004 – “Attachment Figure” Defined

Attachment figures play an important role in Attachment Theory. In the original research, a child’s mother filled that role. However, if we are talking adult romantic relationships, clearly we are talking about someone or something else. What or who is an attachment figure? In our latest podcast, Rebecca and I discuss this question with Dr. Phil Shaver,  “the father of adult attachment theory.”



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(Please note: The audio is transcribed “as is,” spoken grammar glitches and all.)

Welcome to Wefulness where we talk about the science of profound connection.  I’m Wefulness co-editor Gregory Blake.  Today we are talking with relationship expert Dr. Rebecca Jorgensen and adult attachment researcher, Dr. Phil Shaver.

G:  Hi Becca.

R:  Hey Greg!

G:  Today’s section of the Shaver interview involves who, or I guess even what, can be an attachment figure.  I was wondering if you could give us a brief intro to that before we go to the actual piece with Phil.

R:  Well we think of attachment figures and we’re talking about adult romantic relationships. Generally, that’s what we’re talking about.  That’s what I usually talk about.  But when we think about attachment figures it can be a variety of people:  friends, close relatives, parents, spouses would be in our romantic lives, our romantic relationship.  Some single people are even what we’d consider attached, closely bonded to, closely connected, have feelings of warmth and depend on, say, their pets.  We see that a lot in the singles scene.  Where we… It’s really, who do we go to?  Where do we go for comfort, for a sense of belonging, for feeling accepted?  Where do we turn when we need some sort of safely?   Those would be the things that we would be thinking about.  Some, you know, we all have attachment figures, but some people also use what I call counterfeit attachments, which is another whole discussion, turning to objects, turning away from people to maybe addictions or that sort of thing to try to get attachment needs met, it is a counterfeit sort of an attachment.  But, basically we are thinking about attachment figures who are people that we feel connected to that we turn to for acceptance, belonging, comfort and safety.  Those are the things I think of when I think of attachment:  acceptance, belonging, comfort and safety.

G:  Awesome. Okay, let’s hear the next part of our interview with Dr. Shaver.

R:  OK, here we go.

G:  I would love a good definition of an attachment figure.  Because, again, there’s the mother/child – that’s what everyone knows.  What else?

Dr. Shaver:  Well so what we did, at first we focused on romantic relationships because that’s where we found the greatest loneliness.  So in the beginning what I was thinking of is, these people are looking for someone that they could be “hooked up” with.  Usually that that would have meant long term, now the term “hooked up” means very short-term.  So that part of it is similar.  They’re looking for some kind of security and stability in a relationship. And they have usually, in development, the beginnings of that, having a crush on someone, having a boyfriend /girlfriend.  In the beginning, they’re exploring the possibility of having this other kind of relationship while having their family relationship with parents in the background. And by the time you get to what we are usually studying in college, they are in the subject pool of 19-20, something like that.  So they are living separately from their parents, they are thinking of themselves as individuals and they are involved, half of them are involved in a relationship that has lasted more than a year.  So, if we ask them, “If you find out that you have cancer or are flunking out, you can’t do pre-med because you are flunking out of organic chemistry, who will you turn to for support?  Many of them will turn to that boyfriend/girlfriend.  Some of them will still go first to their parents, and some of them will go to their older sister.  So, what we mean by an attachment figure is who is providing emotional support to you when you need it?  Who are you identifying as these people?

G:  You’re defining it for me.  What I’ve been telling people is it’s those people who have your back, that small circle of friends.  Is that accurate?

Dr. Shaver:  Yeah, I think so. It’s more to me that they have your front.  It’s a face-to-face relationship. But yeah, I think, it’s basically in your mind.  So now I’m thinking about an actual, empirical study we did about this.  If we subliminally present, say you’re doing what you think is a cognitive task on this computer screen and we subliminally present words like death, failure, illness – you know things like that – tragedy.  Which, you can measure in those ways has an effect.  It’s autonomically arousing and its anxiety provoking, but they don’t know that they’ve seen it.  In the cognitive task we have people’s names in 4 scrambled letters and their job is just to say, is this a reasonable word or is this a non-word?  It’s called a lexical decision task.  And what happens is that when people have subliminally gotten these scary things, they’re quicker to see their attachment figures names, which we determine by asking them, “Who would you turn to if this, this, and this, happens?”  And they’re quicker to see that it’s a name indicating that unconsciously when they’re frightened, the brain is turning on who those people are that they can turn to.  And for some of them, by the way, it’s Jesus.

G:  Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Shaver:  So that’s an attachment figure.  In your mind…in the kids studies that Anisworth did, she couldn’t ask them anything.  What you see there is a stranger walks in the room and they are off the toys and over at least checking with Mother, “Is this person okay or not?”  And there are studies about what is called “social reference.”  If the Mother looks frightened, the kid would really be right on that.  If you have multiple people there, the one they would go to is the one that they have the most subjective confidence is going to save them.

G:  Is it… would it be domain specific?  So, in terms of… you’d mentioned a golf coach.

Dr. Shaver:  Yeah, yeah, yeah, I mean certainly you could have multiple figures and they could be more or less central to who you would go to.  When we are doing these experiments we ask different versions of it – it’s called the “who-to” questionnaire because it is who you would turn to under different conditions?  We ask them just to write in who that person is and then to say what their relationship is. That’s how we know that Susan is their sister or their mother or something like that.  So, we’d ask them who they would turn to and that turns out to… in this same experiment, the same thing doesn’t happen to other people that they know, even other family members that they don’t list as who they’d go to.  So it’s another sign that there is – as the theory uh, expects – there is a strong connection between, “I’m uncomfortable.  Who will take care of me? Who is going to protect me or support me?”

So then – the other item – I’m just now remembering your other question so, could it be in these other domains?  Yes.  It often could be a teacher, a clergy person.  We have some studies in the Israeli army showing that an avoidant leader reduces the mental health of his troops during combat training.  When you interview them about why that is, it’s because he is not sympathetic to them or compassionate in any way.  It’s only about the job.  And the ones who are relatively anxious, and this is by the leaders own self-description on a questionnaire, the anxious ones, the troops perceive that they feel for them but they are not competent.  They don’t trust necessarily, that in the midst of loving everyone, that they are going to know what to do.  And the secure ones have this double feature.  And in social psychology that idea was originally that there are psycio-emotional and leaderly functions that the leader needs to serve.  And there are a lot of studies showing that if you have the task leader, as they called it then, there’s often emerges in the group what they call the psycio-emotional leader,  who is sort of the side kick to the leader, but feels for the group member.  So I think the, I do think these different relationships, we do get in trouble with this by the way because some people, some reviewers of the papers say, “You’re way away from Mom and baby and now you’re on to soldiers and commanders.”

G:  Well, it just makes sense to me.  Like in terms of, as a school teacher, I know I influence the children that I have in my class.  But I don’t know if it’s appropriate to call myself an attachment figure in that context.

Dr. Shaver:  I was just talking to one of my daughters a couple of days ago, because she and some of her friends after school were going to go see their teacher from the junior high school.  And that’s that special teacher who seemed to care about them and will still welcome them in and talk to them.  And so as they’re growing and encountering to me, minor troubles, that’s one of the people they think of going back to and it’s in the school environment.  So yeah.  I think we call this usually I think now, serving functions of an attachment figure. So that we, it’s not that that’s everything, but this is who they would turn to in a certain domain.  And I do think that if you look at any one of those literatures about leadership teachers or coaches, you’d see the same dynamics.  And you would see the same thing on the part of students and players.  Some of them are going to be anxious people who really want and so show that they want that thing.  Some of them are going to be tough guys who don’t say they want it but they probably do still admire that person and at some level feel confident.

By the way the avoidant people show this same thing, that their attachment figures become more active in their mind when they are threatened.  Even though if you… there is another case of conscious and unconscious…  If you ask them if they were frightened and want to rely on mom, they probably would not say that consciously.  It’s one of the reasons these implicit measures have been helpful, because you can see things.

Oh, another interesting thing in that study, only for the word “separation” as a threat, the more avoidant they are, the longer it takes them to see that their mother’s name is a word.  So it’s possible to, even though the general pattern is when you’re troubled you’re going to go to this person, it seems like they’ve got a special problem about separation and it messes up the cognitive process.

G: Thank you for listening.  For more information about today’s topic, please visit our website at Wefulness.com. We look forward to seeing you there.

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