takes us into darkness and despair. But all is not lost. Bowlby believed in the idea that humans are rather adaptive organisms, a concept he borrowed in part from Darwin’s work. And I have found a group of young people who appear to be adapting by answering insecure attachment’s question in productive and possibly life-affirming ways (depending on your definition of life): the embrace of technology.

In her 2011 book entitled Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, MIT researcher Sherry Turkle describes in detail how the Millennial generation is now attaching to their screen devices as primary attachment figures. When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. This is a great way to answer insecure attachment’s question: How do I find intimacy and connection while at the same time avoiding the pain that loss of intimacy and connection inevitably brings? If you find a friend or even lover to be disappointing, you simply “swipe left” on your screen device. Swiping left is now the universally accepted “gesture of rejection.” In contrast, “swiping right” is now universally accepted as a “gesture of acceptance.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t attaching to technology or mechanical beings, as opposed to human beings, yet another self-defeating strategy? Is it? What if we accept that we are now moving toward a posthuman future?

If you believe in a posthuman or transhuman future—a future where humans are now mechanical beings—then we should be able to see the first signs of movement in this direction. Again, not my idea. This idea is put forward in Francis Fukuyama’s 2002 book entitled Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. Biotech engineering is but one signpost on the road toward a posthuman state, which would include mapping the genome (more on these mapping efforts in a moment). Here’s another that Fukuyama points to that most of us have heard about: using stimulant drugs like Ritalin and Adderall to control the disruptive behavior often associated with ADHD. This then begs another question along the lines of: “Can societally shared answers to questions of insecure attachment bring about entirely new forms of secure attachment?” [2] I’m not asking this question to be difficult; I’m asking in part because books are now coming out in favor of society feeding behavioral drugs to young kids in the name of enhancement (as opposed to therapeutic effect). An example here would be the 2013 book entitled Bad Moves—How Decision Making Goes Wrong, and the Ethics of Smart Drugs by Barbara J. Sahakian and Jamie Nicole LaBuzetta.

Although beyond the scope of this post, I would suggest that both the liberal and conservative political models are societally shared answers to the question asked by insecure attachment. This is a theme covered in more detail in cognitive scientist turned political commentator George Lakoff’s 1996 book entitled Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.

To address the question of societally shared answers, one would have to ponder the question, “What makes us human?” Becoming machine-based entities may be the next step in the evolution of humans. Old definitions of secure attachment may be fading away and new ones emerging with insecure attachment forming a bridge. Or maybe the need for attachment altogether is slowly fading away as we continue becoming machine-based entities. For more on this theme, see James Barrat’s 2013 book entitled Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era.

As I was polishing this post, the April, 2017, edition of National Geographic came in. The cover announces The Next Human and features a graphic showing a cyborg (e.g., part human, part machine) leading the way on evolution’s path. In tow are humans, stone age hunter-gatherers, and our primate ancestors. The cover description simply states that “humans increasingly have taken evolution into our own hands.” For better or worse, theories like Bowlby’s attachment theory will have to take into account the very real possibility that humans are in fact on the evolutionary road toward becoming machine-based entities. Applying Bowlby’s work to a digital age is definitely one of my motivations. And this is not an entirely new topic. The husband and wife team of Noel and Amanda Sharkey wrote a thought-provoking article entitled The Crying Shame of Robot Nannies: An Ethical Appraisal. Attachment researcher Everett Waters co-wrote a rebuttal of sorts to the Sharkey article entitled Strange Carers: Robots as Attachment Figures and Aids to Parenting. So, the idea of getting kids attached to robots is being debated. [3]

Hopefully the above gives you some sense for where I wish to go in A Question of Attachment. As they say, stay tuned. In part II, I’ll talk more about what’s driving my motivation to write Question.


[1] I’m also playing around with the book title Mapping Out the Future of Attachment Theory.

[2] Back in 2006, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Abraham Sagi-Schwartz give a presentation entitled Holocaust Child Survivors and their Offspring: Vulnerability and Resilience. Dr. Sagi-Schwartz was testing the theory that trauma is passed along from generation to generation through attachment functioning (one of the tenets of Bowlby’s theory). Surprisingly, Dr. Sagi-Schwartz did not find this to be the case with three generations of Holocaust survivor mothers. Here are the factors that Dr. Sagi-Schwartz found that attenuated the transgenerational transmission of trauma:

  • social support
  • genetic factors (e.g., children of Holocaust survivors may have inherited genes that protect against trauma reactions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD)
  • secure emotional infrastructure prior to the Holocaust
  • trauma was perceived to be “external” (e.g., not inflicted on the children by parents or other trusted attachment figures, but, in fact, by anonymous and destructive social forces)
  • a sense of strong collective national identity that resulted from being in Israel, a feeling of being in a place that is free of anti-Semitism
  • search for meaning was encouraged (i.e., the work of Viktor Frankl would be an example)
  • ability to form bonds with fellow survivors and construct a collective story or narrative
  • access to public Holocaust memorials
  • continued strong bond with deceased parents, parents perceived to provide continuing spiritual support

Is it possible that Mellennials, by attaching to their screen devices, are engaging in some of the above processes? Through social media they are forming a strong sense of collective identity, even a national one. Many now consider Facebook to be its own country. Mellennials are engaging in the search for meaning in digital worlds. As mentioned above, they are forming bonds with each other through their digital devices. I just throw this out there for consideration. Trauma gets passed on transgenerationally if everything goes bad, that is to say, the above types of things do not happen (as happened with vets returning from Vietnam). But if the above types of things happen, say, for returning vets, then trauma does not have to be passed on across the generations. Dr. Sagi-Schwartz’s work points out one of the big limitations of psychotherapy: it’s done with individuals or small groups. It is nearly impossible to bring society into the therapist’s room. So, who’s left to bring about the therapeutic effect of such things as memorials and creating a shared story? Typically leaders, whether religious, political, or business, are expected to bring a therapeutic effect to the masses, to make us feel safe and secure (a la Peter Marris’ work). [4] This is probably why in most societies there are such things as shared mourning rituals, graveyards, and days for remembering the dearly deceased. Sadly, such rituals are in short supply here in the US. Also sad, a paucity of leaders who have the gift of healing the masses.

[3] Literally minutes before this post went live, I spied the following article over at News: How Our Autistic Ancestors Played an Important Role in Human Evolution by Penny Spikins, senior lecturer in the Archaeology of Human Origins, University of York. Spikins’ article also has a graphic showing the evolution parade. Leading the pack, yet again a cyborg but this time half human and half smartphone. The idea that the autistic brain is the brain of the future is not new. You can find this message in Simon Baron-Cohen’s 2003 book entitled The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain.

[4] For more on this theme, see the 1996 edited volume entitled The Politics of Attachment—Toward a Secure Society (Sebastian Kraemer & Jane Roberts, eds.). This volume came out of a conference of the same name held at the Tavistock Clinic in 1995.