Immigration from an Attachment Perspective

By van Ecke, Yolanda | Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, July 10, 2005 | Go to article overview

Immigration from an Attachment Perspective


van Ecke, Yolanda, Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal


The current literature on attachment and immigration is reviewed and attachment theory is used to illuminate immigrants' responses during the stages of premigration, transit, settlement, and adjustment/adaptation. The author argues that immigrants are more likely than nonimmigrants to have an insecure attachment representation, and considers both causes and effects of immigration from an attachment theory perspective. It is suggested that long-term implications of immigration experience may include increased vulnerability to attachment trauma, and that understanding social support and clinical aspects of immigrants' needs will benefit from the application of attachment theory. The author considers the usefulness of applying attachment theory to the experiences of nonimmigrant groups including expatriate employees, members of the armed services, government employees stationed abroad and even foreign students are discussed. Several attachment-based research focuses to examine attachment among immigrants are proposed.

As an immigrant, therapist and educator, I have found a sense of shared experience with other immigrants, regardless of where they are from or how they got here. Many who say they wanted to come to the new country (in this case, the United States) feel, years later, that they had not adequately considered the emotional consequences of realizing they will probably live out their lives without proximity to family back home. Others who were forced to leave their home country will admit they really did not expect to stay away as long as they did, and they experience longing. Over the years, I have shared with many other immigrants the excitement over new opportunities, the longing when important life events such as births, new homes and anniversaries continue to take place back home without our presence, the sense of sadness when family back home become ill and we cannot be there to support them, and the grief when loved ones pass away before we have time to see them and say goodbye. For immigrants, this is the norm, not the exception, and despite email, affordable phone service and convenient travel availability, life for an immigrant has a different quality marked by both opportunity and separation. No matter how great life in the new country is, at times we all miss the feelings of being surrounded with the people, sounds, smells and sights that constitute "back home."

According to attachment theory, the desire for closeness is part of our evolutionary drive and extends to both people and environment. Bowlby writes, "There is a marked tendency for humans, like animals of other species, to remain in a particular and familiar locale and in the company of particular and familiar people" (1973, p.147). Obviously, immigrants have broken out of this mold. How then does attachment theory view immigrants? I use an attachment framework to discuss the immigrant experience according to the four stages of vulnerability for immigrants as reflected in current immigrant mental health literature. These stages are premigration (conditions that produce or promote emigration), transit, the period of resettlement, followed by long-term adjustment and adaptation (Perez-Foster, 2001).

Since attachment security, separation and loss are the core themes of attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969/1982, 1973b, 1982), it seems well suited for examining the experiences that immigrants have in common. Attachment theory posits that we like to explore, as long as we have a secure base to which to return (Bowlby, 1988). Humans, like other mammals, have evolved and survived because we build and maintain close relationships. We live in groups. Separation does not devastate us as long as we are confident of the possibility of return to our secure base. Initially this base is the actual presence of our caregiver, but later on this relationship, with its specific, unspoken rules and characteristics, becomes a mental representation.

This mental representation constitutes what is known as our attachment representation, or state of mind with respect to attachment. …

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