John Bowlby’s lecture: the making and breaking of affectional bonds critique





Born on 26 February, 1907 and lived up to 2 September, 1990, Edward John Bowlby was a British psychoanalyst, psychiatrist and psychologist. He became famous due to his great interest in the field of childhood development as well as being the pioneer of the attachment theory. Bowlby’s interest in the medical field was influenced by the fact that his father was a surgeon. As a matter of fact, Bowlby explained in an interview in 1997 that his father encouraged him to pursue medicine at Cambridge (Van Dijken, 1998). Although he did what his father suggested, he was not enjoying natural sciences and anatomy, the major aspects of the course he was pursuing. However, the time he spent at Trinity College made him to gain interest in developmental psychology. Therefore, he gave up medicine while in his third year of study. He later pursued pre-clinical sciences and psychology at Trinity College and won a number of prizes due to his good performance.

Before being involved in the development of the attachment theory, Bowlby went through diverse and important experiences. World War II’s second winter was a significant period for Bowlby and the child development field in general. This is the period he published his first work in this field called “Forty-four Juvenile Thieves”. This involved several children where he used case studies about children behaviour and family histories. The 44 delinquent children involved in his study were required to have been involved in steeling while the control group was under treatment with no stealing history. From his research, separation of the child from the primary caregiver was a contributing factor to the child being involved in stealing. Affectionless children were associated with prolonged or complete separation from their primary caregivers before they attained five years of age. This was a good starting point in the study of the impact of environment on early childhood development. It is important to note that Bowlby had the most ideal population to experiment with since most of the children were separated from their parents by war.

The attachment theory came as an improvement of Bowlby’s previous writings, which he argued were not based on any theory. Traditional theories did not satisfy Bowlby, encouraging him to seek fresh understanding from fields like cognitive science, developmental psychology, ethology and evolutionary biology. The up-to-date science borrowed from these fields allowed him to develop the ethological theory of attachment that recognised that infants are emotionally tied to their caregivers for survival reasons. The main argument in this theory is that the quality of a child’s early life attachment to his/her caregiver is directly proportional to the level of security and trust in the later stages of life (Bowlby & King, 2004). Despite the contribution made by this theory, it has the limitation of attributing behaviours exhibited by children at later stages of their lives solely to their parents. The contribution made by environmental factors such as the peer pressure should be recognised as potential factors affecting the development of a child. The essay contains a broad section discussing the main issues of Bowlby’s attachment theory as well as its critiques. The application of Bowlby’s concepts in couple counselling is also presented. In the critique section, I have presented what is good with the theory as well as the reasons why I do not agree with some arguments presented by Bowlby. The last part presents the major conclusions of the essay.

Main ideas in Bowlby’s attachment theory

By developing arguments made by other scholars on affection bonds, John Bowlby illustrated how ethological theory can be applied on human behaviour and human development. He argues that the lifespan of an individual highly depends on the level of attachment of the individual to a caregiver in the first year of his/her life. The argument is that positive and secure attachment during the first year of life increases the chances of a positive development from childhood to adulthood. Similarly, a negative and insecure attachment at the early age reduces the chances of the individual achieving a favourable life-span development.

Principles of the attachment theory are applicable when an individual is in distress or is affected by a certain sickness. These are examples of situations when a person feels that his/her survival is being threatened. Additionally, there exist other cases where attachment behaviours become evident, requiring the application of the attachment theory as explained by Bowlby. These may include the experience a child goes through on the first day in a day care centre or school. Research shows that such children exhibit an increase in the level of cortisol and heart rate (Issroff, Reeves & Hauptman, 2005).

Knowledge generated by the attachment theory is applicable in psychotherapy. In this regard, more physical symptoms are experienced in people with a high level of avoidance and attachment anxiety than in people with low level of avoidance and attachment anxiety. Psychotherapists using this knowledge should be aware of the fact that there are variations across age groups. The level of attachment anxiety is expected to vary among various age groups, including married couples, emerging adults, adolescents and children. Of great importance to psychotherapy is the way the attachment is established between the therapist and the client (Fraley & Spieker, 2003). According to Bowlby, a therapist developing a new attachment gives room for revision of the patient’s life into a better narrative. In such a relationship, the therapist has an important role of providing a change platform, a situation made possible through joint evaluation of the unhappy events and painful feelings causing the emotional problems experienced by the client. Wining this level of trust requires the therapist to demonstrate that the base being developed is secure to guarantee the client of a high level of safety and support. By calming and soothing the client, the therapist can effectively cultivate for the much needed attachment. However, it may take time for the client to refer the therapist as emotionally familiar party. Application of Bowlby’s attachment theory enables clinicians to assess the attachment style exhibited by the client, thereby being able to control their therapeutic approach (Bowlby, 1988).

Bowlby argued that the attachment theory is defined by a number of specific features. He believes that there is a high degree of specificity in the attachment behaviour, with this behaviour being directed to a small number of caregivers or a specific person. As far as duration is concerned, he argues that the developed attachment should be expected to endure throughout the individual’s life-cycle. Various aspects of the attachment are expected to involve emotions, including formation and disruption of the attachment. Bowlby explains that the attachment behaviour establishes in the first 9 months of a child’s life, requiring the care givers to have a positive relationship with the young one during this period. It is also argued that punishment and reward involved in the attachment development has minimal effect. As the child advances in age, the bases of development of the attachment behaviour changes significantly from simple lines to sophisticated systems of behaviour. Bowlby argued that the biological function of attachment behaviour is protection from predators and is relatively uniform in all mammalian species.

Bowlby believed that the loss of a loved one makes people, regardless of their age, to protest and seek reunion with these people. This is because the “infant” quickly identifies the unavailability of the caregiver or the source of protection, leading to a period of anxiety. The infant thus makes efforts to reestablish contact via various behaviours such as crying, searching, and calling or even approaching and clinging. Therefore, the attachment theory knowledge is of great importance to those offering counselling services to people who have lost their loved ones.

The understanding of attachment theory provided by Bowlby is of great use in couple counselling. During the counselling sessions, couples are made aware of the fact that the anxiety and abnormal behaviour experienced in their relationship is attributable to the type of attachment with their caregivers in their early childhood (Ruszczynski, 1993). Though not impossible, they are made to appreciate that it is hard to change some of these behaviours when one becomes an adult. The theory guides the counsellor in creating a secure environment to make the session productive. It also makes it possible for the counsellor to understand how every partner behaves in the current relationship (Gomez, 1997). Past experiences can also be reviewed through the use of Bowlby’s concepts. It is also through this theory that couples learn to be calm and communicate empathically when conflicts strike.


From the observations in the society, I agree with Bowlby’s argument that a child forms both primary and secondary attachment. People get attached to their parents in their primary attachment but will need their teachers, friends and other individuals for their emotional development. It is also in line with Bowlby’s arguments that people expect their marriages to be similar with what they experienced in their childhood life. It is also common to find children who had secure attachments with their parents in their early life being less dependent on their teachers. Such children are very confident and are ready to pursue their tasks on their own. The theory by Bowlby should be adopted since it dominantly explains the method of and the reason for attachment development. It is also important to support the theory of attachment since it encourages development of attachment for survival purposes. In this regard, all cultures can use this theory to develop universal attachments as well as care giving behaviour.

Despite the fact that Bowlby made several contributions towards understanding how infants are attached to their caregivers, several limiting areas of his theory can be identified. He failed to explain the reason why disrespectful and dishonest children exist in families characterised by honest and respectful caregivers (Elliot & Reis, 2003). This allows some people to critique Bowlby’s work, arguing that the personality and character of a child is not shaped by the parents only. Another factor affecting the child’s behaviour sets in the form of peers. It is argued that this form of influence is more than that from the child’s parent since the child spends more time with the peers during the day. This explains why children raised by immigrants learn and speak a foreign language to fit in the new environment. The same argument can be used to explain why a child brought up in an area characterised by a high level of crimes commits specific crimes. Therefore, it is my argument that children should not be blame their parents when things go wrong in their lives since parents are just a single factor among many other factors affecting the children’s character (Markeiwicz, Doyle & Brendgen, 2001).

The theory is also limited by the fact that it does not account for behaviours developed by individuals in non-stressful situations. Rather, this theory focuses on behaviours developed when an individual experiences momentary separation. Pickover (2002) believes that attachment should be understood in broader terms by looking at how a mother interacts with her child during non-stressful situations. Furthermore, the theory should have recognised that children can be attached to other figures, not necessarily their mothers. For example, children can be attached to their fathers, which mean that studying the nature of such interactions would bring new dimensions into the attachment theory.


In conclusion, Bowlby uses his theory of attachment to present the idea that attachment is innate. This is to imply that mammals, especially human beings, are born helpless, creating the need to depend on their parents or caregivers. The infant therefore develops the attachment as a survival tactic since the caregiver is expected to be the source of safety, shelter, warmth and food. This innate nature of attachment was supported by other scholars, including Lorenz through his imprinting studies in geese in 1952. Another aspect of Bowlby’s arguments is that there is a direct and great relationship between an infant’s type of attachment and the later stage attachment as far as security and trust are concerned. Bowlby explained that the age between 0 and 30 months is the critical period during which right conditions must be created for the development of the desired attachment, failure to which the attachment may never occur thereafter.

I do not agree with Bowlby’s argument that infants tend to form single and special attachment towards their mothers, a condition called monotropy. Rather, it can be observed that some infants form attachment with their fathers, while others form attachment with multiple caregivers. Furthermore, I do not agree with his argument that there must be continuity of the type of attachment from infancy all the way to adulthood. It is common to find arrogant children in a family characterised by humble caregivers. By going through Bowlby’s theory of attachment, parents and the readers in general can benefit in a number of ways. People handling grieving individuals should understand the reason for specific behaviours and be ready to support them. Parents should use the arguments when trying to deal with funny behaviours exhibited by their children in their later stages of life.


Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory. Routledge, London.

Bowlby, R. & King, P. (2004). Fifty Years of Attachment Theory: Recollections of Donald Winnicott and John Bowlby. Karnac Books

Elliot, A. J., & Reis, H. T. (2003). Attachment and exploration in adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 317-331.

Fraley, R. C., & Spieker, S. J. (2003). Are infant attachment patterns continuously or categorically distributed? A taxometric analysis of strange situation behaviour. Developmental Psychology, 39, 387-404.

Issroff, J., Reeves, C. & Hauptman, B. (2005). Donald Winnicott and John Bowlby: personal and professional perspectives. London: Karnac Books Ltd.

Markeiwicz, D., Doyle, A. B., & Brendgen, M. (2001). The quality of adolescents’ friendships: Associations with mothers’ interpersonal relationships, attachments to parents and friends, and prosocial behaviours. Journal of Adolescence, 24, 429-445.

Pickover, S. (2002). Breaking the cycle: A clinical example of disrupting an insecure attachment system. Journal of Mental Health Counselling, 24, 358-367.

Ruszczynski, S. (1993). Psychotherapy with Couples: Theory and Practice at the Tavistock Institute of Marital Studies. London: Karnac.

Gomez, L. (1997). An Introduction to Object Relations. Free Association Books.

Van Dijken, S. (1998). John Bowlby: His Early Life: A Biographical Journey into the Roots of Attachment Theory. London: Free Association Books.


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