Dr. Linda Ennis

If we are truly understanding what constitutes a successful family mediation, we need to address the impact and role of attachment theory as a foundation for all human behavior.  The theory applies, in its entirety, as a continuum ranging from the secure to the insecure nature of relationships across the lifespan beginning in early childhood until adulthood.

It all began with John Bowlby’s definition of attachment as “a deep and enduring bond that connects one person to another across time and space” (Bowlby, 1969). Children seek closeness or proximity to their attachment figures when they are upset and can explore freely when they feel secure, using the primary caregiver as a “secure base”. Responsiveness of the parent in a caring way is the most effective way to develop a secure attachment, as well as consistency, predictability and empathic attunement.

What is interesting about attachment is that it is related to separation, which seems to accentuate the nature of attachment, insecure or secure, which was further demonstrated by Ainsworth’s Strange Situation when Ainsworth observed attachment relationships between caregivers and children between the ages of nine and eighteen months upon separation and reunion to determine their attachment style. The attachment patterns were secure, insecure (ambivalent and avoidance). Later, Main introduced the third pattern, disorganized.

The secure child will explore, trust, is playful, sociable, uninhibited, caring, confident and motivated. The insecure avoidant child appears indifferent to separation or reunion avoiding the expression of intense need. The insecure ambivalent child will be anxious upon separation, he/she approaches his/her primary caregiver upon reunion but then resists contact. Finally, the disorganized child displays fear, contradictory behaviours, freezing, and dissociating.

Main, through her Adult Attachment Interview, noted a high correspondence between the attachment classification of parents and their infants. Secure, avoidant, ambivalent and disorganized children have primary caregivers who are autonomous, dismissing, preoccupied and unresolved with respect to attachment (Hong & Park, 2012).

Bowlby also introduced the “internal working model” or IWM, which was influenced by Freud’s concept of “schema” or mental representations, which has had an enormous influence on attachment. IWM is a set of conscious and unconscious rules and expectations received from the mother-child (or father-child) relationship, which may be unconsciously applied to all future relationships as a prototype or mini-map.

In the 1980s, researchers noted that attachment processes play out in adulthood, particularly in the context of romantic relationships. “According to Hazan & Shaver, the emotional bond that develops between adult romantic partners is partly a function of the same motivational system- the attachment behavioural system- that gives rise to the emotional bond between infants and their caregivers” (Fraley, 2000). The insecurity or security we see in adult relationships are partially reflective of their experiences in early childhood with the primary caregiver later re-enacted in intimate relationships. In After the Happily Ever After: Empowering Women and Mothers in Relationships, Brassard and Johnson noted that attachment security “represents one of the most documented predictors of marital quality and stability over the last thirty years”, which is influenced by past relationship experiences, making it a vulnerability factor (Ennis, 2017).

There are two fundamental dimensions with respect to adult attachment patterns- attachment–related anxiety and attachment-related avoidance.  “Attachment-related anxiety” is defined by Brassard and Johnson, as “a strong desire for closeness and protection, intense worries about partner availability and one’s own value to the partner, and use of  hyperactivating strategies” (Ennis, 84). “Attachment-related avoidance” is related to the individual perceiving little support from their partner, subsequently resulting in maintaining an emotional distance from him/her.

There are four combinations we can see by dividing the dimensions of anxiety and avoidance into high and low:

Preoccupied: High Anxiety, Low Avoidance, characterized by a generally positive model of the self and a negative model of the other

Fearful: High Anxiety, High Avoidance, characterized by negative models of the self and other

Dismissing: Low Anxiety, High Avoidance, characterized by a positive model of the other and a negative model of the self

Secure: Low Anxiety, Low Avoidance, characterized by positive models of the self and other

The implications of these adult attachment patterns help us understand, as family mediators, the underpinnings of relationships in marriage and divorce. Further to that, attachment clarifies who are the perpetrators and victims of domestic violence, as well as who experiences parenting difficulties. “Anxiously attached partners would use physical or psychological aggression as a reaction to potential threats to the relationship in an inadequate and dysfunctional attempt to keep the partner from leaving them” (Bartholomew and Allison, 2006). “Avoidantly attached individuals would, on the contrary, use violent behaviours (psychological aggression, contempt and lack of respect) as a way to remove themselves from unpleasant situations and to keep a certain distance” (Fournier et al, 2011).

When we, specifically, look at personality disorders such as Borderline , Narcissistic or Anti-Social Personalities, as it relates to domestic violence, it is important to realize that attachment anxiety manifested as rage, insecure avoidant or ambivalent or fearfully preoccupied attachment patterns in relationships may be at the root of it (Rakovec- Feiser, 2014). The attachment patterns can help us identify the internalized prototypes and lead us, based on this understanding, to mediate more effectively.

Not only should we try to be aware of the interaction between different personality disorders and attachment patterns, but also address the interaction between attachment styles and the role of child (and parent) temperament, as it relates to parenting styles. While originally, the focus was solely on Baumrind’s definition of “authoritative parenting”, today we need to also integrate newer and more prevalent forms of parenting such as “intensive mothering”, an (understandable) overinvestment of mothers (and fathers) in their children (Hays, 1996; Ennis, 2014) and “free-range” parenting, which condones instilling independence in young children (Skenazy, 2009). Because attachment and separation are so intricately related across the lifespan, attachment theory will help inform us as we maneuver our way through the process of family mediation with couples and their children.

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