Reading her book took me back to the time I decided to develop a parenting magazine, so I could learn to be the best mother I could possibly be for my daughter, who was a toddler then, just like Azalea, her daughter, was when Bethany started researching attachment.
By the time I read the first 20 pages, I was having an imaginary conversation with Bethany Saltman, answering herself doubts an worries: Relax: it’s obvious for us all you are an amazing mother and you have a secure attachment. I knew that not because I am, oh, so smart, or I have psychic-like abilities allowing me to know in advance the results of her AAI test (Adult Attachment Inventory), but because Bethany devoted more than 10 years to unravel the meaning and the complexity of the groundbreaking theory of attachment, developed by Mary Ainsworth some 50 years ago, being inspired by her daughter and their relationship.
So, prior to having our zoom interview, I already felt like I somehow knew Bethany Saltman, this month’s guest, through her scientifically acclaimed, yet very personal book.
Your book is called „Strange Situation: A Mother’s Journey into the Science of Attachment“. Did you mean to write the book for parents only? – cause it did not feel like that when reading it.
No, not at all. Honestly, the subtitle came from the publisher, I wanted the subtitle to read The Love Story of a Lifetime.
Nice and more poetic I would say.
And more along the lines with what is true for me.
So, for whom did you intend to write the book in the first place?
Well, like I always say, it’s not just for everybody who is a parent, but who has a parent, so, basically, everybody. Anybody who is interested in understanding the way attachment works, anyone who is interested in understanding the power of our interpretation, of our experiences and how we make meaning based on our views and our assumptions. Attachment is the lens through which I became interested and learned a lot, but ultimately, the book is not really even about attachment – it’s about love, it’s about insight and learning to understand who we are. And you could do the same thing by studying any aspect of… study. But of course, it’s the study itself, the close looking that I found most compelling. And of course, I love the field of attachment, also.
You studied it for 10 years! For me, every time I thought I understood what was all about, it appeared to be more and more complicated. Did it feel the same for you?
Absolutely! I couldn’t believe how difficult it was for me to understand just the basis of Strange Situation itself and I think – like Howard Steele said to me (and I wrote this in the book) – to study oneself, to be studying attachment is going to be activating of my own attachment system, so my creativity was not always super accessible to me and I was activated a lot. It was very difficult for me to understand the 9 episodes of the Strange Situation and what was happening there. It took me many, many repetitions of seeing it, of reading about it and of studying it with the experts in the field to even understand the basis of it. And then, once you understand the basis of it you can start to go deeper and understand the subtleties and the nuances: it took me forever! And it got really complicated and then it simplified, as things do.
Briefly, can you explain for somebody who never heard of this, of Mary Ainswhorth or John Bowlby, what’s the Theory of Attachment about?
The Theory of Attachment hopes to describe the reason why we have such strong feelings between parent and child. And the reason, from an evolutionary point of view is that we are wired, we have grown, have evolved to have these affectionate bonds that keep us close to one another, because a human infant can’t survive on their own. So, what we call love is part attachment, this biological need to stay close and to find a person in your charge adorable and someone you wanna be very, very close to. It’s something so intrinsic of who we are, it fuels every movie, every song, fashion – everything is based on this longing to be intimate, to be seen, to be understood and to be loved. And it’s so intrinsic to who we are, it’s difficult to see. And Attachment Theory is positing a way to see that fundamental thing about being a human.
What about the Strange Situation thing?
Now I understand it more simply. So, the Strange Situation is a laboratory procedure that takes places between a parent and a child around 1 year old. It’s essentially a series of separations and reunions and it’s based on the understanding that Mary Ainsworth came to, which is that in a securely attached pair, a child uses the parent as a secure base in times of danger or stress. And so, the strange situation is an opportunity for a researcher to see a child’s stress level go up, because they’re left with a stranger, then they’re left alone and then the mother returns (or the parent returns) and the researcher can see if the child is able to use the parent to calm themselves down.
As I understand, this bond – let’s say – is formed in the very first year of our life?
Yes, but the caveat is that the attachment forms in the first year of life, but digestion is formed before we are even born, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t continue to grow and evolve, very affected by our life circumstance. So yes, our attachment bond if formed by the time we are a year, but we have a whole life to mold it and transform ourselves. We do have a certain baseline, by the time we are one, but that’s not the end of the story.
So, the best-case scenario: if by the first anniversary you have a secure attachment, does this grant you some kind of superpower for your lifetime?
Almost, I mean, kind of! A secure attachment is the greatest thing a child could have. Doesn’t mean they don’t suffer, doesn’t mean they don’t get hurt or get traumatized, even, but it creates a type of confidence and resilience. The phrase that I always like to say is that it helps a child know where his bread is buttered.
What puzzles me is that about 65% of the population has a secured attachment. But it only takes a look around to see that people are kind of messed up.
I know, but here is the beauty of attachment. It does not mean that you are not scrambling, it doesn’t mean you are not suffering, that you are not crazy (or seeming), neurotic, but it means you have a way of bringing yourself back to some type of inner security. People think, at least in the United States, that to create a secure attachment must look a certain way: you have to have this instagramable look, you have to have a certain level of wealth, a certain level of intelligence, to be a liberal or to have certain politics and it’s not absolutely not true!
Mary Ainsworth started her research in Uganda, so, attachment doesn’t have anything to do with the life conditions, in terms of wealth. What are the factors that influence this bond, then? Is love enough? Is it enough to love your child, to „procure“ a secure attachment for him(her)?
That’s a great question – it depends on how you understand love! The thing is we all love our children. And so, I would say the question is how sensitive can we be, how much can we, as parents, really experience that love? How much can we share that love, how much access do we have to that love? How much can we allow that love to inform our behaviour? So no, love is a lot, but it’s actually not enough, because what children really need is sensitive attunement. So we can love our children like crazy, but if we are not delighting in them, if we are not paying attention to them, if we love them kind of passively, like objects – admiring them, thinking they are cute – that’s really not enough. Children need parents to be attending to them; not all the time and not perfectly. So, it’s really depending on how you define love, really.
What about siblings? Each child has different needs, a different temperament. Is it possible to have one child with a secure attachment and another one insecure or avoidant? What’s the factor that makes the difference?
It’s called „goodness of fit”. Generally speaking, the parent’s attachment as an adult is what gets transmitted to the child, like 75% chance. So, typically, a parent’s attachment gets passed on to the child. However, there is this thing called goodness of fit. Azalea and I are a really good fit: she is a very flexible kid, I am kind of an intense adult, we just get along really well temperamentally and so that’s going to really enhance our path for a secure attachment. If I had a child on the spectrum, it would have been very challenging for me. I do have a secure attachment, so chances are I would have passed that down, regardless, because that’s one of the things that a secure attachment does: it helps you attune to the child you have. That is why it is kind of a superpower. And it doesn’t always look the way we think it should, but it is a profoundly robust finding in the literature around the world, for decades now, that this is generally what happens. But, absolutely, kids can have really specific needs, they can be undiagnosed for different kinds of issues that haven’t been handled and it’s gonna make it very difficult for the parent to have a secure attachment with that child.
You say in your book that an insecure attachment is not a life sentence, it’s not some karma you can’t shake off. What can one do to change that sentence?
The wonderful thing about attachment is that the more we become aware of it, the more secure we become. So becoming more attuned to your own desire for connection or, if we are an avoidant person and we don’t desire connection, noticing that: I notice that all my friend wanna have dinner together, I don’t – I wonder why? Or it’s the Holidays, families want to be together, I would rather be alone. Or I notice that I am more interested in my children’s achievements than in how they feel – interesting! It’s simply by becoming aware of the attachment system, we become more secure. It’s an amazingly elegant system, developed by Nature, God (however you understand that) and it’s incredibly efficient.
So that’s when Mindfulness comes into place. I was wondering about that – because you are a Zen practitioner – I was wondering how Mindfulness helped you connect more with yourself as a parent?
So many studies show that a secure attachment gives us more capacity for awareness and any mindfulness practice that you can master is going to help you become more secure. The thing is going on in a secure attachment is awareness of oneself; that’s all it is. That we’ve learned from our parents. So if our parents have some awareness of their own feelings, they – by osmosis and by learning and mirroring – teach us to have awareness of ourselves. An avoidant baby, an avoidant adult is not just avoidant of exterior people, they’re avoidant of their own feelings. That’s the most important situation here, that’s what attachment does: it helps you connect to yourself, so that you can be more loving and connected. We all know people who seem kind of cold or you feel kind of alone when you’re around them. It’s not because they don’t love you or because they don’t wanna be close to you, but they are probably very cut off inside and that’s just the way human beings work, we feel what they feel, for better or for worse.
Parents, by definition, are very busy people. What would your advice be, for a 10-minutes practice or an exercise one parent could do in order to connect with himself?
Any kind of meditation that people are drawn to is… I cannot even think of a good metaphor for how important it is! Weather is transcendental meditation or Zen meditation, even yoga, anything; and 10 minutes is plenty to start with. What all these practices have in common is a way to develop awareness of your mind. And it’s very difficult to do at first, but trust me: I have done it – I have gone from a total chaotic monkey mind, thinking I would never be able to meditate, to sitting still for weeks at a time, with different periods of walking in between. It was not anything I ever thought that I would do and I really learned to love it and rely on it and understand how critical it is to me to be having access to my hart, to be actually connecting to others.
It did not end, obviously, it’s a journey and it still goes on, but how did it change things so far – for you and your daughter, for you and your husband, for you and your brothers and your mother?
It really helped me be more confident, because I know what a mess I am, but I also come to trust the attachment science so completely. So, I’m like ok, if I am considered secure, then I guess I am not that terrible, I am not as broken as I thought I was. And there is a lot more room into this secure attachment business that I could have ever imagined: there is room for me! – which is a miracle. Most people will never know whether they are secure or insecure, but I say act as if you are secure – it doesn’t really matter, the practice is the same. I still have to sit every day and meditate, I still have to watch myself, I still have to study this stuff, I still have to work really hard. I still have to bite my tongue, to manage my anger, I still have to do all these things I have to do, in order to be the mother that I want to be for my daughter.
What kind of mother you would like to be for your daughter?
I just really wanna be as kind as I possibly can. I want to be compassionate. That does not mean I am a pushover; I am anything but a pushover! I am tough, I am the disciplinarian, she has a healthy fear of me. I have very strong boundaries and she is a really good and a very happy kid. And she is a 15 years old girl, which everybody says – 15 years old girls are so evil. Azalea and I were actually talking just recently to do a podcast together, called Just you wait!, because everybody I talk to telling them Azalea is a great kid says Just you wait – when she is a teenager she is going to slay you! That could happen, but we still get along. We have our arguments, for sure, and our conflicts, but she is a happy person and I am a pretty happy person, so we do our best to coexist and to connect.
And with your mother?
With my mother has been really interesting, because most of the people who have read the book, including myself, considered her the hero. She is amazing. I really played up my suspicion of her and how I felt she was a terrible mother, and she comes through for me so, so completely. Unfortunately, she does not see it that way, she feels like she comes off terribly and I feel so badly about that. But the great news is that – even with that – she and I are very, very close. She feels like that was your truth, you had to write it your way, I don’t understand it, my feelings are hurt, but she respects me.
You published this book right in the middle of an epidemic and I was thinking for the past one and a half year, we’ve all been in the Strange Situation, globally speaking. What’s your point of view about this situation from the attachment perspective?
It’s really tough; that really depends on the age of children. I just read an article about secure attachment making pro social behavior more accessible to children during the pandemic. Meaning that having a secure attachment really helped kids, (even when they didn’t have access to their friends, to school) to continue to have a pro-social kind of experience. And I’ve certainly have seen that to be true in our house: Azalea surely hasn’t enjoyed the pandemic, but she hasn’t fallen apart by any means. We have resources: her school has done a really good job and she doesn’t have a bunch of siblings and two working parents that are struggling to make end’s meat and stress to the max – those are very, very real factors. But with that said, like I said in the beginning, having a secure attachment makes everything easier. Los of people, at the beginning of the pandemic, were reporting that their kids were happy, because they were with their parents all the time. That doesn’t surprise me at all, and I think it’s a very good lesson to modern parents: kids do not need their friends nearly as much as you might want them to and kids really like to be around their parents. And that’s a funny thing to say in our contemporary time. I think what’s more important in the pandemic in not so much the attachment issues, it’s more education and access to resources: that has been really traumatizing for people, obviously and when those things aren’t played, it can be difficult on delicate attachment systems already.
Modern parents are very preoccupied with filling their child’s program with all sorts of activities in the name of preparing him for success – is this a mistake?
Not necessarily: it really depends on one’s ability to be sensitive to the child. If you’re just obsessed with your child’s external achievements, then yes, that’s a very avoidant kind of unattuned way to raise a child, because that is not what a child needs from you. What a child needs from you is warmth, support, knowing, mirroring, connectedness: everybody needs to be connected. And the irony is that when children are connected to their parents, success comes more naturally.
In your book you say that for the society as a whole, it’s not necessary for all of us to have a secure attachment and actually there is a theory (the theory of social defense) that says society functions better if we don’t all have a secure attachment – care to explain about that?
I don’t know if society functions better, but the fact remains we can’t all be the same, and there will be people with secure and insecure attachments and there are advantages to having different kinds of attachment patterns within a community. It’s good; that’s about diversity, which I think it’s very interesting angle, actually.
To recap: what benefits you have if you have a secure attachment?
Well, you know yourself and what you need. You may not always be able to get what you need, you may not be able to articulate it, but it’s an inner knowing and inner strength and inner trust in yourself and in relationships. That is the main thing: people with secure attachment value attachment. People with insecure attachments – whether resistant or avoidant – turn away, tend to turn away from relationships and don’t have the same success in relationships. And every relationship is everything: there is work, that’ s creative pursuits, that’s community, marriage, so having a secure attachment makes relationships more accessible to you.
Then again, that 65% comes to mind; from the relationships point of view, does not seem like it, with online dating and the no commitment issue. Is attachment similar to commitment in terms of a couple relationship?
No, not necessarily, because people have all kinds of ideas and needs. It’s more a matter of being individually satisfied.
That being whatever fulfills your needs, either it’s monogamy, polyamorous relationships, whatever.
Exactly! It’s just a little bit more of a straight and narrow path, even if the path has 86 turns; you are a little bit more able to do what you need to do, to get your needs met. It’s subtle, it’s not necessarily something that you can tell right away, but you can notice it in the way people talk, in the way they can tell a story, in the way they have a coherent narrative.
You have your training by now and your 10 years of research – are you able to tell when talking to someone: he’s secure, he’s not?
Sometimes I think I can, but who knows?
Your daughter will „inherit“ your secure attachment. What else would you like her to inherit from you?
She is version 2.0: she already surpassed me in so many ways; and that’s the way it should be! I think my interest in having an inner life is really important and she certainly has inherited that. She has inherited my sensitivity, but she is not quite as sensitive as I am, which is a good thing. She’s me plus… she is so much better, easier going, very easy to get along with, she is delightful, she is not edgy, like I am, at all, and that’s her personality. So, I feel like she surpassed me already.
It means your mission is accomplished.
Absolutely: she is ready to launch!
In your book you are not giving advice, it’s just you story, and it’s rich as it is, but if you were to give advice to modern parents, who are challenged enough, what your advice would be for them?
Trust yourself: the story is still being written! Everybody should learn to trust themselves, everybody should listen to themselves, it doesn’t matter if you are secure, insecure, what percentage you fall into – that’s my advice to everybody.
Even if you have a secure attachment, you still have to put the work in every day, though.
Absolutely! When I say it’s like a superpower, I’m talking on a very deep level. A secure attachment just gives us a kind of resilience, deep, deep down, but we are suffering beings, we just are, human beings suffer. A secure attachment is just a tiny little leg up, but what’s important about it is that a secure attachment is that it helps us to have the capacity to have all our feelings. And a lot of those feelings are going to be treacherous, scary, terrible feelings, but I would rather have them all than be limited by fear and avoidance – which is what happens when we don’t have a secure attachment.
© Credit photo: Hillary Harvey