Not many people escape childhood unscathed from some type of injury or trauma. Though trauma is often recognized as physical, mental, or sexual abuse, many people are also traumatized by unmet childhood attachment needs. We need to rely on our parents to feel important, cared about, heard, seen, protected, and to truly know that are hurts and fears matter to them. Unfortunately, for many people these basic needs are not met which leaves them with deep attachment fears around not being able to trust rely or depend on other people or that they are not really lovable, worthy or deserving of another person’s love. It is these fears that drive a lot of conflict between couples and cause all the problems within relationships.
Attachment fears can be quickly triggered in a person with trauma related to unmet childhood attachment needs. Seemingly little mistakes such as being late, forgetting to complete a task, driving errors, or when their partner is busy, triggers attachment fears in the traumatized person. They say things to themselves like, “I must not mean anything to him/her at all,” or “I can’t rely on or count on him/her,” “I am not important to him/her,” “I am alone in the world, or “He/She is going to let me down over and over”, “Why did I think that I deserved any better?” They feel a deep sadness and a lot of fear and anxiety and usually go after their partner in desperation. They yell, they plead, they control their partner trying desperately to get their needs met. This often comes in the form of criticizing, questioning, demanding, and blaming. They may repeat themselves over and over desperately needing their partner to understand.
The anger, criticism, and blame have a negative effect on the other partner. They feel worn down and they start to think “I am failing here…,” “Maybe I can’t make her/him happy,” “Maybe they are right maybe I am inadequate, useless and worthless.” It usually affects their self-esteem as they start to believe it to be true and even put themselves down. They start to feel a deep hurt and fear inside that “maybe they aren’t good enough for their partner and eventually their partner will realize it and give up on them.” Though they are feeling this deep fear and sadness they don’t turn to their partner and share their feelings and their need to feel safe, loved and accepted (even if they make mistakes), instead they usually withdraw and try and deal with their feelings by distracting themselves or getting really busy. Unfortunately, the more they withdraw and move away, the more the traumatized partner feels afraid that their attachment needs will not be met and they get angrier and angrier, around they go stuck in a negative pattern.
This is how many couples feel when they enter our office for the first time. They are stuck in this negative dance and feeling hopeless and afraid that things will not work out. We help them to understand that the problem is not the angry partner or the partner who withdraws and makes mistakes, but the negative pattern that they are getting into when they are trying to communicate and deal with their attachment fears and needs.
Both partners learn how to tune into what they are feeling and directly express their attachment needs instead of angry blaming or dismissive withdrawing. The more withdrawn partner learns how to tune into his or her fear about feeling rejected, and their sadness about feeling disconnected and unsafe and turn to their partner with their feelings and needs instead of withdrawing. This in turn lessens the fear in the other partner and they feel important and valuable to their partner.
Then the traumatized partner very slowly learns how to being to tune into her/his feelings and make sense of how they are connected to their attachment fears and needs.
Often the traumatized partner’s feelings can seem overwhelming and all jumbled up. We help them to slow down and learn how to understand and differentiate different fears and feelings so that they can make sense of them. From this place they can be more clear and direct in expressing vulnerable feelings and needs.
For example a woman who usually criticizes or blames her partner for seemly little things may learn how to tune into her feelings and say, “I am feeling very afraid right now, I feel myself shaking inside, my mind is racing and telling that I don’t matter to you at all, that maybe you really don’t care about me. I need you to hold me and reassure me that you do care and that I really matter to you.” In turn their partner learns how to really be there for them emotionally reaching back and saying, “I hear you, I understand that your scared, want to reassure you that you are my world, you matter very much to me.” This creates a corrective emotional experience in the body where the woman can relax and rest in knowing her worst fears are not true, that her partner does care about her and cares about her feelings.
Creating this safe haven and soft emotional place to land can heal trauma. For many trauma survivors their biggest fear is that they will not be able to really count on or trust someone again. By directly learning how to bring their fears to their partner and getting the reassurance that the need they effectively learn how to manage their trauma and their emotions in a healthy way and function in relationship. The more that they are able to reach out for their partner and really feel like someone is there for them they begin to heal in that they begin to believe that they can trust other people to really be there for them and come to believe that they are worth it.
Robin Menard MSW RCC RSW
Marriage and Couple Specialist
A Path of Heart Counselling Services
This information is based on the theory of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy developed by Dr. Sue Johnson