Attachment theory and counselling

Attachment theory and neo-Freudian psychoanalysis

Some thoughts by D Jim Byrne


Copyright © Jim Byrne, 2013-2017

DrJimCounselling002Neither Transactional Analysis (TA), nor Rational and cognitive therapy, pay much attention to the concept of “attachment” – or how securely or insecurely a child feels in its relationships with its main carers.  Indeed, REBT often seem to deny the impact of childhood on the emotional development of the individual.

Where does E-CENT* theory stand in relation to Attachment theory? (*E-CENT is the acronym for Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy – and this system of counselling and therapy was developed by me, out of a fusion of 13-15 pre-existing systems of counselling and therapy!)

(a) Similarities: E-CENT accepts the basic thesis of Attachment theory, which claims (with considerable scientific support) that each individual begins its life with an urge to seek an ‘attachment figure’, normally mother, initially, and later, father.  And that they become securely attached if their carers relate to them in ways that they can experience as caring, sensitive, and supportive/ reassuring[1].  The apparent function of this innate urge is survival of the species.  New mothers are also assumed to be ‘wired up’ by both nature and culture, to seek to serve the new-born baby in ways that enhance the child’s survival.  These two urges can be seen in all forms of mammals.

Figure 6b, Babys head with internalized overlapping circles(b) Differences: E-CENT begins with a model of the interpenetrating mother/child circles – (See the illustrations below) – and we see the development of the individual, whether securely or insecurely attached, as a ‘dialectical process’.  It may begin with a damaged parent imparting that damage to her/his child; but it is continued by that now-damaged child, interacting from their damaged nature, with a damaged parent/parents.  However, E-CENT does not always or invariably seek the source of an individual’s problems in early childhood.  Sometimes this is necessary, but at other times it is sufficient to examine the kinds of ‘frames’ (implicit and inferred) through which the individual is interpreting their current reality.

And sometimes an individual client may be malfunctioning emotionally-thinkingly-behaviourally because of:

  • inadequate sleep…
  • unhelathy diet…
  • insufficient physical activity (sedentary lifestyle)…
  • tension (and lack of relaxation)…
  • mindless living (as distinct from mindful living)…

And beyond the period of attachment formation, there is also the problem of unhelpful “personality adaptations” to the parents’ “ways of being”.

Defining Attachment Theory more clearly

What is attachment theory?  How does it relate to post-Freudian or neo-Freudian approaches to psychotherapy?  And how are these ideas used in E-CENT?

Firstly, attachment theory was originated by Dr John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst, based on his observations of the negative impact of protracted separation of young children from their parents, especially their mothers[2].  This is how it was described by Gullestad (2001)[3]: In a documentary film made by Dr John Bowlby for the World Health Organization, he reports on “…the mental health of homeless children in post-war Europe.  The major conclusion was that to grow up mentally healthy, ‘the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment…’.”

Secondly, attachment theory seems to be part of the post-WW2 movement away from classical Freudianism: (Gomez, 1997).  The British Object Relations School of psychoanalysis – involving Melanie Klein, Ronald Fairbairn, Donald Winnicott, Michael Balint and Harry Guntrip – seems to have been a big part of the cultural milieu in which John Bowlby arose and developed.  However, there were significant differences between all of these post-Freudian psychoanalysts, some of whom were never tolerated by Anna Freud and the heirs to Sigmund Freud, and some of whom, like Winnicott, straddled both camps.

Thirdly, some of the Object Relations theorists emphasized the inner working of the individual’s psyche – which was the classical Freudian view – and some emphasized the role of the environment – which was not.  Bowlby, like Karen Horney in the USA, was adamant that people were strongly shaped by their environment, and especially by their formative relationships with their mothers (and fathers) – or their main carers[4].

Fourth, Bowlby’s ideas on attachment were subjected to empirical enquiry and further elaboration my Mary Ainsworth, who developed the ‘strange situation’ research model, in which mothers withdraw from a room in which their toddler is playing, a stranger enters, then mother returns after three minutes, and the toddler’s reaction to mother is assessed.  This work gave rise to the categories of ‘secure attachment’, ‘avoidant attachment’, ‘resistant attachment’.[5]

The role of the individual’s social environment

Paradoxically, Albert Ellis had his training analysis in the Karen Horney Object Relations School in New York City, which emphasized the role of the environment in harming and/or helping the individual.  When he split from psychoanalysis, Ellis represented himself as splitting from Sigmund Freud (and did not mention differences with Horney).  In fact, in developing his ABC model, he was leaving Horney’s A>C model behind, and re-joining Freud’s “ABC model”.  Both Ellis and Freud attach primary significance to the inner workings of the individual (their B, or beliefs, or drives), and relatively little or no importance to their environment.  Horney and Bowlby thought the environment was primary.  For Horney and Bowlby, young children have little or nothing to do with how they are shaped by their ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parents: (or should I say “good enough” or “not good enough” parents).

E-CENT takes a middle position between Freud/Ellis on the one side, and Horney/Bowlby on the other.  We believe that the relationship between the mother/child is dialectical; that the child internalizes working models of how mother relates to him; how father relates to him; and he relates to them and the world on the basis of those models.  The character/personality of the child is driven by his/her cumulative, interpretive experience of encountering ‘good enough’ or ‘not good enough’ carers, and significant others (like siblings, relatives, neighbours, teachers, etc.)

The centrality of relationship

Whereas Sigmund (and later Anna) Freud emphasized the sexual tensions between parent and children, during the child’s biologized stages of development, as the seat of neurosis, some post-Freudians, such as Melanie Klein, Ronald Fairbairn, Donald Winnicott, and others, went back to the relationship between mother and child in the early months of life to look for the seat of emotional mal-adaptations[6].  This was the beginning of the Object Relations School of psychoanalysis.  The ‘object’ in Object Relations theory can be the actual mother (or father, or carer) of the perceiving child; or an internalized image or memory of the mother (or father, or carer) in the child’s mind; or a part of a significant other (such as mother’s breast).  One of the central ideas of Objects Relations is that children split their world up into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ objects, based on their experiences of pleasure and pain in relationship, and then project those splits into their social environments.  And the more painful experiences they have as children, the more disturbed their later lives prove to be, all other things being equal[7].

In the USA, Margaret Mahler and her associates conducted observational research on young children and their mothers, to develop a theory of ego development[8].  This research demonstrated a clear connection between the quality of the relationship between mother and child, on the one hand, and the degree of emotional disturbance of the child, on the other.

John Bowlby, in the UK, created his theory of Attachment on the basis of his wartime experiences of dealing with children separated from their parents by war, or hospitalization, or other forms of institutionalization.  He argued that children who are separated from their parents at a young age are likely to be disturbed in ways that will affect their later adult functioning.  This thesis has been extensively researched and validated.

The need for emotional availability, and sensitive caring

However, it is not just separation that can damage the relationship between mother and child, but also any form of absence, neglect, or abuse (including physical, sexual or emotional abuse).  A child’s emotional wellbeing can be protected by ‘good enough’ mothering, and ‘good enough’ fathering, and the provision of a ‘secure base’.  In this connection, ‘good enough’ means: sensitive, caring, supportive; and a secure base means a person to return to when problems are encountered, to ‘refuel’ and gain reassurance, etc.  According to Bowlby (1988)[9], children develop an ‘internal working model’ of their relationship with mother, then father, and so on.  These then become templates for their later relationships.  Thus, if there are significant disturbances or distortions in their earliest relationships, they will take them into later relationships, because those are the only ‘maps of the territory’ (of ‘schemas’ for relationship) that they possess.  And this is why Bowlby (1988) argues that one of the tasks of a psychotherapist is to provide their client with a secure base from which to explore (their issues), and ‘good enough’ substitute-parenting.  This calls for ‘emotional communication’ between client and therapist, and not just logical and rational ‘cognitive’ or thinking-based communications.

Attachment in psychotherapy

This development of Attachment theory has had a profound effect on the shape of E-CENT counselling practices.  In particular, I place more emphasis on my emotional attachment to the client, and not just on the quality of their thinking and my philosophical teachings, which make my work quite different from REBT/CBT counselling approaches.  A ‘good enough’ E-CENT counsellor will seek to provide a ‘secure base’ for his/her clients; to treat them with concern, care and sensitivity; and to model mindfulness, body awareness, and emotional intelligence for the client to copy, or internalize.  In short, a ‘good enough’ E-CENT counsellor should be prepared to extend ‘maternal love’ to their clients, as a matter of course.

The subject of how to integrate Attachment theory and psychoanalysis has been taken up by David Wallin (2007)[10]. David’s work, and the E-CENT perspective, will change how the self is seen in counselling and psychotherapy.  The conventional view of a self is that it is a ‘separate’, ‘individual’, ‘discrete entity’.  However, in my E-CENT models, the individual is modelled as a social being, ‘connected to others’ – especially the mother, and then the father, and later significant others.

I have some reservations about some aspects of Wallin’s presentation.  However, there is little doubt that David’s model has some significant validity.  For example, his emphasis on the ‘somatic self’ as the foundation of the person seems intuitively right, and fits into the E-CENT model.  The emotional self is an extension and refinement of the somatic self – a self that is felt in the viscera (or heart, lungs and guts), and based in the limbic system of the brain.  David cites Fonagy et al (2002)[11], Schore (2003)[12] and others as proposing “…that regulation of emotions is fundamental to the development of the self and that attachment relationships are the primary context within which we learn to regulate our affects – that is, to access, modulate, and use our emotions.  The relational patterns that characterize our first attachments are, fundamentally, patterns of affect regulation that subsequently determine a great deal about the nature of our own unique responsiveness to experience – that is, about the nature of the self.  Correspondingly, in the new attachment relationship that the therapist is attempting to generate, the (client’s) emotions are central and their effective regulation – which allows them to be felt, modulated, communicated, and understood – is usually at the very heart of the process that enables the (client) to heal and to grow”.  (Page 64).

This is a most important area for consideration by all counsellors and psychotherapists, psychologists and psychoanalysts.  And this time, what I notice to be missing from David’s presentation is how ‘good and evil’ get into human behaviour.

The third element of David’s model of the self is the ‘representational self’, about which he says: “Bowlby argued that it was an evolutionary necessity to have a representational world that mapped the real one”.  That is to say, that we have a map in our heads of the spaces in which we live, and the experiences we have had in those spaces.  “To function effectively, we needed (and still need) knowledge of the world and of ourselves, and this knowledge must be portable.  We derive such knowledge from memories of past experience, and we use this knowledge to make predictions about present and future experience.  Hence, the internal working model.  But the map, as they say, is not the territory”. (Page 64). That is a very important point.  All of our stored representations are cumulative and interpretive, as shown in the E-CENT model.

Our internal working models are not images or templates for individuals we have known, but rather what Douglas Hofstadter (2007)[13] called ‘strange loops’ – and which I have clarified in my E-CENT writings as ‘strange loops of experience of encountering others’ in which our sense of the other and our sense of self get braided together into one, so that at our very foundations are strange loops of experience of being changed by others and changing them, in which it is impossible to separate out an ‘individual I’.

Attachment in E-CENT

The E-CENT model seems to somewhat overlap the position being developed by Fonagy and Wallin, but it is also significantly different.  One difference seems to be that in E-CENT, we see the new baby arriving with both good and bad tendencies, in potential.  Thus the baby’s innate urge to attach is not its only urge.  Bowlby’s biggest area of weakness was his neglect of the inner world of the child, and how to understand “…how the child builds up his own internal world…”.  (Holmes, 1995[14], cited in Gullestad, 2001).

Attachment theory seems to be closely related to object relations theory, both of which seem to agree that “the child’s need for human contact is a human one”.  (Gullestad, page 6).

Gullestad also draws attention to a controversial question, as to whether the drive towards relationship in the object relations and attachment theory approaches replaces or merely supplements the original theory of drives presented by Freud.  In E-CENT we take the view that drive theory is one side of the coin, and attachment the other.  This is how we model that conceptualization:

A 4E1 circles

Figure 4(E) 1: Attachment style complements the innate urges theory

For us in E-CENT, attachment is not just about security and comfort, but also about desire and a will to power.  And as shown in Byrne (2010)[15], both the mother and the child have a good and bad side to their nature:

A 4E2 circles

Figure 4(E) 2 – The good and bad wolf are inherent in human nature, and in human culture, and the proportions are variable in each individual over time, and from situation to situation

According to Bowlby’s (1988) book of lectures, republished in 2005[16], “…attachment theory (is) widely regarded as probably the best supported theory of socio-emotional development yet available (Rajecki, Lamb, and Obmascher, 1978; Rutter, 1980; Parkes and Stevenson-Hind, 1982; Sroufe, 1986)”. (Page 31). I therefore think it is hugely important that psychotherapists of all stripes should learn to apply Attachment Theory insights to their therapeutic work, as one (fundamental) dimension of their understanding of the client’s emotional wiring.


That’s all for now.

Best wishes,

Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling

ABC Coaching and Counselling Services

01422 843 629


[1] Bretherton I (1992). The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology 28: 759.

[2] Gomez, L. (1997) An Introduction to Object Relations.  London: Free Association Books.  Chapter 7.

[3] Gullestad, S.E. (2001) Attachment theory and psychoanalysis: controversial issues.  Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Review, 24, 3-16.

[4] Bowlby, J. (1988/2005) A Secure Base. London: Routledge Classics.

[5] Ainsworth M.D. (1969) Object relations, dependency, and attachment: a theoretical review of the infant-mother relationship”. Child Development, 40 (4): 969–1025

[6] Bowlby J (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 39 (5): 350–73.

[7] Ainsworth M (1967). Infancy in Uganda: Infant Care and the Growth of Love. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[8] Mahler, M.S., Pine, F. and Bergman, A. (1975/1987) The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and individuation.  London: Maresfield Library.

[9] Bowlby, J. (1988/2005) A Secure Base: clinical applications of attachment theory.  London: Routledge Classics.

[10] Wallin, D. (2007) Attachment in Psychotherapy.  New York: The Guildford Press.

[11] Fonagy, P., Gergeley, G., Jurist, E.J., and Target, M.I. (2002) Affect regulation, mentalization, and the development of the self.  New York: Other Press.

[12] Schore, A. N. (2003) Affect regulation and the repair of the self.  New York: Norton.

[13] Hofstadter, D. (2007) I am a Strange Loop.  New York: Basic Books.

[14] Holmes, J. (1995) Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.  John Bowlby, attachment theory, and psychoanalysis.  In: Goldberg, S. et al (eds) Attachment Theory: Social, Developmental and Clinical Perspectives.  London: The Analytic Press.  (Pages 19-43).

[15] Byrne, J.W. (2010) Therapy after Ellis, Berne, Freud and the Buddha: the birth of Emotive-Cognitive Embodied-Narrative Therapy (E-CENT).

[16] Bowlby, J. (1988/2005) A Secure Base.  London: Routledge Classics.