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“The word attachment can have several meanings. Even in professional discussion, it is often loosely substituted for bonding, relationships, or affection. Each of these can be considered a component of attachment, but….clarity of definition is essential.” (Mooney, 2010)

Attachment theory was formulated by John Bowlby (1969) and Mary Ainsworth over 50 years ago to provide a framework for understanding human relationships. They posited that the purpose of attachments was to satisfy the child’s need for protection and safety, to provide the secure base that is a paramount need of childhood. Here in their own words are their definitions:

  • Attachment is “The dimension of the infant-caregiver relationship involving protection and security regulation. Within this theoretic framework, attachment is conceptualized as an intense and enduring affectional bond that the infant develops with the mother figure, a bond that is biologically rooted in the function of protection from danger.” (Bowlby, 1982)
  • Attachment is “An affectional tie that one person or animal forms between himself and another specific one – a tie that binds them together in space and endures over time.” (Ainsworth, 1967)

Early relationships are critical, especially the mother-child dyad. “When a baby is born he cannot tell one person from another and indeed can hardly tell a person from a thing. Yet, by his first birthday he is likely to have become a connoisseur of people. Not only does he come quickly to distinguish familiars from strangers but amongst his familiars he chooses one or more favorites. They are greeted with delight; they are followed when they depart; and they are sought when absent. Their loss causes anxiety and distress; their recovery, relief and a sense of security. On this foundation, it seems, the rest of his emotional life is built – without this foundation there is risk for his future happiness and health.” (Bowlby, 1966)

Bowlby is unequivocal about the near-permanent duration of attachment: “An attachment endures, usually for a large part of the life cycle….early attachments are not easily abandoned and they commonly persist.” (1979)

Bowlby later states: “Attachment behavior is any form of behavior that results in a person attaining or maintaining proximity to some other clearly identified individual who is conceived as better able to cope with the world. It is most obvious whenever the person is frightened, or sick, and is assuaged by comforting and caregiving….For a person to know that an attachment is available and responsive gives him a strong and pervasive feeling of security, and so encourages him to value and continue the relationship…..It can be observed throughout the life cycle, especially in emergencies. Since it is seen in virtually all human beings ….it is regarded as an integral part of human nature.” (Bowlby, 1988)

By adding cross-cultural data, Ainsworth expanded Bowlby’s attachment theory. She gathered her data by observing children in a “Strange Situation” for 20 minutes, and then observing what happened when the children were reunited with their caregivers. She was able to differentiate three separate attachment styles: 1. Secure attachment, 2. Anxious/ambivalent insecurity, and 3. Anxious/avoidant insecurity. Cross-cultural studies convinced Ainsworth and Bowlby that children attached to caregivers for the purpose of achieving security, survival, and ultimately genetic reproduction. Bowlby and Ainsworth did not distinguish attachment from bonding; in fact they referred to attachment as “a tie or bond.”

Main (1996) refers to attachment as a sub-category of bonding. “Attachment is a unique form of affectional bond; the term should not be used for affectional bonds in general.” She goes on to state: “Attachment is a lifespan phenomenon. However, we have yet to understand the formation of new attachments in adulthood.” Later she takes a strong position on attachment (we would say bonding) versus mere blood ties: “There is no convincing evidence that behavior genetics play a role in the organized categories of infant attachment observed in the ‘strange situation.’ Genetics may, however, interact with attachment in other ways….”

Researchers and authors all seem to have their own definition of attachment. Here are just a few:

  • “An affectionate and emotional bond that will last a lifetime.” (Klaus and Kennell, 1976
  • “An enduring social tie of a child to a specific person, such as a mother or father.” (Mosher et al. 1987)
  • “The trust and love that an infant feels toward the parent who meets its need.” Bonding is reciprocally defined as “The loving return commitment by the parent to meet the child’s needs.” (Fahlberg, 1991)
  • “All children, at the core of their beings, need to be attached to someone who considers them to be very special and who is committed to providing for their ongoing care.” (Hughes, 1997)
  • “The terms bonding and attachment are used to describe the intense emotional tie that develops between an infant and his or her primary caregiver over the first months and years of life.” (Bush 2001, p.18)
  • “An enduring and emotional connection between two people that produces a desire for continual contact as well as feelings of distress during separation.” (Berger, 2001)
  • “A strong emotional bond between a baby or young child and a caring adult who is part of the child’s everyday life….” (Honig, 2002)
  • “A reciprocal process by which an emotional connection develops between an infant and his/her primary caregiver. It influences the child’s physical, neurological, cognitive, and psychological development. It becomes the basis for development of basic trust or mistrust, and shapes how a child will relate to the world, learn, and form relationships throughout life.” (Moss, 2009)

No one can argue with these sentiments, but they pose real definitional problems. Attachment and bonding are used differently and interchangeably, or are too often perceived as “feel-good” concepts, and defined in objectively vague and emotional terms. This makes bonding difficult to present in court.