In my last blog I talked about the three less-than-perfect types of attachment: ambivalent attached (she loves me – she doesn’t love me – she loves me.), the avoidant attached (I am fine, I have no idea what his problem is) and the disorganised attached person.
Mary Ainsworth, who first set up the attachment research with her ‘stranger situation’ (http://www.attachfromscratch.com/mary-ainsworth.html#4attachmentstyles) found that there was a type of response in some of the children that appeared to not fit into any of the more recognisable patterns of avoidant and ambivalent attachment.
The children appeared distressed beyond reason when mother left, showing anger, physical lashing out, and demonstrating a complete ignorance of the ‘stranger’ in the room, who tried to engage them. Sometimes they were inconsolable for a long while, even when mother returned to the room. This included crying and facing away from the mother.
Only a more thorough investigation of the situation at home led the researcher to understand that home provided mixed-messages for those children, leading to a contradiction between the need to seek attachment and the need to seek personal safety, which are triggered in different parts of the brain.
In other words, the main care giver was perceived as being a) the main caregiver and b) dangerous.
This situation can occur when there is abuse and/or neglect in the household but also, when the mental health of the caregiver is compromised, for example, by anxiety or panic attacks. Another example would be, when the messages to the child are inconsistent and confusing. The child’s brain registers the caregiver as unsafe – the survival brain gets triggered and tells the child to either attack, or flee, or freeze (submit/ shut down/become unresponsive).
The consequence of this kind of ‘cross-wiring’ can be detrimental to the person who grows up in such circumstances. The longer the double trigger goes on in the brain, the harder it will be to ‘uncross’ the wires that fire simultaneously. Again, healing is possible, but it takes a lot of perseverance and persistence to re-train the brain to accept attachment behaviours without firing off the alarm system. Due to the enormous stress load on the brain, people with these experiences often develop further mental health issues, as the brain tries to find ‘solutions’ to an impossible situation.
As with all other brain experiences, this type of attachment difficulty sits on a scale from mild to severe. It can contribute to severe mental illness as the brain struggles to find solutions to a paradox. On the lower end of the spectrum, it has the capacity to undermine healthy relationships, as the affected partner struggles to build intimacy and connection but keeps feeling unsafe when doing so and exhibits ‘inexplicable’ avoidance strategies:
For example, one partner is unreliable to the point where they make a promise to come home at a certain time but then they disappear until the next morning with no explanation, leaving the other partner worried and angry. By now, you can probably recognise how the wish to be in a healthy relationship (attachment) gets compromised by the sense of alertness to danger (getting too close, must run) that causes the partner to boycott any attempt to build intimacy and closeness.
A word of warning: Not all people who have parents who for one reason or another could not provide an ideal heaven of safety and connection, develop mental health issues or become incapable of living in a happy relationship.
Not all difficult issues we struggle with in our relationships are rooted in our attachment problems
So please, take a deep breath – or two – right now and re-connect with the normality of yourself and your partner. As Alan de Botton (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJ6K_f7oSdg) says, we are all crazy after all, it just depends on whether our craziness is compatible with that of our partner…
“Thanks to the plasticity of our brain, healing from attachment wounds is possible.”
Disorganised attachment patterns are difficult to overcome as the alarm system overrides the attachment system. It is therefore necessary to establish safety first.
You will have to learn to recognise how triggers in the present cause you to react with protective responses as your brain goes back to previously unsafe moments with a loved one. You will then have to learn how to nurture and keep safe the part in you that feels threatened as you begin to learn to take more risks of getting closer.
This requires a safe partner to talk with, who can help you practice to safely approach and tolerate discomfort as you work through your triggers.
Should both you and your partner have experienced trauma, it becomes a very difficult dance and you will most likely need some professional help to learn how to establish safety and connection within yourself and with your partner.