Lovenheim stumbled on attachment theory while skimming his daughter’s college textbook several months after the end of a significant and tortuous relationship in his life. It was too late for his relationship, he writes, but curiosity triggered a quest to understand how John Bowlby’s significant and groundbreaking theory — later advanced by the research of Mary Ainsworth — plays out in venues from romance to parenting, sports to politics to religion.
Attachment theory proposes that the way we relate to other people develops according to how responsive and reliable our earliest caregivers are. The holy grail of attachment is secure—the result of caregivers who are responsive and available and who support independence while also providing safe harbor. Insecure attachment can be anxious, which is clingy and fearful of abandonment; avoidant, which is emotionally distant and unavailable; or anxious-avoidant, an exhausting mix of needy and distant.
In The Attachment Effect, a mash-up of memoir and pop psychology, Lovenheim first determines his own attachment style by undergoing the Adult Attachment Interview with psychiatrist Maurico Cortina, who founded the Attachment and Human Development Center at the Washington School of Psychiatry. Lovenheim recounts the interview in detail, revealing a great deal about his experience growing up. Ultimately, he learns, his attachment style is “earned secure” — hope for anyone whose early caregivers were less than ideal. An “earned secure” is someone who is essentially anxious or avoidant, but who has learned through experience how to maintain secure attachments. In a later chapter, Lovenheim also lets himself be put into an MRI to see how attachment plays out in the brain. However he so dislikes the experience, which includes taking an electrical shock to the leg, he declines to complete the test.
And as sympathetic as you might feel toward a person declining a painful electrical shock, this is the first of the frustrations of the book, in which Lovenheim takes what he’s learned and ventures out into the various worlds to see how attachment plays out. He builds each chapter around characters and anecdotes: an attachment-parenting mother (attachment parenting is a hot topic in parenting circles); a hapless amateur basketball team; a coffee shop; and former governor of Massachusetts and one-time presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.
It’s a fun approach in theory, but ultimately unsatisfying. Lovenheim presents some research focused on the chapter’s premise, then speculates and assumes, posits and guesses, superimposing attachment theory as best he can over the things he observes and what he learns in interviews. His are plausible speculations, posits and guesses, but reminiscent of the first-year psych student who psychoanalyzes everyone around him according to newly learned theories.
One wonders, too, how and why Lovenheim selected the people and situations he highlights. Why this coffee shop? (Was it random? Convenient? Had he observed some particularly compelling behavior there prior to featuring it?) Why this particular basketball team? Why this church on Christmas Eve? Why Michael Dukakis, of all politicians? Not that Dukakis is necessarily a bad choice on which to overlay guesses, speculation and assumptions, but a word or two about what brought the author to him would liberate the reader’s brain from the effort of wondering.
The Attachment Effect is an entertaining read that might nonetheless cause social science researchers to pound their heads on their desks for its dependence on anecdotes and a loosey-goosey approach to interpreting research. Still, the theory itself contains multitudes, and so the ideas floated here are interesting, and each chapter of this book begs for a book of its own — even if we might finish this one feeling like the knowledge we’ve acquired is only half-baked.
The Attachment Effect: Exploring the Powerful Ways Our Earliest Bond Shapes Our Relationships and Lives
TarcherPerigee, June 2018
Paperback, 304 pages