- The social needs of belonging and attachment can take precedence even over food and nourishment.
- Trauma bonding, a form of insecure attachment pattern, can be rooted in a traumatic bond with a caregiver.
- An inability to leave an abusive relationship indicates there are mitigating emotional factors.
People of all ages have a strong inherent need to belong. Research in the field of neurobiology and attachment illuminates how an infant’s brain is wired to form an attachment to caregivers. We’re all born social creatures and one of the most important tasks at hand is to engage in a reciprocal relationship with our caregiver to ensure survival.
That’s why, sometimes, in an unhealthy intimate adult relationship, it becomes almost impossible to walk away. Your earliest attachment patterns have much to do with your ability to leave a relationship that is not meeting your needs.
You have to attach to survive
At its most basic core, attachment serves two basic functions: (1) ensures the infant will stay in close proximity to their caregivers and (2) programs the lifelong patterns of relationship. Research in the field of neuroscience and attachment studies outlines a detailed process in which the brain is shaped by the quality of attachment experiences, which are interpreted through the infant’s physiological sensations.
The implications of the quality of childhood attachment are profound in later life. Interactions with inconsistent, unreliable or even unaware attachment figures interfere with the development of a secure, stable mental foundation; they also reduce an individual’s resilience to cope with stressful life events.
There are two primary forms of attachment, secure and insecure attachment patterns. In a secure attachment pattern, there is a close, reciprocal and intimate connection between parent and child in which the child’s needs come first. In an insecure attachment pattern, there is a similar intimate connection, however often it’s the parents’ needs that take precedence.
Why social connection is so important to your early attachment
A critical piece of the attachment process for an infant involves learning how to emotionally self-regulate, find a sense of physiological homeostasis, and begin laying the foundational patterns of deeply relating to others.
If we consider the process of attachment as a basic biological process, an organism that is unable to attach to something stable is unable to thrive and in many cases, does not survive.
What Harry Harlow’s research in the 1960s proved is that attachment to something even cold, uncaring, and indifferent is preferable to physiological nourishment. This early study in attachment showcased that social needs of belonging and attachment take precedence even over food and nourishment.
The power of trauma bonding
Trauma bonding, a form of insecure attachment, is rooted in a traumatic bond with a significant caregiver. Traumatic bonding experiences are unique to the individual and their perception, and occur primarily because there is no other option for attachment.
If you find that you are drawn to relationships that are abusive or dissatisfying in nature, then it’s likely you experienced connections that did not feel emotionally safe or stable to you in your early development.
In these cases, being drawn to toxic or traumatic relationships as an adult is a familiar energetic attachment code that draws your time, energy and attention, almost like a magnet. Attachment is an autonomic response—you’re drawn to what’s familiar, even if it doesn’t necessarily make you feel good. This is why an unhealthy relationship can be so difficult to end if there is nothing else available.
How to leave a trauma-bonded relationship
To varying degrees, everyone has both secure and insecure attachment patterns. Although many people have a continuum of attachment experiences and imprinting in their relational history, most people have a dominant attachment style. In some cases, a person possesses different attachment styles, based upon their different relationships with caregivers.
Regardless of your attachment style, there are methods for moving beyond a traumatic or toxic relationship:
- Give yourself compassion for having ended up in a traumatically bonded relationship. You didn’t choose this, your attachment patterns did.
- Learn about how staying in these types of relationships is a coping technique designed to protect you from feeling the emotional experience of having had no “healthy enough” caregiver to attach to as a child.
- Work on recognizing and healing your traumatic attachment wounds. The safest place to be is in reality, even if reality is stark. By recognizing and admitting to yourself that you weren't taught how to attach securely to others, you’re on the right track for beginning to deal with your reality.
- Slowly begin building other safe and secure attachments in your life, possibly starting with a therapist. By doing so, you are introducing yourself to corrective emotional experiences that will, over time, begin to counterbalance the insecure attachment patterns inside.
No one chooses to stay in an unhealthy or traumatic relationship. It’s fair to say that if someone finds themselves unable to leave a traumatic relationship, there are likely important mitigating emotional factors. By exploring those issues and working to heal the attachment wounds, all with compassion and empathy, it’s possible to create a new pattern of attachment as an adult.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Copyright Kate Schroeder LPC, NCC
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