Heffner column: Attachment and loss

Dr. Elaine Heffner
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Cheboygan Daily Tribune

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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These seemingly endless days of the pandemic have encompassed a range of emotions, intensified at the moment by the holiday season. Our feelings of attachment compete with our sense of loss at the current inability to experience the reality of those attachments. From every side we hear warnings not to travel, not to congregate indoors, to maintain social distance. Authority figures tell us they are foregoing traditional holiday reunions with family members in adherence to the need to stay safe and protect those we love.

John Bowlby, the British psychologist who introduced the theory of attachment, described an innate need to form a strong bond with a caregiver that has an evolutionary basis. He viewed attachment as a psychological or emotional connection not based solely on feeding by a caregiver. He noted, “It is suggested the inherited determinants of behavior have evolved in such a way that the standard response to loss of a loved object are always urges first to recover it, then to scold it.”

The early attachment to a caregiver described by Bowlby is the prototype of attachments formed throughout life and it is interesting to reflect on his observation now, during a time of loss without the possibility of recovery. Parents especially can recognize the dual emotions of relief and anger when a child escapes from a watchful eye and then is found to be safe. Children, too, react this way if a parent fails to arrive when expected – relief cloaked by turning away in anger.

In one sense, the present time has enforced an excess of both attachment and loss.

Parents have found themselves back at home full time with children out of school and a paucity of both physical and social outlets. Both parents and children stressed by the absence of other relationships.

Interesting too, is the plight of young couples living together, exploring and or questioning the possibility of marriage. Are they being locked together now by forces outside of their control? Planned next stages deferred or accelerated by these forces?

Random sampling found three weddings delayed, one accelerated.

Psychologist Harry Harlow, influenced by Bowlby’s work, did research with monkeys. He created two kinds of caregiver monkeys out of wire, some covered in soft cloth. One group of baby monkey was raised by the wire monkeys, the other by the cloth covered monkeys. The babies cared for by the wire monkeys sought out the cloth covered monkey even when having been fed by the wire monkey.

After years of research, Harlow wrote, “It is comforting to know that mother love, once formed apparently remains. Mothers should be cheered when their babies are kicking them on the shins, telling them they do not love them or stating they wish they were dead, to know that the infant is hopelessly trapped.”

The idea that one is hopelessly trapped by that first attachment to mother is also the source of many jokes – jokes that encompass the reality of that attachment while also taking jabs to tear it down. The prevailing humor echoes Bowlby’s observation of the response to loss being the urge to recover and then to scold – the combination of love and anger that is joined in attachment.

Harlow’s idea is that mothers should feel comforted knowing of the infant’s attachment. In real life one has to deal with the angry behavior minus any expressions of love. This may be closer to the current situation of both too much attachment and too much loss.

The urge to recover lost objects remains, without the opportunity to scold – the necessary dual components of attachment.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.