Integrating Attachment Theory with ESGs
by Bud Nye
In my Proposed Model For Near Term Human Extinction Support Group (ESG) Functioning recently posted at NBL, among a number of other things I outlined the nature of Attachment Theory. Here, I describe how I see Attachment Theory relating directly to the emotional implications of Near Term Human Extinction (NTHE) thus making it relevant and appropriate as a foundation and focus for ESGs in helping people cope emotionally with collapse.
When researchers ask clients about the basis of happy, long-term relationships, people inevitably answer with one word: love. Similarly, Guy McPherson often ends his presentations with an emphasis on love. But what does this love look like in relationships and how do we best intervene? Attachment theory, applied to both childhood and adult relationships, provides a coherent, relevant, well-researched, clinically proven framework for understanding and intervening in love relationships.
The ten tenants of attachment theory and how they relate to NTHE and ESGs include:
- Attachment works as an innate motivating force. Seeking and maintaining contact with significant others, including other species and Earth’s biosphere, works as an innate, primary motivating principle in human beings across the life span. Innate means not established by conditioning or learning. It means present at birth, but not necessarily through heredity; it may occur during fetal development. In other words, dependency, often treated as a pathology in our culture, occurs as a biologically fundamental, innate part of human thinking, feeling, and behavior rather than as a childhood trait that we presumably outgrow. The innate nature of attachment may clash in some important ways with some people’s strongly held religious or philosophical beliefs that define attachment as a form of human weakness or pathology. Meanwhile, this biologically based theoretical perspective claims considerable cross-cultural validity, it links to the evolution of humans as social animals, and it offers a universal perspective. Attachment and the emotions associated with it serve as the defining core feature of close relationships—including our relationship with the planet that produced and supports us. As such, attachment lies “at the heart of the matter” for ESGs in that we find the fear of alienation, isolation, and loss in every human heart. When the winds of loss and isolation blow, they sting the eyes of all, and especially so with the prospect of NTHE.
- Secure dependence complements According to attachment theory, no such thing as complete independence from other people, other species, or the biosphere exists, nor does overdependence. Instead, we have only varying degrees of effective or ineffective dependency. Secure dependence on other people and the biological world fosters a healthy sense of autonomy and self-confidence. Secure dependence and autonomy then work as two sides of the same coin, rather than as dichotomies. The more securely connected we find ourselves to others and the biosphere, the more separate and different in healthy ways we can become. Health in this model means maintaining a sense of interdependency, rather than considering oneself as self-sufficient, disconnected, and separate from other people, other species, and/or Earth’s biosphere.
- Attachment offers an essential safe haven. Contact with other people, other species, and the biosphere works as an innate survival mechanism. The presence of attachment figures, which usually means parents, children, spouses, and lovers, but also includes friends, other species, and the biosphere, provides comfort and security. The perceived inaccessibility of such figures creates distress. Proximity to these others relaxes the nervous system and serves as a natural antidote to the inevitable anxieties and vulnerabilities of life and death. This proves especially important given the extremely high probability of NTHE. For people of all ages, positive attachments create a safe haven that offers a buffer against the effects of stress and uncertainty. Note that this safe haven effect occurs despite the fact that we will eventually lose those others through death.
- Attachment offers a secure base. Secure attachment also provides a secure base from which people can explore their universe and respond most adaptively to their environment. Importantly for the purposes of an ESG, the presence of such a base encourages exploration and a cognitive openness to new information. It promotes the confidence necessary to risk, learn, and continually update models of self, others, and the world, thus facilitating adjustment to new contexts, including NTHE. Secure attachment, perhaps including involvement with an ESG, strengthens the ability to stand back and reflect on oneself, one’s behavior, one’s mental and emotional states, and the meanings one might construct for their life. When relationships offer a sense of felt security, including relationships with other species and the biosphere as can occur in ESGs, people find themselves better able to reach out to and provide support for others, and better able to deal with conflict and stress in more positive ways. This seems especially important in the face of ecological collapse and the high probability of NTHE. ESGs can help provide a secure emotional connection with some others, a connection that offers a safe haven and a secure base, including other species and the biosphere. With this secure base people then tend to find relationships happier, more stable, and more satisfying.
- Emotional accessibility and responsiveness build bonds. In general, emotion activates and organizes attachment behaviors. More specifically, emotional accessibility and responsiveness compose the building blocks of secure bonds with other people, other species, and the biosphere. We can find attachment figures physically present but emotionally absent, and separation distress results from one’s concluding that an attachment figure will always remain inaccessible. Emotional engagement proves crucial, along with the trust that we will find that engagement available when needed. In attachment terms, any response from an attachment figure, even an angry one, works better than none. With no engagement, no emotional responsiveness, the attachment figure says “Your signals do not matter, and we have no connection between us.” Emotion remains central to attachment, and this theory provides a guide for understanding and normalizing many of the extreme emotions that accompany distressed relationships with other people, other species, and with our relationship to Earth’s biosphere. Our strongest emotions arise from and seem to have the most impact on our attachment relationships. Emotions tell us and communicate to others our motivations and needs; they serve as the music of the attachment dance.
- Fear and uncertainty activate attachment needs. When people find themselves threatened, either by traumatic events, the negative aspects of everyday life such as stress or illness, by any assault on the security of the attachment bond itself, or by the threat of NTHE, powerful emotions arise and attachment needs for comfort and connection become particularly important and compelling. Attachment behaviors, such as seeking closeness with other people, other species, and Earth’s biosphere become activated. A sense of connection with a loved one serves as a primary, inbuilt emotional regulation device. Attachment to key others, including other people, other species, and Earth itself, serves as our primary protection against feelings of helplessness and meaninglessness.
- We find the process of separation distress predictable. If attachment behaviors fail to evoke comforting responsiveness and contact from attachment figures, a process of angry protest, clinging, depression, and despair occurs, ending eventually in detachment. Depression works as a natural response to loss of connection to other people, other species, and the biosphere. In secure relationships, people recognize and accept protest in the face of inaccessibility of connection. Emotionally focused ESG group participants see the basic dramas of distress, such as demand-withdraw cycles, as variations on the theme of separation distress. Meanwhile, these dramas will surely become increasingly common as global heating with its associated abrupt climate change, ecological, and nuclear collapse continue at an ever-increasing rate.
- We can identify a finite number of insecure forms of engagement. Attachment responses seem to organize along two dimensions: anxiety and avoidance.
Anxiety: When we find the connection with an irreplaceable other threatened but not yet severed, for example as most of us presently experience related to ecological collapse, our attachment system may become hyperactivated or go into overdrive. Between humans, attachment behaviors become heightened and intense as anxious clinging, pursuit, and even aggressive attempts to control and obtain a response from the loved one escalate. From this perspective, most criticism, blaming, and emotionally loaded demands in distressed relationships occur as attempts to deal with and resolve attachment hurts and fears. Similarly, when one acknowledges the coming loss of support from Earth’s biosphere, they may cling, pursue, and make aggressive attempts to control and obtain a desired response from the loved environment. Thus some people wish for geoengineering to reverse the ecological collapse processes, or proactive destruction of the present global industrial civilization in hopes of controlling the beloved attachment figure.
Avoidance: When hope for responsiveness becomes tenuous, the second strategy for dealing with the lack of safe emotional engagement involves attempting to deactivate the attachment system and suppress attachment needs. The most commonly observed ways of doing this involve focusing obsessively on tasks and limiting and avoiding attempts at emotional engagement with attachment figures that might have distressing consequences. We often see this strategy in some well-known religious and philosophical responses as well as among people generally.
These two basic strategies, anxious preoccupied clinging and detached avoidance, can develop into habitual styles of intimate engagement with others, including other people, other species, and Earth’s biosphere. Angry criticism, viewed through this attachment lens, most often occurs as an attempt to change the other partner’s inaccessibility, and as a protest response to isolation and perceived abandonment. We may see avoidant withdrawal as an attempt to contain the interaction and regulate fears of rejection and to confirm fears about the unlovable nature of oneself.
A third identified insecure attachment strategy involves a combination of seeking closeness and then fearful avoidance of closeness following its offer. This strategy occurs with chaotic and traumatic attachments where others at the same time serve as both the source of and solution to abandonment fear. Called “disorganized” or “fearful avoidant” in the childhood and adult literature, we see this disorganization reflected by industrial society as a whole toward Earth’s biosphere where many people wish to protect it while others destroy it.
Experimental separations and reunions with mothers and infants first allowed identification of the anxious and avoidant strategies. Researchers subsequently identified infants as securely attached, anxiously attached, or avoidantly attached. Later research has shown that anxiously attached adults seem to experience separation from their attachment figure as a catastrophe that parallels death, while more secure adults remain more open to new information and can reverse beliefs in relationships as well as seek reassurance more effectively. Anxious partners remain more prone to expressing strong anger, whereas avoidant people seem to experience and express intense hostility and to attribute this hostility to others. Avoidant partners also tend to feel hostile when others express distress or seek support. Research suggests that avoidant partners can have good social skills in general but avoid seeking or giving support when attachment needs arise in them or their partners. In general, anxiety and avoidance foster a rigid, hypervigilant attitude to novelty and uncertainty, and equating letting one’s guard down with helplessness. New relationships can modify these insecure habitual forms of engagement, but they can also mold current relationships and thus can easily become self-perpetuating. Consider the probable implications of these strategies for participants in ESGs as they acknowledge and face ecological collapse and probable NTHE.
- Attachment involves working models of self and other. We define ourselves in the context of our most intimate relationships, including our relationships with other people, other species, and with Earth’s biosphere. As stated above, attachment strategies reflect ways of processing and dealing with emotion. Unfortunately, for most industrially civilized people today attachment does not include other species and Earth’s biosphere. We find secure attachment characterized by a working model of self as lovable and cared for, confident, and competent. Research has found secure attachment associated with a stronger sense of self-efficacy. Securely attached people who believe others will respond when needed also tend to have working models of others as dependable and meriting trust. These models of self and other grow out of thousands of interactions over one’s lifetime and become expectations and biases that carry forward into new relationships. They do not work as one-dimensional cognitive outlines, but as process scripts for how to create relatedness as well as ways of processing attachment information. These models we construct through experience all involve goals, beliefs, and attachment strategies, and all heavily infused with emotion. We form, elaborate, maintain, and most important for ESG participants, change these models through emotional communication with other people and other life forms on Earth. Once ESG participants step beyond their denial and angry protests, for example, they often begin to disclose fears about their own lovableness, their “worth”, and meaning within the drama of life and death on Earth of themselves, of all humans, and possibly of all life on Earth.
- Isolation and loss have inherently traumatizing effects. It proves important to recognize that attachment theory remains essentially a theory of trauma. Attachment theory describes and explains the trauma of deprivation, loss, rejection, and abandonment by those we need the most and the enormous impact it has on us. These traumatic stressors have tremendous impact on personality formation and on a person’s ability to deal with other stresses in life. When someone has confidence in the availability of a loved one, including other species and Earth’s biosphere when needed, in general they will have much less intense and shorter lasting fear than will a person who has no such confidence. An ESG can help provide participants develop such needed relationships. As a theory of trauma, attachment theory specifically helps us to understand the weight behind emotional hurts such as rejection, perceived abandonment by, or loss of a loved one, or, certainly, the prospect of NTHE. With the annihilation trap we have created through global heating and its abrupt climate change, ecological and nuclear collapse, we will soon find ourselves overwhelmed by loss of loved ones including Earth’s biosphere. Indeed, a large percentage of people feel overwhelmed just by the thought of what we can easily see, with near certainty, coming soon. Distressed ESG participants dealing with a sense of traumatic helplessness made much worse by isolation and loss related to insecure attachment with other people, other species, and/or Earth’s biosphere tend to adopt stances of fight, flight, or freeze that characterize responses to traumatic stress.
For much well written supporting detail concerning how ESG participants can use this attachment theory in helping each other in their meetings I strongly recommend reading Susan Johnson’s book, The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, 2nd Ed, 2004. If anyone has any questions or wants information concerning the Tacoma ESG, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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