Skip to main content

June 11, 2023

Who are Your Attachment Figures?

Mary Fitzgibbons, Ph.D.

There is probably nothing more beautiful and intense as watching a nurturing mother look into the eyes of her infant child. There is probably nothing more critical to a child’s development than having this ongoing experience with her mother or caregiver. What the child sees in her parent’s face is a precursor of healthy or unhealthy emotional development. This can determine this child’s development style, from healthy attachment to others to avoidant and ambivalent relationships.

Psychologists like Bowlby and Winnicott tell us there are two behaviors that describe healthy attachment – mirroring and attuning. In mirroring, the child looks at the mother’s face and sees in her the reflection of himself. He also looks in her face and sees the value of himself. This is critical, because if mother (or caregiver) is emotionally distracted or unavailable because of stress, fear, anxiety, or their own inability to nurture, the infant perceives himself as being unlovable because the mother’s face doesn’t project love. In fact, psychologist Mary Ayres says that the consequence for those who miss out on being mirrored adequately is a primary sense of shame. The result of this sense of shame is a felt sense of being unlovable or somehow defective.

The next behavior is attuning. In successful attuning, the caregiver is able to emotionally join in with the child. She is matching the baby’s tone and emotion, whether the baby is expressing anger, fear, joy, or distress. Mother is conveying that she senses what the baby is experiencing. Mother does this through her words, voice, and touch. The baby feels understood. However, in order to be attuned to another, it’s necessary to be attuned to oneself. This means that we don’t negate our feelings. We don’t stay distracted so that we neglect our feelings. Through our feelings, we come to know ourselves. Attuning to ourselves allows us to become attuned to others. When we are attuned to others, we are able to tap into their emotional needs; they feel a sense of security and safety with us, and they are able to be open with their feelings.

We speak of these behaviors generally in terms of early child development. But they exist in relationships that go beyond early caregivers. In varying relationships, we are able to develop a healthy attachment. For example, teachers can be secondary attachment figures. Children who may not have had healthy parenting from early caregivers can feel that sense of being cared for and valued by a teacher who develops an emotional tie with his students. He cares about their emotional and academic needs. Most importantly, the students know that they are cared for. I had a French teacher in high school, Sr. Ann Francis. Besides being an excellent teacher, all of her students had the sense that she cared about us. Occasionally she would tell very funny stories on herself. I loved her stories. They made her sound very real and very human. Years later, a few of my high school friends and I decided to visit her convent in Kentucky. Of course, we were all hoping that after many years she would remember us. Not only did she remember us, she was able to tell a story about each of us that she remembered from our high school days. I know that she could not have been aware of the impact she had on our lives.

Loving grandparents, aunts and uncles, or older siblings can all be secondary attachment figures. Hopefully, we all have a few of these people who have impacted our lives. There is a beautiful Irish movie that came out recently called The Quiet Girl. It tells the story of a nine-year-old girl who lives in a harsh poverty-stricken home with an alcoholic father and harried mother and numerous siblings. She appears very quiet at home and at school. She has no friends. She barely responds when asked a question and spends most of the time by herself. An aunt and uncle offer to take her for the summer. At first, she is very quiet and withdrawn. However, from the beginning, her aunt and eventually the uncle show her consistent kindness and caring. Slowly we see the girl come into her own. It is as though her personality awakens. Throughout the movie, viewers see multiple instances where she is mirrored and attuned to.

Sue Johnson, author of the book Hold Me Tight, discusses Attachment Theory in marital relationships. She talks about the ability to be tuned into our spouse, letting the other person know that we understand them. In other words, we “get them.” Marriage can be very difficult. We often stop trying to know our spouse within a few years after the wedding. Children come and we have no time for the other. In fact, the person that we wanted to spend a lifetime with is often the person from whom we are most distant. In good marriages, each person has a sense of safety with the other. We feel that there is someone who “has our back.” That person may not agree with us, but they want to understand us; they want to know us. They’re the person who says, “I feel badly for you,” when we’ve had a bad day. They’re the person whose face lights up when we walk into the room. We see in their face the value that we have.

The therapeutic process is an excellent example of an attachment relationship. Empathy, in the form of attunement and mirroring, is the basis of the therapeutic relationship. The therapist empathetically attunes to the client by tuning into and resonating with their experiences. In the process, the therapist maintains his or her own presence and identity. It is not about becoming the other, but rather momentarily experiencing what the client experiences, whether it be emotional or physical. This implies that the therapist is attentively listening. He or she responds in a way that tells the client that the therapist is actively engaged. The client experiences the sense that they are understood. The therapist “gets” the client.

As we can see the mirroring and attunement process is critical to our well-being. Being conscious of how we relate to others can have extraordinary benefits for them and for us. The questions we may want to ask ourselves are: who have we attached to? Who has attached to us? Who was instrumental in our emotional development?

Back to Articles

Mary Fitzgibbons

Mary Fitzgibbons, Ph.D.