A Secure Base: John Bowlby and
 Attachment Theory

By Alan A Mooney

Apart from Freud, Jung and perhaps Rogers, Bowlby is one of the few psychoan
alysts or psychotherapists who have become well known, even ‘household’ names.
 His ideas are often quoted without the speaker being aware that they are
 Bowlby’s ideas since they have been taken and developed or been integrated into 
the work of others. Ideas like ‘maternal deprivation’, the importance of ‘bonding’ 
between parents and children, the idea that grief has a course or cycle to com
plete, the need for a ‘secure base’ and attachment, may be traced in whole or in
 part to his thinking.

Bowlby s family background is a very interesting study in itself. It was very English, 
’Edwardian’, with middle-class reserve. His background had a profound influence on 
his later work, particularly his ‘scientific rigour’ – if you cannot demonstrate it do not
 make a fuss about it. His approach to his psychoanalytical work was empirical and 
he was greatly influenced by the work of Darwin. (Kycroft. 1985)¹

In the mid 1930’s when he became involved with psychoanalysis he entered a soci
ety that was at war within itself. Melanie Klein and Anna Freud and their respective 
camps were at loggerheads over the core issues of psychoanalysis. Anna, who took
 over the mantle of her father, wanted to be faithful to his idea that the Oedipus com
plex was central to understanding neurosis. Melanie Klein’s focus was on the mother. She argued for the importance of fantasy in the early months of the child’s life 
and for the thanatos or death instinct as the explanation for infantile aggression.

The role of therapy for these different factions was therefore polarised. Klein’s 
notion of the purpose of analysis was to uncover and put words on the primitive 
impulses of infancy. Anna Freud’s camp prioritised the idea of the Oedipus complex 
emerging at the age of two or three years and triggering the beginnings of neurosis. 
They emphasised the role of analysis as strengthening the Ego in its efforts to rec
oncile Id and Superego.

This was the psychoanalytic world into which John Bowlby entered.
 Characteristically, he did not choose to belong to either faction but tried to negoti
ate a middle way and to work things out for himself. His commitment to a scientific approach and his interest in the role of environment as contributory to neurosis
 were his benchmarks.

From Bowlby’s point of view it was significant that neither Anna Freud nor Melanie 
Klein had a scientific background and both argued from precedent, intuition and 
authority rather than from empirical testing of their hypotheses. Bowlby’s Critics within the psychoanalytic movement argued that he missed the whole point of psy
choanalysis. His narrow definition of science – that which can be measured and 
observed directly – left out the inner world of fantasy that is not immediately avail
able to strict scientific scrutiny.

With James Robertson, Bowlby made a film in the early 1950’s documenting the dis
tress shown by a young girl separated from her parents because she was hospitalised. This film and the various interpretations applied to the child’s experience
 served to underline the differences between the various camps within psychoanalysis. Anna Freud supported Bowlby and Robertson’s views which were based
 on the observation that the child was distressed because of the separation and the
 strangeness of the experience, while Melanie Klein’s followers thought the girl’s dis
tress was due to her anger and destructive fantasies towards her pregnant mother’s
 unborn baby rather than to the separation itself.² Bowlby has noted that:

If it became a tradition that small children were never subjected to complete or
 prolonged separation from their parents in the same way that regular sleep and
 orange juice have become nursery traditions, I believe that many cases of neurotic character development would be avoided.³

Gradually, over time Bowlby drifted away from the psychoanalytic society, though he 
did not resign from it, and Attachment Theory came to stand on its own. It owes 
much to psychoanalysis, however, Bowlby’s broader perspective links it to systems
 theory and to cognitive development, it may also be said to have links with the inte
grative, humanistic model because the theory incorporates the context of a person’s
 life and the different levels, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual at which persons function.

It is popular to talk about the need to develop independence and separateness in
 adulthood and that loneliness, frustration and neurotic behaviour are characteristic
 of people who have not separated and become autonomous. Some argue strongly 
in favour and some against this idea. John Bowlby brought a practical, even empirical approach to these ideas especially as applied to children. He was strongly 
opposed to methods of parenting that involved deprivation or punishment. He reacted very strongly to the idea children might be deprived of love and affection in the 
interests of fairness or avoiding spoiling the child.

Bowlby was an advocate of the enduring nature of dependency. He refused to see
 it as some thing childish, to be outgrown, for him it was an integral part of the nature
 of being human.

An immense amount of friction and anger in small children and loss of temper 
on the part of their parents can be avoided by such simple procedures as pre
senting a legitimate plaything before we intervene to remove his mother’s best
 china, or coaxing him to bed by tactful humouring instead of demanding prompt 
obedience, or by permitting him to select his own diet and eat it in his own way, including, if he likes it, having a feeding bottle until he is two years of age or over. 
The amount of fuss and irritation which comes from expecting small children to
 conform to our own ideas of what, how, and when they eat is ridiculous and 

In the context of anxiety and loneliness generated by ambivalent separation or aban
donment, not just in childhood but also in full adulthood, Bowlby makes it clear that
 suppressing feelings is inevitably destructive and crippling of the person. He says:

..a main reason why some find expressing grief extremely difficult is that the fam
ily in which they have been brought up, and with which they still mix, is one in
 which the attachment behaviour of the child is regarded unsympathetically as
 something to be grown out of as soon as possible…

He goes on to say:

..crying and other protests over separation are apt to be dubbed as babyish and 
anger and jealousy as reprehensible (5)

Bowlby speaks of the mother and maternal deprivation as highly significant in the
 healthy development of the child. He has been criticised (Mead. 1962) of wanting to
 ‘pin women down in their own homes’.(6) However, when his writing and thinking 
are taken in context it is clear that he uses the terms mother and mothering, etc.. in 
the same way as we would use the terms parent and parenting. His desire is to highlight the need for a secure base of development for the child rather than to apportion responsibility for the child to one or other of its parents

He has argued in different contexts for the professionalisation of child-care workers, 
including day-care workers, foster parents, workers in children’s homes and we 
would now add child-minders. He insists throughout his various works that the loneliness of separation and the feeling of abandonment are valid feelings. The right to 
express pain, to rage about separation and to grieve loss are fundamental at any age, 
especially in childhood because here the basic freedoms and healthy development 
of expression are cultivated or not.

Donald Winnicott who is both an admirer and critic of Bowlby has said about the 
child’s right to a basic home experience:

..without which the foundations of mental health cannot be laid down. Without 
someone specifically oriented to his needs the infant cannot find a working relation to external reality. Without someone to give satisfactory instinctual gratifi
cations the infant cannot find his body nor can he develop an integrated personality. Without one person to love and to hate he cannot come to know that it
is the same person that he loves and hates, and so cannot find his sense of guilt, 
and his desire to repair and restore.

Without a limited human and physical environment he cannot find out the 
extent to which his aggressive ideas actually fail to destroy and so cannot sort out the difference between fantasy and fact. Without a father and a mother who are 
together, and who take joint responsibility for him, he cannot find and express his
 urge to separate them, nor experience relief at failing to do so.

From his earlier work with children at the Tavistock Institute Bowlby came to realise 
that the same feelings experienced by children as a result of separation (whatever 
the cause), like mental anguish, misery, protest, anger, despair, apathy and lonely withdrawal, were also feelings that adults experienced and which left unexpressed or
 held back because adults had learned they were unacceptable as a result of their
 own childhood experiences could lead to neurosis or menial disturbance.

He had learned that in separating parent from child an innate bond was broken, a 
bond that fundamentally linked one human being to another. He wanted to under
stand the nature of this bond and to understand its importance.

Attachment theory is a theory about space. When I am close to my loved one I feel 
good, when I am far away I feel anxious, sad or lonely. Observing an otherwise
 happy child away from it parents with a minder or other family member one will 
notice that the child will play unconcernedly until bedtime or until the child hurts 
itself, it is at these times the child will become pettish and anxious.

There is no esotericism to the theory, it is mediated by looking, touching, holding,
 presence, anticipation, pleasure. The feelings of security and comfort that arise allow 
the individual to experience a relaxed state that permits one to move out, to explore,
 to feel supported in what one is doing. I’m spending time writing this article and
 Maggie, my wife, has just asked how it’s going. The contact and the interest encour
ages me. In some ways attachment theory is as simple as that.

The insecurely attached individual may have a different combination of feelings -
 intense love and dependency, fear of rejection, a constant need to check that everything is OK or a vigilant silence looking for chinks in the relationship.

An attachment relationship is characterised by three key features:

– Proximity seeking to a preferred figure
– The ‘secure base’ effect

- Separation protest

Proximity Seeking to a Preferred Figure:

Watching young children one will note they tend to follow their parents or minders
 closely. The physical distance they can tolerate varies according to many factors 
including age, strangeness of circumstances, health etc. The theory accepts that the
 mother is the primary care-giver but it does not preclude the father from this role 
and it can include other family members.

Central to attachment theory is that it is to a discreet figure or group of figures. In 
adulthood we do not associate ourselves with the general population, we ‘connect’ 
with some people and we become more familiar with others. The need to identify
 with and ‘belong’ with someone or some ones seems important for our overall inte
gration as persons.

Attachment also includes the reality of separation. People will move on or die and
 the capacity to separate from attachment figures is a skill that is learned. It includes 
the ability to grieve and to feel the pain of loss and the ability to tolerate loneliness.
 The developmental challenge of adolescence and young adulthood is to experience 
this cycle and to negotiate it as successfully as possible.

The Secure Base:

The term ‘secure base’ was used by Dorothy Ainsworth (8) to describe the emotional
 environment within the relationship that allows for curiosity, exploration and risk
 taking both within and outside the relationship. When danger threatens we cling to 
our attachment figures, when threat and danger are past we are free to work, to relax
 and to play especially when we are sure our loved ones are there for us.

As adults no less than children we need a mixture of support and challenge for ourselves from others in a loving or companionable way. We may not rely so much on 
the physical proximity of the loved one but we do rely on their psychological and 
emotional proximity. We talk about people being ‘there for us’ or in its negative
 aspect ‘not there for us’.

Where no secure base exists or where it has been disrupted or destroyed, the per
son resorts to self-protection and social defensiveness. This defensiveness may also 
express itself internally as a splitting off of anger, sexual inhibition or anxiety, among
 other reactions. Conversely it may result in the compulsive sexualisation of relationships. The function of such reactions is to minimise the pain of loss, of separa
tion and by manipulation, to create a pseudo secure base. This ambivalent state is 
often characterised in the anguished question ‘who am I?’ or the statement ‘I don’t
 know who I am anymore’. When people genuinely try to reestablish a new secure
 base it can be a prolonged process of testing the other/others again and again for 
their reliability.

Trust is the key word in the context of psychotherapy, it is the idea of building trust
 in such a way that the client who has lost a secure base can find in the therapist 
someone who can tolerate their attempts to undermine the process or to find the 
therapist wanting in key areas. When the client discovers that the therapist will not
 collapse and that the client does not have to be logical or ‘rational’, they may then 
be able to express their disappointment and anger and rage, their loneliness, sadness and grief such that they may begin to move out of the secure base that psychotherapy provides into the broader social world again.

Separation Protest:

Bowlby identified the appropriate behaviour of children to separation from their 
parents as: crying, screaming, biting, kicking etc. The idea behind it is that the bad
 behaviour will encourage the parent to reconsider the separation. By ‘punishing’ the
 care-giver in this way they may be less likely to want to go through this unhappy out
burst in the future, the child will have prevented further separation.

A remarkable aspect of attachment bonds lies in their strength even in the face of
 maltreatment and severe punishment. An example of this in adulthood might be the
 case of the abused spouse returning to the abusive partner even though no new 
guarantee of safety has been established. Bowlby’s attachment theory allows for this 
phenomenon in the sense that stress will enhance the attachment behaviour of the
 individual even if the source of the stress is the attachment figure. The ‘frozen 
watchfulness’ of the physically abused child is testimony to this ambivalent 
attachment and its inhibition of normal playful and exploratory behaviour.

In the adult clinging and justification behaviours that cause the individual to toler
ate the fear and loneliness of a dysfunctional relationship may be traceable to this 
phenomenon. His aggression and violence may be dismissed because he can’t help 
himself. Her control of what he wears or how he spends his time may have the
 same root.

Bowlby saw marriage as the adult manifestation of attachment whose companionship provides the secure base for adult exploration, work and playfulness. He also 
sees it as a place of safety in time of need. He understands that just as the mother-
child attachment bond is not simply based on feeding, the adult partner to partner 
bond is not simply based on sexuality. Sex without attachment and marriages/part
nerships without sex are common and may point to this broader reality that in adulthood attachment and sexuality are separate and separable psychological realities.

The words of some marriage ‘bonding’ ceremonies talk about ‘for better or worse, in 
sickness and in health’ etc. The psycho/emotional purpose is to provide a secure
 base and an attachment system which can have very positive elements of reinforce
ment for the partners in ‘good’ times including support for personal development,
 work and play (including sex) and in times of need can provide a place to retreat to 
feel safe.

We often speak of how opposites attract or how we look for what is absent in our 
own makeup in our partner. Perhaps this unconscious operation of the attachment 
system plays an important part in our choice of those with whom we associate ourselves, including marriage or partner relationships. Different authors have discussed 
a pattern of ‘phobic-counterphobic’ marriage or partnership where an insecurely 
attached individual will be attracted to a ‘counter-phobic’ spouse in a way that coun
teracts and protects against separation anxiety and loneliness.

Bowlby views the capacity to process’ negative affect – to feel and resolve the pain
 of separation and loss – as a central mark of psychological health. If insecurity in the 
individual has grown from childhood and continued into adulthood, the person’s 
internal model of dealing with or coping with loss or loneliness will be undermined.
 The pain can be ignored or rationalised. Self-blame and an over-developed sense of
 responsibility for outcomes can further impede or damage a poor self-image.

It might be useful to identify the following as anecdotal markers for healthy devel
opment in the child and as indicators of psychological health in the adult: Parental 
consistency allows the child to develop a sense of history, the parent’s reliable
 response to the child’s needs allows it to grow in self-confidence and self-esteem. In
 later adulthood this capacity makes it possible for the individual to deal with both 
the pleasurable experience of interacting with others and also the ability to deal
 with the pain of loss and separation from others in life. From parental holding and
 physical affection comes the ability to hold one’s self and to value one’s self not for
 what one does but simply because one experiences one’s self as valuable and
 acceptable. It allows the development of a psychologically healthy model of the 
world so that in adult life one responds less out of insecure fantasy and more readi
ly from a self-reflective and realistic understanding of life’s circumstances.

Attachment theory is like a map of interpersonal experience that is internalised as
 personality or attachment style. In all relationships people experience polar bina
ries like uncertainty/security, poverty/wealth, loss/fulness, violence/compassion, 
unpredictability/responsiveness, neglect/care. Negotiating these binaries is a lifetime 

Rycroft, C. (1985) Psychoanalysis and Beyond, London, Chatto.

(2) Robertson, J. and Bowlby, J. (1952) A Two Year Old Goes to Hospital: A Scientific Film, Proceedings of the Royal 
Society of Medicine, 46, 425-7.

(3) Bowlby, J. (1940) The Influence of Early Environment in the Development of Neurosis and Neurotic Character, 
International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 21, 154-78

(4) Bowlby, J. (1979) The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. London.Tavistock


(6) Mead, M. (1962) A Cultural Anthropologist’s Approach to Maternal Deprivation, in Deprivation of Maternal
 Care: A Reassessment of its Effects. Geneva, WHO Pub.

(7) Bowlby, J. And Robertson, J. (1952) Responses of Young Children to Separation from their Mothers. Paris.

(8) Ainsworth, D. (1982) Object Relations, Dependency and Attachment: A Theoretical Review of the Infant-Mother
 Relationship. Child Development, 40, 969-1025