‘The effect of significant others on adult psychological development: a qualitative, thematic analysis of an interview with a 50-year-old woman’.
Abstract (99 words)
This study examines the view of attachment theorists within the object relations school that significant others in early life—that is to say, important, often older, influential figures—play an important role in an adult person’s psychological development, particularly with regard to later sexual relationships. A qualitative, thematic analysis was carried out on one pre-existing, and pre-transcribed interview between a psychology student and a 50 year old lady—Chloe. Third level thematic analysis provides evidence that dominant and influential figures—notably, parents, guardians and surrogate parents—shape the way in which individuals build relationships with others in later life.
Introduction (755 words)
Throughout this study, through the discursive, thematic analysis of the text, and while constructing the report, I have kept within a social constructionist perspective—specifically, keeping in mind attachment theory. At the heart of developmental psychology is the assumption that vertical relationships with significant others in early childhood influence children’s psychological development. These influences shape the way that children interact with their peers but also affect the way in which they develop relationships with adults later in life. This topic is one that is extremely complex, and it is beyond the scope of this report to give a detailed analysis of attachment theory; however, there are a number of important aspects of this theoretical stance that are apposite to this study.
One of the most important themes in attachment theory is consistency or, rather constancy. It is extremely important for young children to know that they have a secure base to return to after they have explored some small part of the world. For instance, the healthy child, knowing that the parent will still be there after closing his eyes, will enjoy the peek-a-boo experience: it acts as a mechanism for testing reality, it begins the process of subjectivity for the child and, further, this ‘engagement-disengagement behaviour’ helps the child to explore the world in a safe way (Horner, 1985).
However, when this security is disturbed, for instance when a member of the family triad moves away or separates permanently, consistency is interrupted. Similarly, when the family moves around too frequently, or when the family moves to another country where the child has to find new friends in a completely different culture, this can cause emotionally instability. The family home, as a unit, is thus extremely important. The importance of having a secure base and a consistently attuned relationship continues in later life. We are drawn to our significant others: we spend more time with older, wiser individuals who inspire us (vertical relationships) and feel attached, and are drawn towards, our sexual partners (horizontal relationships). And, when these relationships fail in some way, we often feel let down, and this has an impact on our every day lives.
Ainsworth and Bowlby (1991), key figures in the development of attachment theory, spoke constantly about how important it is for the child to have a secure base. Of paramount importance, however, was what they called the ‘primary attachment’—the relationship the child has with his mother. This should be a warm, continuous and intimate relationship where the child is protected from danger and is able to communicate effectively (Bretherton, 1997). Here, the healthy child should be able to build an ‘internal working model’ of the mother in order to comfort himself—with the aid of a blanket or mobile toy of some kind—when she is not there. Later in life, this self comforting can manifest itself in the form of listening to music, reading a book or watching the television. Insecure individuals—those who have been let down by significant others in the past—find it more difficult to comfort themselves, and some turn to alcohol or drugs, some go to extremes to gain some sort of satisfaction, and many find it difficult to hold down relationships in adult life. Indeed, Hazan and Shaver (1987) gathered a large quantity of information on people’s attachment styles and devised three different stances: (1) Anxious avoidant style (Insecure), where the individual is somewhat uncomfortable being close to others, (2) Secure Style, where the individual finds is relatively easy to get along with others and (3) Anxious Ambivalent Style (Insecure), where other people are reluctant to get close to the individual. Further, Main, Kaplan and Cassidy (1985) used a standardized interview to explore how adults describe their childhood experiences with their parents; from the analysis of the data, they also described the extent to which significant others in early life affected children’s psychopathogy and their relationships later in life.
Importantly, however, it has been found that some adults, having experienced a difficult or enmeshed interaction with a family member as a child, are able, in the right circumstances, to move on in their lives and develop strong, secure marital relationships as an adult (Ainsworth, 1989). This is known as earned security (Main and Goldwyn, 1984).
The following iterative thematic analysis (involving re-working and re-drafting), which is in line with the above theoretical framework, looks at the way Chloe’s family dynamics have affected her relationships in adult life. The research question is as follows:
‘How do adults perceive that significant others in their lives have affected their development?’
Method (215 words)
The thematic analysis in this study has been taken from pre-existing material—a transcribed interview between a psychology student, Helen Lucey, and a participant, Chloe. In order to protect the privacy of both researcher and participant, and to respect the confidentiality of all concerned, the names have been changed. In addition, the interviews on the DVDs were played by actors but were based on interviews with the original research participants. This study focuses on the second of the two recorded interviews, but, in both cases, informed consent was given; further, both interviews have been edited in order to produce shorter extracts for analytical purposes. Thus, the research conforms to the BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct (British Psychological Society, 2006): informed consent has been given and both participants have been treated with mutual respect.
In the carrying out of the thematic analysis, I first highlighted the most important elements of the text in respect to the way in which Chloe’s past had influenced her development in later life. The next two stages (2nd order coding and 3rd order coding) involved a great deal of reflexivity, condensation, categorization and narrative structuring techniques. Finally, I compiled a number of important themes which indicated the extent to which Chloe had been affected by significant others in her childhood.
Analysis (684 words)
At the beginning of the interview (see the appendix), the psychologist asked Chloe about her early relationships as a child and how she thought that they had influenced her in later life. Immediately, I was struck by the fact that Chloe had gone through an extremely difficult time with her mother when her father had left home. Her mother had been affected dramatically and had transferred a great deal of her pain towards her daughter, Chloe. In addition, Chloe was expected, somehow, to, ‘fill in for [her] dad’ and, ‘be a grown up’; certainly, she was too young to play this role and wasn’t sure how to act in this complex situation. She had to guess. It is interesting to point out that, in the first part of Chloe’s free association, between lines 20 and 34, she prefaced many of her recollections with the words, ‘sort of’—in fact, she said these words fourteen times. Perhaps, at the time of the interview, she was still unclear how she was supposed to behave. It is clear that the situation of being without a father and coping with her mother’s highly-charged emotional behaviour had had a deleterious affect on Chloe’s well being, and the process of analysis has revealed ways in which this has affected her future, adult relationships.
After reviewing the text and simplifying the codification, taking into account the research question, I have identified three main themes which point out that the early relationship between Chloe and her mother, from the age of eight onwards, had somewhat failed.
(1) Mother’s depressive and self-centred behaviour
When the father left, Chloe described her mother as someone who had become, ‘really, really down and very, very needy’. Mothers have an instinct to support an nurture their children, but when this is reversed, and when the mother needs more support than the child, problems occur. Attachment theory is centred on the fact that the mother should support and care for her children. Chloe said of her mother that,
‘She was very depressed and very sad and…needy and there wasn’t really…much room for me, it was…it felt as if everything was…to do with what she needed’.
Further, Chloe felt unsupported: her mother was unable to empathize with or support her daughter, or even help her with any of her emotional problems. She reported that,
‘She wasn’t…good at…like if I was sad…she would be…very dismissive about it, what have you got to be sad about? And, you’re not really allowed to be sad.’
Chloe was also not able to express happiness:
‘And if I was very cheery about something it was like: oh, well it’s all right for you’.
As a result, Chloe felt that she had lost both ways (line 41): she was made to feel guilty about her feelings. More will be said about this theme in the third part of this section.
When her father left, Chloe built up an idealized internal object of her father.
‘He was a super duper… a wonderful person and he loved me in all the, you know, in a very sort of complete way, a very accepting way’.
However, her dreams and illusions were shattered when she realized that he was, ‘a pompous and insecure person’, and he was, ‘not good…if [she was] grumpy’. Chloe was also disappointed about living with his new family.
(3) Feelings of guilt (separation anxiety disorder and happiness)
From the text, Chloe made it clear that her mother disapproved of her being happy and made her feel guilty. The early relationship between mother and daughter was highly-charged and enmeshed: she felt that she was, ‘closely interwoven’, that she was, ‘too tied up together’ and, ‘too close’. Chloe used these phrases to describe the way that she felt prior to moving away to do her PhD. She also felt guilty when she met her first partner, and this manifested itself in her separation anxiety disorder:
‘I’d gone away, I’d left her; I’d got married and I was very happy, so I felt really bad about that, and I felt like I was deserting her…’
Discussion (420 words)
The main aim of this investigation was to use a personal account to draw out examples of how significant others affect psychological development. The three themes identified in the analysis show clearly how these early influences have affected Chloe’s future relationships. As soon as Chloe got back from her honeymoon, she felt miserable. She felt guilty about leaving her mother and also that she was happy. Her separation anxiety disorder, coupled with her feelings of guilt associated with her own happiness, had begun to interfere with her adult relationship. This links directly back to the fact that her mother, having lost her husband was not going to lose a daughter too, especially if she intended going to university and finding a husband of her own. One can only speculate how the theme of disappointment manifested itself within this relationship. It is interesting that she did not mention this in the interview.
It is important to point out here that, up until the stage when Chloe had decided to move away and work on her research degree, she felt too close, and perhaps controlled by her mother. The transferiential feelings of guilt had affected her relationships and also her ability to study (or make personal plans) on her own. She made a definite move away. Towards the end of the interview, Chloe used the word ‘space’ to describe a healing process: she was able to be disinterested about her mother, and to see the good things about her; she began to shift the blame away from herself; she didn’t feel guilty; and generally felt a lot happier. As a result, her second, ongoing relationship with Ian was a much more positive experience.
The extent of this adaptive behaviour was unexpected. Chloe, despite the extreme circumstances surrounding her childhood, had been able to work through her problems and build a successful relationship. This stresses the significance of ‘earned security’ in adult life (Main and Goldwyn, 1984): the fact that, regardless of early trauma, adults are able to have successful partnerships. In this case, it was Chloe’s acceptance and the fact that she had been able to disengage herself from her mother’s control that contributed to her well-being.
These findings support the view of attachment theorists that the mother/father bond with a child needs to be caring, attuned, supportive and consistent. The consequences of bad parenting can affect the child’s ability to have successful adult relationships in the future and, in addition, can limit their capacity for autonomy and adaptive self- nurturing.
Reflexive Analysis (346 words)
It is inevitable, in an analysis of this kind, that a researcher is influenced by the comments of the participant and, to a certain extent, brings his own, personal experiences into play. These experiences affect and influence the interpretations. For instance, even the most experienced psychoanalysts, having undergone extensive and thorough personal analysis several times a week for many years, and having been trained to be unbiased and non-judgemental, still influence their patients in the comments that they make. Counter-transference is a common, and often helpful, phenomenon.
This thematic analysis was no exception. I think that I was influenced by the fact that Chloe felt guilty about moving away; I have experienced this myself, and I know many people who have also suffered guilt about separation. I also know the importance of personal space and how it is important to find somewhere away from one’s parents so that one can study effectively. In addition, I, even from the limited amount of information on the page, had some idea of the similar demographic position which Chloe had taken. I, thus, had to re-address the initial codification of the text. In the first instance, I noted the importance of space and fulfilling personal goals, but I realized that my own intentions and pre-occupations had affected my judgement—the important point was that Chloe had begun to move away from her mother and been able to work through her problems and build a successful relationship with Ian.
It would be interesting to add pauses to the text and to analyze the number of pauses and how they affected the content. Further research could be done in this area. In addition, I would be interested to analyze the significance of some of the repetitions and the repeated words and phrases such as ‘space’, ‘sort of’, ‘linking’ and ‘disappointment’ to name but a few. And, although I was interested in these phrases at the beginning of the analytical process—and I had to concentrate more specifically on the themes related to the research question—further investigation might reveal some important implications.
TOTAL WORDS: 2, 489
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