Yesterday I heard this statement at a conference of psychotherapists: “a third – no two thirds – of the people here, won’t have had secure parental attachments”.
Yet what does this even mean? Well, what this person seemed to be saying is that, in some way, most of us (including therapists) are victims of our distant past. And specifically we are screwed up (made to be sad, bad or mad) by the unfortunate actions (or inactions) of our parents (and specifically our mothers). In turn that means that somehow we have swallowed the myth that, culturally and psychologically, we are all fucked (to recall Philip Larkin’s self-pitying, misanthropic little verse). So therapy,then, is basically about mending this damage.
When this extraordinary statement was made, there were murmurs of agreement and nodding of heads around the room from those present. No-one (including me at the time) challenged the basic premise behind it. And this assumption was repeated in different forms throughout the day: that the quality of early-childhood, parental attachments are the predominant determinant of mental health, functionality and happiness.
How have we got to this position where we basically believe that such a specific childhood experience is the main predictor of adult pathology and dysfunction?
“Mostly”, writes Noam Shpancer, ” this is because people who show up in psychologists’ offices often turn out to have had chaotic childhoods. From this observation, it is but a short, tempting leap to the conclusion that a chaotic childhood causes psychological disturbance. What such a conclusion fails to consider is the fact that those who had chaotic childhoods and ended up untroubled do not show up at psychologists’ offices; and they happen to be the majority”.
Like any researched theory, ‘attachment’ can say something of value to us of the early stages of a child’s life. It helps us understand the context in which babies grow and develop. But attachment theory has been turned into an all-encompassing way of describing how a life and a personality are determined.
“In fact”, Shpancer goes on “to the extent that the past matters, it is usually the recent past, and the cumulative effects of varied historical influences, that matters, not early childhood”.
Determinism of any kind is bad. We are not the predicted outcome of our genes, nor of internal models of early relationships. We are a complex interaction of factors, contexts, traits and potentials; and therefore the vast majority of us are entirely capable of redemption, and of learning from our experiences – difficult or joyful – throughout our lives.
One interesting observation about my own profession’s ‘theorising’ is that there has been little serious consideration given to detailed challenges to attachment theory and the ‘childhood determinism’ it promotes. Yet Judith Rich-Harris in her two books ‘The Nurture Assumption’ and ‘No Two Alike’, has already done a very effective job of debunking it, and providing an alternative, more nuanced version of how experience (throughout life) interacts with our innate and developing personality.
Of course we should be ensuring that children are safely kept and loved. But the notion that that most of us are somehow ‘fucked up’ is profoundly unhelpful, as is the notion that troubled children and adults are all victims of insecure attachment. Clearly some people are damaged by trauma (note – they can be helped to recover), but humans (children and adults alike) are resilient and capable of living good lives. Adopting a positive, redemptive and philosophical approach to therapy that recognises this, would be a lot more balanced and ultimately helpful than where the current obsession with nurture and attachment leads us.
It might also be more helpful to start ‘living our lives backwards’, as James Hillman invited us to do. This would involve us in looking back at our past, with curiosity, in a way that starts to make real reflective meaning – “so that’s what that is/was about!” - rather than delving around in the past, looking for reasons for our current unhappiness. And this approach to therapy will involve a recognition and acknowledgment of beauty too, for as Hillman writes: “Beauty is something everybody longs for, needs, and tries to obtain in some way — whether through nature, or a man or a woman, or music, or whatever. The soul yearns for it. Psychology seems to have forgotten that”.