Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications

By Jude Cassidy; Phillip R. Shaver | Go to book overview

3
Normative Development

The Ontogeny of Attachment

ROBERT S. MARVIN

PRESTON A. BRITNER

Whilst especially evident during early childhood, attachment behavior is held to
characterize human beings from the cradle to the grave.

—BOWLBY (1979, p. 129)

During the 1940s and 1950s, a number of studies emerged suggesting that very young children, when separated from their mothers for a considerable period of time, proceed through a series of reactions that have become known as the phases of “protest,” “despair,” and “detachment” (e.g., Burlingham & Freud, 1944; Heinicke & Westheimer, 1966; Robertson, 1953). These or similar reactions were so common, despite variations in familiarity of the setting or quality of care received by the youngsters, that John Bowlby (as well as others) departed from the contemporary scientific and clinical consensus and decided that it was the loss of the specific mother figure that was the most important factor in these reactions. It was from this beginning that Bowlby went on to develop his “ethological–control systems” theory of the infant’s tie, or “attachment,” to its mother or primary caregiver (Bowlby, 1958, 1969/1982, 1973, 1980). In a partnership that went on to span nearly 40 years, Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth (e.g., Ainsworth, 1967; Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978), among others, decided to embark on a quest to answer questions such as these: Why does the young child become so distressed by the loss of the mother? What processes account for each of the three phases of loss? What is the bond that ties the child to the mother? What are its forms, and how do they emerge? What happens to these forms as the child matures? Do such bonds exist in the adult, and if so, in what form? And ultimately, how do we understand form and functioning “when things go wrong”?

At that point, Bowlby and his colleagues made the decision that answering those questions required a shift to the study of the early development of this bond in normally developing children and their families. They were convinced that only by understanding its normal formation and functioning would we eventually be able to understand its malfunctioning. This decision led to Ainsworth’s naturalistic observational studies in Uganda and Baltimore, and to the first volume of Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment. These efforts resulted in some of the most significant, and empirically and theoretically coherent, contributions to the study of children’s development in the second half of this century. The theory that emerged was consistent with current theories of biology, embryology, cognitive science, and general systems theory. It was at the same time specific enough to incorporate species and cultural differences, and general enough to incorporate species

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