Attachment Theory by Sidney Tilghman

In a basement hallway, in graduate school, a classmate lectures me on attachment theory.

Based on his prior experience as a sex therapist, he’d guess only 5% of Americans display healthy attachment relationships. He tells me about babies in a room reacting to the sudden presence of a stranger and lack of parent. What distinguishes the babies is how they respond when said parent returns: a secure baby will be happy; an ambivalent baby, sad. Avoidants turn away. The disorganized seem confused. He pauses. So?

When I don’t answer he says that’s okay. In fact, most people are a combination of types.

And because I’m not really talking, only thinking—unsure how he and I, relative strangers before today, arrived at this topic—my classmate continues to fill the airspace between us. Together we plod through gingko leaves and browning grass, theories of attachment forming contrails behind us. 

When we arrive at the English Department, he is still talking. When we trundle up the stairs, he talks some more.

When class begins, my colleague quiets.

When we break for ten, he picks up, incredibly, right where he left off, mid-sentence and breathless, explaining the differences between dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant.

While we wait for some water to boil, I interrupt him to say how puppies, like people, develop their attachment style early in life; how you only have the first five months to make an impression; how you start by hand-feeding each meal, whistling as they eat, marrying your sounds and touch with fullness. Then, one day, while you’re out walking and the puppy wanders off, you hide. My classmate cocks his head. The electric kettle screams. Most puppies will panic, I say, eyes wide as they whip around, straining to see over tall grass. They will search where they

last saw you. Retrace your steps. When alarm sets in—when the puppy starts to pace or whine or shake—you cough or laugh, even though things don’t seem so funny. I tell him how the puppy’s ears are the first thing to move, how the body follows, how the puppy crashes through the brush and into you, relieved and happy and licking. Afterwards, the puppy sticks to you like glue.

Because he was a sex therapist, I tell him that sometimes dog trainers call this positive bondage; how I spent a summer hiding, whistling, reuniting; how the puppy, now a dog, lives far away and was only a loaner but how I keep his baby tooth on my bedside table. I don’t tell him how my then-boyfriend once asked, Me or the dog?—posing the question as a joke, only just disguising an edge. I don’t tell him how I answered too quickly, my boyfriend chewing in silence. I do tell him how one day, close to that five-month mark, the puppy crashed past me rather than into me, going, instead, to sniff some hedges.

The next week, my classmate acts as though we’ve never met.

Sidney Tilghman is a writer and farmer living in Vermont. She is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis’ MFA program. 

Vintage photo of a woman holding puppies.
Share This