Jonathan Bowlby has been described by Storr as “one of the three or four most important psychiatrists of the twentieth century.” For the purposes of this post, I intend to focus on his work on Attachment Theory. Bowlby was troubled by the dogmatism and cultism of the psychoanalytic world and argued strongly for open scientific debate and inquiry. He felt that psychoanalysis neglected the role of real environmental trauma in the genesis of neurosis and emphasized instead the part played by infantile fantasy.
Bowlby’s papers that launched the theory (later developed by others including Mary Ainsworth) made a simple but, in the context of prevailing Kleinian orthodoxy in psychoanalytic thinking, revolutionary point. First, there was a primary attachment bond between mother and child, which did not depend on “oral drive” or reward by feeding and whose evolutionary function was protection from predation. At the time this point was incendiary in the psychoanalytic community but actually it could be viewed as no more than an extension of ideas already in the object relations school (Balint’s “primary clinging”, Winnicott’s concept of an “environment mother” as well as “object mother”, and Fairbairn’s views that drives are “signposts of the object” rather than vice versa). Second, the idea that separated or bereaved infants and small children could experience grief and mourning no less intensely than could adults, was rejected by the psychoanalytic community wedded to the idea that mental pain had its origins in the internal, rather than the external, world. Third, Bowlby’s ideas on separation anxiety were closely related to Freud’s mature view of anxiety, which he saw as an affective response to threat (castration) but also as the threat of separation from a loved one (Freud 1926).
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