What is Attachment? (Part 1)

“safe haven, secure base”

American psychologist Harry Harlow revolutionized the way we think about emotional attachments, and he did it with artificial monkeys. In a series of experiments during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Harlow observed that baby rhesus monkeys, deprived of their mothers, preferred and clung to soft terry cloth surrogate “mothers” rather than to “mothers” made of bare wire that held milk bottles. What is Attachment? (Part 1)The terry cloth surrogate “mothers” provided the monkeys with something that the wire “mothers,” even with their milk bottles, couldn’t.

The practice of attending to babies when they cry, picking them up and carrying them, was frowned upon by child-rearing “experts” in the early part of the twentieth century. In his 1894 book The Care and Feeding of Children, Dr. Luther Holt advised new parents, “Infants who are naturally nervous should be left much alone, should see but few people, should be played with very little, and should never be quieted with soothing syrups or the ‘pacifier’.” In 1951 the World Health Organization, spurred on by the British psychiatrist John Bowlby, began recommending that hospitals change their policies and allow parents to accompany their children.

The work of Bowlby and his colleagues, which came to be known as “attachment theory,” showed that for children to thrive, their relationships needed to be characterized by:

  • Proximity Maintenance – taking comfort in knowing that safe, sympathetic and supportive people are around, within easy reach.

  • Safe Haven – knowing that someone will be there for them, to comfort and sympathize with them, when they are upset or afraid.

If children have sympathetic and supportive people in their lives, they’ll experience those people as a “secure base,” and their relationships with their “secure base” people will provide the children with the courage they need to explore their world and enter into it with confidence.

As with children, so with adults. We never outgrow our need for people to “be with” us in safe, sympathetic, supportive and non-shaming ways. Perhaps it can be said that “being with” people in this way is the fundamental social virtue. Facebook has over one billion users worldwide, and the average Facebook user has 190 “friends.” But without other flesh-and-blood people being really present with us, all our technology and the entire World Wide Web amount to no more than Harry Harlow’s wire monkey mothers, and we are the baby rhesus monkeys still looking for something soft and warm to cling to.

Consider this snippet of dialogue from Winnie the Pooh: “Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. ‘Pooh!’ he whispered. “Yes, Piglet?’ ‘Nothing,’ said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. ‘I just wanted to be sure of you’.” Attachment – how to find it, how to keep it – is at the heart of what we talk about in therapy. I look forward to exploring this with you!

Jay R. Feld HeadshotDr. Jay R. Feld
Licensed Marriage and
Family Therapist
(917) 572-4068


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