Fighting stigma with love, respect and attachment theory

by Jon G. Allen, PhD on April 28, 2010 · 1 comment

in attachment,mentalizing,stigma

1974 Immanuel Kant stamp

I am partial to big ideas, general concepts that keep us properly oriented. And I’m more concerned with what’s important than what’s new. So I was captivated by a chapter entitled “Love and Respect” in New Zealand philosopher Christine Swanton’s book Virtue Ethics. Swanton draws from the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who declared that love and respect are the two “great moral forces.” What could be more important than great moral forces?

Love and respect

Kant made an intriguing contrast:  love entails coming close, whereas respect entails keeping one’s distance. Consistent with our ordinary sense of the word, Swanton elaborates loving as involving concern for the welfare of the beloved, desire to be together, expression of affection, sharing of experience and compassion. She also includes novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch’s view of love as requiring attentiveness to the reality of the other person, undistorted by one’s own needs and emotions.

At first, I found equating respect with keeping distance to be somewhat jarring but, as Kant saw clearly, respect is an essential counterpart to love.

Kant framed love and respect as opposing forces that keep one another in check; Swanton asserted that love and respect maintain equilibrium in relationships.

Respect entails keeping distance in the sense of appreciating separateness, giving the other person space and granting autonomy. We should not lose sight of Swanton’s claim that the moral force of respect encompasses self-respect, which is consistent with setting limits and maintaining boundaries in relationships. Failures of respect include wounding and controlling others, which are intrusive and thereby violate respect.

Love, respect and attachment

These two moral themes of love and respect are pervasive in the psychological literature, for example, in the recognition that development entails striking a balance between connection and separateness, or relatedness and autonomy. Attachment theory, as developed by psychoanalyst John Bowlby and psychologist Mary Ainsworth, elegantly frames this balance in terms of two pillars of security:  a safe haven and secure base. Think of the toddler with his mother on the playground:  with her enthusiastic encouragement, he explores confidently, as long as he sees she is still there when he checks back periodically. If he falls down or sees a frightening dog, he wants to make contact with his emotionally responsive mother. Having made contact, then feeling safe and reassured, he can return with her encouragement to exploration and play, confident that she will be there when needed.

In sum, parents of the securely attached child encourage closeness in offering a safe haven in the face of danger, and they support distance in providing a secure base for exploration. A failure to provide a balance of safe haven and secure base experience contributes to insecure attachment, which takes the forms of needing to stay too close (anxious attachment) or maintaining too much distance (avoidant attachment).

Bowlby and Ainsworth were emphatic about our lifelong need for secure attachment:  all of us, toddlers at heart, need a safe haven and secure base “from the cradle to the grave,” as they put it.

We move back and forth between closeness and distance and, ideally, as attachment figures—parents, romantic partners, caregivers—we balance love with respect in moving back and forth between providing comfort and encouraging autonomous exploration and the self-confidence that goes with it. As our colleague, psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy, has taught, we maintain this equilibrium in attachment relationships by means of our natural human capacity to mentalize, that is, to be aware of thoughts and feelings in others and ourselves. On the one hand, mentalizing enables us to feel connected through empathy; on the other hand, mentalizing enables us to be aware of the separateness of our mind from the mind of others, that is, to recognize the uniqueness of each person’s perspective.

Love, respect and stigma

Pertinent to the general theme of this blog, we should note that love and respect are antithetical to stigma, which is a manifestation of contempt. As Swanton states, contempt shows a failure to come close insofar as it maintains a barrier, for example, in cold indifference. Yet she also points out that contempt entails a failure of respect in being a form of psychological wounding. In this respect, contempt shows failure to keep distance; it can be intrusive, for example, in taunting, bullying or talking down to the person held in contempt.

As mental health professionals, as attachment figures, as humans, we navigate in a moral space, balancing love and respect. To navigate this space adroitly requires judgment, common sense, wisdom and—technically speaking—mentalizing. We have much philosophy and psychological science to guide us, but navigating this elastic space between closeness and distance on a moment-to-moment basis is an art and, like any other art, we will not always find it easy to do well.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Erika Koenig April 28, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Thank you for this thoughtful post. I have a son who is autistic and mentally challenged with cluster of add, ts and ocd. He has been my wonderful ‘project and masterpiece’ these last 20 years. I have worked hard to advocate for him and I continue to go forward with the hope that he will live a wonderful full life with people who are a part of his community. I like the title of your blog and was happy to find it. I will continue to follow your posts.

Yes to Love and Respect in relatioships.I learned from Monty Roberts, “Horse Sense for People” about the importance of how we use our bodies in communicating. He speaks about this in his relationship with horses. As a dancer I learned from Martha Graham that “movement never lies”

with thanks, Erika

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