A Strange Situation

“Everyone keeps at a distance.”

(David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739-40, Conclusion to Book 1)

Is someone up above running a global version of Mary Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” procedure?

Ainsworth, a pioneering attachment theorist, devised the Strange Situation to examine how very young children responded to being separated from their mother. Her study recorded the responses of a group of one-year-olds and identified three distinct behavior patterns: Group A exhibited what Ainsworth characterized as “avoidant” behavior, Group B exhibited what Ainsworth termed “secure” behavior, and Group C exhibited what Ainsworth termed “resistant” or “ambivalent” attachment.

The kind of behaviors understood as constitutive of avoidant attachment are as follows:

“increasing distance between self and the person, whether through locomotion or by leaning away from; turning the back on the person; turning the head away; averting the gaze; avoidance of meeting the person’s eyes; hiding the face; or simply ignoring the person.”

The strange situation we currently occupy is one in which Group A behavior is suddenly mandatory.

Describing a follow-up study to the Strange Situation, Ainsworth observes how each group of children responded to a situation in which their mother was asked to sit at a distance from them:

“Group-B children spent more time within 6 feet of the mother than the A children, under all conditions. When mother was on the sofa, C children spent more time within 6 feet of her than did B children. It may be noted that the sofa was in the living-room area, out of sight of a child in the play area. Presumably the C children interpreted the mother’s move to this more distant position as indicating a decrease in her accessibility, whereas the B children considered her still accessible.”

Group A (avoidant) types, then, are practiced at keeping themselves more than six feet from others. Do you now find yourself pre-emptively stepping out into a street so you don’t have to cross the path of someone walking the other way? In normal times, this pre-emptive avoidance of another person would seem like a classic Group A move: as Ainsworth explains, avoidant behavior “protects the baby from reexperiencing the rebuff that he has come to expect.” The avoidant person, in other words, rebuffs you as a defense mechanism, before you can rebuff them.

But in our new strange situation, this kind of avoidant behavior feels, increasingly, like a basic courtesy. It almost feels aggressive to stay on the sidewalk when you’re within twenty feet or so of another person walking towards you.

I’m not a mental health professional, and I’m not going to diagnose myself; but let’s just say that, ever since I started reading a lot of attachment theory a couple of years ago, I’ve felt a strong affinity with Group C. Group C are the resistantly or ambivalently attached children. Remember the example above in which the Group C children spend more time with their mother than the secure children once their mother is in the other room?

Classic Group C.

We Group C types are not especially interested in you when you’re in the room with us, but if you leave? That’s when you suddenly become very interesting to us.

Group C behavior might seem perverse; but I think of it, more indulgently, as an especially heightened manifestation of the dynamic at play in all attachment behavior: the effort to maintain a “set-goal” of proximity to the attachment figure that the child finds reassuring.

Here is John Bowlby, for example, describing normal attachment behavior in ways that make Group C behavior just seem, well, sensible:

“When a mother rebuffs her child for wishing to be near her or to sit on her knee it not infrequently has an effect exactly the opposite of what is intended—he becomes more clinging than ever. Similarly, when a child suspects his mother is about to leave him behind, he insists remorselessly on remaining by her side. When, on the other hand, a child observes that his mother is attending to him and is ready to respond whenever he may desire greater proximity to her, he is likely to be content and may explore some distance away. Although such behaviour may appear perverse, it is in fact what is to be expected on the hypothesis that attachment behaviour fulfills a protective function. Whenever mother seems unlikely to play her part in maintaining proximity a child is alerted and by his own behaviour ensures that proximity is maintained. When, on the other hand, mother shows herself ready to maintain proximity her child can relax his own efforts.”

Here, then, is my hypothesis for why, even aside from the anxiety about illness and suffering that the pandemic is causing, this situation triggers everyone’s attachment issues in ways that are particularly intense and chronic:

  1. This is a disaster, and disasters trigger attachment behavior. “When,” Ainsworth writes, “the attachment system is activated at a high level of intensity—for example, by severe illness or disaster—the person seeks literal closeness to an attachment figure.”
  2. However, the nature of this particular disaster is such that the prescription for mitigating it—social distancing—entails withholding the most important source of comfort for a person in severe distress: literal closeness to loved ones.
  3. So then, in addition to the disaster that is activating our attachment behavior, the treatment for the disaster—social distancing—itself constitutes a secondary cause that further activates attachment behavior. In other words, the very fact that physical contact is being withheld from us makes us long for it even more.

Now, obviously, this isn’t as disastrous for us, as adults, as it would be for an infant, because adults can readily express and receive attachment via alternative, ugh, modalities. Ainsworth observes, “the older child or adult may employ distant modes of interaction to reaffirm the accessibility and responsiveness of the attachment figure. Telephone calls, letters, or tapes may help to ameliorate absence; photographs and keepsakes help to bolster the symbolic representation of the absent figure.”

(Note to any younger readers: the modes of communication to which Ainsworth refers here are what you can think of as protozooms.)

However, as Ainsworth warns, “representations cannot entirely supplant literal proximity and contact … even an older child or adult will sometimes want to be in close bodily contact with a loved one, and certainly this will be the case when attachment behavior is intensely activated—say, by disaster, intense anxiety, or severe illness.”

I realize that I am just stating the obvious here, but it feels important to say because it helps pinpoint what is so distinct about this global disaster: remoteness is not only the prophylactic for but also (for the lucky ones) the constitutive experience of the disaster.

In my own case, the pains caused thus far by this remoteness—loneliness, anxiety, listlessness, etc.—have been relatively mild. I’d say they fall into the category, paraphrasing David Hume, of pleasures languishing when enjoyed apart from company. What is scarier is the prospect of future pains, pains that, as Hume observes, “becomes more cruel and intolerable” in isolation. A few months ago, when my Mum was visiting and had a bad fall, I could literally put my arms around her to help lift her to her feet. Knowing that I would not be able to put my arms around her or any other loved ones who fell ill with this virus is the intolerable prospect.


So Near And Yet So Far

“No wonder I’m a bit under par

For you’re so near and yet so far.”

(Cole Porter, “So Near And Yet So Far”)

Lately, coronavirus-induced thoughts have been contaminating all of my other thoughts. This is not good for my other thoughts, and so, to protect them, I have made the difficult decision to quarantine, for the foreseeable future, all my coronavirus-related thoughts here on this site, which I have created expressly for this purpose.

These measures may seem harsh, but I firmly believe that the exigencies of the current moment required that I take bold and decisive action. Moreover, the reader is asked to bear in mind that these measures only seem harsh because the metaphor of quarantining is so grim. If the reader prefers, they may instead imagine this website, not as a quarantine facility, but rather as a “holding environment,” in D. W. Winnicott’s phrase: a protective, nurturing enclosure in which said thoughts may flourish and be themselves without fear of repression or censure.

All right then? Good. 


The phrase “So near and yet so far” captures something of the peculiar quality of this global disaster. On the one hand, the coronavirus has permeated almost every facet of daily life. On the other hand, unlike other emergencies I have experienced, there is no scent of smoke in the air, no sound of a SWAT team entering the building. I’m just sitting in my living room as usual. It looks more or less as it always does, except perhaps a bit tidier, because I’ve had more time to clean recently, and there’s some banana bread on the table, because I’ve had more time to bake. It’s also very quiet, except for the sound of a bird singing outside. I notice birdsong a lot more these days. Perhaps that’s because it’s spring, or perhaps because I’m spending more time in the yard, or perhaps because, with the ambient hum of human activity turned down, my ear now picks out the notes more easily.

The coronavirus feels like it is both everywhere and nowhere; it’s the dissonance between those two feelings that the phrase “so near and yet so far” captures. COVID-19’S effects are pervasive and violent; but the virus itself is imperceptible. Moreover, its ravages take place behind closed doors. The most visible sign of the coronavirus’s impact on daily life are not its symptoms but the masks we wear to prevent its spread. Meanwhile, the coronavirus’s toll, its permutations and possible trajectories, is relentlessly, endlessly telegraphed to us via every imaginable medium.

The dissonance between my lived experience and the reality of the disaster is so jarring as to almost feel like a form of gaslighting. It’s a global pandemic but I’ve never felt more like a monad. It’s an emergency, but emergencies require immediate action, rapid response; this emergency requires sewing. It’s a disaster, but disasters are usually sudden; this disaster is dilated, like a car-crash unfolding in slow motion. To be experiencing this pandemic at a remove is obviously a privilege; but there’s also something deeply disconcerting to feel one’s sympathetic nervous system gearing up in response to a threat that is only perceived indirectly: that is, to a threat that feels so near and so far at the same time.

 “So Near and Yet So Far” is also the name of a song that Cole Porter wrote for the 1941 Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth film, You’ll Never Get Rich. (That’s right, I’m now transitioning from coronavirus to a 1940s song and dance number). The song has nothing to do with anything I was just discussing; but I like the way the lyrics “No wonder I’m a bit under par / For you’re so near and yet so far” capture the idea that the perceptual dissonance caused by an object that seems close and distant at the same time is in itself psychologically unsettling. 

Astaire and Hayworth dance to the song in a striking number in which Hayworth at first demurs in response to Astaire’s advances and then—in what is apparently a unique instance in Astaire’s career—leads a now-reluctant and standoffish Astaire into the choreography (see Priscilla Peña Ovalle’s discussion of the choreography in Dance and the Hollywood Latina Race, Sex, and Stardom (Rutgers, 2011), 84-86).

You should watch it; it’s absolutely gorgeous, and also a brilliant choreographic expression of ambivalent or resistant attachment, about which more in my next post.

Astaire Hayworth
Hayworth and Astaire dancing in the number “So Near And Yet So Far” in the film You’ll Never Get Rich (1941)