I’m picking up from last week’s post on working with trauma, which you can read here. Last week we looked at how trauma can show up as a partner getting highly triggered by a partner’s seemingly harmless behavior, and how we as the therapist can take our time with that trigger. This week I want to talk about something I think is even more important that we stay aware of, which is when a partner has a competing attachment source they can’t let go of.
I think we’re used to seeing things as competing attachment sources when they look like addiction. We can understand how alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography, even eating can take the place of an attachment source. And they have the one-two punch of giving the brain a chemical hit, so it’s not only the behavior that is addicting but also the brain really really rewards us for doing them.
But there are behaviors that are more subtle, yet I think they are in the same category of a competing attachment source. (This is not based in any research, this is just my own sense of what I’m seeing with my clients, so don’t set this in stone, just be curious with me). What I see in these more subtle behaviors that makes me think they have similar trauma/attachment roots is that clients feel like a matter of life and death to give them up.
On the outside, these behaviors don’t really look like something the partner would fight hard to keep. For one it might be that they spend several nights a week out with friends. For another it might be that they enjoy playful/kink-oriented sex. For another it might be that they craft for hours on the weekend. It comes up as an issue when clients have found themselves with partners that don’t embrace their specific proclivities or support what they want to do with their down time, and thus conflict ensues. What I see, sometimes, is that even once the cycle has de-escalated, and the other partner has really dipped into their primary emotions, and shared in a meaningful way that they miss their partner and would prefer them see their friends just one night a week, or want to have sex but not playfully or with any kink, or would prefer them craft for just one hour on a Sunday instead of five hours that their partner immediately puts a wall up, and says no.
When I hit these moments in sessions, in my head it can feel like a record scratch, an abrupt stop to the music. I’m thinking, hold on, their partner just did all the right things! They weren’t blaming, they were speaking from their attachment place, they asked for something reasonable. These moments are where I try to stop and realize we are looking at something that has become a very important source of attachment and self-soothing for the partner. On the outside, it can look like these behaviors/hobbies aren’t that important, and something the client should easily be able to adjust to spend more quality time with their partner. But on the inside, this may have become a very central way the person soothes themselves. Often we do hear clients say, “Of course! All I’ve wanted is to spend more time with you, I just thought you were mad at me all the time.” But for these special clients, I think we need to look deeper to understand what they are holding onto tightly.
Imagine if your parents were unreliable, neglectful, or harmful, but your friend group was there for you. Imagine that unlike anyone else, these friends love you, support you, and have your back no matter what. All of a sudden, we’re not having a discussion about if you prefer your friends over your spouse, but a discussion of giving up time with the only secure attachment you’ve ever really had for time with your spouse, who you may not actually want to risk trusting.
Imagine if you spent much of your time being in a house with a lot of chaos, noise, and abuse. Your brain was likely soaked in cortisol and adrenaline for much of the time (Gottman, 2014). Imagine the one place your brain got to relax, and not experience flooding, was when you were doing crafts. For whatever reason, your family left you alone when you were crafting. Now, this is the central way you know to calm yourself down and protect yourself from chaos. When you partner asks you to spend more time with them and your kids, it’s now a question of how on earth would your brain get the same soothing and relief without time spent crafting.
Imagine if you grew up in a dirty, neglectful, harsh household. Imagine that there were really no joy or play growing up. But once you discovered sex, and kink, you found that this was a place you could give yourself permission to experience joy and play, not to mention positive physical touch at all. Imagine that you had positive experiences with the people you were having sex with, and this became a central way you knew how to feel release and happiness. The idea of standard sex, and sex without play, suddenly is a question of how on earth you could experience those feelings of joy and release at all.
This is why I think we suddenly see a client adamantly refuse to consider giving something up we otherwise don’t see as particularly compelling. Because their brains are immediately reacting to the idea of giving up a central tool for soothing and/or attachment. It’s like if you all of a sudden told me I couldn’t exercise or call my mom if I stayed with my partner. What on the outside might look silly, or even selfish to not give up, on the inside feels like you’re asking someone to give up how they know to be ok in the world, in order to be with this other person.
What I am seeing is if I go really slow around these parts, and am very respectful and validating of what these behaviors may mean to someone, it can be very relieving for clients to their to know I don’t see them as selfish or petty. And what helps me do this is to try and really imagine how someone became a soothing or attachment tool for the client. Something Julie Gottman (2014) mentioned in the Level 2 training on the PTSD section helped me understand how past trauma manifests in marriage relationships. She said that once someone moves from dating, to a "family" status with their partner (this can mean marriage or kids), a lot of PTSD can rear up unexpectedly. Because "family" to that person meant pain, mistrust, and non-safety. So now they are in a new family, but the concept of family is still not safe in general. The person in front of them may truly be a safer and more soothing attachment source than friends, kink, or crafting, but the idea that this is possible may feel totally foreign and frightening.
Gottman, J., Gottman, J.S. (2014) Level 2 Clinical Training, Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Seattle, WA: The Gottman Institute