Fearful Avoidant Attachment and Affair Recovery

I’ve been reading my way through Lorrie Brubacher’s incredible book, Stepping into Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, and read a piece about trauma and attachment. She is describing what the fearful avoidant attachment style is like:

Fearful avoidance: simultaneously pursuing and fearing closeness

Imagine you are alone, lost on a dark street in a strange city, where you know no one, except your travel companion from whom you have mysteriously become separated. You do not speak the local language and your phone is without power. You have wandered up and down several streets, searching for your companion, and you are becoming increasingly anxious. Suddenly, ahead of you, you see the familiar jacket, breathe a sign of relief, and call out. He turns around and you discover it is not your companion, but the menacing face of a person carrying a weapon. You turn and run down a back alley, heart pounding, palms sweating. Continuing on, once again you see the familiar hat your companion was wearing, and you pick up the pace and call out, hopefully and desperately. The minute the person turns towards you, you recognize not your companion, but the grim reaper, and you turn again, this time running several blocks before you dare stop. Over and over again, the one you hope to count on becomes a face of death and threat! … There is an overall sense of needing someone, yet trusting no one. (p. 62, 63).

 

While this passage was about people in general, while I was reading it I thought – holy cow, this is what is happening for my affair recovery clients as adults.

Because in EFT we are always on the leading edge of attachment with our clients, and wanting to progress and help them rebuild their bond, I can sometimes move too fast into expecting the client to be able to go to their partner and seek reassurance when they feel anxious and triggered about the affair. I know that while they are the source of their pain, they are also the only source of their healing and re-bonding. Consciously, I know that the trust has been ruptured, and that this person has become a stranger to them, but sub-consciously I can be encouraging them to turn to their partner when they get triggered.

Reading this passage from Lorrie’s book, I realized that I have not been fully, fully appreciating how the trauma of the affair is going to affect their ability to be soothed by their partner. I see this happen in the room, when a partner is so hurt, and their partner comes to put their hand on them and lean in, and then the wounded partner pushes them away. Then the partner who tried to comfort feels rejected and defeated and pulls back. 

In the past, I would have still validated both partners (“It’s so hard to trust they want to help you with this” and “It’s so hard to want to soothe your partner and feel pushed away,”). But I would have stayed more neutral, tracking the cycle over and over. What I find sometimes, though, is that we can stay in this cycle loop for months and are unable to step out of it, especially if the affair has caused a really big attachment wound. All the while the wounded partner is not healing, and sometimes getting more dysregulated, because their brains are truly on fire and they don’t know where to go for the soothing.

In a non-affair cycle, I think each person is, for the most part, coming to the cycle equally, and so the work would be for both to slowly gain awareness that the more he accuses/demands/pushes away, the more she shuts down/gives up/moves away. However, now that I am sitting with how this trauma may have affected even this person’s attachment method, and that they truly don’t know if this person they have trusted is safe to go to for soothing, but also needs desperately to be soothed by them, I am feeling a little less neutral about it.  I can’t imagine this healing if the offending partner continues to allow themselves to get pushed away and give up during this come close/go away dance. I also wonder if the wounded partner is going to be able to self-regulate and adjust their behavior with just awareness of their cycle, since they are so dysregulated.

I know that there are so many constellations of affairs that we see. There are ones where the leaning out partner has been hurt for years, and doesn’t even know if they want to be here any more, and has an affair. There are couples where I think the bigger attachment wound is one partner’s treatment of them before the other even considered having an affair. There are couples where the bond remains fairly strong between the couple, even with the affair, and they can regulate more easily. And so on, and so on. But for couples where there was a decent amount of love and trust, and then one partner has a significant, lengthy affair, I wonder if it will be possible for them to heal if the offending partner keeps throwing their hands up and saying, “I give up, they don’t want me close,” and if it’s fair to expect the wounded partner to be able to self-regulate to the point where they are not coming at their partner with anger and accusation for a while.

Is it really realistic to ask a wounded partner, in the flare of trauma, to say to the person they don’t know if they can trust, “I am feeling anxious and triggered right now, and need some reassurance that you love me,” ?

I am always clear with my affair partners that verbal, physical, or sexual abuse or coercion in affair recovery is not ok. But I wonder if I need to lean a little more on the offending partner to be a stable pillar for their hurt partner while they go through the come close/go away dance.

Regardless of what method you choose, it is always helpful for me to really allow myself to come into contact with how terrible a client feels, and not be so on the leading edge of attachment that I ignore what might make that coherent reach incredibly difficult in a moment of pain.

 

Brubacher, L. (2018) Stepping into Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, Key Ingredients of Change. Karnac Books, Ltd. London, England