Attachment Theory and the Mother-Infant Relationship

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In the first third of our course we studied the intense, complex relationship a mother has with her offspring. In order to fully understand this bond, three concepts must be understood: the emotional nature, the adaptive strategy, as well as the relationship's pros and cons. However, for the purpose of this paper, I will be focusing on the mother-infant relationship as an adaptive strategy primates developed, with emphasis on attachment theory.

The root of the mother-infant relationship as well as a child's development can be linked to John Bowlby's theory of attachment. Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst, developed the theory after running a study in which he attempted to understand the intense distress experienced by infants who had been separated from their parents. Upon separation, Bowlby observed the lengths to which infants would go in order to prevent separation and later, to reunite with their parent. The observed behaviors, which he called attachment behaviors, included crying, clinging, and desperately searching for the parent. More specifically, attachment behaviors can be defined as "behaviors which promote proximity or contact" (Ainsworth, 50). At the time of the study, his peers believed the infants' "expressions were manifestations of immature defense mechanisms that were operating to repress emotional pain," but Bowlby drew a parallel between the infants' expressions and those of other mammalian species, specifically primates and further concluded that these behaviors must serve an evolutionary function (Fraley, 1). When it comes to bearing helpless offspring, humans lie on the extreme fringes of the mammalian spectrum. Bowlby theorized that the overwhelming helplessness an infant is confronted with upon separation could cause the infant to experience anguishing fear and pain beyond fear, such as depression. Bowlby believed the attachment system essentially asks the following question: "Is the attachment figure nearby, accessible, and attentive?" (Fraley, 1). He noted that if the infant's response was "yes," it was safe to play, explore, and socialize. However, if the answer was "no," the individual was likely to experience attachment behaviors varying from searching (visual) to screaming (vocal). The infant continued the behaviors until either contact was reestablished with the attachment figure or until the infant became despondent and depressed. Bowlby further theorized that the attachment behaviors the infants experience were in fact adaptive responses to the stressful and possibly traumatic separation from a primary caretaker. This attachment figure provides the infant with support, protection, and care it needs to survive. It stands to reason that the infants who displayed attachment behaviors were better able to stay within close proximity of their primary caretaker, their mother, and therefore, had better chances of survival than the infants who failed to keep their mother's attention and thus, were left unprotected. The infants who protested their mother's departure and clung to her upon her return survived and passed this behavior on to the next generation. Mary Ainsworth took Bowlby's theories to another level when she conducted her own study, the "strange situation." During this study, 12-month-old infants and their mothers were repeatedly brought into a room then gradually separated and reunited with the eventual introduction and interaction of a stranger. The experiment had eight stages starting with the infant being introduced to the room with the mother for the duration of the episode followed by seven more episodes that were increasingly stressful for the infant (by adding the presence and interaction of a stranger) until eventually, the infant was reunited with the mother. Ainsworth observed a wide range of attachment behaviors from the infants and grouped them into five classes: proximity- and contact-seeking behaviors: approaches, active gestures, directed cries;...
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