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The Adult Attachment Interview & How it Changed Attachment Research History

How the Adult Attachment Interview Became the 'Most Important Development in Attachment Research'

Mary Sykes Wylie and Lynn Turner

When attachment theory was blossoming, it didn’t provide an accompanying toolbox of tactics and techniques, though it did offer a new therapeutic attitude, justifying deep, soul-felt work, which offered a genuinely new beginning towards treatment for adult attachment disorder.

Psychodynamic therapists certainly understood the enduring impact of childhood experiences, but even if they'd been fascinated by attachment studies, it was still an open question how these early mother–child bonds might play out in adult psychopathology.

Beginning in the 1970s and throughout the '80s, Mary Main--a research psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley--began interviewing parents and studying their interactions with their babies.

In those days, the groundbreaking innovations influencing clinical practice came not from the attachment literature, but from the iconoclastic rebels promulgating the gospel of family systems theory.

In the study, they found that attachment rejection or trauma in a mother's childhood was systematically related to the same sort of attachment issues between her and her child.

From this kind of attachment research, Main and her colleagues devised an interview method—the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI).

This interview contained 20 open-ended questions about people's recollections of their own childhood, including:

  • Describe your relationship with your parents.

  • Think of five adjectives that reflect your relationship with your mother.

  • What's the first time you remember being separated from your parents?

  • Did you ever feel rejected?

  • Did you experience the loss of someone close to you?

  • How do you think your experience affected your adult personality?

More important than the specific content gathered from this attachment research—which could be more or less accurate—was the way people responded.

Whether their personal narratives were coherent or confused, whether they dismissed the questions with short, uninformative answers, or whether they rambled on pointlessly provided real—and ultimately, empirically validated—insights about their state of mind, emotional processes, and capacity to form relationships.

Main's goal, she said, was to "surprise the unconscious" into revealing itself.

Furthermore, the AAI has, over the years of repeated use, been found capable of targeting, with more than 80 percent predictability, how a child of the adult interviewee would be attached to his/her parent.

While other variants of adult attachment measures have been developed, the AAI set the stage for an empirically validated way of following the transmission of attachment patterns from generation to generation—documenting a kind of psychic lineage from parent to child to grandchild.

In fact, according to psychology researchers Howard and Miriam Steele in Clinical Applications of the Adult Attachment Interview, the AAI was "the single most important development in attachment research over the last 25 years."

Topic: Attachment Theory | Trauma

Tags: adult attachment disorder | Adult attachment interview | attachment disorder | attachment issues | family systems | family systems theory | psychodynamic therapist | psychodynamic therapists | psychologist | psychology | psychology research | therapist | therapists

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Monday, November 30, 2015 2:23:44 PM | posted by ICQ Chat
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Tuesday, March 4, 2014 1:53:13 AM | posted by mark baumann
Yes, that article has very good examples.(http://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/magazine/recentissues/2012-janfeb/item/1647-brain-based-parenting) The authors make a valiant effort at the neurobiology, and come up with good solutions. I like their closing comment: “All of us respond better to an approach encompassing playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy, conveyed with genuine smiles, soft eyes, gentle voices, an open posture, and a figurative hand held out in support.” All of these suggestions are implied by Interpersonal Neurobiology and its foundation pieces such as attachment theory and the Polyvagal Theory.

For me, more focus on attachment theory (as opposed to things like neurotransmitters and brain science) gets me "there" quicker and helps me stay out of trouble. For example, in the article Dan should have figured out quickly that his client was sensitive to attachment A patterns (traditionally labeled dismissive) and that his own dismissiveness of his client would backfire. One of the powerful aspects of attachment theory is that it gives us a simple model for how to identify primary self-protective relationship strategies and avoid triggering our clients --and also recognizing our own triggers, which Dan also failed to do in his example. (I’m not picking on Dan because we are all guilty of having done what he did. He was courageous to authentically share this one failure.)

It may be that a failure of traditional attachment theory is that it does not highlight and make apparent the value of understanding that there are only two basic patterns with which humans respond to “danger.” (There are four attachment patterns, but in Crittenden’s model, they essentially boil down to two, which can be expressed four ways. This is another interesting addition she brings to attachment theory.) The two patterns are easy to understand and provide a very strong foundation for working with people in distress.

I have a graduate credit certificate in Interpersonal Neurobiology, from Portland State University. Attachment is a major component of IPNB theory, but Crittenden is NOT referenced. Attachment did not hit home for me and become a practical tool in how I relate to clients, until I read her materials.

Thanks for the reference to the article, it was fun to read and offered memorable examples.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014 1:47:29 AM | posted by penelopes
Hi Mark thanks so much for you comment. I will now explore Crittenden's work!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014 12:32:53 AM | posted by First Name Last Name
What Neuroscience is Teaching Us About Connecting With Our Kids
By Jonathan Baylin and Daniel Hughes

I always found this to be a particularly useful article on this topic. It provides an excellent example in Dan and Rebecca.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014 12:27:11 AM | posted by Andrea Landini
Thank you, Mark (Baumann). Your comments are welcome. The underlying goal of the DMM is to reduce human suffering and part of that is being 'user friendly', that is using language and concepts that free people to change their pathway in life with the old path no long fits their needs. You have helped to spread that idea.
Patricia Crittended

Monday, March 3, 2014 10:06:38 PM | posted by First Name Last Name
Those old enough to remember the television program "The Waltons" will recall a three-generational household, where grandparent, parents, and children coexisted in a relational model, still common in other cultures. The focus being on interconnections and
interdependencies that create the sense of Self.

"How does parenting affect children?" is a question we are not eager to ask ourselves if we place more value on a "two wager-earner" households, instead of parenting . Problems such as addiction, alcoholism, obesity, and suicide are in many ways attributable to a lack "relationship-base parenting" during a child's developmental years.

Monday, March 3, 2014 4:53:34 PM | posted by JOHN BURIK
The AAI not only changed research but clinical interviews. Dr. Main graciously gave us permission to use it in that manner a couple years ago.

Monday, March 3, 2014 4:44:56 PM | posted by Brian Collinson
This research into adult attachment has tremendous importance, especially related to the ways in which attachment issues travel down the generations.

Monday, March 3, 2014 4:31:42 PM | posted by mark baumann

I have been enjoying your posts and excellent summaries of complex topics. I enjoyed this one as well but I have a critique and a comment/question, both of which are informed by Dr. Patricia Crittenden’s work on attachment. Crittenden, like Main, studied under Ainsworth and Bowlby. While Crittenden also admires and uses the AAI and remains faithful to Ainsworth’s ABC model, she has developed and published a more comprehensive model of adult attachment she calls the Dynamic Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation (DMM).

First, I agree that Main’s approach to an adult attachment model indicates that the intergenerational transmission of attachment patterns is consistent: in other words “A” parents beget “A” children. However, that may not be correct and attachment patterns can apparently flip. In other words, a C pattern mother can have an A pattern child. See Shah, P., Fonagy, P., Strathearn, L. (2010). Is attachment transmitted across generations? The plot thickens. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 15, 329-345; also available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3060612/

According to this study, the ability to distinguish and find this result comes from the use of Crittenden’s DMM because it offers more finely distinguished categories of adult attachment.

Second, Crittenden seems to offer a very robust model for understanding the significance of attachment, and her theories provide a more humane and comprehensive language set. Both of these combine to make attachment more accessible and usable in every day practice, at least for me. There are many examples. A simple one is Crittenden’s use of the word pathway instead of trajectory. Attachment patterns which meet an infant needs are developed (and presumably established) before children walk. Nevertheless, those patterns can change depending on many environmental factors. Another example is her use of the concepts of “patterns of information processing” and “self-protective strategies” rather than “attachment styles.” People can have PIP’s and SPS’ in both A and C patterns, and express them differently depending on the context (dispositional representation). Terminology like this goes a long way to avoiding the “labeling” problem and pathologizing, while at the same time giving us healthy ways to language behavior and productively support clients/patients.

Crittenden’s language made attachment immediately useful in my practice. But it seems she is not well known in the U.S., and I don’t understand why not.

For an interesting article about the relationship between Bowlby/Ainsworth and Main/Crittenden, see Landa, S., & Duschinsky, R., (2013). Letters from Ainsworth: Contesting the “organization” of attachment. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 22(2), 172–177; also at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3647635/

Please keep up your excellent work with PTN and summarizing complex topics!
Warm regards,
Mark Baumann, Seattle

Monday, March 3, 2014 3:37:30 PM | posted by Seth Houdeshell
Psychology again manages to confirm the obvious through research.