If you struggle with relationships, you are not alone. There are some dominant cultural narratives that assumes there is something wrong with us, but science and research offers us a more expansive view. Our relationship challenges may be rooted in what is known as “attachment trauma”.
We need to first understand attachment to understand attachment trauma. Attachment theory argues humans are born with a need to form a close emotional bond with a caregiver and that attachment is critical to a young child’s development. Both the presence and quality of attachment matter. If our bonding is strong, we are securely attached. If our bond is weak, we feel insecurely attached which follows us well into adulthood and our other relationships.
Attachment trauma can occur when a caregiver is a source of overwhelming distress for the child.
As we are learning to connect, we are continuously asking “is it safe to connect to this person?”
There are many overt ways that can make it feel not safe, but even small, covert ways can start feeling unsafe: shutting us down or revving us up.
Overt causes of attachment trauma include:
- loss in the family
- physical neglect, such as going without basic needs, like food or water
- abuse, (physical, sexual, or emotional)
- caregiver facing a life-threatening illness
- caregiver with a substance use disorder
- domestic violence
Covert causes of attachment trauma include a caregiver who:
- is physically or emotionally unavailable
- has mental health difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or eating disorders, that may make them less available to be present for their child
- has poor boundaries and tends to treat their child more like a friend
- objectifies a child’s body
- uses psychologically controlling tactics, such as not being affectionate, shaming the child, making the child feel guilty, or not validating a child’s feelings
- may be controlling, which can remove a child’s power and individuality
Signs of Attachment Trauma
Attachment trauma, like other forms of childhood trauma, can affect adult relationships.
It can cause us to avoid relationships for fear of rejection, intensify fears of intimacy, or cause us to be overly attached, such as ending up in codependent relationships. Along with relationship difficulties, signs you may be facing attachment trauma include:
- a tendency toward shame, guilt, and humiliation
- hyper-reactivity to stress
- hyperarousal- when a person’s body suddenly kicks into high alert as a result of being triggered or thinking about their trauma. Even though real danger may not be present, their body acts as if it is, causing lasting stress after a traumatic event.
- Enmeshment- a relationship between two or more people in which personal boundaries are bending and unclear.
Healing Attachment Trauma
The good news is as we understand attachment trauma and realize our need for help, we can change our attachment style and ultimately our relationships. The process of healing from attachment trauma isn’t easy but it is possible. And it’s important to remember that just as we have taken a lifetime to build our attachment style, changing our attachment style can also take time.
One of the best things you can do for healing attachment trauma is to try trauma-focused therapies. Dawn offers several options such as EMDR and Somatic Experiencing. As you learn more about how your earlier childhood affects the patterns in your adult life, have patience with yourself. While it may take time, remember that healing is possible.