john bowlbyA brief history of the Bowlby Centre


The origins of The Bowlby Centre go back to 1976 when an organisation was formed based on the work of Karen Horney and named after her: the Karen Horney Association of Psychoanalytic Counsellors. Many influences have contributed to the development of The Bowlby Centre. Our organisation has changed, until recently we were called C.A.P.P. the Centre for Attachment based Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, and we continue to develop but some themes have been present consistently. From the outset the organisation has been located within the psychoanalytic tradition whilst remaining committed to a critical freedom in relation to it.

Freud’s legacy and the centrality of relationships

One such theme is the rejection of classical drive theory. The formulation of Freud’s theory of instincts became increasingly rigid in the middle decades of the last century producing a prevailing schema of individual development and of psychoanalytic psychotherapy as a process of creating adaptations to disruptive and dangerous drives.

In contrast Karen Horney and others, including Erich Fromm, Adolph Mayer, James S. Plant, Henry Stack Sullivan and Clara Thompson in the US and Ronald Fairbairn, Donald Winnicott, Marjorie Brierley, and John Bowlby in the UK were developing an understanding of human development based on the centrality of human relationships in their specific cultural contexts.

Much of Sigmund Freud’s work remains important. His work on the unconscious world, mourning, trauma, and the compulsion to repeat is fundamental. His use of free association, his development of working with transference and counter-transference, and his understanding of the meanings that might be drawn from symptoms and from dreams are essential to psychotherapeutic practice. His broadening of the conceptualisation of erotic life continues to provide vital insights into relationships and identities. Karen Horney was a pioneer in challenging patriarchal ideals and the devaluing of the female experience. Her feminist perspective presented a radical challenge to established cultural assumptions in the psychoanalytic world.

Trauma and abuse

The early years of the Karen Horney Association in the late seventies and early eighties coincided with a growing social awareness of the scale of the problem of child sexual abuse. Alice Miller’s prolific and highly accessible early writing broadened the understanding of child abuse to include emotional as well as physical abuse. Often the most profound aspect of all abuse is that the child is abandoned and left alone at times of great suffering and despair. Alice Miller proposed that having contacted the hurt child within the adult, the therapist aims to be an advocate for that person and encourages the process of mourning to enable healing to take place.

The idea of being an advocate for the child within struck a chord with Karen Horney’s idea of psychoanalysis as an assisted self-analysis – ideas also developed by Theodore Reik. In 1989 the organisation was reformed as the Institute of Self-Analysis and the training was launched. For a time therapists were referred to as advocates. The idea was considered to be of great value in the respect it shows towards the individual coming into therapy and in the sense that the nurturing of the emergent self of the client is the task of psychotherapy.

On the other hand the idea of the emergent self has its problems. Karen Horney herself had described how the client and the therapist might understand things very differently.

“Although both may talk in terms of evolution, growth, development, they mean entirely different things. The analyst has in mind the growth of the real self; the patient can only think of perfecting his ideal self” (Neurosis and Human Growth, 1950). This demands a deeper understanding of how individuals are formed in relationship and how that can be explored in later life. This required a revisiting of psychoanalytic ideas on the transference and the counter-transference, on the negative transference and the erotic transference. It also required rethinking ideas about the formation of the self and the de-centred self.

Valuing difference and diversity

The importance of valuing difference and diversity has been a strong theme in The Bowlby Centre throughout its development. We have a strong concern about, and focus on, the social and political dimensions of exclusion and prejudice – hence our commitment to the feminist perspective, and our exploration of issues in relation to sexuality, race, culture, class and disability.

Attachment theory

It was in this context that the link was made between John Bowlby’s theoretical approach and the Institute for Self-Analysis. This evolved into the Centre for Attachment based Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. The dominant themes: rejection of classical drive theory, emphasis on the importance of environmental factors – particularly relationships, the crucial place of mourning, the link between attachment, security and exploration – all contributed to the development of the still emerging organisation into an attachment based psychoanalytic psychotherapy centre.

Although attachment theory is now becoming very widely accepted, for many years it was rejected by the dominant stream of British psychoanalysis strongly influenced by Melanie Klein. Klein had by degrees reworked drive theory from the classical model and had, like Karen Horney, mounted an important challenge to the phallocentric bias in Freud’s theorising. Bowlby trained with her and followed her in focusing on the earliest years of life and the relationship with mother. He separated from her over her focus on the inner world at the expense of the relational one.

Attachment theory is a response to the need to develop new approaches to the relationship between the emotional world of the psyche and the relational milieu.

Multiple points of view

The new approach emphasises the importance of studying the same phenomena from many points of view. The claim of the clinical encounter to be a method of scientific enquiry can only be sustained if there is a willingness to relate the data gathered and the theoretical perspectives proposed to other forms of enquiry. Bowlby was most concerned to make links with academic research and ethology.

Attachment researchers established two crucial methods linking psychoanalytic theorising and psychological research. Mary Ainsworth developed the Strange Situation Test as a method of study of the attachment patterns of early life. Mary Main developed the Adult Attachment Interview as a method of enquiry into the attachment patterns of adults. Another vital contribution has come from observational studies of infants. The training offered by The Bowlby Centre incorporates infant observation studies based primarily on the work of Margaret Mahler and Daniel Stern.

The Internal World

Bowlby was concerned about the need for care in theorising aboutthe internal world. Towards the end of the volume on Attachment (the first of the trilogy Attachment, Separation and Loss) he referred to these “profound questions” and the “giant controversies” and recognised how much research is still needed (Bowlby, 1969).

The Bowlby Centre has drawn on a wide range of approaches including the British object relations school, the American interpersonalist school, theories on the development of the self, neuroscience, and contemporary work on trauma and dissociation to provide a breadth and depth of insight into the structure and dynamics of the internal world. The common themes that run through them all are: the importance of unconscious communication, of transference and the counter-transference, of containment and the acceptance of difference, and an emphasis on a two person psychology.

The development of our theoretical base is a dynamic and continuing process. The Bowlby Centre will continue to adapt and develop in the light of new research, contemporary theoretical developments and clinical experience.