Remembering Mary Main

With sadness, we want to let you know that our cherished colleague, Professor Emerita Mary Main, passed away peacefully at her home on January 6, 2023, just short of her 80th birthday, after a courageous battle with a long illness. An academic pioneer, Mary joined the UC Berkeley Psychology Department in 1973, as part of a new wave of female faculty hired in the 1970's, after decades in which women were not considered for such positions. Since her young adulthood, she faced recurring medical challenges but despite these constraints, she forged a remarkable career of great impact.


Mary Main, along with her husband Erik Hesse and her students, transformed the study of attachment–the universal need of animals and humans for proximity and nurturance in times of stress. The roots of the theory can be traced to work in animal ethology, exemplified by Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen's pictures of ducklings who instinctively follow their mother or a human caretaker immediately after birth. Mary built upon the ethological perspective of John Bowlby, who focused on the reactions of children separated from their parents during WWII, and the experimental method developed by her mentor Mary Ainsworth of measuring children's separation from and reunions with their mothers in a laboratory setting (the Strange Situation). Mary’s enriched formulation of attachment theory and her invention of a method of assessing cognitive/emotional models of attachment in adults by asking about the quality of their relationships with their parents broke new ground, spawning what was earlier a small research field into a vibrant and international community of scholars. This highly cited work stimulated yearly conferences and the active involvement of literally thousands of researchers and therapists in many countries and cultures across the world interested in the generational transmission of parenting styles.


Mary’s first theoretical advance was to go beyond her mentor Mary Ainsworth’s assumption that the Strange Situation measures three specific reactions to separation, to recognize a larger context in which three categories, and then a new fourth category could be interpreted as universal patterns of behavior and emotion regulation in response to threat. Once the attachment response system is activated, there are four possible attachment scenarios: (1) Secure attachment, in which child behavior emerges to maintain closeness to the parent; (2) Avoidant attachment in which the child’s withdrawal serves the function of keeping the parent close while not demanding a direct response; (3) Anxious attachment in which the child engages in frantic attempts to re-establish contact with a caregiver; and (4) Disorganized attachment in which the child’s behavior shows a serious disruption of functioning. Identification of this fourth category benefited from an early collaboration with Judith Solomon and a later collaboration with Erik Hesse. The early work also expanded the behavioral approach to attachment measurement by assuming that children created cognitive/emotional working models that defined their expectations about whether or not they would receive nurturance in times of stress and how to strategize to keep their caretakers near. These working models, researchers found, were associated with adaptation or maladaptation in many different life domains including personality styles, reactions to conflict, depression, and aggression. Mary’s initial research at UC Berkeley, using Ainsworth’s Strange Situation paradigm was novel for its times in the 1970s (and is still rare) in that the sample included children’s reunions with their fathers as well as with their mothers after a brief separation.


A second and novel contribution by Main, Hesse, and her students Carol George and Nancy Kaplan was the idea that adults also create working models of attachment, based on early family experience, that shape their abilities to cope with stress and to provide nurturance to their offspring. That is, beyond observable behavior, attachment systems exist on the level of cognitive representations that can be elicited and measured in the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), in which adults are asked to describe the qualities of their relationships with their parents or caretakers, especially when those relationships were under stress. The AAI coding system identifies the same four security categories found in child-parent interactions. The creation of the AAI along with the Strange Situation allows for the study of attachment in parent-child and intimate couple relationships across cultures and across the lifespan.


A third contribution of Main and her collaborators, supported by many studies, was the insight that the attachment system functions as a mechanism to explain the transmission of behavior patterns across time and across generations. The correlation between security of attachment measured in infancy and adulthood, and between attachment in children and in their parents, was found to be statistically significant, though moderate. While there is stability across time and family relationships, many children with insecure attachment are not doomed to remain so, and it is possible for insecurely attached parents to rear children who are securely attached. The possibility of shifts in attachment security has challenged investigators to create interventions for parents to help them respond sensitively to their children’s cues in order to foster both the parents’ and the child’s development of more productive ways of maintaining proximity and nurturance in their relationships.


Mary’s significant contributions to the field of Developmental Psychology have been recognized internationally with three honorary doctoral degrees (University of Uppsala, Sweden; University of Goteborg, Sweden; University of Haifa, Israel), the establishment of the Mary Main Chair in Life-Span Studies of Attachment at Leiden University, Netherlands, and a lifetime achievement award from the Society for Social, Emotional and Attachment Studies (SEAS). Her scientific papers and correspondence will be archived at the Wellcome Trust in London.

At Berkeley, Mary was often a quiet and modest presence. She was experienced mostly by her colleagues in small seminars, in dinners at her home or lunches in local restaurants. One colleague described fond memories of a lunch with Mary “that lasted for hours and will stand forever as one of those ‘this is why we are academics’ moments”. Others recalled co-teaching seminars with her and remembered the twinkle in her eye as she engaged eagerly in both discussion and debate. Another colleague remarked on her caring and "her unique ability to really listen to new ideas." They characterized her commentary as sensitive and incisive, demonstrating a deep appreciation of both biological and psychodynamic determinants in the understanding of family relationships.


Still, none of her kindness, wisdom, and supportive mentorship conveyed to those who knew Mary, but did not know her work well, what a towering and path-breaking figure she was in so many venues outside UC Berkeley and across the world. She will be deeply missed by her colleagues and by the multitudes of students and faculty members whose work has been shaped by her generous and creative intellectual contributions to the study of intimate relationships.


-- Philip Cowan, Carolyn Pape Cowan, and Rhona Weinstein