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How Trauma Affects Relationships Part II: How We Interact

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I am realizing it’s impossible for me to write a SHORT blog. I’m sorry! There’s too much to say. It only looks long because I broke down the interactions. I almost made each attachment style a different blog but I had so many people asking me when this would be out I was afraid you’d all riot! So, get some tea, settle in, and take breaks if you need to I guess! I had to make a part III- I know.. I know…

 

So last week we learned a little about attachment, how it develops, and a bit about how it’s involved in who we are attracted to. Most people, even those who are aware of these patterns, aren’t totally sure what to do with that information or why it matters. It affects all relationships- I’ll be speaking mostly in the most intimate context of romantic partners but these things ring true in friendships, work, and family relationships as well.

Attachment and our trauma both play important roles in our relationships and how they play out if unresolved. There are two main ways this plays out: 1) Attachment (and modeling) impacts who we are attracted to and the particular “dance” that plays out and 2) Trauma can drastically effect how we interact, how we fight, and how we repair- or “rift and repair” as mentioned in the last blog. (I’ll expand on the trauma component in part III)

Yes Catherine, but why does it matter? – Well, once you are aware of what is going on you can actively work to change these patterns. You can also spot these in others, depersonalize them (not take them personally), and react appropriately rather than emotionally. When you understand what creates closeness and what creates distance you take your power back. Trust me, THIS MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE. It can absolutely save relationships and sanity. When you understand the undertones of what is happening it is much easier, or at least different to deal with.

You know me: it gets deep fast. Hold on! I’ll try to simplify but this particular rabbit hole is DEEP Y’all. Entire books are written on this. I can’t teach you everything here- this is meant to be a basic exposure to what is going on. This is how I work- these are the theories I work with and find to be true- as do many other clinicians. Entire forms of therapy are based on concepts like modeling, attachment, and undertones in communication. So, I will TRY to keep this simple for you but frankly, even if I don’t, I trust that you can handle it!

We’ve already been over the different types of attachment. Attachment is involved in our particular mix of how we accidentally or purposefully create closeness and distance. Each attachment style has its own particular wounds and responses that dictate what they “hear” and how they react. Have you ever tried to explain something, the recipient echoes it back to you and you’re thinking “What? No. That’s not what I said at all!” Our experiences dictate how we interact with the world (as always, more on that later!) Attachment is one part of this puzzle.

Let’s break this down and take a look:

*Please note that when I talk about unhelpful thought patterns everyone, regardless of attachment style, experiences their own combination. I have to generalize a bit for the sake of example and simplification. Your attachment models, traumas and experiences are all deeply personal and will create your personal cocktail of this stuff. This gets complicated fast.

Secure- I’ll start here because this is the “boring part.” These people are healthy! They have wounds like the rest of us- I promise- but they are aware of them, when they pop up, and how to handle them. They understand that they hold value in their relationship, how to participate in valuing their partner(s), and that arguments are common in negotiating the parameters of more than one life. *This is where my clients land once they’ve done the work.* (Side note: they love it.)

When Bonding:  This one is going to be deeply personal because secure people come from all kinds of places- IF they are PURE secure, they are comfortable in being vulnerable, comfortable in having appropriate boundaries (not too much too fast), are good in communicating what they need, want, and are willing to give, and are capable of creating and maintaining rich long term relationships. If they have GROWN to be secure, then their bonding will mirror a less emotionally volatile version of whatever that style is with the best parts of security mixed in. For example, someone who is anxious but has grown to be secure will have the urge to move too fast, but will have the skills to keep this to themselves and work to maintain appropriate boundaries.

When fighting: With true security it rarely gets beyond a “Hey. That thing? It sucked. Don’t do the thing. I need this…” Why? They address things in the moment. Assertiveness, direct communication, and boundaries are all the things that create security- that’s why secure attachment behaviors are our goal. This prevents things from becoming a big deal and creating emotional turmoil. If things escalate for some reason then PURE secures will try to talk it through as calmly as possible and come up with appropriate solutions that both parties can accept. Those who have GROWN secure will feel old behaviors manifest but will be able to manage them before they become a problem. “Honey? I’m feeling a little anxious. I’ve mostly got it handled, but can you help me figure this out?”

What security looks like: These relationship partners assert their needs in the moment. They are clear about what they need and want, when they’re hurt, and what they’re feeling. They have appropriate boundaries, appropriate and direct communication, and know that they are valued and safe in the relationship.

Common wounds: Secure attachment is the goal, and it is reachable. For this reason, there are no real “common wounds” for this category because those who have worked for security have learned how to manage their old wounds, whether they are dismissive, anxious, or fearful.

Pro tip: from here on out pay attention to the wounds, internal dialogue, and what that particular attachment style needs. That’s the Kryptonite! If you give them what they need things de-escalate much more quickly and you’re able to move towards a healthier more secure relationship. Also, don’t be an asshole and use this to harm people. I shouldn’t have to say that but, you know, humans.

Anxious As mentioned in the last blog, anxiously attached are insecure in the value they hold in the attachment and the solidity of the relationship. They are ALWAYS actively working to stay in good graces. Real or imagined, at some point in their life they got the message that people can and will reject you, possibly without an understood reason, so one must meet and anticipate needs and stay in good graces. Their ‘favorite’ unhelpful thought pattern is that unhappiness or rejection is personal. It’s something I did. (Remember that these are generalizations and are somewhat situational.) While there is a great deal of power in this thinking, it’s also dysfunctional because it means I can fix it! They can get upset easily, take things personally that may not be personal, are often stuck in proving their worth, and are prone to making themselves responsible for other’s emotions. This manifests mostly in their “chasing.”

When Bonding: Often they are grateful for the attention. Fiercely loyal, sometimes to their own detriment. You’ll hear things like “too much too fast” here from people who were driven off. Sometimes will get upset/nervous if they aren’t texted right back, if it has been “too long” since an interaction, or if they feel slighted – “I’m too tired to hang out.” “I’ve got to stay late at work.” These are the friends that drive you nuts analyzing text messages. They’re often described as needy, emotional, or suffocating at their worst. They are attentive and anticipate needs, kind, and recipients feel “lucky” when they’re at their best.

When fighting: When they feel like there is a rift they will panic- behavior will show as such through screaming/crying (out of fear, not anger), saying things like “please don’t leave” (with a minor slight), and working hard to force repair quickly. They cannot and will not calm down until repair has happened. Often, just to facilitate repair they will swallow feelings, apologize when it isn’t warranted or necessary, and take blame even when it doesn’t rest on them. This is troublesome because it leads to other problems like resentment and emotional blowups (which create distance.)

When secure: When they’re secure the emotional theatre stops or at least slows down. With some skills they’ll be able to hear their internal messages and change their patterns. They may still feel anxious, but they’ll be able to soothe or voice that they need help soothing. They realize that arguments don’t mean abandonment or rejection.

Common wounds: Anxiously attached got the message somewhere that people are replaceable. Perhaps even that they personally are replaceable. They may get the message that they’re “too much” or “dramatic.” They fear abandonment and often fear being alone. They fear going unnoticed or being rejected- self esteem difficulties, difficulty asserting or standing up for their needs, possible parental wounds, abandonment wounds, people pleasing

The message they really need to hear is that they are valuable and that being upset with them doesn’t mean that they are now rejected. “I’m angry but I still love you and we will work this out.”

Dismissive– Remember that dismissives have themselves convinced that they’re fine with or without you. That doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s a defense mechanism. Recall that they bond superficially (until they’re more secure) because being vulnerable is dangerous. Somewhere in their life they were either abandoned, betrayed, or most likely neglected. The neglect is an important key- if you’re just ignored (rather than actively abused) you learn that this is how things go. Nobody cares about how you feel, nor should you engage in how they feel. It’s extra information that doesn’t matter and when you engage it never goes well, so why bother? The other side- if there was active abuse, they learned to “go dead” and not to allow that person to matter so it doesn’t hurt. They learned that vulnerability is dangerous. Vulnerability is key to closeness so this handicaps them.

When Bonding: They’ll engage, but not deeply. You’re not going to get deep emotional thoughts and poetry here. It’ll be the whole “he’s just not that into you” pattern. “You’re nice to have around, and I really do like you, but if you go your own way I’ll still be okay.” If they like you, they’ll respond when you reach out but they aren’t very likely to reach out on their own. They don’t like to invite others into their world, much less allow them to take on an important role. Often, you’ll see friends with benefits, one night stands, or relationships where one person thinks they’re a couple and the dismissive denying or minimizing that fact.

When fighting: When they feel like there is a rift they ignore it. They don’t understand why the other partner is upset and they don’t engage in empathy because they don’t know how. “The fact that she’s upset is her problem.” You MAY see passive aggressive behavior because they don’t acknowledge their own feelings either so- rather than saying they’re hurting, they’ll do crappy distancing things. They may also just pretend nothing happened. “Yeah, that happened, but it’s in the past.” I’d like to be clear- they aren’t jerks, they’re SCARED. It doesn’t excuse the behavior but it will help with context. They don’t repair because 1) they have to acknowledge the rift to do so and 2) this is important- THEY DON’T KNOW HOW. Their models were neglectful- they do not understand that hurts need to be acknowledged and that hurts need to be soothed. They don’t soothe because they don’t acknowledge- their own feelings or others.

When secure: When they’re secure they can potentially make decent partners. The only way they move this direction though is if someone teaches them: they have to learn to be vulnerable and bond, to acknowledge wrongs, how to sympathize/empathize, and how to repair. These are the people you have to really point out that they hurt you and make clear how you expect it to be repaired.

Common wounds: Dismissively attached got the message somewhere that people are dangerous and will take advantage of vulnerabilities or that nobody really cares. They may get the message that they’re too hard to love. (Fighting to maintain a connection with someone who doesn’t know how is HARD.) They do secretly fear abandonment and often fear being alone-but this manifests in strings of short term, shallow relationships instead of long term deep ones like the anxiously attached. They fear losing themselves and their independence and being rejected- self esteem difficulties, difficulty attaching enough to practice asserting or standing up for their needs, possible parental wounds, abandonment wounds, loneliness

The message they really need to hear is that they are valuable enough that you do care about what happens to them. They need to know that you will not keep score or throw things back at them once vulnerable. They need to know that being in a relationship doesn’t mean that they have to lose themselves, their hobbies or likes, or their independence. They may need concrete information about what YOU need from them in order for your relationship to work towards secure.  

FearfulWhere do I start? This is like if Anxious and Dismissive had a really unhealthy baby. SO. MUCH. FEAR. (and so much hurt <3) As I said in the previous blog, fearfully attached just don’t- at least not for long. With dismissively attached people there IS attachment but it isn’t deep. Fearful either avoid relationships or run people off. They were deeply wounded at some point in their life. So much so that vulnerability feels life threatening. They want to be close so badly, but their intense fear creates almost compulsive distancing. They bond quick and fast but also breakup the same. They are too afraid to be vulnerable enough to get hurt in any way. *For my fearfully attached- how hurt you are, how scared you are, and how much it’s getting in your way! I need you to know that you can heal. This attachment style gets a bad reputation because of how black/white it is but it is changeable. You are absolutely capable of relationships that work. *

When Bonding: Often they are grateful for the attention. Like anxious they are fiercely loyal, sometimes to their own detriment. However, they are also quick to write you off. You’ll hear things like “too much too fast” “jealous” and of behaviors sometimes as bad as going through phones (which anxious will do too) or stalking here from people who were driven off. Like anxious they will get upset/nervous if they aren’t texted right back, if it has been “too long” since an interaction, or if they feel slighted. These are the friends that drive you nuts analyzing text messages but THEN drive you nuts experiencing panic and even anger with a compulsive need to respond. They’ll respond in an angry, hateful paragraph and then have to tuck their tail and make up later. They’re often described as needy, emotional, or suffocating sometimes mean, angry, or “crazy” at their worst. When a fearful gets wounded- OH BOY! It can get extremely dramatic, dangerous, OR they’ll go the dismissive route and give you “the big door slam” (you don’t exist, you never did, you’re dead to me.) How they make up is deeply personal depending on their trauma and personal cocktail of “stuff”: some go anxious and chase, apologize, or placate. Others go dismissive and pretend it didn’t happen (but secretly hold a grudge/keep score) or move out.

An important point here: The responses are usually way disproportionate to the stimulus. If you’re wondering if you’re anxious or fearful- look at the balance of response to stimulus. For example, a fearful person has a mate who wants to go out with friends. They of course allow this so as to not make waves, but will text all night or wait by the phone.  There’s constant check ins. If they get too anxious, which usually happens, they’ll pick a fight via text or call which will ruin the night at best and lead to a breakup at worst. An anxious person will display similar behaviors like check-ins and such but it won’t escalate to picking a fight- they mostly may stay up and wait for the mate to get home.

At their best they do quite well. Like the anxious, they are attentive and anticipate needs, kind, and recipients feel “lucky” when they’re at their best- because they are people pleasing. They can be very appreciative mates because the path they have traveled is difficult and they know when there are things to be appreciative of.

When fighting: When they feel like there is a rift they will panic-similar to the anxious, the response will be swift. However, it will also be excessively harsh. They cannot and will not calm down until repair has happened or the danger has subsided. Often, just to facilitate repair they will swallow feelings, apologize when it isn’t warranted or necessary, and take blame even when it doesn’t rest on them. Conversely, they may lash out severely to create distance but accidentally create such distance that the relationship ends. (Think cornered animal.) This is troublesome because it leads to other problems like resentment and emotional blowups, harming others, and beliefs that there is nobody safe or that relationships just don’t work.

When secure: When they’re secure the drama decreases. They’ll still have their undertones, like anyone who has worked towards secure. They may have a more difficult and slower path to secure because of the drastic amount of “fight or flight” involved.

Common wounds: Fearfully attached learned early, and repeatedly, that people are painful. They take advantage, they abuse, and they can’t be trusted. Not only that, but the fearful person feels that he/she is vulnerable and unable to protect themselves. Often there is abandonment, severe and repeated abuse, deep deep injury, and possibly an extreme trauma history. Sometimes, but rarely, I’ll see an extremely sensitive person who doesn’t have much of a trauma history but was deeply affected by a particular incident. Either way, they CAN move towards secure with some work.

Honestly, this particular style has a hard time healing within a relationship because their fear creates such trouble and does such damage. Usually I see them get healthier on their own and then move into a relationship with another.

The message they need is that you are a safe person. They are accepted as they are, they are safe to be vulnerable, they are capable in the world, and you are committed to them. However, for your own safety you must also set clear boundaries- “You may be hurt but you may not lash out or abuse me in turn. We can work this out if you are willing to trust me and calm down.”

It’s important to note that this is ONE ELEMENT in a specific to you mix of personal elements that create your relationship with the world around you. Attachment isn’t all of what is going on, but it’s a big part of it. Knowing your base attachment style is important in knowing yourself. I say base because these behaviors change over time, in context, and with injuries or healing. It’s so complicated! *But if you know how to be aware and have the skills to manage your emotions you’ll be fine, whatever your style* < I really need you to absorb this part.

 

Next-how is trauma involved in all of this? I’ll let you know next week!

While I work mostly with individuals, these things are important to know because this is how they affect our interactions with others, which can really do a number on things like if relationships last, self esteem, emotional reactivity, and more. The best part, I think, Is that you don’t have to do couple’s work to create change. When one half of a dynamic changes it will absolutely impact how things go.

As always, if you see yourself in these thoughts and feel like therapy may be helpful I am always here when you’re ready. Don’t forget that I have weekends and teletherapy in the state of Texas available! I’ll talk to you soon!