Lorie Teagno’s response to “The Great Attachment Debate”

I really enjoyed and felt enlivened by David Schnarch's presentation and felt like a professional “prayer” was answered as I have struggled in the past decade with the direction couples therapy was going with the dominance of attachment, neurobiology and EFT focus as THE ANSWER, the ONE TRUE path to helping clients become whole, satisfied and intimate beings and partners.

While the attachment research has been an asset to clinicians, where I find myself confused and perplexed is when the research on attachment is applied to clinical interpretations of what a resilient, loving adult relationship is and should be. Maybe it’s me, but so often I hear at these conferences the call to help our clients create the pristine, secure attachment with their significant other that they “should have had” or “needed” with their primary caregiver.

I am of the belief that human beings and all beings always have the opportunity to evolve or change, and sometimes not at our own initiation. That is the nature of existing or co-existing. We are influenced by factors both within and outside of ourselves. To this end I have always believed that the original attachment bond is certainly important to the social, emotional and psychological aspects of the infant, but like so many systems in the human and other parts of nature, there is overlap in the system designed to ensure survival. Thinking along these lines, I believe that any of us who do not receive optimal bonding have innumerable opportunities in our lifetimes to change, repair or replace that bonding, and that the choice is the most reliable when it begins with ourselves.

Before we can choose a good partner and trust our choice we must have a strong, clear and realistic view of ourselves. We must essentially learn to trust ourselves. Given the difficulties inherent in being human, we will all often be disappointed by others and ourselves. If we put our early unfinished bonding experience in the laps of our partners before we assume its full responsibility, I believe we limit our personal growth and the eventual growth of our relationship with our partners. If I make my partner responsible for my wholeness, my history and my sense of connection, then I believe we are stopping short of what individuals and couples are capable of in terms of deep, resilient and abiding love and commitment.

Loving and being love is ongoing work and joy. Susan Johnson, a highly regarded therapist in the marital field for the last decade plus, asserts that her therapeutic approach, Emotionally Focused Therapy, EFT ensures no relationship relapse because it creates emotional accessibility and responsiveness in partners. I do not doubt that it can create some of both of the latter, but I would add that creating a sense of the individual as a competent, satisfied separate self who is also connected to another especially during conflict is a more adaptive model of relationships and human beings. I also do not believe that no relapse is likely in any human being. As Freud said ,”regression in the service of the ego” or as I say it less eloquently, in the face of stress, some regression is likely, perhaps necessary,  and temporary.

Susan Johnson also adds that “A secure bond is the best protection against helplessness and meaninglessness”. There is no doubt that on the face that statement is appealing, but I do not think it is as true as an alternative statement, “A secure bond with oneself (a clearly defined, separate self) and a connection with another or others is the best protection against helplessness and meaninglessness.” Separate and connected and an expansive sense of self give us constant growth opportunities.

I have spoken to my colleagues over the last decade decrying the lack of an open a dialogue between the attachment proponents of marital therapy and those of us who huddle under the umbrella of Differentiation theory- at present a loosely knit group of practitioners. I am so relieved to see this beginning!

The Differentiation therapists assert that the most resilient relationships go through developmental stages that move beyond a more symbiotic relationship to one that allows for, expects and benefits from personal differences. In fact, we assert that the differences are fodder for growth. We also view the tension that develops in relationships much like biologists do as the necessary fuel for growth, evolution and change.

A dialogue with all clinicians who are curious, respectful and committed to the scientific agenda of discovery, sharing and respecting is what I am suggesting. It is unlikely that ONE group is correct; can we make room for mutual respect of our differences that benefits our field, our clients and ourselves?

Maybe I’ve been in the field too long and I am nostalgically recalling (and glamorizing) the days when the videotape series was made with one client interviewed by many of the pre eminent therapists representing the various therapeutic approaches at the time: Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, Albert Ellis, and the like. I would like to see us return to a more expansive and mutually open and respectful discussion so we as clinicians and leaders in our field can contribute to the evolution of marital therapy; a therapy that has place at the table for both attachment and differentiation theorists and clinicians as well as others.

I am hopeful that the Networker has started this discussion so that the field can also evolve and become it's best differentiated and differentiating as well as attached “self”.

Lorie J. Teagno, PhD
Co-director The Relationship Institute
La Jolla, CA

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I am not aware that attachment theory advocates that your adult partner can replace the unmet needs of ones childhood. Perhaps I don’t understand the theory well enough. I do believe that the quality of the attachment of our childhood forever impacts our later relationships. However, I think this can be modified by other relationships, experiences and therapy but the power of that first attachment becomes almost hardwired into our brains. I believe you will never be able to achieve a “pristine secure”, relationship with your partner that is what you “should of had” with your parent. It is not possible to wholly correct those early experiences. Instead I think by understanding yourself and your own deficits or issues and how they show up in your intimate relationships you can achieve a healthier relationship. You would be more likely to select a better partner and then be able to address the problems from a healthier lens. A healthier relationship can go a long way to repair early deficits. Perhaps this is what she meant by the differentiation emphasis. One must understand oneself and invest in one self’s growth rather than expecting the relationship to do that for you. Again I am not sure if this is what attachment theory advocates. Interesting article. I guess there is always some push and pull between different theories. I think one should keep an open mind to learning from all of them.

Reply to  Janae

Janae, what you have written here is actually fully in keeping with attachment. In recent years, research and theory about adult attachment has become available right alongside the child attachment literature, and is certainly not about reducing all adult relationships to the ones we had as children. Securely attached adults are those who can engage reliably in reciprocity and mutuality… which, as you have written, absolutely requires differentiation.

Far from being pristine, it is in the face of adversities that the attachment system activates. Critics of attachment often confuse the issue by seeing attachment as equivalent to “enmeshment”, or equating adult attachment to child attachment. Attachment theorists don’t see it that way. Put another way, less differentiated clients are often seen as anxiously attached; overly differentiated clients are often seen as avoidantly attached.

Sometimes, I think the theorist who came closest to describing adult attachment was actually Bowen: in order to be connected, you also need to be differentiated. Self-awareness and self-regulation are characteristics of secure attachment, just as is connectedness.

Which came first is, to me, chicken or egg: the one requires the other. Though, of course, that quibble does introduce differences in technique! And lots of scholarly debate.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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