This post is the result of investigation into a question of mine.

So, you’ve created a spiffy NSView of your own, and have decided to make it compatible with bindings. Great! So you go and read the documentation, and you look at mmalc’s GraphicsBindings examples. You override bind:toObject:withKeyPath:options: and everything works. But wait! Why isn’t the NSWindowController ever being deallocated anymore?

Now you’ve got a nasty retain cycle on your hands. You do a little research and discover that not only do other people have the same problem, but even Apple’s bindings used to have it a few years ago. How did Apple fix the problem? With the magic, undocumented class NSAutounbinder, which nobody seems to know much about.

Other people will tell you that you don’t need to override bind:toObject:withKeyPath:options: and that bindings work automatically. This is only a half truth. NSObject does provide an implementation of bind:toObject:withKeyPath:options:, but it only half works. Using the default NSObject implementation, changes in the model will update the view, but the reverse is not true. When the bound property of the view changes, nothing happens to the model.

So, what is a Cocoa developer to do? I’ll explain how to implement your own bindings that work exactly like Apple’s, with no retain cycles. I haven’t found this solution anywhere else, so as far as I know, I’m the discoverer. I feel so special. It has been mentioned before at least once. The solution is hard to find, though.

The Solution

The first thing you need to know is that -[NSObject bind:toObject:withKeyPath:options:] will actually use the undocumented NSAutounbinder mechanism to avoid the retain cycle problem. That is half the problem solved right there. So the first step is:

DO NOT override bind:toObject:withKeyPath:options: or unbind:

Because we’re using the default NSObject implementation, when a bound property changes in the view, we have to manually set the new value on the bound object. This is made possible by the fact that all information about the binding can be obtained from -[NSObject infoForBinding:]. So the second step is:

Use infoForBinding: to propagate view-driven changes

Below is what I use to handle propagation of view-driven changes. It’s a category on NSObject, and is used like so:

    NSColor* newColor = //mouse down changes the color somehow (view-driven change)
    self.color = newColor;
    [self propagateValue:newColor forBinding:@"color"];

Here is the implementation of propagateValue:forBinding:. It handles value transformers in the binding options.

@implementation NSObject(TDBindings)

-(void) propagateValue:(id)value forBinding:(NSString*)binding;
    NSParameterAssert(binding != nil);

    //WARNING: bindingInfo contains NSNull, so it must be accounted for
    NSDictionary* bindingInfo = [self infoForBinding:binding];
        return; //there is no binding

    //apply the value transformer, if one has been set
    NSDictionary* bindingOptions = [bindingInfo objectForKey:NSOptionsKey];
        NSValueTransformer* transformer = [bindingOptions valueForKey:NSValueTransformerBindingOption];
        if(!transformer || (id)transformer == [NSNull null]){
            NSString* transformerName = [bindingOptions valueForKey:NSValueTransformerNameBindingOption];
            if(transformerName && (id)transformerName != [NSNull null]){
                transformer = [NSValueTransformer valueTransformerForName:transformerName];

        if(transformer && (id)transformer != [NSNull null]){
            if([[transformer class] allowsReverseTransformation]){
                value = [transformer reverseTransformedValue:value];
            } else {
                NSLog(@"WARNING: binding \"%@\" has value transformer, but it doesn't allow reverse transformations in %s", binding, __PRETTY_FUNCTION__);

    id boundObject = [bindingInfo objectForKey:NSObservedObjectKey];
    if(!boundObject || boundObject == [NSNull null]){
        NSLog(@"ERROR: NSObservedObjectKey was nil for binding \"%@\" in %s", binding, __PRETTY_FUNCTION__);

    NSString* boundKeyPath = [bindingInfo objectForKey:NSObservedKeyPathKey];
    if(!boundKeyPath || (id)boundKeyPath == [NSNull null]){
        NSLog(@"ERROR: NSObservedKeyPathKey was nil for binding \"%@\" in %s", binding, __PRETTY_FUNCTION__);

    [boundObject setValue:value forKeyPath:boundKeyPath];


I hope this helps! I’d like to thank Ryan Ballantyne and Louis Gerbarg for their input, and Peter Hosey for further investigation into the problem.