By Rich Simon These days, most psychotherapy conferences are pretty sedate affairs. The rambunctious era in which proponents of competing schools of therapy battled passionately over theory and method would seem to be far behind us. But what most people remember about the 2010 Networker Symposium was a moment of sharp disagreement that galvanized the entire meeting and has continued to fascinate therapists ever since.
It began when Jerome Kagan, perhaps the world’s most eminent developmental researcher, suddenly dropped a bombshell on a stunned workshop audience in the middle of a talk about the clinical relevance of temperament. “I’m glad that attachment theory is dead,” Kagan announced. “I never thought it would go anywhere.” Suddenly, it appeared that a cornerstone belief about the role of early experience in human development—and by extension, in psychotherapy—was being called into question. As Networker senior editor Mary Wylie commented soon afterward, “It was as if a leading biologist had gotten up at a professional conference to denounce germ theory.”
Moments later, as the crowd shifted in their seats and murmured to one another, noted psychiatrist Dan Siegel, a central figure in bringing a practical appreciation of brain science to psychotherapy, strode to the speaker’s platform to challenge Kagan. “I can’t let this audience listen to your argument without hearing the other side,” he said. “Have you even read the attachment research?” Siegel demanded.
Since that encounter, the Networker has provided a forum for the continuing exploration of the meaning of Attachment Theory, its empirical foundation and its implications for therapeutic practice. The conversation has continued to develop and deepen, first in a series of online interviews with Kagan and Siegel, then in an issue of the Networker headlined, “The Great Attachment Debate,” followed by a popular webcast series.
The latest installment in this evolving conversation is a new webcast series beginning October 25th called “Is Attachment the Problem?: Putting Attachment Theory into Practice.” This latest examination of Attachment Theory is focused on the nuts-and-bolts question of how exactly it translates into more effective therapeutic practice across a range of issues. How does Attachment Theory help us work effectively with struggling couples, oppositional kids, burnt-out parents, and chronic pain patients? If the fundamental difficulty that many clients bring into our offices stems from early experiences that they can’t put into words, how can talk therapy ever help them? How do you tell the difference between an early attachment-based problem and the other kinds of complaints clients bring into psychotherapy?
This series, and the whole question of attachment-based psychotherapy, bring into focus a basic paradox underlying the therapeutic relationship. Increasingly, mainstream therapists are becoming aware of the role of nonverbal affect regulation in our bond with clients and how much we unconsciously communicate back-and-forth in our treatment rooms. How can the therapist consciously create the conditions under which his or her unconscious mind takes over and communicates a sense of security and close connection with the unconscious mind of the client? If you find that question intriguing, you might consider joining the conversation and signing up for “Is Attachment the Problem?”.