A Secure Base

Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base. Routledge. 

“Attachment is a unifying principle that reaches from the biological depths of our being to its furthest spiritual reaches” - Jeremy Holmes


So much of self-help and positive psychology promoted today on social media centres on qualities like fortitude, resilience and stoic notions of inner strength. The impression this can leave is that part of the project of living your best life lies in becoming as self-sufficient as possible. The idea of attachment, to need comfort, love and support from another, does not seem to fit with this idea.

Attachment has always tended to be a dirty word. At the beginning of psychoanalysis, a client's attachment to the important people in their lives was labelled "dependency", another word that invokes pejorative overtones. But, to follow this framing is to miss the massive impact attachment has on your life. And far from being a bad thing, understanding its place and importance is a step towards more freedom to be and become your authentic self.       

We know this, in large part, because of British psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalysts John Bowlby (1907-1990). In his book, A Secure Base (1988), a collection of lectures given by Bowlby near the end of his career, Bowlby outlines attachment theory and its impact on an individual's development and their subsequent relationships as they get older. Bowlby then addresses how this new understanding should change how to work psychotherapeutically with clients and how the formation of the theory, through direct observation and research, should change psychoanalysis as a science.

What is Attachment Theory?

In explaining Attachment Theory, Bowlby begins by outlining attachment as a drive to seek physical closeness, comfort, and support, from a primary attachment figure, "To say of a child (or older person) that he is attached to, or has an attachment to, someone means that he is strongly disposed to seek proximity to and contact with that individual..."  (Bowlby, 1988, pg.31).  The function of this behaviour seems to be to maintain the safety of the individual while they develop, as throughout evolutionary history proximity to a caregiver would have been fundamental to survival, “...this tendency to maintain proximity serves the function of protecting the mobile infant and growing child from a number of dangers, amongst which in man’s environment of evolutionary adaptedness (sic) the danger of predation is likely to have been paramount.” (Bowlby, 1988, pg.68). Another important feature of this drive is that it is rooted in our genetics and therefore instinctual and distinct from other stated drives such as sex and food. Bowlby draws on research in other disciplines to evidence this point, such as evolutionary biology and psychology, where the same type of behaviour can be observed in monkeys. This willingness to draw off other sciences when attempting to explain psychological phenomena was a feature of Bowlby’s approach and on which more will be said later.    

Much of the genesis of attachment theory comes from the observations of children in their home with their parents by the developmental psychologist, Mary Ainsworth. Ainsworth went on to use her observations to develop an experiment called the "strange situation".  In the "strange situation," infants' behaviour is observed when their primary attachment figure removes themselves from a room containing strangers and returns a couple of minutes later. The reactions of the infants are observed across three settings of the experiment: when the infant is in the room with their mother and the strangers, when they are left on their own with the strangers after their mother leaves, and when the mother returns. These observations showed 3 distinct categories of behaviour and were labelled: secure attachment, where the children explored actively when their mother was present, became concerned and emotional when she left, but were easily consoled on her return; anxious attachment, where the children explored little, cried much in their mother’s absence and where not easily consoled on her return; and avoidant attachment, were the children mostly ignored their mother in her presence, would suddenly become very anxious and concerned to her whereabouts even when the mother had not left the room, however when finding her didn't seem to want comfort but actively tried to get away again. On further exploring these categories researchers examined the attachment histories of the mothers and discovered that in many cases the attachment style of their children mirrored the attachment style they had had with their parents, suggesting that the experiences individuals had with their primary caregivers tended to put them on a developmental pathway that impacted their future relationships by perpetuating a pattern.

Attachment Theory and Development

Bowlby goes on to outline in his lectures the heavy consequences an individual's early years have on the rest of their life. The optimum calibration of relationship was with those who had what Bowlby labelled "secure attachment". Bowlby states that parents of securely attached children tended to balance an interaction style between being sensitive and caring to their child's needs but also supportive and encouraging of their independence and autonomy, “…that those who are most stable emotionally and making the most of their opportunities are those who have parents who, whilst always encouraging their children’s autonomy, are none the less available and responsive when called upon.” (Bowlby, 1988, pg.13). In these children, Bowlby states that they tended to be more emotionally stable, due to the confidence that should they need them, their caregiver would be there to comfort and support them, "With this assurance, he feels bold in his explorations of the world. This pattern is promoted by a parent, in the early years especially by mother, being readily available, sensitive to her child’s signals, and lovingly responsive when he seeks attention and/or comfort.” (Bowlby, 1988, pg.140)

Bowlby further outlines in his lectures how attachment theory places a new framing on and better explains, the function of behaviours such as anxiety, avoidance and anger. On anxiety Bowlby states that it is the manifestation of fear that an individuals attachment figure will not be there should they need care and support, “…the individual is uncertain whether his parents will be available or responsive or helpful when called upon. Because of this uncertainty he is always prone to separation anxiety, tends to be clinging, and is anxious about exploring the world." (Bowlby, 1988, pg.140). On avoidance, it is the repeated failure of the attachment figure to provide any care and support leading the individual to attempt to insulate themselves from ever needing relationships altogether, "…the individual has no confidence that, when he seeks care, he will be responded to helpfully but, on the contrary, expects to be rebuffed. When in marked degree such an individual attempts to live his life without the love and support of others, he tries to become emotionally self sufficient", (Bowlby, 1988, pg.140). And finally, with anger, the function is a bid for care and attention by an individual sensing that their attachment figure is, or will, not be there for them:

…anger is often functional. When child or spouse behaves dangerously, an angry protest is likely to deter. When a lover’s partner strays, a sharp reminder of how much he or she cares may work wonders. When a child finds himself relatively neglected in favour of the new baby, assertion of his claims may redress the balance...In each case the sum of the angry behaviour is the same – to protect a relationship which is of very special value to the angry person.” (Bowlby, 1988, pg.89)

Under this framing of anger, the tragedy of it is revealed, as it is a bid to protect the relationship but too often damages it and prevents the very thing the individual is trying to obtain, care and support from a loved one.

But most tragic of all is the effects that inconsistent, or abusive, care has on an individual's personality development and the subsequent perpetuation of these consequences through the generations. As attachment behaviour is an instinctual drive in everyone, should an individual find themselves being cared for by an attachment figure who is deeply disturbed, the individual finds themselves being drawn towards them, despite the lack of care, or worse abuse, they receive. They are literally trapped in a situation where they are simultaneously pulled and repulsed by a mother or father, impacting significantly on their development:

"One result of this is that, in conformity with his mother’s wishes, he builds up a one-sided picture of her as wholly and generous, thereby shutting away from conscious processing much information also reaching him that she is often selfish, demanding, and ungrateful. Another result is that, also in conformity with his mother’s wishes, he admits to consciousness only feelings of love and gratitude he has towards her and shuts away every feeling of anger he may have against her for expecting him to care for her and preventing him from making his own friends and living his own life.” (Bowlby, 1988, pg.121)

This parallels with Carl Roger's theory of Conditions of Worth and Locus of Evaluation were Roger postulated that an individual attains ideas about themselves from what they have learnt gains them love and admiration from the people around them, "The first is the estrangement of man from himself, from his experiencing organism. In this fundamental rift, the experiencing organism senses one meaning in experience, but the conscious self clings rigidly to another, since that is the way it has found love and acceptance from others." (Rogers, 1995, pg.165). Bowlby goes on to outline how this “estrangement” as Rogers puts it can further impact an individuals personality development:

Not only that but, because a child’s self-model is profoundly influenced by how his mother sees and treats him, whatever she fails to recognize in him he is likely to fail to recognize in himself. In this way, it is postulated, major parts of a child’s developing personality can become split off from, that is, out of communication with, those parts of his personality that his mother recognizes and responds to, which in some cases include features of personality that she is attributing to him wrongly.” (Bowlby, 1988, pg.149). 

Lastly, Bowlby states that as these patterns that are laid down in a person's early years, they create the framework the person will use when they form new relationships and/or become attachment figures themselves for their children, thus repeating the pattern: 

"...there is strong evidence that how attachment behaviour comes to be organised within an individual turn in high degree on the kinds of experience he has in his family of origin, or, if he is unlucky, out of it."  (Bowlby, 1988, pg. 4), “Thus adverse childhood experiences have effects of at least two kinds. First they make the individual more vulnerable to later adverse experiences. Secondly they make it more likely that he or she will meet with further such experiences. Whereas the earlier adverse experiences are likely to be wholly independent of agency of the individual concerned, the later ones are likely to be the consequences of his or her own actions, actions that spring from those disturbances of personality to which the earlier experiences have given rise.” (Bowlby, 1988, pg.41).

Attachment Theory as Working Model in Psychotherapy

However, Bowlby does not leaves us in this series of lectures with only the problems that can be caused by attachment. He goes on to outline how this affects psychotherapeutic work. With this new understanding, he sets out the importance of the therapist filling the void by providing the individual with what they lack, a secure attachment, “Clinically he sees the therapist as providing a secure base for her patients, a springboard from which they can begin to develop the free flowing discourse of emotion that is characteristic of those who are securely attached." (Bowlby, 1988, pg. xiv). Furthermore, Bowlby stresses that the therapist should take a much more open-minded approach to the client’s experience to allow for free expression, a therapeutic process much more akin to the process Carl Rogers advocated with Person-Centred Therapy, than what came before in psychoanalytic traditions: 

Among points of difference is the emphasis placed on the therapist’s role as a companion for his patient in the latter’s exploration of himself and his experiences, and last on the therapist interpreting things to the patient. Whilst some traditional therapists might be described as adopting the stance ‘I know; I’ll tell you’, the stance I advocate is one of ‘You know, you tell me’. Thus the patient is encouraged to believe that, with support and occasional guidance, he can discover for himself the true nature of the models that underlie his thoughts, feelings, and actions...The psychotherapist's job, like that of the orthopaedic surgeon's, is to provide the conditions in which self-healing can best take place." (Bowlby, 1988, pg.172)

From this base, Bowlby stresses that for an individual to overcome a non-secure pattern of attachment they must first be able to see their attachment history for what it is. Bowlby takes this from the accounts of parents who despite having very difficult relationships with their parents did not go on to perpetuate that pattern with their children: 

“…mothers who describe having a very unhappy childhood but nonetheless have children showing secure attachment to them. A characteristic of each of these mothers, which distinguishes them from mothers of insecure infants, is that, despite describing much rejection and unhappiness during childhood, and perhaps tearful whilst doing so, each is able to tell her story in a fluent and coherent way, in which such positive aspects of her experiences as there were are given due place and appear to have been integrated with all the negative ones. In their capacity for balance they resemble the other mothers of secure infants. It seemed to the interviewers and those assessing the transcripts that these exceptional mothers had thought much about their unhappy earlier experiences and how it had affected them in the long term, and also about why their parents might have treated them as they had. In fact, they seemed to have come to terms with their experience.” (Bowlby, 1988, pg.151).

Unfortunately, on the other hand, “Whereas the mother of a secure infant is able to talk freely and with feeling about her childhood, the mother of an insecure infant is not.” (Bowlby, 1988, pg.150).

The next step is then to aid the client to see how their childhood experience is affecting them in the present moment, “The task then is to help the patient grasp that much of his present resentment stems from past mistreatment at the hands of others and that, however unstable his anger may be as a result, to continue fighting old battles is unproductive.” (Bowlby, 1988, pg.164). And finally, challenge and support the client to make the changes necessary to break the pattern they inherited:

“…once the patient has grasped how and why he is responding as he is, he will be in a position to reappraise his responses and, should he wish, to undertake their radical restructuring. Since such reappraisal and re-structuring can be achieved only by the patient himself, the emphasis in this formulation of the therapist task is on helping the patient first to discover for himself what the relevant scenes and experiences probably were and secondly to spend time pondering on how that have continued to influence him. Only then will he be in a position to undertake the reorganization of his modes of construing the world, thinking about it, and acting in it which are called for.” (Bowlby, 1988, pg.133). 

Psychotherapy as a Modern Science

In his lectures, Bowlby not only shows how Attachment Theory alters the view of development and the subsequent ways in which we clinically treat clients, but states also how the theories formulation (direct observations buttressed with research, along with relevant research and evidence from other disciplines) should change how subsequent knowledge in psychotherapy is produced. Although he pays much homage to Freud, he emphasises that much change is needed in the psychoanalytic approach, which has tended to be insulated from the other sciences and attempts to distil all psychological phenomena to single explanation (in Freud’s case libido): 

“Whereas Freud in his scientific theorising felt confined to a conceptual model that explained all phenomena, whether physical or biological, in terms of the disposition of energy, today we have available conceptual models of much greater variety...Thus the world of science in which we live is radically different from the world Freud lived in at the turn of the century, and the concepts available to us better suited to our problems than were the very restricted ones available in his day” (Bowlby, 1988, pg.37).

Bowlby stresses that the advances in other sciences, and subsequent knowledge gained, should be consulted and utilised more to better explain psychological phenomena in psychotherapy: 

"In the medical sciences, physiologists and pathologists have made immense advances by means of animal experiments, tissue culture, biochemical analyses, and thousand other ingenious techniques. Indeed, it is the hallmark of a creative scientist that he devises new means by which phenomena, perhaps already well studied by other methods, can be observed in some new way.” (Bowlby, 1988, pg.46).


No one can reasonably argue against the significant and positive impact John Bowlby had on the fields of psychotherapy and psychology. He simply is one of the greats. The development of Attachment Theory was a turning point in both sciences. It increased our knowledge of developmental psychology, spawned psychotherapy models such as Emotionally Focused Therapy which is widely used with individuals, couples and families to great effect today, and it changed the process by which theories were formulated, moving psychotherapy in particular away from the pseudo-scientific theorising and pontification towards a more valid scientific process.

A Secure Base is a small skinny book just 177 pages long. And in a sense, not even a book, but as stated, a collection of lectures Bowlby gave at the end of his career. And despite this, it contains more important knowledge than many other, and much larger, books I have read. My highlighter got more use reading this book than the combined use it had with many of the books that came before it. A pure testament, in my opinion, to the impact Bowlby had and the importance of Attachment Theory in understanding human beings and our struggles.

If I would want this synopsis of A Secure Base to leave you with anything, it is that if you are interested in either psychology or psychotherapy, you must read John Bowlby.  

Compliment this article with Hold Me Tight


Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base. Routledge. 

Rogers, C. R. (1995). A way of being. Mariner Books.

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