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The Inheritance of Loss

To love your children is also to love their children.

Inspired by the seminal work of John Bowlby (1907-1990) on attachment theory, Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) devised a procedure called the ‘Strange Situation’ to observe patterns of attachment in human infants. In the Strange Situation, an infant is observed exploring toys for 20 minutes whilst his mother and a stranger enter and leave the room. Depending on the infant’s behaviour upon being reunited with his mother, he can be classified into one of three categories: secure attachment, anxious-ambivalent insecure attachment, and anxious-avoidant insecure attachment.

• In secure attachment, the infant explores freely and engages with the stranger whilst his mother is present. When his mother leaves, he is subdued but not distressed; and when she returns, he greets her positively. A pattern of secure attachment is thought to arise if the mother is generally available to the infant and able to meet his needs responsively and appropriately.

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• In anxious-ambivalent insecure attachment, the infant is anxious of exploration and ambivalent towards the stranger, even in the presence of his mother. When his mother leaves, he is distressed; but when she returns he is ambivalent towards her. A pattern of anxious-ambivalent insecure attachment is thought to arise if the mother generally gives the infant attention, but inconsistently and according to her own needs.

•In anxious-avoidant insecure attachment, the infant explores the toys but seems unconcerned by the presence or absence of either the stranger or his mother. That having been said, he does not avoid the stranger as strongly as he does his mother. A pattern of anxious-avoidant insecure attachment is thought to arise if the mother generally disengages from the infant, such that the latter comes to believe that he has no influence over the former.

An infant’s pattern of attachment is important because it can lead to an internal model of the self as unlovable and inadequate, and of others as unresponsive and punitive. It can also help to predict a person’s reaction to loss or adversity and his pattern of relating to peers, engaging in romantic relationships, and parenting children. Through parenting children, an insecure attachment can be passed on from parent to child, and in this manner one generation’s loss can be inherited by the next. That which a child did not receive he cannot later give, or, as it says in the Talmud, 

The parent who teaches his son, it is as if he had taught his son, his son’s son, and so on to the end of generations.

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of MadnessThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help GuideHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deceptionand other books.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook 

Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.

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