John Bowlby and Attachment Theory
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John Bowlby and Attachment Theory

Jeremy Holmes

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eBook - ePub

John Bowlby and Attachment Theory

Jeremy Holmes

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Second edition, completely revised and updated

John Bowlby is one of the outstanding psychological theorists of the twentieth century. This new edition of John Bowlby and Attachment Theory is both a biographical account of Bowlby and his ideas and an up-to-date introduction to contemporary attachment theory and research, now a dominant force in psychology, counselling, psychotherapy and child development.

Jeremy Holmes traces the evolution of Bowlby's work from a focus on delinquency, material deprivation and his dissatisfaction with psychoanalysis's imperviousness to empirical science to the emergence of attachment theory as a psychological model in its own right. This new edition traces the explosion of interest, research and new theories generated by Bowlby's followers, including Mary Main's discovery of Disorganised Attachment and development of the Adult Attachment Interview, Mikulincer and Shaver's explorations of attachment in adults and the key contributions of Fonagy, Bateman and Target. The book also examines advances in the biology and neuroscience of attachment.

Thoroughly accessible yet academically rigorous, and written by a leading figure in the field, John Bowlby and Attachment Theory is still the perfect introduction to attachment for students of psychology, psychiatry, counselling, social work and nursing.

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Part I


Chapter 1


Parents, especially mothers, are much-maligned people.
(Bowlby 1988a)
A family photograph, taken just before the First World War in 1913, shows Lady Bowlby surrounded by her six children. Her husband, Sir Anthony, the King's surgeon, is not there – he is, as usual, at work. She is flanked by her two favourite sons, John and Tony, aged about four and five, looking boldly and brightly into the camera. On her lap sits the baby Evelyn. The two older girls, aged eight and eleven, stand dutifully and demurely to one side. Finally there is two-year-old Jim, the weak member of the family, dubbed a ‘late developer’, lacking the physical and intellectual vigour of his brothers and sisters. A hand appears around his waist, partly propping him up. But whose hand can it be? Is it his mother's? No, hers are firmly around the baby – a rare moment of physical closeness, as it turned out. Can it be one of his older sisters? No, their hands are politely by their sides. It is in fact the hand of an invisible nurse, crouching behind the tableau vivant, the tiny and perfectionist ‘Nanna Friend’ who, with the nursemaids and governess, provided the childcare in this fairly typical example of the English haute bourgeoisie on the threshold of the modern era.
Bowlby was notoriously reticent about his background and early family life. In his last book, Charles Darwin: A New Life, Bowlby made a strong case for considering Darwin's recurrent anxiety attacks as a manifestation of his inability to grieve, the pattern for which was set by his mother's death when he was eight. Whereas the main purpose of this book is an exposition of Attachment Theory, in this chapter we shall consider Bowlby's life and personality as a background to his ideas and to explore the relationship between them. The chapter is divided into three parts: the first is a chronological account of his life and career, touching on much that will be developed subsequently; the second consists of an assessment of his character, based on reminiscences of his family, friends and colleagues (see also van Dijken, 1998; van Dijken et al., 1998; Karen, 1994; van de Horst et al., 2008); the third surveys some of the major personal themes and preoccupations which inform Bowlby's work.

Bowlby's life

Childhood and youth

Edward John Mostyn Bowlby (JB) was born on 26 February 1907. His father, whom he resembled in many ways, was Major-General Sir Anthony Bowlby (1855–1929), a successful London surgeon who had operated on one of Queen Victoria's sons, and was rewarded with a knighthood for his appointments as Royal Surgeon to King Edward VII and King George V, and a baronetcy on becoming President of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1920. John's grandfather, ‘Thomas Bowlby of The Times’, was a foreign correspondent for The Times who was murdered in Peking in 1861 during the Opium Wars, when Sir Anthony was a small child. Anthony, John's father, felt responsible for his mother, who did not remarry, and he only began to look for a wife after her death, when he was forty. He was introduced by a mutual friend at a house party to the well-connected May Mostyn, then thirty, and pursued her (mainly on bicycles – they shared a love of the countryside and outdoor life) until they were married less than a year later. The train of May's wedding dress was embroidered with violets in deference to her dead mother-in-law as the statutory period of mourning had not yet passed.
May was the eldest daughter of the Hon. Hugh Mostyn, who, despite grand origins (he was the youngest child, of ten, of Lord Mostyn of Mostyn in North Wales), was content to be a country parson in a remote Huntingdonshire village for all his working life. Bowlby's mother revered her father (‘Grampy’ in the Bowlby household) and invoked him as a model for all acceptable behaviour. She had little time for her mother, whom, when she was not having babies (May resented her numerous younger brothers and sisters and considered that first-borns were the only ones who really mattered) she described as ‘always in the kitchen’.
John's parents were thus well into middle age by the time he was born: his mother forty, his father fifty-two. Each had had a special relationship with one parent and may have found the very different atmosphere of a large and vigorous family overwhelming. May had resented the demands of her younger brothers and sisters, and Sir Anthony was used to his bachelor ways. Like many parents of their class and generation, they entrusted the upbringing of their children to their numerous servants.
The children fell into three groups by age: the two older girls, Winnie and Marion, who were talented musicians from an early age; Tony and John, only 13 months apart; then Jim and Evelyn. Tony was their mother's clear favourite and could get away with almost anything. He later became a successful industrialist, and as the eldest son inherited his father's title (which, since he was childless and died after John, eventually passed to JB's oldest, Sir Richard Bowlby). John and Tony were close in age and temperament, good friends, but there was a strong rivalry between them. They were treated as twins – put in the same clothes and in the same class at school. This meant that John was always making superhuman efforts to overtake his brother, who was equally as keen to retain his advantage. Years later, as a parent, JB was renowned in the family for resisting his children's clamouring demands with the phrase, ‘Now, don't bully me, don't bully me’. Both Tony and John teased and worried about their slightly backward brother Jim. JB read delightedly in a newspaper about the miraculous effects of ‘monkey gland extract’ (presumably thyroxine), hoping that it would be the answer to their brother's difficulties, but they were disappointed. Jim struggled throughout his life, farmed not very successfully for a while, and never married. It seemed contrary to the Bowlby family ethos to have a family member who was not a ‘success’. JB's combination of competitiveness and his concern for disadvantaged and sick children may be not unrelated to his position between these two very different brothers. At fifteen he fought and defeated Tony when he discovered that he had destroyed a picture that Jim had made out of dried flowers. The two older sisters also remained single. According to JB, ‘the men they might have married were killed in the First World War’ (Figlio and Young, 1986) – a curiously un-psychological explanation, and yet close to JB's preoccupation with the impact of loss. JB's younger sister Evelyn, however, shared her brother's interest in psychoanalysis. She married the distinguished economist, Professor Sir Henry Phelps Brown. Their daughter Juliet Hopkins was a well-known child psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic. JB described his family as a ‘straightforward, fairly close – not all that close – but fairly close, professional class family living a pretty traditional lifestyle, with nurses of course’ (Bowlby in Hunter, 1991). Nanny Friend, whose hand appears in the photograph, joined the family when JB's older sister Winnie was one month old, and after the children were grown up remained with Lady Bowlby until she died at the age of ninety-seven. She was highly intelligent and well read, a disciplinarian, whose firm regime would occasionally be lightened by her capacity for entrancing and elaborate story-telling and by reading Dickens to the children in the nursery.
Evelyn remembered life in their London house in Manchester Square as rather joyless – regulated by order, innumerable clocks, a sense of propriety, humourless governesses, and interminable slow processional walks in nearby Hyde Park. Tony, in contrast, describes a happy childhood. The reality perhaps was that they had two childhoods – one in the country and one in the town. Lady Bowlby boasted that she never worried about her children and, especially in London, left them mostly to their own devices. She would visit the nursery to receive a report from Nanny after breakfast every day, and the children, clean and brushed, would come down to the drawing room from 5 to 6 p.m. after tea, where she would read to them, especially from her beloved Children of the New Forest.
May Mostyn had vowed that she would never marry a ‘city man’; Sir Anthony loved fishing and shooting. Every spring and summer came the ritual of family holidays. At Easter the children were dispatched to Margate with the nurses, while Sir Anthony and Lady Bowlby went to Scotland for fishing. In July, May would take the children to the New Forest, in those days a wild and idyllic place. For the whole of August and half of September the entire family decamped to Ayrshire in Scotland, travelling by train in a specially hired railway carriage. Sir Anthony and Lady Bowlby never owned a car: he used a brougham for his rounds in London, and after his death she would travel around Gloucestershire in pony and trap well into the 1950s.
On holiday, John's mother seemed to come alive and, as ‘Grampy’ had done with her, ensured that her children were well versed in natural history and country sports. From her and ‘Grampy’ they learned to identify flowers, birds and butterflies, to fish, ride and shoot. JB and Tony became and remained passionate naturalists.
Sir Anthony seemed to be a fairly remote and intimidating figure, especially in London, but he gave the children special animal nicknames: John was known as ‘Jack’ the jackal (other nursery nicknames for John were ‘Bogey’ and the prophetic ‘Admiral Sir Nosey Know-all’); Tony was ‘Gorilla’; Evelyn ‘Cat’. They saw little of their father during the week but would walk with him across Hyde Park most Sundays to church, when he would instruct and occasionally amuse his children with his deep factual knowledge about the world and its ways.
The First World War came in 1914 when JB was seven. John and his elder brother were immediately dispatched to boarding school, because of the supposed danger of air raids on London. John later maintained that this was just an excuse, being merely the traditional first step in the time-honoured barbarism required to produce an English gentleman, so-called. The English preparatory school system took its toll: JB was beaten for defining a ‘cape’ in a geography lesson as a cloak rather than a promontory, but, a resilient and self-assured little boy, he flourished.
Sir Anthony was away in France as a surgeon-general for most of the 1914'18 war. When the war ended, John went as naval cadet to Dartmouth where he learned to sail, gaining a discipline and organisation which lasted a lifetime. Tony was destined to follow in his father's footsteps and become a surgeon, but he decided against this in his teens, feeling that it would mean ‘failure’ since he could never equal his father's eminence. This left the way clear for JB to go into medicine, who, despite having passed out top in his Dartmouth exams, was already dissatisfied with the narrow intellectual horizons and rigidity of the Navy (as he was to become similarly dissatisfied two decades later with the narrow confines of the British Psychoanalytical Society), as well as suffering badly from seasickness! Somewhat to JB's surprise, Sir Anthony agreed to buy him out. Although not driven by a strong vocational pull, John felt that a medical career would be least unacceptable to his father and, together with a close Dartmouth friend, applied to Cambridge and duly entered Trinity College as a medical student in 1925. His intellectual distinction was immediately in evidence at university where he won several prizes and gained a first class degree in pre-clinical sciences and psychology.
Already mature and independent-minded, with an ‘inner calm’ (Phelps Brown 1992) that was to stand him good stead throughout his life, John's next move proved decisive. Rather than going straight on to London to study clinical medicine, the conventional route, he got a job instead in a progressive school for maladjusted children, an offshoot of A. S. Neill's Summerhill. His father, who would undoubtedly have opposed such a move, had, in JB's words ‘fortunately’ already died when John was twenty-one (a possible echo of Darwin's denial of grief at his mother's premature death here), so he was free to chart his own course. At the school he had two experiences which were to influence the course of his professional life. The first was the encounter with disturbed children, with whom he found he could communicate, and whose difficulties he could relate to their unhappy and disrupted childhood. Like one of Lorenz's (1952) greylag geese, a model that was later to play an important part in Attachment Theory, one of these boys followed Bowlby round wherever he went:
There I had known an adolescent boy who had been thrown out of a public school for repeated stealing. Although socially conforming, he made no friends and seemed emotionally isolated – from adults and peers alike. Those in charge attributed his condition to his never having been cared for during his early years by any one motherly person, a result of his illegitimate birth. Thus I was alerted to a possible connection between prolonged deprivation and the development of a personality apparently incapable of making affectional bonds and, because immune to praise and blame, prone to repeated delinquencies.
(Bowlby, 1981a)
The second seminal encounter at that school was with a fellow teacher, John Alford, who had himself had undergone psychoanalysis. It was he who advised John, in addition to his medical studies, to undertake training as a psychoanalyst.

Psychoanalytical training

In the autumn of 1929, aged twenty-two, John came to London to embark on his clinical medical studies. He found these so tedious and wearisome that he set up and managed ‘Bogey's Bar’, making sandwiches for his friends. While at University College Hospital (which was for many years a home for would-be psychoanalysts wanting to acquire a medical degree) he entered the Institute of Psychoanalysis, going into analysis with Joan Riviere, a close friend and associate of Melanie Klein. His intention was to become a child psychiatrist, a profession which was then just emerging. After medical qualification in 1933, he went to the Maudsley Hopital to train in adult psychiatry, and then was appointed in 1936 to the London Child Guidance Clinic, where he worked until becoming an Army psychiatrist in 1940.
The 1930s were a time of intellectual ferment. Progressive thought centred on Freud and Marx. Bettelheim vividly captures the atmosphere of debate:
In order to create the good society, was it of first importance to change society radically enough for all persons to achieve full self-realisation? In this case psychoanalysis could be discarded, with the possible exception of a few deranged persons. Or was this the wrong approach, and could persons who had achieved full personal liberation and integration by being psychoanalysed create such a good society? In the latter case the correct thing was to forget for the time being any social or economic revolution and to concentrate instead on pushing psychoanalysis; the hope was that once the majority of men had profited from its inner liberation they would almost automatically create the good society for themselves and all others.
(Bettelheim, 1960)
Although by nature irreverent and at times iconoclastic, Bowlby tempered his rebelliousness with a belief in science and the need for evidence to back up ideas. He shared a house with his friend the Labour politician and academic Evan Durbin, who challenged his newly acquired psychoanalytic ideas – as did Aubrey Lewis, the doyen of the Maudsley scepticism. While JB believed firmly in the practical efficacy of psychoanalysis, he questioned its theoretical basis. He came into conflict with his first psychoanalytical supervisor, ‘a rather prim old maid 
 we never seemed to be on the same wavelength’ (Bowlby, 1991), but got on very well with his next, Ella Sharpe, who had supported Anna Freud against Klein in the ‘Controversial Discussions’: ‘a warm hearted middle-aged woman who had a good understanding of human nature and a sense of humour’ (Bowlby, 1991). JB qualified as an analyst in 1937, and immediately started training in child analysis with Mrs Klein as his supervisor. Here too there was conflict, especially when Bowlby felt that she paid insufficient attention to the part played by the environment in causing his patient's disturbance – in this case a hyperactive little boy of three whose mother was having a breakdown and had been admitted to mental hospital.
Meanwhile, Bowlby was beginning to develop his own ideas, based mainly on his experience at the Child Guidance Clinic. There he worked with two ...