Preamble: John Bowlby Helps Understand Human Behaviour Caught Between Attachments and Separations – I

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The crux of Bowlby’s thesis is that the pains and joys of attachment cannot be reduced to something more primary such as the sexual or death instincts. Just as a child’s love for his mother does not result from the gratification of his oral desires, so the heart-rending expressions of grief quoted by Bowlby do not denote destructive or guilty wishes that have been repressed. They may simply describe the painful process of healthy mourning. Prof. Ashoka’s erudite research is being serialised in the weekly column, in XI parts. Here’s the introductory first part, an exclusive for Different Truths.

In my very long career (and a needlessly long life), I have had the good fortune of having closely interacted with stalwarts who have had international impact spanning generations. One of them was the great John Bowlby whose theories have left us infinitely more insightful. I am on record having stated that without an insight into Bowlby’s works, a paediatrician’s training is necessarily incomplete. 

We associate John Bowlby with his lifelong study of the crucial role played by attachment and its corollary, loss, in human development. He has assembled his major work in three volumes entitled Attachment (1969), Separation (1973), and Loss (1980). Bowlby’s ‘Attachment Theory,’ together with the view of separation and mourning that it incorporates, is as novel to the study of human relationships as Darwin’s theory was to the study of evolution. Yet Bowlby’s (1979a) work is based upon and reflects the most obvious features of everyday life. 

Family doctors, priests, and perceptive laymen have long been aware that there are few blows to the human spirit so great as the loss of someone near and dear. Traditional wisdom knows that we can be crushed by grief and die of a broken heart, and also that a jilted lover is apt to do things that are foolish or dangerous to himself and others. It knows too that neither love nor grief is felt for just any other human being, but only for one, or a few, particular and individual human beings. The core of what I term an “affectional bond” is the attraction that one individual has for another individual.

Few would disagree with this statement. And yet, as with many new and simple ideas, we encounter considerable resistance to its implications. Bowlby was a psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who was trained in the Freudian tradition of psychoanalysis. Since 1946, when he assumed responsibility for the Children’s Department at the Tavistock Clinic,  London (swiftly renaming it the Department for Children and Parents), Bowlby has focused his research and therapeutic skills on the study and treatment of young children and their families. This experience has provided him with the basis for both his theory of normal infant and child development and a new view of pathology and its treatment. Although his work is enriched by fields such as ethology, cognitive psychology, and systems theory, Bowlby’s preoccupation with the joys and sorrows, the hope and despair, incurred in the making, sustaining and breaking of affectional bonds, places his contribution squarely within the arena of psychoanalysis. More than any other branch of medicine and psychology, psychoanalysis claims to investigate the emotional life of man. Nevertheless, despite over thirty years of research and teaching, Bowlby’s conception of attachment has not yet been integrated into the discipline and still remains foreign to the thinking of most psychoanalysts. 

In this monograph, I shall attempt to supply reasons for the resistance of psychoanalysts to Bowlby’s thesis. Indeed, by reference to some of his most basic assumptions about human psychology, Bowlby himself offers various solutions. Throughout his work, he stresses the over-riding importance of the parameter “familiar/strange” in the development of human beings from the cradle to the grave. From infancy on, we tend to orientate towards the familiar and away from the strange, a trait that has survival value for human beings and other species. We change our beliefs with reluctance and would rather stick with the familiar model. Ironically, psychoanalysts do not recognise that this “cognitive bias” (Bowlby, 1980) is functional and tend to regard the preference for the familiar as regressive.

The painful nature of the material that Bowlby presses upon us also elicits resistance. The reading of Separation and Loss is a test of endurance since both volumes spell out the grief to which an analyst must bear witness if he is to meet the pathologies of despair and detachment. To support his view of attachment and the repercussions of a disruption of affectional bonds, Bowlby draws on personal accounts of bereavement, on observations of children who have lost their parents either temporarily or permanently, and on works of literature. It is Bowlby’s (1980) belief and experience that “He oft finds med’cine who his grief imparts” and that, in psychotherapy, “the deep vase of chilling tears that grief hath shaken into frost” must break. The therapist, like the poet, must have a capacity to endure and express the suffering that antecedes its cure. 

The crux of Bowlby’s thesis is that the pains and joys of attachment cannot be reduced to something more primary such as the sexual or death instincts. Just as a child’s love for his mother does not result from the gratification of his oral desires, so the heart-rending expressions of grief quoted by Bowlby do not denote destructive or guilty wishes that have been repressed. They may simply describe the painful process of healthy mourning. 

It is impossible to think that I shall never sit with you again and hear you laugh. That everyday for the rest of my life you will be away. No one to talk to about my pleasure. No one to call me for walks, to go “to the terrace.” I write in an empty book. I cry in an empty room. And there can never be any comfort again. (Carrington, in Bowlby 1980). 

Although many analysts fail to comprehend the relevance of Bowlby to the consulting room, his ideas are rooted in the Freudian context. Although he departs radically from parts of the Freudian tradition, he develops many ideas that Freud held to be important (particularly in his later life). Throughout his work, Bowlby acknowledges this debt and quotes passages from Freud’s later work to support the theory of attachment. In 1938, Freud describes the relationship of the child to his mother as “unique, without parallel, laid down unalterably for a whole lifetime, as the first and strongest love object and as the prototype of all later love relations – for both sexes.” In the 1940s and early 1950s, when Bowlby first published his observations on disturbances in children and young people who had been separated from their parents, Freud’s theories provided a stepping-stone away from the then-popular stress on constitutional and inherited factors and gave him a framework with which to emphasize the importance of mother-child relations. Moreover, the effects of World War II upon both bereaved adults and young children in care spelled out, to all, the stark realities of separation and loss.

(To be continued)

©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad 

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.