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Attachment theory is a psychoanalytic theory developed by John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, and Joseph D. Lichtenberg (and similar to object-relations theory developed by Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott) that is critical of Sigmund Freud's "drive theory." Freud viewed the psyche as an energy system dominated by a particular drive. Although Freud generally characterized this drive as "eros" or "libido," he supposed that it attached to different objects during different stages of a person's life -- for example, babies attach to their mother's breasts. According to Freud, the actual attachment is of secondary importance to the drive; in this case, the drive for oral gratification. Bowlby argued that attachments are not secondary and that they involve behaviors (involving social stimulation and emotional interchanges) that exist independent of other needs. Along with object-relations theory, attachment theory argued that humans must be understood as innately social beings.

Attachment theory led not only to increased attention to attachments as a psycho-social process, it also led to a new understanding of child development. Freudian theory suggested that as libidinal drives fixed on different objects, former attachments would be broken; failure to break an attachment effectively would constitute a sort of trauma that could lead to later mental illness. Attachment theory, however, suggested that growing children did not break former attachments, but rather (1) learned to become more active (or sovereign) within previously established attachments, and (2) added new attachments, which did not necessarily require a break with (and are not necessarily substitutes for) previous attachments.

Attachment theory also informs psychotherapy practice. The therapist much try to provide a 'secure base' for the patient through her/his consistency and reliability and 'reflexive function' -- i.e the capacity to distinguish between emotion, perception and reality. This help the patient to achieve 'theory of mind' in relation to self and others. This in turn leads to a more balanced and nuanced attitude towards feelings -- to see them for what they are, and in context, and thus to be less in thrall to them. None of this can be achieved without the safety which secure attachment provides.


Holmes J John Bowlby and Attachment Theory. Routledge 1993; ISBN 0415077303

Holmes J The Search for the Secure Base: Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy; Brunner-Routledge 2001; ISBN 1583911529

An attachment, in computer jargon refers to a extra file, carried in connection with an email message, of any of various file formats. See email attachment for detail.