Relationships, Dogs, Attachment

Trixie by the @UnDisposables. A play about love. A play about a dog. A play about how we attach to others. How we used Attachment Theory in the rehearsal process.

I am currently directing a one act play called Trixie, written by Heather Hampson and produced by The UnDisposables, Arts & Theatre Collective. I am working with a fabulous cast in Katerina Tinnirello-Savvas (Sarah), Tommy Love (Max), and Alexander Ballinger (Pete) with my dog Brora playing the title role. Brora was actually my route into this production as she was cast first, it was only when, by chance, the original director had to pull out that I became more involved.

The play explores the relationship between Sarah and Max, a relationship where “We agreed to compromise” appears to be quite one sided. Reading the script I saw elements of Attachment Theory, as first proposed by John Bowlby in the relationship between the two main characters and in how all three characters relate to the dog.

Attachment Theory – John Bowlby

Bowlby trained and worked as a psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalysis (all three strands of medicine concerning the subconscious and human mind). During World War II, he worked with children who were evacuated and began to study the impact on the mother – infant relationship on child development. Since then many others have continued this work, exploring adult relationships as well as child parent ones.

Attachment Theory recognises four different types of relationships and notes that often how we learn to relate to our primary care giver as a baby has a profound influence on how we continue to relate to our family, friends, romantic partners and even professional relationships.

I remember first learning about Attachment Theory while studying with Place2Be in 2014 and being profoundly impacted by the way that those early relationships ripple through life, there were lots of handouts and teaching around the impact of attachment in the classroom. Reading the book ‘Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain’ by Sue Gerhardt was really eye opening and I started to see the attachment patterns in people I knew. During my MA in Dramatherapy I explored attachment theory further; in November 2016 my tutor Henri Seebohm encouraged us to engage practically with the experience of different attachment styles and look at the Strange Experiment for assessing attachment in children. In November 2017 another tutor Dominic McHale unpacked the impact on adult relationships and the adult attachment interview.

While I do not believe that everything in psychology is ultimately to do with your mother, I do think that attachment theory can be a useful lenses to think about human relationships (or human dog relationships as in this play)

Secure Attachment

When a baby cries, the mother (or other primary carer but we are going to use mother as that is what Bowlby uses) will respond and try to meet the babies needs. She may notice that her baby has different cries for when they want food and when they are tired. Sometimes she may not know what the baby wants but may still be able to sooth the baby with cuddles, rocking or distraction. This is a mother who is ‘good enough’ and the baby learns that it is loved and its needs will be met. When that baby grows, he or she is friendly, happy in a relationship, able to trust others who love them and show love in return as he or she has experienced a positive example of love. If there are issues within the attachment relationship these can often be resolved but even if they can not be, often the person is able to have secure relationships with someone else as they find it easy to get close.

Insecure Anxious Avoidant Attachment

This mother is perhaps not very confident with her baby or perhaps believes in a parenting style which favours leaving a baby to cry so as not to spoil them. Perhaps she is unwell and physically not able to respond when the baby cries, or perhaps she is depressed and her own pain prevent her from being able to respond to the child’s needs. Perhaps she is busy trying to earn money to care for the family and not able to be as present and attentive. Whatever the reason, the baby learns that it’s cries will be rebuffed and left unanswered. The message the child internalises may be “I am unwantable” and that they need to become self sufficient. As a child, when they are in pain they still have the instinct to seek comfort from their primary carer while also having the thought that they should not seek comfort because it will not be available; this thought often increases their pain and sadness creating a cycle where the child is both attracted to and repelled from seeking comfort. This may be managed by staying in proximity to the caregiver without getting too close so there is limited contact or interaction but they are still there. As their needs are not met, the child may repress their emotions such as anger, fear, distress – why show anyone when no-one can help. This does not mean they do not feel those emotions, for example anger may be expressed towards objects or through non compliance with rules. In school and work, they may struggle to have a relationship with the teacher or boss but may excel at self taught learning from the textbook. As an adult they may have short relationships as they fear intimacy or when they do have longer ones they may fear abandonment, perhaps overthinking every action as a sign “they did not return my call, it must be over”. When they have a baby of their own, they may feel unable to meet the babies needs or struggle to bond with their baby.

Insecure Anxious Resistant (or Ambivalent) Attachment

The mother wanted to have a baby so that there would finally be someone who loved her unconditionally. She has the baby and clings onto him or her, smothering them in kisses. When the baby cries, the mother may not know how to respond or may cry herself, expressing tears for all the sadness she has experienced. The baby might resist this, it can not meet the mothers needs, he or she needs her own needs to be met. The child might try things designed to draw attention to what they need, perhaps an escalation of crying or attention seeking behaviour. Or the child might learns that they must inhibit their own needs because the mother needs their care. The child may become very clingy, partially in a desperate attempt to get the comfort they need and also because maybe the mother can not be trusted to be left alone. For some children this includes school truancy as they can not leave their mum. The child might feel a lot of anger towards mum for not being able to care for them. When the child is hurting and they go towards mum to be soothed, they expect to have mums pain added to their pain without necessarily any support. They may respond by becoming impulsive and tense or they may become helpless and fearful. The child may become critical, controlling or manipulating as ways to manage the needs of the parent, this behaviour may transfer into other relationships with teachers, colleagues, and relationships. In a romantic relationship they may seek the smothering intimacy but struggle with the emotional connection, they may criticise and control their partner as they worry that they may be overwhelmed by their partners emotional needs. They may hope to have a child who can finally love them unconditionally.

Disorganised (or Disorientated) Attachment

The child is born into a volatile family where the care giving is inconsistent. There may be domestic violence, or parental drug and alcohol addictions, or there may be child abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, neglect). There may also be mental ill health in the parents, particularly anything which caused severe mood swings. The child learns at the world is not safe and that they must become hyper vigilant and notice everything so that they can learn to anticipate when the behaviour will change. There may be times when the child witnesses or experiences harm and other times when the parents try to compensate the child. It is possible the parenting may be mostly ‘good enough’ as in secure attachment, but the child is always having to be on-guard for when the next occurrence of the violent behaviour will come around. The child may try to control their parents, either by care giving to try to prevent the behaviour or by being punitive to gain power by punishing them for the behaviour. In some situations the child may even provoke the behaviour because at least then they can feel in control about when it will happen. The child needs safety but they also need their parents so they may not feel able to seek outside help if that risks the family. They may be restless as they can not relax when danger could happen at anytime and they need to stay alert. At other times they may be overwhelmed by what is going on and disconnect. Switching between red alert monitoring and switched off or numbing disassociation can make the child appear to have ADHD or other similar conditions. They may blame themselves for what happened, I provoked it, I disappointed them, it was my fault – this thought can be pervasive even if they were only a toddler at the time. In a relationship they may be very possessive and protective or they may replicate what they themselves witnessed and experienced. Sometimes if someone is hurt by a parent, they will seek a partner who reminds them of that parent and attempt to fix the earlier relationship. Or they may idolise the violent parent, they are right, the other parent is weak and unworthy, I want to be / to find a powerful partner like they were. If they do find themselves in a similarly volatile relationship and have a child, the pattern continues.

Attachment Theory in rehearsals and onstage

After bonding as a cast, reading through, warming up and exploring the characters through the body we took some time in that first rehearsal to think about attachment. After learning about the four styles we picked up different lines in the play which might hint about the attachment styles of the characters and experimented in how the different attachment styles might influence the line delivery and spacing of the scene. As rehearsals progressed we returned to this and it helped to give a motivation for some of the characters actions “why don’t they leave”, “why don’t they stand up for themselves”, “why are they acting like this”. We know that it is possible to change attachment style but it can be very difficult as this is ingrained in an early age, this struggle of the characters is a struggles that we know occurs in many relationships everyday.

We are exploring an Avoidant – Resistant pairing for the main characters, a pairing which we know is often attracted to each other in real life. One partner is controlling and clingy, another avoids conflict and intimacy but fears abandonment. And how does that attachment show in the relationship with the dog?

The play ‘Trixie’ will be performed next week as part of Scratching the Surface on Friday 22 March 2019 7:30 pm – 9:45 pm at Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre Pub.

See details of this play at


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