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Monday, 13 February 2012

On Attachment

The subject of attachment is one that fascinates me. It seems to be at the centre of much psychological, philosophical and spiritual thinking. In psychology, John and Richard Bowlby have written about the importance of secure attachment in babies and how insecure and avoidant attachment at that stage can bring all sorts of problems in later life. Philosophers have taken opposing views about attachment – Diogenes lived in a clay jar and wanted little to do with others even though a steady stream of people came to seek his famous wisdom, Schopenhauer loathed most other people, Nietzsche craved both solitude and the company of others and Montaigne loved company but was so heartbroken after the death of a close friend that he hid himself away in his study for the rest of his life.

In religious terms should we live like hermits, nuns or monks or be like Saint Simeon Stylites who lived up a stone column for 37 years? Or should we be like Jesus who surrounded himself with 12 disciples and a number of close female friends and encouraged us to be fishers of men? Or should we follow the Buddhist precept that mixing with others is good but it would be better not to form strong attachments to them?

Each of us will have our views on these things. What is clear is that what is right for one person is not right for another. And most of us like balance. I cannot do without solitude, but equally I could not live like a monk or a hermit.

John Bowlby said that people who have either avoidant or insecure attachments find it very difficult to form close attachments – particularly romantic ones in later life. Those with insecure attachments will often wear their partners down with their needs and demands, whilst those with avoidant attachment are likely to push anyone they get close to away and thus often have a series of failed relationships or else their main relationship can be much colder and lacking in intimacy than it should be. Luckily these issues can be dealt with in therapy – especially the patient non-judgemental and warm humanistic therapies – and people can become aware of their patterns, break them and move on.

It needs to be said that there are no perfect parents out there. We just have to be good enough for our kids. Human beings are very resilient and mostly tend towards positive growth so any slight deficiencies in upbringing are normally easily managed. Besides, which of us can claim never to be neurotic about anything? As Jung said, “the psychic cases of neurotics differ hardly at all from those of so-called normal persons – for what man today is quite sure that he is not neurotic?” We all have our ups and downs, but having said that, each of us are on the continuum of neuroticism - from a Woody Allen type persona to a zen master.

My own view is that relationships with others are a key thing for the vast majority of us, and a healthy relationship with our self is vital for all of us. Loving yourself does not mean narcissistic absorption. It need not be a selfish act. As writers such as Fromm and Frankl have said, those who do not love themselves are incapable of loving anyone else either and so a healthy amount of self love is vital.

The psychology writers Horne and Kiselica went as far as to say that, “almost all mental health problems are the direct result of a breakdown in a relationship: with self, with others, or with an existential other (on some level, God, however he or she is perceived). “ I think that is probably true. Most people that I see are either having major relationship problems with others or else cannot come to terms with some aspect of their own life – anger or selfishness or self-esteem, for instance.

I see sense in the Buddhist notion of avoiding strong attachment, but essentially cannot follow it myself as more than a wise warning about not looking towards another person for fulfilment of our happiness or being. Ultimately this is why I think that a certain amount of solitude (not loneliness) is essential for our mental health - so that we can look to ourselves and get in touch with what we need for emotional and spiritual growth. Artists and thinkers of all types will see the need for solitude on another level as well. After periods of solitude, we can emerge ready again for healthy encounters with others. And most humans beings are also strongly sexual beings, looking for a union with another – especially if that union is loving, comforting, protecting and spiritually growthful. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke combined these notions of solitude and close loving relationships by making the following memorable and existential comment: “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.”

It is true that close relationships, especially intimate ones, can be hurtful, but where would any of us be without them? In fact, most of us wouldn’t be here had our parents not made them. Thus, I agree with Stephanie Dowrick ‘s idea that, “it absolutely supports our psychological health to have a whole range of people to care about and take an interest in. We all need at least a village's worth of friends, acquaintances, challengers and allies.”

It’s not always easy to have a whole village worth. I wouldn’t view that as essential – even though on one level (perhaps often shallow if we’re honest) Facebook and other social network sites can seem to make this happen. A few close friends and a lot of acquaintances is enough providing we choose the friends wisely, perhaps bearing in mind Aristotle’s definition of a friend – someone who promotes the better and sounder in another - and not the commonly held view that any person who buys us a drink in a pub, flatters us or shows us any kind of attention is a friend. And of course, attachments to nature and animals are also very healthy.

I think that attachments are often the very stuff and joy of life, and so I leave the last word to my favourite writer about therapy, Irvin Yalom:

“attachments and plenty of them, are the indispensable ingredients of a full life and to avoid attachments because of anticipated suffering is a sure recipe to being only partially alive.”

David is a fully qualified and BACP registered Person Centred Counsellor. If you wish to talk about attachments in your life, you can book a session with him by ringing 07578 100256 or emailing him at

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