More on The Great Attachment Debate

We continue to review The Great Attachment Debate, a series of interviews published in Psychology Networker.  I wrote about the first three experts in last month’s blog post. This time I will summarize the contributions of Dr. David Schnarch, Sue Johnson, and Dr. Alan Schore and invite readers to share their views.

The next interview was with Dr. David Schnarch, who strongly attacked attachment-based therapy. He reported having so much difficulty not with the theory of Attachment, but more how it has been used to create therapeutic interventions.

He actively challenged the view that marital problems result from problems with attachment and that what partners need is secure attachment. He sees this way of thinking as promoting dependence rather than resilience.

He disputed the notion that most marital problems come from lack of closeness and that what marital partners need is more closeness.  He discussed his view that too many partners are emotionally fused and that it is differentiation that promotes greater resilience and healthier connection.

He thinks Attachment-based therapy is an easier therapy to do and presents less challenge to the therapist than differentiation-based therapy. He believes Attachment-based therapy too easily excuses clients’ “bad behavior” under the guise of them responding from attachment wounds.

He challenged the therapists listening to the debate to recognize that the therapist’s office should not always be a safe place and to remember that intimacy and sexual desire arise from differentiation not from emotional fusion.

One week later, Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused therapy sang the praises of  Attachment Theory saying it provides a clear roadmap for understanding the intensity of distress in couples relationships. She views anger and pain in couples’ relationships as a cry of separation distress as one partner reacts to the other turning away.  She stressed the job for the therapist is to bring the partners back into connection. In her framework differentiation occurs naturally when partners have a secure attachment.

In the final week of the “debate”, Rich Simon interviewed Dr. Alan Schore. Dr. Schore views Attachment theory as the predominant theory of emotional development. From his viewpoint, the largest contribution of Attachment theory is that it has enabled psychotherapy to shift away from cognition and into understanding emotion and psychobiology. The shift has resulted in therapy focusing much more on affect regulation rather than on insight.

He described the importance of the primary care giver’s attunement to the baby’s bodily cues. It is through the process of attunement, misattunement and repair that brain circuits for affect regulation are developed. Psychopathology then derives from lack of repair and from the brain bathing in stress hormones like cortisol. Ongoing successful repair results in secure attachment.

I found listening to the 6 interviews very stimulating. Rich Simon selected highly knowledgeable theoreticians and clinicians who could strongly articulate their own point of view. It was easy for a listener to feel like a true believer after each session.

I had two regrets. I was sorry that there was no 7th session enabling the “masters’ to debate each other. I would have enjoyed listening to them challenge one another in a “true” debate format.

My second regret was that there was no time spent integrating the best of the different approaches. For me, this is my ongoing challenge in developing better and better couples therapy. Attachment is one lens. It is valuable in understanding why partners react as they do and it makes a lot of fights and withdrawal behavior predictable.

However, unlike what Sue Johnson stated, I have never seen a high-distress, hostile couple differentiate successfully without some help from a skilled therapist. Once they feel more secure, they may give each other more freedom and independence. However, security is not sufficient for partners to successfully manage their emotional reactivity, “own their own dark side”, risk deeply with one another, weather the challenging early years of differentiation and truly have empathy for each other’s life challenges.

Oh, if only love and growth were that easy!

If this exchange of ideas stimulates your interest and makes you want to delve more deeply into couples therapy training, I’d like to tell you about my online training program. It is comprised of written lessons, conference calls with me, case presentations, and blog discussions on your questions. August is the month each year that we have the most openings. I am planning an informational call for you to learn more about the training.  It is scheduled for 9am Pacific Time July 29th. To join the free phone call, email Michelle at and she will send you the phone number.

To learn more details about the course or to reserve one of the spots, visit

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Jon Gergeceff M.A.LCSW
Jon Gergeceff M.A.LCSW

Interesting reading and extremely complex arguments. It would be helpful if the experts could debate some of their beliefs , Thanks for posting,

Dr. Ellyn Bader
Dr. Ellyn Bader

I agree. There is a debate that I did with Susan Johnson at a Couples Conference in Boston. We debated Attachment vs Differentiation and there is one other debate with David Schnarch, Harville Hendrix and myself at a Couples Conference in the mid-90’s. Both of those are available from the Erickson Foundation.
However, even better-this is the theme of the next Couples Conference (Integrating Attachment, Differentiation and Neuroscience) planned for April 27-29th near San Francisco airport.
I believe it is the integration of these 3 approaches that is most powerful with couples.
Thanks for reading and participating!

Jon Gergeceff M.A.LCSW
Jon Gergeceff M.A.LCSW

I will check it out, Thank you ! I hope to come to one of your workshops one day and meet you in person! I’m still reaching and stretching !!
Jon STL Mo.

Ümit Çetin
Ümit Çetin

All these viewpoints are very interesting and thought provoking. I especially liked what Schnarch said. His viewpoint encourages and challenges one to discover and stretch oneself through differentiation. Yet, differentiation is not a simple process. I mean, one needs to be aware enough of one’s own processes and needs to convey one’s messages in a congruent way_with nonverbal signals_ in order to clearly communicate. It requires continuous conscious effort including owning one’s shadow self among others. Difficult work, indeed.

George Steinfeld
George Steinfeld

I haven’t read it all but I have a concern. I was trained to think that attachment (people places and things) is important to our development. Indeed, I have been attached to lots of things as I grew older. Then I was exposed to Buddhist thought where attachment is part of the spiritusal quest; rather letting go of all attachments is important-letting go and living in the moment. How to integrate all this.

Ümit Çetin
Ümit Çetin

Before one can let go of of one’s attachments, one needs to experience the attachment experience and its vicissitudes. Maybe, viewing this way may provide you with the gateway to integration you look for.

Jason Esswein, LMFT
Jason Esswein, LMFT

Please do let me know if you can refer me to a direct debate between Susan Johnson and David Schnarch. Integrating these theories, or even fully discovering which resonates with me would be immensely helpful in my couples work.

Best to you all,

Jason Esswein, LMFT (San Jose, CA)

Carol Hekman, Ph.D.
Carol Hekman, Ph.D.

Can you give more information about where this Couple Conference is April 27-29?

Anabelle Bugatti
Anabelle Bugatti

It seems some of these disputes of Johnson’s work are formulated on a clear lack of understanding EFT and Attachment Theory. Science has demonstrated humans need to depend on each other for survival, and secure attachment fosters autonomy and resiliency. Couple fusion would not be a characteristic of secure attachment, but of insecure-anxious attachment. Additionally, the process of EFT teaches couples how to communicate congruent emotional messages with each other. This process also involves exploration and integration of the view of self and other.


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Just wanted to point out that Schnarch and Shore (males) have Dr. before heir name. Johnson (female) also a doctor does not have Dr. before her name.

Jean Shirkoff
Jean Shirkoff

I am distressed that both men, Schnarch and Shore are given the courtesy of Dr. before their names. Dr.Sue Johnson is referred to simply as Sue Johnson.This discrimination is unacceptable.

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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