Attachment and Other Relationships

Social connections are as important to our survival and flourishing as the need for food, safety, and shelter.[1]

Childhood is short. From birth to maturity the child has much to learn. Most learning will be mediated through personal attachments and relationships. Attachments are important to the development of a self-sufficient and loving adult.

Attachments are ubiquitous. Over a lifetime, humans will connect and disconnect, forming and breaking many relationships. Relationships can vary in quality, intensity and longevity. Attachment is a general term that refers to the many situations where we relate and connect to one another.

We have “friends” on Facebook. We may become attached to co-travelers on a trip. Neighbors and regular bar buddies become attached. We partner with others to promote important causes like righting a wrong. Groups of all types form, and we become connected to one another. When these relationships end, their loss makes us sad. We may mourn for a time, but our lives and functioning are not shattered. We recover from the loss and it gets tucked away as a fond memory.

Intense attachments may occur suddenly when individuals experience a critical event together. I vividly remember who told me that President Kennedy was shot and the people nearby with whom I shared my disbelief. Another time, when I was exercising and took a hard fall, the people who helped me recover are still fixed in my mind. Years ago, I was stopped by a police officer while racing to the emergency room where my daughter was in critical condition. Instead of ticketing me, he put on his siren and led the way. I can still recall his face. Because of the high emotion, these experiences are embedded in my brain. I remember the people with appreciation, may even wish for the chance to meet them again and re-experience the moment. But my life is not shattered by the fact that they are no longer a part of it.

Bonding is a significant attachment

Bonding refers to the lasting strength of a relationship, not necessarily its biological source. Throughout life people may attach to one another in ways more significant and more powerful than those dictated by genes. A very close friend can become more important than a brother or sister. The most obvious non-genetic bond occurs in marriage, where two people attach themselves to one another with a commitment that supersedes genetic connections and expect that connection to last a lifetime.

Bonding differs radically from other attachments because of its vital nature and longevity. Bonding is a unique type of attachment, a significant attachment, one that is expected to last a lifetime. Bonding is reciprocal. It takes time, usually day-by-day living together, commonly within a family. Humans bond to very few people. The disruption of a bonded relationship can rip apart the very fabric of a person’s being with continuing negative consequences.

Bonding is essential to a child’s development, and the disruption of a bonded relationship does considerable damage. Children need to connect in a compelling and significant way with those who care for them. The presentation and proof of bonding between the child and the foster/adopt parents may be the strongest argument for keeping them together, especially in a contested adoption. The problem for attorneys and case managers is to define bonding and to prove in a factual and evidentiary way that bonding has taken place.

Considerable evidence exists that shouts the damage done to children by disrupting bonded relationships. Statistically significant increases in mental illness, crime and homelessness are shown to be the result. It is easy to pinpoint a bonded relationship years later, when its disruption has precipitated serious consequences. Children and society at large would be better off, however, if we could identify bonding beforehand. Prevention is a wiser strategy than waiting for harm to result, and attempting various social and psychological remedies afterward.

For this reason, it is important to understand what bonding is and to know when it occurs. Four objective and demonstrable definitions of bonding will be provided in Chapter 3.

Bowlby’s attachment theory

A brief review of attachment theory is necessary to reveal the different ways attachment and bonding have been used, the overlap and the failure to distinguish between them. To sort out and clarify a definition of bonding, we need to start with the literature.

Attachment theory was formulated in 1969 by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth[2] to provide a framework for understanding human relationships. They posited that the purpose of attachments was to satisfy the child’s need for protection and safety, to provide the secure base that is an essential need of childhood. In using “attachment” as a general term, they are often describing what we refer to as “bonding.” In their own words, here are their definitions:

Attachment is: “The dimension of the infant-caregiver relationship involving protection and security regulation. Within this theoretic framework, attachment is conceptualized as an intense and enduring affectional bond that the infant develops with the mother figure, a bond that is biologically rooted in the function of protection from danger.”[3]

Attachment is: “An affectional tie that one person or animal forms between himself and another specific one—a tie that binds them together in space and endures over time.”[4]

By identifying relationships as key to development, Bowlby and Ainsworth were pioneers in the field and much valuable research resulted. Their major contribution was in recognizing that attachments were central to understanding the human psyche. They highlighted early relationships and made clear that what happens to little ones has consequences.

Early relationships are critical, especially the mother-child dyad. “When a baby is born he cannot tell one person from another and indeed can hardly tell a person from a thing. Yet, by his first birthday he is likely to have become a connoisseur of people. Not only does he come quickly to distinguish familiars from strangers but amongst his familiars he chooses one or more favorites. They are greeted with delight; they are followed when they depart; and they are sought when absent. Their loss causes anxiety and distress; their recovery, relief and a sense of security. On this foundation, it seems, the rest of his emotional life is built—without this foundation there is risk for his future happiness and health.”[5]

Bowlby is unequivocal about the near-permanent duration of early attachment. “An attachment endures, usually for a large part of the life cycle….early attachments are not easily abandoned and they commonly persist.”[6]

Bowlby later states: “Attachment behavior is any form of behavior that results in a person attaining or maintaining proximity to some other clearly identified individual who is conceived as better able to cope with the world. It is most obvious whenever the person is frightened, or sick, and is assuaged by comforting and caregiving…For a person to know that an attachment is available and responsive gives him a strong and pervasive feeling of security, and so encourages him to value and continue the relationship…It can be observed throughout the life cycle, especially in emergencies. Since it is seen in virtually all human beings…it is regarded as an integral part of human nature.”[7]

By adding cross-cultural information, Ainsworth expanded Bowlby’s attachment theory. She gathered her data by observing children in a “Strange Situation” for 20 minutes, and then noting what happened when the children were reunited with their caregivers. As a result, she was able to differentiate three separate attachment styles: Secure attachment, Anxious/ambivalent insecurity, and Anxious/avoidant insecurity. Cross-cultural studies convinced Ainsworth and Bowlby that children attached themselves to caregivers for the purpose of achieving security, survival and ultimately genetic reproduction. Bowlby and Ainsworth did not distinguish attachment from bonding; in fact, they referred to attachment as “a tie or bond.”

A confusion of terms

Relationships and attachments can progress from getting to know someone into getting to like someone, and in rare cases, deepen to a level where the parties depend on and cannot do without one another. That seems obvious. No one would disagree. Unfortunately, despite the extensive research resulting from Bowlby’s attachment theory, this distinction has not been clearly made.

The term “bonding” has often been used interchangeably with attachment. The extensive literature provides no consistent demarcation between the two concepts. By lumping all types of attachment together and failing to identify bonding as unique and critically important, long-term studies of enduring attachments are rare or non-existent.

Researchers and authors all seem to have their own definition of attachment. They vary considerably:

  • “An affectionate and emotional bond that will last a lifetime.”[8]
  • “The trust and love that an infant feels toward the parent who meets its need.” Bonding is then reciprocally defined as, “The loving return commitment by the parent to meet the child’s needs.”[9]
  • “All children, at the core of their beings, need to be attached to someone who considers them to be very special and who is committed to providing for their ongoing care.”[10]
  • “The terms bonding and attachment are used to describe the intense emotional tie that develops between an infant and his or her primary caregiver over the first months and years of life.”[11]
  • “An enduring and emotional connection between two people that produces a desire for continual contact as well as feelings of distress during separation.”[12]
  • “A strong emotional bond between a baby or young child and a caring adult who is part of the child’s everyday life…”[13]
  • “A reciprocal process by which an emotional connection develops between an infant and his/her primary caregiver. It influences the child’s physical, neurological, cognitive, and psychological development. It becomes the basis for development of basic trust or mistrust, and shapes how a child will relate to the world, learn, and form relationships throughout life.”[14]
  • Main refers to attachment as a sub-category of bonding.[15] “Attachment is a unique form of affectional bond; the term should not be used for affectional bonds in general.” She goes on to state: “Attachment is a lifespan phenomenon. However, we have yet to understand the formation of new attachments in adulthood.” Later she takes a strong position on attachment (we would say bonding) versus mere blood ties: “There is no convincing evidence that behavior genetics play a role in the organized categories of infant attachment observed in the ‘strange situation.’ Genetics may, however, interact with attachment in other ways…”
  • Children form attachments to adults who regularly meet their physical and emotional needs regardless of biological relationship. Goldstein[16] developed standards to identify this person, referred to as the psychological parent, the one to whom the child appears to have most firmly bonded. Goldstein and his co-authors believed that, in the child’s best interests, the psychological parent should be allowed to become the primary and permanent caregiver.
  • “Obligations to stepparents, who fill the position of parents, and stepchildren, who fill the position of children, are higher than to more distant blood kin.”[17] Proximity and living together are a more important connection than that of distant blood relatives. Bonded relationships develop when people live together in family situations. According to Rossi, bonded relationships endure and last a lifetime.
  • Klaus[18] focused on the behavior of the parent/child unit. “A bond can be defined as a unique relationship that is specific and endures through time. Although it is difficult to define this enduring relationship operationally, we have taken as indicators of this attachment various kinds of behavior between parents and infants, such as kissing, cuddling, and prolonged gazing—behavior that maintains contact…”
  • Goulet[19] listed three essential characteristics of bonding: proximity, reciprocity and commitment. These characteristics are contained in our definitive criteria to document bonding.
  • Reciprocal Connectedness was introduced as a concept by Arredondo to expand Bowlby’s one-way notion of bonding. “This neurodevelopmental concept describes a phenomenon that does not reside within the child alone but depends on an available adult who interacts reciprocally with the child…It encompasses a broader range of childhood needs, including interactive verbal and nonverbal communication, responsiveness, modeling, reciprocal facial expressiveness, social cues, motor development, and other dimensions necessary for normal neurodevelopment.”[20]
  • Iwaniec[21] reviewed the definition problem between bonding and attachment. She stated: “Bonding is generally believed to be a bi-directional, reciprocal process. It has also been defined as a cognitive and social process that develops through positive feedback and satisfying experiences between the attachment dyad.”
  • Sullivan[22] reinforces the understanding that bonding and attachment are bi-directional and reciprocal.
  • When discussing the relationship between parents and children, the terms “attachment” and “bonding” have continued to be used by attorneys and judges in a loose and imprecise manner. Psychologist Kathryn Kuehnle[23] reminds the legal profession of Ainsworth’s 1989 description of how early relationships are determined and formed. The child's affectional "bond" is 1) persistent; 2) enduring; 3) the bond is linked to a specific person and not interchangeable with anyone else; 4) it is emotionally significant; and, 5) distress will likely be experienced at involuntary separation from the significant person.
  • “The word attachment can have several meanings. Even in professional discussion, it is often loosely substituted for bonding, relationships or affection. Each of these can be considered a component of attachment, but…clarity of definition is essential.”[24]

Definitions are important

While the failure to carefully define terms and to be able to clearly separate long-lasting vital relationships from others may seem less important to researchers, it is critical for those who must make child placement decisions. Research on attachment, beginning with Bowlby and Ainsworth, is extensive. No one can argue with the importance of evaluating our personal connections, but the choice of words poses real definitional problems. Attachment and bonding are used differently and interchangeably, or are too often perceived as “feel-good” concepts, leading to vague and emotional definitions.

As a result of the confusion, case managers have not given bonding the important consideration it requires. Mental health professionals are frequently vague and fuzzy in trying to define bonding, giving opinion rather than data, generalizations rather than facts. And courts do not get the objective and unbiased information they need to make life-changing decisions about a child’s placement. A specific and demonstrable definition is essential to guide and inform those with responsibility for children in temporary care.

Considerable evidence exists that literally shouts the damage done to children by disrupting bonded relationships. Statistically significant increases in mental illness, crime and homelessness are shown to be the result. It is easy to pinpoint a bonded relationship years later, when its disruption has precipitated serious consequences. Prevention is a wiser strategy than waiting for harm to result, and attempting various social and psychological remedies afterward. We need to find an earlier way to separate significant attachments (bonding) from those that are less so.

Mental health clinics provide therapy for reactive attachment disorder and other psychiatric problems. Social workers and probation officers decry delinquency and crime, homelessness and poverty. Many of these problems might be prevented if we knew in advance when bonding had occurred and were aware of the trauma caused by its disruption.

We can do better than generalizing about attachment and offering uninformed personal opinions about what is best for children. Because of its unique and critical importance, bonding needs to be separated from other attachments and defined in clear and objective terms. Knowing what bonding is and why it is important, coupled with facts collected about the child’s relationship with his caregivers, will improve decision-making.

Attachment refers to a variety of relationships and admits of categories and hierarchies. People grow in their relationships and become attached to some individuals more than others. Bonding is a unique and critically significant type of attachment. Bonding goes beyond attachment, is person-specific, and usually involves a lifetime connection.

Bonding is more than simply being together. Although being on the same softball team or frequenting the same bar has been referred to as “male bonding,” such ties fall far short of our definition. “Girls’ night out” is similarly less than bonding.

Bonding is more than a single memorable moment together. Sharing something profound—such as being cancer survivors, the death of a child or being with someone when something transformative happened such as 9/11—is not bonding. These shared experiences may be deep and unforgettable, but they are not so significant that their loss leaves a hole, a person that cannot be replaced, an emptiness that cannot be filled.

Bonding is more than superficial. Bonding meets vital needs at every level of development. An infant’s very life depends on the bond with the caregiver. Throughout life, bonding provides the secure base to allow us to satisfy more sophisticated needs like self-esteem and self-actualization.

Bonding is more than love, although they are sometimes equated. Love can be one-sided; bonding is mutual. Love can become an obsession; bonding is a steady need. Love is exciting; bonding is more quiet and everyday. Love implies positive feelings; bonding can be positive or negative or both. People fall in and out of love. Bonding binds at a deeper level and survives because of a continuing reciprocal need.

How does one know when the line has been crossed and bonding has occurred? The transition from a general attachment to a bond will be discussed in the following chapter. An objective definition and four different ways to demonstrate and prove bonding in court will be presented in Chapter 3.

Chapter 1: Attachment and Other Relationships Notes

[1] Emily Smith, The Atlantic.

[2] Mary Ainsworth, “Attachments and other affectional bonds across the life cycle,” In P. Marris, Attachment Across the Life Cycle, (New York: Routledge, 1993). See also John Bowlby, “Attachment and Loss,” 1969, republished in Vol. 1 Attachment 2nd ed. (London and New York: Hogarth, 1982)

[3] John Bowlby, ibid.

[4] Mary Ainsworth, Infancy in Uganda: Infant Care and the Growth of Love (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1967)

[5] Bowlby, op.cit.

[6] John Bowlby, The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. (London: Tavistock, 1979).

[7] John Bowlby, A Secure Base, Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. (New York: Basic Books, 1988)

[8] Marshall H. Klaus and John H. Kennell, Maternal-Infant Bonding: The Impact of Early Separation or Loss on Family Development, (St. Louis: Mosby, 1976)

[9] Vera Fahlberg, A Child’s Journey Through Placement. (Indianapolis: Perspectives Press, 1991)

[10] Daniel Hughes, Facilitating Developmental Attachment: The Road to Emotional Recovery and Behavioral Change in Foster and Adopted Children. (New Jersey and London: Aronson, 1997)

[11] Rose Bush, Bonding and Attachment, (Prescott, AZ: Bush Publishing, 2001).

[12] Kathleen S. Berger, The Developing Person through the Life Span, (New York: Worth, 2001)

[13] Alice Honig, Secure relationships: Nurturing infant/toddler attachment in early care settings. Washington DC, National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2002.

[14] Vicki Moss, “What is Attachment?” Association for Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children.

[15] Mary Main, “Introduction to the special section on attachment and psychopathology: Overview of the field of attachment.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(2), 1996, 237-243.

[16] Joseph Goldstein, Anna Freud, and Albert J. Solnit, Beyond the Best Interests of the Child, (New York: International U., 1973)

[17] Alice Rossi and Peter Rossi, Of Human Bonding, Parent-Child Relations Across the Life Course, (New York, Aldine de Gruyter, 1990)

[18] Marshall H. Klaus, John H. Kennell, and Phyllis H. Klaus, Bonding: Building the Foundations of Secure Attachment and Independence, (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1995)

[19] Goulet, C., Linda Bell, Denise Tribble, Denise Paul, and Ariella Lang, “A concept analysis of parent-infant attachment,” Journal of Advanced Nursing, Vol. 28, No 5, 1071-1081.

[20] David Arredondo and Leonard Edwards, “Attachment, bonding, and reciprocal connectedness: Limitations of attachment theory in the juvenile and family court.” Journal of the Center for Families, Children, and the Courts, Vol. 2, 2000. 109-127.

[21] Dorota Iwaniec, The Child’s Journey Through Care: Placement Stability, Care Planning, and Achieving Permanency, (Belfast: Queen’s University, 2006) 49.

[22] Regina Sullivan, Rosemarie Perry, Aliza Sloan, Karine Kleinhaus,  and Nina Burtchen, “Infant Bonding and Attachment to the Caregiver: Insights from Basic and Clinical Science,” Clinics in Perinatology. Dec, 2011 38(4) 643-655.

[23] Kathryn Kuehnle and Tracy Ellis, “The Importance of Parent-Child Relationships: What Attorneys Need to know About the Impact of Separation,” Florida Bar Journal, October, 2002.

[24] Carol G.Mooney, Theories of Attachment. An Introduction to Bowlby, Ainsworth, Gerber, Brazelton, Kennell, and Klaus, (St. Paul, MN, Redleaf Press, 2010)


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