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The Attachment Theory: The Theory of Love and Pain

By October 22, 2022October 24th, 2022No Comments

The attachment theory is all about the way we bond with others based on how we bonded with our primary caregivers.

Your primary caregiver could be your parent(s) grandparent(s), foster parent(s) government (in foster care), teachers, anyone who is responsible for your wellbeing.

If you can freely express your fears, worries, joys, and pains to your primary caregivers, you have a higher chance of doing so with others in life, especially in intimate relationships. You simply go through life with less anxiety regarding relationships. You are therefore described as Secure in your attachment.

If you are told (or made) to suppress your thoughts and feelings in anyway, or if you are abused in any form, you will develop what is described as insecure attachment styles (ways of being). Insecure attachment styles include:

Avoidance (known as Anxious Avoidant), very anxious and confused (known as Anxious Ambivalent), or very afraid and/or angry or both (known as Anxious Disorganized or sometimes called Fearful). The disorganized is the most challenged of the 3 anxious styles. This is because this person’s caregiver is not only unresponsive to their needs, but also insensitive, hurtful, and untrustworthy.

For example, as a child, the Anxious Avoidant may have grown up with caregivers who were very strict and never allowed the child to express themselves. If the child got “too loud” or “too excited” the caregiver would get angry or even punish or beat the child. The child then becomes afraid and learns that to avoid feeling that kind of fear again, he/she must avoid showing his/her true feelings to others. This child may have also been shut down emotionally and told “other people have it difficult, so stop complaining and be grateful, or if they got hurt, they were told to “get up, stop crying, and be strong.” All these strong reactions from the caregivers told this child that their feelings don’t matter to others.

As for the Anxious Ambivalent, that child receives love and support for a while, and then something happens(maybe a tragedy in the home or a mental health issue with parents, like depression) and the caregiver becomes cold and/or distant and this child now must create scenes or stories/lies to get the caregiver’s attention. When the caregiver finally responds, the child is unsure of what to do. Should they approach the caregiver, or should they not? Are they a burden to their caregiver or not? This is where the ambivalence comes in.

The Anxious Disorganized person is a child who experiences fear without resolution. Take for example a child living with a parent who is dealing with tremendous stress, and most times when this child has a need, the parent becomes angry and even starts to scream at the child or criticize the child for having needs. It could be a need as simple as lunch money for school. The child may ask and then be shamed by the parent for asking, or maybe even beaten for asking. This could be because the parent doesn’t have the money but doesn’t know how to communicate that to the child. Remember, the child is too young to comprehend the parent’s dilemma. All the child experiences are fear and rejection. This child grows up to see himself/herself as unworthy of love and does everything to avoid feeling that kind of pain again. This could even mean becoming the person who inflicts pain on others as a way of protecting self, because remember, the very person who was supposed to protect him/her became the person who was the most hurtful. It’s hard to become a secure person when the people who are supposed to help you feel secure are the ones who make you feel insecure.

All of these insecure attachments are rooted in anxiety. Hence, the word “anxious” before each style. Sometimes the anxiety is internalized as with the avoidant and other times it is externalized as with the ambivalent and disorganized/fearful. The avoidant fears intimacy and commitment and relies on self for soothing, the ambivalent craves closeness but is afraid that others wouldn’t want that with them, while the disorganized can be both clingy and distant. The truth is that all of them (the three insecure styles) feel anxious because they cannot truly express their needs, or so they have been taught.

Here are some of the Core Beliefs of the different attachment styles, meaning this is the narrative that drives the person’s behavior:

The Avoidant person only trusts oneself and may strongly believe this statement or something similar “I don’t feel comfortable opening up to my partner.”

The Ambivalent person is unsure that they can be loved, and may strongly believe this statement or something similar “I am afraid my partner may abandon me,”

The Disorganized or Fearful person doesn’t trust themselves to love others well, and doesn’t trust others to love them well, so this relationship could become volatile. They may strongly believe this statement or something similar “My world feels unsafe; life is painful and burdensome. I can’t trust anyone, heck! I don’t even trust myself sometimes.”

The secure person knows that they can love wholeheartedly and believes very strongly that others have no reason not to love them. They always feel safe; No second guessing. They know they have a choice and if you can’t love them well, they can move on and love again freely, giving each new lover of theirs a fair chance. The key is that they do not enter a relationship with their guards up.

So, how do we overcome insecure attachment? We work on it. I strongly suggest that you get a journal or notebook, or you could also sit with someone you trust and feel very safe with, to simply process or share intimate stories of your childhood or early relationships. When using a journal or notebook, create a timeline. Start from the earliest grade that you can recall memories from, and simply begin to write everything that you can remember. From how your parents (or other caregivers) interacted with you and treated you, to how you related to your friends and family.

If you find yourself stuck with a painful story, meaning anytime you share or write that story your heart races, your stomach feels tight, you feel hot and sweaty or cold and sweaty, you feel sad, you find yourself rocking yourself, or shaking your legs, or grunting, or balling your fist, or wanting to cry, or pushing back the tears, or trying not to remember the story because it hurts, or asking the question why me? That is your cue to search for a therapist and work through the pain. A trained therapist who specializes in attachment injuries (emotional pain that we experience from the ones we love dearly), or trauma resolution work, will be able to help you by relieving some or all of that pain from your body.

Just like when you have a headache you take Tylenol (or any pain medication) or you rest to get rid of it. The same thing is very necessary for emotional pain. You must process it and learn healthy ways to rest your mind and body, or else it will keep eating at your body and making you sick, and sometimes you wouldn’t even know why.

I promise you that this is the best gift that you will ever give yourself…the gift of healing your emotional pain. You will feel lighter, love better, and receive love without fear!

You can do this! Take good care of yourself! We’ll talk soon!

 

Goumah Conde, LMFT
Clinical Fellow, American Association for Marriage & Family Therapy

Reference:
Attachment Therapy – Core beliefs