“She overreacts about everything.” “He’s there, but not emotionally. I feel a distance.” “She always hears me wrong.” “We love each other but we can’t make it work.” “She flies off the handle all the time.” “He’s always waiting for bad things to happen. He’s always waiting for me to leave” “I know I flip out on him but I can’t stop. It hurts me and it hurts him- it hurts our relationship.” THIS is what trauma sounds like in a relationship.
I hear it all the time. So often, and so the same, that I can create a menu of things to choose from. You wouldn’t even have to come up with how it is. I know this place. It’s sad, it’s frustrating, it hurts, and it keeps you from having the relationships you want, romantic or otherwise.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
There are two main ways that trauma can affect your relationships: 1) Who you attach to (addressed in this blog) and 2) how you fight (addressed in part two.)
Let’s start with attachment because it’s critical and it starts early. Without going into too much detail, your first attachments can even affect how your brain grows. That’s how critical this is. So, what is it and why does it matter?
Put simply, attachment is the way that we relate to others in how we view them. Are they reliable and safe? Can we trust them? Do we dare depend on them or do we keep them at a distance? Are we secure in unconditional love or do we feel that love has to be earned and that if it isn’t they will leave us? THIS is attachment.
It starts with our earliest attachments- our parents. This is not to blame anyone and if you’ve grown up in a harsh environment it doesn’t mean that it can’t be unlearned without some help. Parents are humans and they have their own wounds, so let’s not focus on blaming mom and dad just yet. However, our first attachment is an important one. When we are born we are mostly right hemisphere and attachment oriented parts of the brain- babies don’t reason, they simply get needs met. They recognize caretakers, cry and notice who meets their needs, and grow from there. IF there is a secure attachment, when ready, the brain will secrete hormones that bring other parts of the brain online. If not, that process is delayed (yet again, biology is involved!) – I’ll add more on this on another blog. Bottom line: it’s an important phase. We learn early whether or not we can count on people and if they are safe. I would like to make clear, however, that one can have a type of childhood and attachment and have something change this attachment type along the way (for better or worse), so it’s not completely set in stone. There are a lot of factors that play into this (parental style, interpersonal experiences, situational factors, traumas…) but for the sake of this blog I’m going to keep it relatively simple.
There are different attachment styles and they affect people in relatively predictable ways. The symptoms may manifest differently, but the underlying messages are the same- “I value myself.” “I can’t trust others.” “Love must be earned.”
First, we have secure attachment. This is rare, but not unheard of, in people with a traumatic history. I don’t often see this right off the bat unless they’ve already done some work or had at least one person in their life who modeled healthy attachment. This is the ultimate goal. People with secure attachment know how to trust. They know who is safe to bond with and they trust their radar to know the difference between safe and not safe. They know how to repair disagreements successfully. They understand that love is not conditional and that, even if they’ve screwed up and created a rift, they are still cared for and it is repairable. Ideally they can “self soothe,” or manage their own emotions and generally act like mature humans most of the time.
Next, we have anxious (preoccupied) attachment. I see this one much more often. In general, people with this attachment style are generally unable to manage their own anxieties without contact with their attachment figure. They’ll say things like “so and so is my rock. I couldn’t be without them.” Sometimes you’ll see this in codependent relationships, but not everyone who is anxiously attached is codependent. These are the very emotionally expressive people. They’re very reactive. They are the chasers- they’ll often tell you that the other person isn’t as intimate with them as they wish for them to be. If there’s a rift, they can’t focus until it is resolved. It can be likened to physical pain for them if they feel that someone is pulling away- it creates panic for them. It becomes a personal rejection instead of a temporary situation. In general, they’re not very secure in themselves or in the security of the relationship. They see themselves in relation to others. For them, love is conditional and they must always be vigilant to stay in good graces. Often described as anxious, dramatic or sensitive, reactive, or needy.
Then, there’s dismissive (avoidant) attachment. These people will tell you that they’re independent and fine without a relationship. This is a pretty defensive type of attachment style. They value independence and ultimately fear enmeshment- the idea that a relationship will swallow you up. They view interdependence (me, you, us) in the same vein as codependence (we are one being in an unhealthy and dependent way). They often only allow themselves to bond superficially and if they feel that someone is too close they will engage in distancing behaviors such as picking fights, criticism, or sarcasm. They tend to bury or hide feelings and ultimately are trying to keep the possibility of rejection low. If one does not bond or value a person’s opinion, then when that person rejects you it won’t effect you. Often described as cold, emotionally distant, “they won’t accept help,” or sarcastic (or some other form of distancing behavior).
Finally, we have fearful (avoidant) attachment. These people desperately want close attachments but cannot allow themselves to bond out of fear. They differ from dismissive in that, dismissives WILL ultimately bond, but it’s superficial. Fearfully attached rarely even get that far. Often, their behaviors drive people off long before true bonding can take effect. They have poor self image and often view themselves as undeserving. They’re uncomfortable with emotional closeness (too dangerous) and ultimately display distancing behaviors or mixed messages. Often described as scared, reactive, confusing (mixed messages), and “thirsty” or desperate. Unfortunately, these people are easy picking for predators because of their extremely low self worth and hopes that someone will provide them value. Anxiously attached are of similar risk for this.
Let me make clear: secure is what we want. However, this doesn’t make any of the other attachment styles bad. At whatever point, that attachment style was functional for the situation– if a source isn’t secure, it’s not safe to treat them as such. So, hooray for adaptive behaviors! Just like with Post Traumatic Stress- dysfunctional attachment is a problem after the need to use it to cope/survive passes.
Generally, people favor one particular type. However, their partner’s attachment style can also change the interactions. A secure partner will be tired, but ultimately able to handle one of the other types (and even teach them how to be secure) with some work. The real hell is unleashed when two less functional types bond. As an example, it is common for an anxious and a dismissive to bond. VERY common. The anxious chases and shows the dismissive their worth, and the dismissive gives the anxious the need to feel needed and love them to health (rescuers fit here). It’s not functional, and it’s ultimately drama, but they don’t know they’re doing it. What is truly wonderful is when one of the other styles bonds with a secure and then learns to heal, hopefully not at the expense of harming the healthier party. Even better is when someone heals themselves into a secure attachment style and THEN seeks out a healthy partner. I’ve seen all combinations. It’s really pretty fascinating.
Why does this matter? Because it plays a huge role in who you are attracted to and how it plays out. What is particularly painful is to watch the cycles: “Why are all the good men gone?” “Why am I always attracted to crazy dramatic women?” “Why is everyone so needy?”
AND it plays a huge role in how you engage in what we call “rift and repair”- or how you fight and make up. Arguments can damage or strengthen a relationship depending on how they are managed. Stay tuned for part two, where I’ll explain how trauma affects this aspect of a relationship….
For more on attachment styles and strategies, see the book “Attached” by Amir Levine, MD, and Rachel Heller, MA.
And if you’re tired of replaying the same cycles, give me a call! We can sort out what’s happening and fix it once and for all. I’m here when you’re ready.