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Modern ideas on love (attachment) and loss (grief)…

April 27, 2013

In their article, ‘Origins of Modern Ideas on Love and Loss’, Margaret S. Stroebe and John Archer explain some of the thinking around grief that informed (and may have informed) John Bowlby’s attachment theory. They write:

“By the close of the last century, attachment theory had evolved into what Cassidy and Shaver (1999) described as “one of the broadest, most profound, and most creative lines of research in 20th-century psychology” (Cassidy & Shaver, 1999, Preface; p. x).” (p.28)

Outlining the main tenets of Bowlby’s theory of attachment and loss, Stroebe and Archer write: “The core ideas embedded in Bowlby’s work (Bowlby, 1953a, 1969/1982, 1973, 1980a) are many and complex. [However,] Attachment can be defined simply as an emotional connection to someone, evidenced by proximity seeking, feelings of security in the persons’ presence, and protest on separation from this attachment figure. Early theorists were interested in the infant’s attachment to its mother, the need for such a connection being a fundamental part of human experience (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). Affect regulation was understood to be the force impelling proximity seeking during periods of separation (anxiety) from the attachment figure. The clinging of the infant to the mother was regarded as serving the biological purpose of keeping the infant close and thereby increasing its chance of survival (originally in an environment beset by predators). Infants maintain proximity to their caregiver, they stay nearby and safe, and this provides a source of comfort and protection from threatening experiences. As such, attachment provides a secure base (the feeling of safety provided by an attachment figure, see Ainsworth, 1982; Bowlby, 1969/1982, 1988) for the infant to explore outwardly, and the possibility of returning to this safe haven (i.e., the place to seek reassurance when distressed). Thus, the infant is biologically disposed to use the caregiver as a haven of safety while exploring the environment.” (p.29)

As they go on to explain, this understanding of attachment informed (and continues to inform) understandings of loss/grief. Stroebe and Archer continue:

According to attachment theory, loss involves a set of sequential reactions, essentially protest, searching and despair, forming a stage or phase view of loss (Bowlby, 1980a; Bowlby & Parkes, 1970). Underlying these grief reactions is the process of grief work, an effortful struggle to confront thoughts and feelings relating to the deceased, to come to terms with the fact that the loved one is no longer present.” (p.30)

“…Bowlby argued that the primary function of the attachment bond between offspring and parent was protection from predators, especially important when there is a long period of infant dependence (Bowlby, 1969, pp. 275–278). This is likely to be correct, from what is now known about the danger that predators posed to early hominins, and indeed to humans today (Hart & Sussman, 2005).
Bowlby did not address the more puzzling question of why, from an evolutionary perspective, there should be insecure forms of attachment, which he viewed as pathological consequences of certain forms of parental behavior. Their frequency, and relative consistency in different cultures, both raise the question of why such apparently pathological forms should be so common. It was only later, when evolutionary theorists applied the concept of alternative evolutionary strategies—those that would be differentially adaptive in different environments—to the study of attachment that this issue was addressed. At present, the two main theories are that insecure attachments are adaptive either as reproductive strategies under certain frequently occurring environmental conditions (Belsky, Steinberg, & Draper, 1991), or as differential responses to danger that will collectively advantage the group to which they belong (Ein-Dor, Mikulincer, Doron, & Shaver, 2010).
How it is that the apparently maladaptive process of grief could have arisen by natural selection has proved a puzzle for many researchers (Archer, 1999, pp. 59–64). Bowlby answered this question in the following way: grief forms only a very small part of the much more common separation reactions, whose adaptive value is apparent. He stated: “In the course of our evolution, it appears, our instinctual equipment has come to be so fashioned that all losses have been assumed to be retrievable and are responded to accordingly.” (Bowlby, 1961, p. 333). Thus the mechanism controlling these reactions is of ancient origin and not sufficiently flexible to apply to one case and not the other. This view was reiterated subsequently in the last part of Bowlby’s trilogy (Bowlby (1980a, p. 91).” (p.30)

“Bowlby (1961, p. 333) used Darwin’s description of crying in both separated infants and bereaved adults to suggest that both are activated by the same system, “an ancient instinctual response.” As a psychoanalyst he was particularly interested in this link with the childhood separation response, because it resonated with his two previous articles on separation and loss in young infants (Bowlby, 1960a, 1960b).” (p.30)

Looking at the influence of Alexander Shand on Bowlby’s conception of grief/sorrow, Stroebe and Archer note that Shand and Darwin both seem to have understood grief as being intimately connected with love and social relationships – a stance “on grief [later taken up] by Badcock(1990), and Archer (1999, 2001), who stated that grief is a byproduct of “mechanisms whose primary function is to maintain social relationships that are crucial for fitness” (Archer, 2001, p.269). Without the mental pain associated with separation or loss,relationships would assume an “out of sight, out of mind” character.” (p.31)

I’ve taken only sections of this (really quite interesting) article, but the way Stroebe and Archer situate Bowlby’s work historically does help you step back a little and contextualise the generally accepted (and so unquestioned) understandings of attachment – and loss – that inform our understanding of human relationships. I think they’re the same theories that inform our understanding of many narrative crises….

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Margaret S. Stroebe and John Archer (2013) Origins of Modern Ideas on Love and Loss: Contrasting Forerunners of Attachment Theory. Review of General Psychology Vol. 17, No. 1, 28–39

Abstract: In this article we examine some origins of John Bowlby’s attachment theory, a highly influential scientific approach to love and loss in contemporary society. Although some potential influences have been well-documented, others have either received no recognition or have failed to have an impact. We focus specifically on three of Bowlby’s predecessors, exploring how these were differentially influential on his work. The first of these, Charles Darwin, was amply endorsed by Bowlby, both in terms of the adaptive background to his theory and more specifically in relation to Darwin’s study of the emotions associated with grief. The second, Alexander Shand, was recognized as important but is cited little and omitted from the central issue of the resolution of grief. The third, Bertrand Russell, formulated ideas on attachment and separation before Bowlby, and possibly contributed to the intellectual forces that influenced him too. To our knowledge, Russell’s work was not cited by Bowlby, despite the fact that it contained the seeds of many of Bowlby’s ideas on attachment. It remains unclear whether this was because he had not read Russell or through omission; there is no definitive evidence either way. Tracing these historical origins illustrates how theory development involves a process of integration and selection, how even radical theories are rooted in previous scholarship, and how it can take decades for inspiring ideas to develop into full-blown, well-tested, theories.”

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