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The marriage of attachment theory to group process

Attachment Theory in general can illuminate group therapy process in an extremely helpful manner

By John Breeskin, PhD, ABPP

First of all, let it be known to all and sundry that I am a Family Systems therapist. My heroes in this journey are Murray Bowen (Michael E. Kerr functioned as his mouthpiece), Jay Haley, and Virginia Satir, all of whom I have worked with, and I also have the equivalent of a two-year certificate from AAMFT. I have also spent a lot of time demonstrating and being supervised in group therapy from both sides of a one-way mirror and being beat up by Haley over the phone.

My current thoughts have led me to conclude that Attachment Theory in general can illuminate group therapy process in an extremely helpful manner. It is axiomatic, in my view, that early attachment styles are acted out in living Technicolor in an ongoing group. One example will suffice:

I am constantly being attacked as a stand-in for a client’s authoritarian father. In that sense I am being treated like a spittoon. I do not take this personally, even though the provocation is strong, but attachment theory helps me understand the genesis of this response, and, when and only when the timing is right, I will hazard this hypothesis to the client.

Looking on the positive side of this process I am able to encourage resiliency and new patterns of relating to the client using attachment as the model.

In addition, my theory, to my amazement, can be used to “cure” PTSD and I am enclosing a blog post I made that deals specifically with this claim:

Agamemnon returns victorious from the Trojan wars. Clytemnestra, his wife, lays out a red carpet in his honor and prepares his bath. Once in the bath, she and her lover kill Agamemnon and stain the bathwater with his blood. I’m well aware that Clytemnestra, in part, was motivated because Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, in order to provide fair winds to take him to Troy in the first place but that is not where I want to go.

In terms of the optimal strategy to use with a partner who has returned from the killing fields, I wish to propose the following model. These thoughts are directly derived from the New York Times review by Elizabeth Samet, a writer that I admire enormously, talking about What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes. Her review is in the NYT Sunday Book Review on Sept. 18, 2011.

In terms of dealing with life’s vicissitudes, I have developed the strategy of placing myself in a woman’s arms in order to assuage my pain. I do not fear that I will be engulfed by this maternal embrace but I feel I will be nurtured and protected and this has been my experience.

In the words of Elizabeth Samet (quoting Karl Marlantes):

In retrospect, he declares, what he really needed was a bath—he needed “Maree Ann to sit down with me in a tub of water and run her hands over my body and squeeze out the wrong feelings and confusion, soothe the pain, inside and out...I needed her to dry the tears, and laugh with me and cry with me...I needed a woman to get me back on the earth, get me down in the water, get me down under the water, get my body to feel again,... to come again into her world, the world that I'd left, and which sometimes I think I've never returned to.”

In my mind, the gender is not specific in that men and women can interchange the roles. I do understand that another person, no matter how dear, can only offer us forgiveness if we begin to forgive ourselves: This is clear. It is, however, contextual and we need other people to be a necessary part of the healing process.

I will not copyright this healing process but give it away for free to anyone who may find it useful.