Michael Mendizza

Writer, Filmmaker

Attachment, Bonding or Attunment


Bonding-Attunement, Parenting

John Bowlby coined the term ‘attachment’ for a healthy mother-infant-father relationship and was plummeted by his peers for doing so. Marshal Klaus, MD., helped popularized the term ‘bonding’ to describe the precious cascade of discovery-contact-response encounters shared by newborn and mother during their first moments and hours after birth. Bowlby was influenced by infants who had missed or were deprived normal mothering , those in intuitions and orphanages. In these infants something was broken, detached. Klaus observed what may be called attached mother-infant relationships as they discover, make contact and respond in completely new ways, postnatal, coming together, forming new patterns. Each term ‘attachment’ and ‘bonding’ were and are appropriate given the context. Both terms break down and lose some of their meaning however, when applied to the larger, ever-changing reciprocal dynamic we call childhood and parenting. Attunement may be more precise when describing this overarching movement.

Of course the debate over bonding and attachment has been ebbing and flowing for over thirty years. Academics love to endlessly split hairs. Their jobs depend on it. What is at stake is branding, how the general public perceives and relates to the sweeping generality called parenting. Organizations have evolved and are branded by these terms. Suggesting new terms is similar to Apple switching its name to Watermelon or Tangerine. Words do matter and this cuts both ways, branding and what is perceived by the actual meaning of a term.

John Bowlby’s use of the term attachment is well suited to the context in which it was used. Marshal Klaus’s term bonding is too. Describing the larger context of human relationships ‘attunement’ is more appropriate and more precise. To bond and attach imply, at least to me, two more or less fixed objects being connected, gluing two pieces of wood or attaching a key to a chain. Attunement conjures movement, like surfing or better still Tango. My son fell in love with the Argentine Tango because I was not fixed, rather spontaneous, improvisational. It demands greater flexibility, sensitivity, present awareness, care and sensitivity to remain in sync or attuned to one’s partner ever-changing body and feelings. Drifting into fixed patterns or formulas implies a lack of present moment attunement as if some past dream were calling the shots rather than responding to what is actually taking place this moment.

Becky Burriil, a movement and dance therapists describes attunement this way:

In the 1950’s and earlier, studies in the nonverbal aspect of spoken language—Kinesics—found that in viewing films of people in conversation, seen frame by frame, revealed  movement-sound entrainment following the consonant-vowel-consonant sequence of speech. Both speaker and listener are entrained in micro-movements where the body holds quietly on the consonant and speeds up in the vowel. Speaker is in sync with self and listener is in sync with speaker—attunement.

This movement-sound entrainment—named Interaction Rhythms—is recognized to be a direct, non-symbolic expression of the Central Nervous System. It is the bodies organized response, through movement, to incoming sound. In spoken language communication, it is attunement at the non-verbal level. Nonverbal communication is physical, embodied meaning making in a reciprocal dance-song of receptive and expressive patterns. Primary meaning making is physical and emotional, and movement-sound are immediate expressions of that heartfelt meaning.

Movement is the fundamental. Sound is movement. In utero the first cranial nerve to militate is the vestibular-cochlear, perceiving both movement resonance and sound vibration as one thing. Perception is the receptive aspect of communication. Movement begets sound and sound begets movement—an expression is reciprocated—attunement between self and world, self and other. In education this was originally called motor-sensory-perceptual integration, now referred to as sensory integration. Without these entrainments, we could not function in the forces of space weight and time, and the three dimensions of this world.

The fetus in utero begins her communicative journey in this dance-song of entrainments and attunements. And this continues via the moving feat of primitive reflexes thru the birth canal into the arms of her mom. Communicative attunement continues through multisensory touch of body, movement, sound, smell and more. Non-verbal communication and being-with is an embodied attunement.

In Dance movement therapy, mother and infant attune with energy dynamic to be with one another, and adjust with the shaping of the body to accommodate and hold one another—a reciprocal nonverbal continuum of movement-sound contours, intonation, textures, weights, qualities, intensities, amplitudes, frequencies, colors, shapes, rhythms, volumes, durations, and more. And through this ongoing motor-sensory conversation the flow of empathy and trust are nurtured and healthy life and development are sustained. Heart-felt meanings are shared.

Nature evolved mother and child in attunement, even though they be in individual bodies. And through that empathy and trust the child is able to safely build an autonomous sense of individual self. The movement-sound of the word ‘attunement’ matches this process. Mother and child are not attached to one another; it is not a surface relationship. The non-verbal hales from a deep and comprehensive preconscious in a continual dance-song of reception and expression, attuning and adjusting.

The use of the word ‘attachment’ in Attachment Theory does not reflect this deep unison between mother and child. It does not reflect the nonverbal meanings of this on-going relational process. As a postmodern dancer, dancing the movement-sound ‘attune’ images an open joining.

The tone, texture and contour of the word is soft, rounded and encompassing. The tone-texture-contour of the word ‘attach’ is hard, flat and abrupt. In dance movement therapy these would be seen as closed, fighting and separating qualities. Since Attachment Theory is a study and practice most fundamental to human wellbeing, intelligence and relationship with the ecology of existence, it is not unreasonable to consider a word change to identify itself that communicates, at the non-verbal level, a meaning that evokes what Nature intended—communication via an open, joining, soft, rounded encompassing.

I would hardily use the word bonding or attachment to describe the relationship between a surfer, his or her board and the wave. Classically attachment psychologically implies clinging, grasping, dependence or even addiction. Attunement evokes none of these. Of course, words are relative, and assume the meaning we generally agree to apply. A rose by any other name will smell as sweet. We could agree to call a rose a brick. That is what metaphors do, stand in place or represent some deeper meaning. When describing the optimum relationship between parent and child or between a human being and all of nature Becky and I prefer the spontaneous movement the sensitive completely present and aware improve that attunement resonates. Imagine parenting with the fresh present energy and attention a suffer meeting a wave or my son dancing the Tango. What a wonderful world it would be.

Michael Mendizza and Becky Burrill