NP0008 The Great Attachment Debate

This blog focuses on discussion regarding the course NP0008 The Great Attachment Debate.

NP0008, Attachment, Session 4, David Schnarch


Are there any downsides to basing clinical treatment on Attachment Theory? In this session, discover why David Schnarch, a leading advocate of differentiation in the therapy process, believes that Attachment Theory keeps clients functioning as needy children. Schnarch will discuss how to use confrontation as an effective therapeutic approach.

After this session with Schnarch, please take a few minutes to engage in the Comment Board and let us know what you think about using this strategy with clients. What was most relevant about this presentation? What questions did this bring up for you?  We invite you to include your name and hometown along with your comment. If you ever have any technical questions, contact support@psychotherapynetworker.org.


08.29.2011   Posted In: NP0008 The Great Attachment Debate   By Psychotherapy Networker
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  • Not available avatar Walter Mehring 08.31.2011 13:31
    Hi David,
    Something I like about your idea is that marriage isn't about being warm and fuzzy all the time. It sounds like, to you, a big part of real security in marriage is to have a couple acknowledge their baser impulses and conflict, and still be willing to stand with each other in the face of that, warts and all. "I see the parts of you I don't like and disagree with, and I still choose you in the face of that." Perhaps this is the heart of the differentiation you describe.
    Yours, Walter Mehring
    • Not available avatar David Schnarch 09.01.2011 23:41
      Hi Walter,

      I very much like your take on my take on differentiation. If you're not describing the heart of differentiation, it's one of the vital organs. Or better said, you're describing the heart IN differentiation. And yes, it's part of real security in marriage.

      Thanks for pulling out something I am indeed saying.

      David Schnarch
      • Not available avatar David Schnarch 09.02.2011 08:36
        Message to other posters and readers of this blog thread

        This thread was recently started, coinciding with the re-showing of the Attachment Debate Webinars. The apparent goal is to promote new discussion with new participants, rather than adding them to the extensive discussion that arose from the original airing (available here: http://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/blog-communities/p004/viewpost/1294_P004_Attachment_Session_4_David_Schnarch.

        I strongly recommend reading this prior thread for several reasons:

        1. There are many thoughtful posts by other participants you might find interesting.
        2. I've already responded at length to each of these posts, investing much time and energy in the process.
        3. If you want to understand my responses to things you post here, realize you're coming in at the middle of an ongoing conversation. I hope you will appreciate why I don't plan to start over explaining things I've already covered in great detail previously. So what may sound like a cryptic or incomplete response by me, when taken by itself, may make more sense when viewed against the background of what I've already previously clarified. (This doesn't rule out the possibilty my responses are indeed cryptic or incomplete, but that hasn't characterized them so far.)


        David Schnarch
        • Not available avatar Clyde Tigner 09.02.2011 23:05
          Thank you very much for this information!!!
  • -0.1 avatar Christine Walker 08.31.2011 13:32
    I appreciated the clear and intriguing presentation by Dr. Schnarch. As an attachmented based therapist I do have to disagree with a couple of his basic premises. Attachment based therapy does have space for dealing with "disgusting" behaviors. Disgusting and traumatizing behaviors are rampant in families with Disorganized Attachment systems, and these patterns of interacting then become programed into the brain, and become generational. There is always the presence of attachment. Attachment Theory is not based on the abssence of something. It is based on understanding the type of attachment system, and seeking to change it. In the process, people might need to be confronted, but the concept of trust and security helps people do this, it doesn't hinder it or rule it out. I take strong issue with the statement that Attachment Theory is not based on science. It certainly is, as Dan Siegel and others explains eloquently. Attachment Theory talks about developing autonomy which can also be referred to as differientation. Attachment science proves that autonomy or differientation grows out of appropriate dependency, and if one has never had appropriate dependency, or a secure enough attachment figure, they do need to have the experience to grow their own autonomy. Development cannot skip steps. One cannot shock or push someone into having something they have not already developed, and science shows that it is the dependency that leads to autonomy or a strong sense of self.

    It seems that Dr. Scharch is acutally supporting secure attachment when he is encouraging people to be in touch with themselves and to be true to themselves--in other words don't discount your sense of yourself (or betray yourself) to please your partner. To have a strong sense of self is attachment based. Dr. Siegel talks about mindfulness being one tool which can repair one's insecure attachment--and thus strengthen one's relationship with one's self.

    Being attuned to another in relationship (to use attachment languate) is not about coddling, or interferring with differentiation. It's about knowing when to welcome and be close, and to encourage being on one's own.

    In my humble opinion, it seems that Dr. Scharch misrepresents some of the basic assumptions of attachment based therapy.

    Again, I appreciate the opportunity to hear Dr. Scharch's viewpoint, and I appreciate the Networker for providing the forum for this attachment debate.

    Christine Walker, LCSW
    Charlottesville, Va
  • 0 avatar Denny McGihon 08.31.2011 13:59
    He reminded me of Winnicott's "Hate in the Countertransference" and/or the EST training that seems to have dropped out of favor.
    Denny McGihon
    • Not available avatar David Schnarch 09.02.2011 08:51
      Hi Denny, Thanks for bringing in a new element to the discussion (Winnicott's "Hate in the Countertransference". I know therapists love to talk about countertransference, too much so sometimes. Countertransference is about someone having a reaction that is not appropriate to the relationship at hand, and is more derived from another relationship but acted out in the current one. Therapists like to label whatever negative reaction they have to clients as countertransference, when sometimes it is not derived from some other relationship, it is a "real" reaction to the client. The same is true for parents' reaction to their children--it is real hatred for that child. I don't get the connection to EST training, but I've never gone down that road. Thanks for taking the time to write in. David Schnarch
  • 0 avatar Amanda Franklin 08.31.2011 15:38
    The video isn't feeding -- what's uP?
    • 0 avatar Psychotherapy Networker 09.01.2011 08:58
      Hi Amanda,
      Sorry to hear that you had some technical issues with the video. Please contact support@psychotherapynetworker.org and they'll be able to help you figure out a way to resolve the issue and make sure you're able to access the session again.
      Psychotherapy Networker
  • 0 avatar samuel gloyd 08.31.2011 22:20
    Provocative presentation...thank you Dave and Rich. I have a sense that Differentiation and Attachment are different parts of the same elephant. I appreciated Dave's comment at the end that this is not combat...there is a suffering world of people. We need to collaborate...something to that effect. However, I sensed combativeness on David's part...the facial expressions seemed to reveal that. So I remain curious about that. I am sufficiently engaged to read his book. sAm in Boston.
    • 0 avatar Alexandra Hepburn 09.01.2011 23:16
      A lens that I find helpful in understanding some of the differences here - not just theoretical, but practical - is that of personality type or style. Through the lens of the Enneagram, for instance, David comes across as a Challenger or Protector, an 8. This is not the dominant style in psychotherapy, but can be very useful with certain clients. It won't work for every therapist.

      Thereis an echo here of some of the classical work in the field of family therapy and communication, such as that of Paul Watzlawick. "We cannot not communicate," and focus on growth, not healing. . . Something old, something new!

      I appreciate Christine Walker's comments, in terms of clarifying and correcting some of the assumptions about attachment-based therapy. Growth and transformation, I believe, require a skillful balancing of BOTH support and challenge, as is described in the work of Harvard developmental psychologist, Robert Kegan.
      This is a rich and fascinating dialogue! Thank you.
      • Not available avatar David Schnarch 09.02.2011 09:54
        Hi Alexandra, Your comment reminds me of Jay Haley talking about taking acting lessons to broaden out his personal style as a therapist. I'm not suggesting therapists should "put on an act" with clients, just that there's more than one way to look at the issue of therapist's "style." If you check out my work on people's "sexual style" (see Passionate Marriage), you'll see that I think a sexually well-developed person has no dominant sexual preference because they can use a variety of modalities with equal facility. I think the same view applies to therapists as well.

        Re your comment about "skillful balance of both support and challenge"--see my "Yoda comment" to Sam (above). I love Kegan's work too, and if you read my posts in the prior thread you'll see that I engage in "supportive" interactions too (although I strongly take issue with dichotomizing support and challenge because collaborative confrontation IS supportive). But this doesn't get around the fact that a "skillful balance" does not necessarily mean "equal balance," and even a brief review of other posts make it clear attachment-based therapists don't think a 50-50 blend is the way to go.

        As I said to Sam, our field is going to have to look harder to find an optimal balance-point than simply saying we need a "balanced" point of view.

        Thanks for taking the time to comment.

        David Schnarch
    • Not available avatar David Schnarch 09.02.2011 09:28
      Hi Sam,

      Thanks for the positive comment. In case you can't see my facial expression at the moment, I'm grinning from ear to ear, trying to look as non-combative and collaborative as possible. Wish I could see your expression as you read this.

      I've watched many therapists try to deal with the discussion as you have, that differentiation and attachment are different parts of the same elephant, two sides of the same coin, etc. The point is it's NOT the same elephant or coin:
      The world of attachment keeps envisioning an ATTACHMENTdifferentiation animal, whereas differentiation based therapists envision of DIFFERENTIATIONattachment elephant. In other words, within the attachment world, attachment is the overriding process and differentiation is a sub-process that occurs within it. In the world of differentiation, differentiation is the over-arching process and subsumes attachment. Just read posts from other readers (e.g., Christine Walker among many others) and you'll find it shockingly evident. This is not a semantic issue, it’s a very practical clinical one that very much determines what a therapist will/should do. Christine is absolutely certain attachment takes precedent over differentiation, and no doubt she does therapy that way. She envisions attachment is “the big part” of the elephant.

      Yoda-like attempts to say, “there’s no real conflict here, you silly people are just focusing on different sides of the same thing” are our field’s attempt to reduce its own anxiety that these really are two different views that give rise to very different therapies. I imagine that when the Catholic Church could no longer suppress the Copernican revolution, some “peacemaker” proposed that “the earth revolves around the sun” and “the sun resolves around earth” were just two sides of the same coin and the real idea is “everything revolves around everything.” This couldn’t be farther from the truth, and avoids the crucial struggles of science at that time. Sure, many centuries later, Ken Wilber’s brilliant “holon” theory sounds like “everything is connected,” but even this is a hierarchical model.

      Hope you like what you read in my book. (I’m still smiling non-combatively.)

      David Schnarch
  • 0 avatar Clyde Tigner 09.01.2011 22:52
    Dave's presentation was very intriguing and revealed some possible problems with attachment therapy that is incorrectly done. I don't believe anyone, even among attachment therapists, would actually deny that a bad attachment can result from a bad relationship. A relationship in which disgusting and traumatizing actions have generated mind-mapped welds between abusive persons and their victims.

    It was refreshing to get a different perspective on this subject. My thanks to David Schnarch for this presentation.
    • Not available avatar David Schnarch 09.02.2011 09:37
      Hi Clyde,

      My point is not just that attachment therapy is deleterious when incorrectly done, or that some attachments are not positive for people. It’s that the attachment paradigm applied to adult therapy encourages deleterious therapy, and the current hegemony it enjoys makes its pitfalls invisible to many therapists.

      Glad you find my different perspective refreshing. Thanks for your comment.

      David Schnarch
      • Not available avatar Clyde Tigner 09.02.2011 22:38
        I really do see your point, and I think that applying attachment theory/therapy to the adult relationships as you described is certainly a misapplication of attachment-based theory and therapy. I don't see that attachment therapy is applicable to, nor the explanation for, every relationship problem. It is so wonderful to hear that differentiation-based therapy, as you apply it, is so wonderfully successful. Like you I think this dialogue is very important and that we all need to work together to find the best ways to assist each client and family.

        Thanks, once again, for all the important ideas and information, and for opening our eyes and minds--broadening our views!!
  • Not available avatar hunter 09.02.2011 12:30
    Maybe I'm missing something here, but it seems to me that Schnarch's objective, i.e. to achieve differentiation within the context of relationship, is compatible with therapeutic modalities that are predicated on attachment theory. In other words, it seems to me that Scharnch's approach is a different means to the same end. If we agree that mature interpersonal functioning assumes/requires differentiation, then why not believe that differentiation can be developed/achieved by more than one approach? I think that it is reasonable to suggest that many people need to experience validation/attunement in interpersonal relationships before they can choose to differentiate. Isn't this what we have learned through use of DBT interventions with BPD clients--that interpersonal attunement is key in improving the quality of attachment and serves to encourage the individual to further differentiate? I believe that I have witnessed this process in my personal and professional life. I'm not convinced that Schnarch's view is really so antithetical to other approaches that address issues associated with quality of attachment as a precursor to a more active differentiation process. I recall Dr. Sroufe stating that the issue is not attachment per se, because everyone is attached. It's about the quality of the attachment. I have a hunch that when an individual relates in an attuned way and feels validated through interactions with an intimate relationship partner, both the individual and partner are experiencing and expressing differentiated personalities. Thanks.
    • Not available avatar Clyde Tigner 09.02.2011 22:47
      I think you have an excellent point!! I do much of my thinking out loud and last night I was having one of my "thinking-out-loud" sessions in which I found myself bouncing this same viewpoint off of an acquaintance of mine. In the history of psychotherapy the various theories and therapies have often demonstrated this very idea--that there can be more than one path to the same objective.
  • 0 avatar Jane Petit-Moore 09.02.2011 13:21
    I was reminded of an experience as David Schnarch's patient in a role playing experience in a 10 day training session years ago. The paradigm shift from tender holding to energetic engagement with such a powerful presence was radical . Further, I experienced Dave's confrontational style and presence holding me in a crucible in which I felt exposed but fully seen. My own definition of empathy was forever transformed by that experience, and my practice re-invented as a result. What did not come through in his presentation today was
    my own feeling of being fully seen without judgement, which is in itself transforming.
    • Not available avatar Clyde Tigner 09.02.2011 22:51
      Thank you for sharing that experience!!! It sounds so inviting!!
  • Not available avatar Vera Steenhart 09.02.2011 14:52
    Hi David,
    Good to see and hear you talking again about mind-mapping,rewiring the brain through intense moments of meeting etc. I especially liked the part of the interview in which you talked about how to deal with the issue of lost of trust when people come in because of an affair. Furthermore I want to thank you for the very interesting link you also made in Berlin to the work of a.o.Norman Doidge about brain plasticity. I since then used it a lot in working with couples and clients really start to derive hope from it and work with it, through Hugging Till Relaxed for instance. It seems a great contribution in transformation and in working with the best in them. I look forward to next year's Berlin workshop, greetings to Ruth,
    Vera Steenhart
  • Not available avatar David Flohr 09.02.2011 18:46
    Personally I do like to screw my wife with whom I feel a deep and genuine secure attachment. In fact it is my experience that, in large part, it has been the healthy closeness and felt security that finally allowed me to be on the path of differentiation. What I appreciate most about David's comments is his honesty and passion about his thinking and his practice with couples. What is disturbing is his, from my point of view, arrogance and conclusionary language as he talks about the mystery, diversity and complexity of human relationships. Whenever someone, as I hear David doing, makes such vast and general statements about what is the "best' approach...i have difficulty trusting him....maybe that's the point. I think David has excellent ideas about integrity, honesty, accountability, being real and direct with others, collaboration with vitality, and openness to activating the CEO or highest self...a little humility would be good...good because it is my belief that humility is an essential component in the process of differentiation. Provocative....thanks!
  • Not available avatar Stephen E Woods 09.03.2011 04:54
    Hello David, a very interedting take in therapy and different in many ways in what I had learned about helping before starting crisis work. I would like to have some expansion on a couple of points, Trust and forgiveness. I doubt you are advocating a lack of trust a foundational in relationships with the man screwing his sister's wife to borrow your example- will you make a statement of concerning how you build trust into couples in their map of eachother? Trust is very lifegiving but not trusting the untrustable.
    Another area is how do you define forgiveness? I have seen it handled badly and misapplied in religious circles- the reference to turning the cheek if struck on the right cheek has more to do with not accepting a backhand blow from someone's right hand but offering to be viewed as an equal by offering a cheek that would not be hit with a back hand. I assume your statement on forgivenss has more to do with not being slapped around and saying a behavior is ok than a rejection of keeping accounts current and forgiving debts of negative and hurtful action as a means of not falling into resentment. Will you enlighten me on what your aim at knocking forgiveness and trust was in this interview?
    I appreciate the modle of reaching for the best as the means of healing and empowerment, wounds need to be healed but constantly poking them does not let someone meake much progress.
    Stephen Woods, Raleigh NC
  • Not available avatar Ronit Gross 09.04.2011 10:47
    Being a definite believer of attachment theory from an interpersonal neurobiological perspective I'd like to comment that I completely agree with much of David Schenarch's comments and the reason for that is because I believe that he is confusing the idea of attachment theory with enmeshment or co-regulation and maybe this is because he has met a certain number of therapists in the field who do so. However, my understanding of attachment is attunement--and not attunement to others, although I agree this comes naturally as a result--but self-attunement which is really what Schenarch is describing when he speakss about the commitment to yourself. This can also be seen as the commitment to attuning to yourself, a process by which Schenarch seems to agree is developed first at a young age through attuned caregiving and by which barriers (indicating presence)-not absence of ability to attune but barriers in the form of maladaptive coping skills interfere. My impression of attachment theory is not one that says "something is missing"--in fact, mindfullness attachment work pre-assumes that people are inherently whole and capable but there are the presence as Schenarch stresses of barriers that impede the understanding of that wholeness--the wholeness that inspires positive and loving behaviors externally as well as internally. Even with a focus on attachment, I do not personally "give my clients a free ride" nor do I claim their behavior is disgusting. I do focus on their desire for relief (certainly not a "disgusting" desire) which I believe is a basic human desire from which much maladaptive behavior can arise-particularly when never taught how to self-relieve in a non-harmful and attuned way in family of origin. This does not mean that all attachment therapists (including myself) do not present clients with the rammifications/repercussions of their maladaptive behavior as well as encourage the best of them (the part that knows this behavior is not working for their end goal of some relief--otherwise why would they be in therapy in the first place if all is working out?) In that respect, I don't agree that people have a motivation to do harm for the sake of doing harm, for the destructive impulse alone. I think the behavior is meant to cause a feeling-usually relief or some form of peace--of course, these behaviors end up creating more depression, anxiety and rage which naturally need to be pointed out and which I do not agree that all attachment based therapists shy away in fear from- as Schenarch seems to state. So in conclusion, while I agree with much of David Schenarch's work (and have greatly enjoyed reading Passionate Marriage) I think his assumptions around attachment theory and the way all therapist's interpret and practice it are not representative of all ways that they do so and that the debate itself is not in truth "Attachment Versus Differentiation". Their heart--if not the way all therapists might interpret them--is the same.
  • Not available avatar Susan Rosenthal 09.05.2011 15:09
    While this was a very interesting, it was very frustrating to listen to the moderator repeatedly interrupt the speaker instead of letting him make his point. Attempting to summarize is useful after the point has been made, not before.
  • Not available avatar Susan 09.06.2011 08:05
    I will do as suggested and read previous comments prior to providing a more specific reply. Wanted to note I found David's presentation a thoughtful response to attachment therapy. Although I've read David's previous books, I purchased however have not read Intimacy and Desire. Am interested in reading how 'differentiation therapy' is explained from a neurobiological perspective.
  • 0 avatar Ewa Nei Maddox 11.07.2011 18:01
    I agree with Susan Rosenthal's frustration about the moderator: please, please allow the speakers to speak more, it is such a short time for them to indeed present a lifetime of their work. Yes, we can read their books etc. but it is so more helpful and interesting to hear THEM summarizing their approach than... well, Rich.
    Very refreshing to have somebody challenge the hegemony of attachment-based therapy. The assumption that the (only?) way to heal "attachment wounds" is through corrective emotional experience of secure attachment recreated in the theraoeutic dyad and in the marital dyad is just a theory-driven assumption, not a scientific fact. In other words, why are we assuming that differentiation is only possible after secure attachment has been achieved and experienced? Just because somebody said, you can't skip develpmental steps? And even if that might be true in childhood, why are we assuming that the same rules apply to dealing with it in - somehow achieved - adulthood?
    The idea that we can achieve security via trust in our significant others has an absurd angle to it, one which can hijack and destroy therapy (although I am not denying the validity of soothing, joy, and a ton of other benefits stemming from connection with others.) The famous question: "Will you be there for me when I need you, will you hold me tight?" can be only aswered, realistically and soberly, with "Are you out of your mind? How can I possibly promise such a thing? I don't know!"
    My perspective as a therapist grounded in Buddhist philosophy, psychoanalytic thought as well as CBT (Third wave) allows me to see these perils quite clearly. But if we focus on differentiation, that will lead to connection in the intersubjective space of freedom and curiosity, rather than safety based on a fantasy about a perfect (or even semi-perfect) holding by another person. Yes there is security in interpersonal relationships - but it is security derived from developing a trusting relationship with oneself and respecting even enjoying other people's separateness. A lot (not only good sex) is possible in such space...
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