Becoming Attached – Book Review

Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love, by Robert Karen, PhD.  Oxford University Press, 1998

Robert Karen’s book, Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love, took a while to read, but what a treasure!  It gives an overview and history of attachment theory.  Explains in depth the destructive practices that had been adopted early in the industrial revolution, as parents increasingly were called to work outside the home and nuclear families became the norm.  It connects the dots between early attachment wounds and unmet needs and patterns of relating in adulthood.  Robert Karen locates himself in the material, describing himself this way: “I believe I had an anxious attachment to my mother, which was perhaps mainly ambivalent but had certain avoidant features and looked more and more avoidant as I got older.”

After having read this book, I can better understand some of my odd behaviors as a child and young adult, and my patterns with adult partners and potential partners.  Why did I bite that girl in the bathroom in 4th grade?  I remember chomping down hard, and I felt I could have taken it off.  It wasn’t her I was mad at; I don’t even remember what she had done.  But that was a terrifying, out-of-control rage I couldn’t put into words.  Even as an adult, why did I suddenly feel so infuriated with my sister, Tracy, when I was dependent on her to step in and help; when she was all-out engaged in fixing the situation when my children were being abducted and I was so terrified I’d never see them again? What could explain my identification as “utterly uninterested in affection” and at the same time internally so utterly starved of physical and emotional connection and touch?  Why was my response to my mother “I know,” since at least age 10, and why the unmistakable force behind it?

I can better understand how I had lived so long without a secure base, and how I learned to find comfort most reliably in being alone, since being with loved ones cost me so dearly in terms of emotional and energetic expenditure.  Why I have undermined being given to “in a truly loving way… at every turn; indeed (being given to in this way) feels perversely unacceptable.”

I can better understand my disconnectedness from feelings of loss and vulnerability when it came to “close” others.  Why I have never been able to use a coherent narrative to talk about what my childhood was like, what my day was like, or even about an idea I’d like to share.  How I jump around without finishing my sentences, and am difficult to follow.  How I have difficulty recalling much of my past.  As a person recovering from intimacy disorder, I can look back over my life and notice a suspicious lack of benefitting from the highly-touted idea of companionship and comfort others seemed to be benefitting from around me; the wild vacillating between feelings of superiority to others and feeling too weak, too desperate, and too ashamed to approach anyone for love and support.

I can better understand “what went wrong.”  The origins of unhealthy narcissism, and the thread it weaves into our family and others.  In short, I can better understand to what I might attribute my intimacy problems, when my parents so clearly loved me and provided me with so much.  And among these pages, too, I have access to the scientific data that attempt to identify what children actually need to form secure attachment with their parents, and what that even looks like.

How strange, when I read the words “the usefulness of their anger.” But, as I’ve intellectually known all along, anger has a healthy interpersonal function.  Reading these words help me integrate and process so much.  Included in this book are also how addiction and enmeshment fit into the attachment puzzle, and how we can approach resolution and repair.  For me, there is clearly much to learn and internalize, but this book provides a grounded and comprehensive discussion of the attachment literature.

Below I include some of my very favorite quotes:

“There is another implication here, too, perhaps especially for the ambivalent child, whose hurt and rage and hatred are so volatile and so quickly unmanageable: He never develops the sense that mom is there to contain his overwhelming emotions; that he can have a tantrum; that he can hate her and feel as if he and mom are through, but that she will be soothing and convey the sense that the tantrum will soon pass without causing permanent damage and that even his wish to annihilate her will not have devastating consequences.  In other words, even if his extreme negative feelings are too much for him, they are not too much for her; she can (in Winnicott’s words) “hold” them, and through his relationship with her he will learn to manage them one day himself.” (Pg 222)

And this: “He doesn’t feel he can be openly angry with her, despite the fact that anger, according to Bowlby, is the natural response when a child’s attachment needs are thwarted.  Experience has taught him that his anger will only cause her to become more rejecting.  And so he has learned to turn himself off.  At the slightest hint of pain or disappointment, he shuts down his attachment system and experiences himself as having no need for love.  Unlike the ambivalent child, whose attachment antennae are always up and receiving and who seems to have no defenses to ward off painful emotions, the avoidant child, Main believes, has made himself deaf to attachment related signals, whether they are coming from within himself or from someone else.  He avoids any situation and perhaps any topic that has the potential for activating his attachment needs.”

Even later on, as a child who seems to have accepted life on the edge of human connectedness, who seems to many observers to prefer detachment, the prospect of further rejection is too terrible to risk.  The predominantly avoidant child cannot be warmly affectionate with his mother or go to her when in need. But by keeping his attachment system dampened, he is at least able to stay near her without risking more pain or ruining the connection with his disappointment and anger.  Thus, despite appearances, the strategy of the avoidant child still seems to serve the purpose of preserving proximity.  Psychologically, he is firmly in his mother’s orbit, his thought, feeling, and behavior shaped by the claims of that relationship, but, like Jupiter or Uranus, he abides at a distance that affords him little warmth (Pg 224).

Karen touches on how in our society secure attachment is more the exception than the rule, and how motherhood, as we think of it, is not the best explanation, but rather modern Western society’s growing individualism and the pressures of achievement at the expense of connection.

And as I suspected, he says that there is hope; successfully parenting one’s children, being in partnership with an emotionally healthy adult and effective therapy can all repair anxious attachment and heal attachment wounds.  Read more gleanings from this great book here, or get a copy for yourself at Amazon.com.

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