Have you ever wanted something so bad, but when you got it, you burned it to the ground? Or maybe you sabotaged it before you even got your hands on it. Have you ever done this with a relationship? Perhaps you’ve dated people like this.
Whether it was you or the other person, this behavior can be frustrating as all hell. Attachment theory breaks human relationship styles into four categories (secure, anxious, avoidant, disorganized), and disorganized attachment perfectly explains this seemingly erratic and self-sabotaging manner of connecting with others.
If you’ve ever had a push/pull, love/hate, on/off relationship — a veritable rollercoaster of emotional whiplash where you suspect you might be at least partially responsible for the chaos, then this article is for you. By the time you’re done reading, I hope you will finally understand that you are not crazy, broken, or terminally unique. Your relationship challenges are more common than you might suspect, and they make perfect sense through the lens of behavioral science.
Connection and Protection
Healthy development occurs when children feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure. These attachment needs are biological imperatives for connection and protection, without which an infant would literally die. Our organism is hardwired to get these needs satisfied. It’s a central fact of who we are.
So when our caregivers do not meet our need for healthy connection, our nervous systems reorganize around what feels like helplessness, powerlessness, and abandonment. Perhaps our parents are narcissistic, codependent, alcoholic, mentally ill, emotionally unavailable, physically absent, or any number of things. Whatever the case, not having consistent and appropriate closeness with an empathetic caregiver creates patterns of anxious attachment.
Folks with an anxious attachment style tend to have a negative view of themselves and a positive view of others. They crave emotional intimacy, approval, and responsiveness and can be overly dependent. Often they are worrisome and impulsive and tend to doubt and blame themselves.
On the other hand, if our caregivers do not provide adequate protection — from an unsafe environment or from their own dysfunctional shit storm of parental ineptitude — our nervous systems adapt in the other direction with avoidant characteristics.
People who have an avoidant attachment style often have a positive view of themselves and a negative view of others. They crave autonomy and self-sufficiency and can be overly independent. They’re comfortable without close emotional relationships and can easily suppress or deny their feelings.
But what happens if you didn’t get any of your attachment needs met through appropriate connection and protection with sufficient consistency? Does your autonomic nervous system learn to operate from an internal working model of human relationships characterized by neediness, threat, and unreliability?
Yes. That’s exactly what happens.
Anxious and avoidant attachment styles are individually organized around a coherent set of beliefs about self and others, as stated above. But when someone exhibits characteristics of both, it’s sometimes called anxious-avoidant or simply disorganized attachment because of inconsistent and seemingly contradictory attachment behaviors.
An unmet need for connection will drive you into a relationship, but then an unmet need for protection will push your partner away. You may form polarized and volatile relationships — hot and cold, love and fear, high highs and low lows. There can certainly be a lot of passion and excitement in these relationships, but they become exhausting and unsustainable eventually.
If you have a disorganized attachment style, you will most likely date other insecurely attached people so you can engage in cycles of dysfunctional behavior together. You may find healthy, securely attached people completely boring and unattractive. Plus, they probably don’t wanna play emotional duck-duck-goose with you anyway.
It’s possible that you could present as a total avoidant in one relationship, then be the anxious clinger in the next one. Or maybe you trade roles with your partner every other week just to keep things interesting. Regardless of the specifics, you need to know that there is a perfectly good reason for your self-defeating relationship patterns.
Before There Was Any Attachment
Babies don’t know how to regulate their nervous systems, deal with emotions, or meet their needs. But through screaming, crying, and pooping on themselves in proximity to an empathetic caregiver, they quickly learn that they have the power to get their needs met. This is the beginning of social and emotional development, self-esteem, the formation of identity, and beliefs about the safety or hostility of the world they live in.
Without the experience of wholesome parenting, however, children may grow up without the internal manual to life these other babies got. They may have a missing or distorted sense of self, toxic shame, low self-esteem, no personal power, disconnected from their feelings and needs with extreme distrust of other human beings.
Think about it. What if your parent, whose one fucking job in this world was to love, nurture, provide, and care for you, was also intermittently a point-blank source of terror, pain, shame, and emotional distress? What could you possibly conclude about the nature of human relationships based on a few decades in that dumpster fire?
This is not to say that such people are somehow the downtrodden exiles of society. On the contrary, they are often charismatic and wonderfully likable — successful by any external measure. But because of the repeated relational trauma at the core of their attachment style, their experience in relationships is often a reenactment of their deepest childhood wounds.
Letting The Trauma Out Of The Bag
I’m gonna go ahead and say it. If you’ve got a disorganized attachment style, you’ve definitely survived some trauma. It could be shock trauma, developmental trauma, generational trauma, or a combination of all three. It could have been malicious, well-intentioned, or incidental. A medical diagnosis, car accident, death, or divorce. Prolonged sexual, emotional, verbal, or physical abuse as well as physical or emotional neglect. Maybe you witnessed someone else’s trauma.
Whatever the case, trauma isn’t the thing that happened, but how you adapted to it internally. It’s a physiological adaptation to some overwhelming experience of powerlessness (see The Body Keeps The Score, by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.). And because trauma literally changes us, many people assume that their trauma response is their identity. And you can’t change your identity, right? It’s just who you are.
This keeps so many people stuck in brutal cycles of self-loathing, self-medicating, and self-abandonment. Oh yeah, and shitty relationships. To transform your life, you absolutely have to heal this trauma.
And if you catch yourself thinking, What trauma? — I don’t have any trauma, then one of three things must be true. One, you don’t know what the word even means. Two, you are currently exhibiting dissociation — the hallmark of every trauma response. Or three, you are a perfectly healthy, well-adjusted, trauma-free adult who genuinely enjoys terrible fucking relationships.
Organizing Your Attachment Style
If you’d like to heal this thing, once and for good, I’m gonna need you to do a couple things.
First, stop beating yourself up, blaming and shaming yourself, saying, What the hell is wrong with me? There is nothing wrong with you! You adapted for survival in a completely understandable way, given your childhood environment. Trauma is a normal response to abnormal circumstances. You are not wrong or broken.
Second, link up with a trauma-informed therapist or coach. Relational trauma can only be healed relationally. I.e., you can’t fix it all by yourself. Reading this article is a good start, but it changes nothing. You’ve got some serious work to do. There are plenty of safe, caring, qualified people who would love to help you along your healing journey.
Third, look for actionable steps you can take on this path of self-discovery. You can’t just talk the talk. You gotta walk the walk. Implement The 4 Pillars of Healing and Growth. Read How Do I Heal My Nervous System? Check out the article Do You Love Yourself? These all contain new, healthy habits you can incorporate into your life as building blocks of change.
Your parents were your first primary attachment figures. If those relationships were wounded, you’re gonna project that shit onto everyone you date — expecting your romantic partners to somehow fill that hole in your childhood. But that’ll never happen. You’ve got to reparent yourself — to become the loving, safe, secure adult you always needed.
Then you can stop reliving the pain of your trauma in all your romantic relationships.
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