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Understand Attachment and Pick the Right Partner

Differentiating attachment trauma from an attachment problem may help.

Key points

  • Early emotional mistreatment is a form of attachment trauma, yet it does not mean a person has problems with attachment.
  • Differentiating between attachment trauma and an attachment problem may be key to self-love and healthy mate selection.
  • A person with attachment trauma may be aware of deep insecurities; a person with an attachment problem may defend against them.

Attachment trauma usually occurs as a result of early and prolonged separation from an attachment figure, the loss of this person, or physical and emotional abuse.

Emotional mistreatment within the context of an attachment relationship may cause a person to continually experience shame regarding how he or she feels. Also, in adulthood, it may propel a person towards an emotionally unavailable partner due to a need to re-master early attachment trauma.

These two phenomena may make a person feel like he or she has attachment problems. However, this may not always be true. Understanding the difference may help a person recover from past trauma and secure a healthy attachment in adult life.

First, a parent who routinely shamed a child for having a feeling the parent did not like may have been an emotionally unavailable attachment figure. Instead of validating the child’s emotions and correcting his or her behavior, the parent constantly condemned the child for verbalizing a feeling that was not concurrent with how the parent felt.

For example, a child arrives home angry and throws his backpack down the hall. An emotionally unavailable parent may shriek, “Go to your room until you can be civil! You’re such a brat!”

Conversely, a different type of parent may say, “You are mad. I get it. But you cannot throw your backpack. Please go pick it up.” This parent respects the child’s feeling state but corrects his conduct.

A second example involves a child who approaches a parent and identifies that she has scary thoughts about death. A defensive parent may reprimand the child; “You are so dramatic and selfish. We are on vacation! You are ruining everyone’s time! Just stop it. You have nothing to be scared about.”

Alternatively, a secure parent may say, “That sounds scary. Can you tell me about it? I don’t want you to feel alone with this.”

One parent shuts the child down, and the other listens and empathizes. Usually, when a child receives empathy, she feels less alone in his or her plight. She may also feel connected to the parent who “gets it.” This experience is often soothing and allows the child to accept the parent’s encouragement.

A child who is continually shamed for her emotions may, eventually, distrust how she feels. Anxious about the validity of her inner world, the child may worry that she is different or deficient. Her bruised sense of self may elicit feelings of inadequacy.

Yet, if this child experiences remediating factors and grows into an adult who is keenly aware of these insecurities and painful emotions, it may be evidence that she possesses access to the deep and uncomfortable emotions necessary for closeness.

Although many of these emotions sting, an awareness of them allows her to recognize, identify, and articulate them. This may allow her to access support, recover from past trauma, and integrate empathy from others. The ability to tolerate and understand distressing emotions, especially in an interpersonal relationship, often allows a person to act on them constructively instead of defensively. This is often referred to as emotional regulation and emotional intelligence.

For example, Ed and Rick are driving to Rick’s important family function. Rick respectfully brings up Ed’s tendency to drive recklessly when he is anxious and running late. Shame and confusion flood Ed. He spends a few moments reflecting on the feedback and realizes that Rick is right.

He says, “Oh my gosh. I think you are right. Is that why you didn’t want to drive with me? I apologize if I’ve scared you in the past. I am so sorry.”

Ed withstands the distress of the negative critique from Rick long enough to look inward and contemplate its accuracy. Then he accepts accountability, maintains empathy for his partner, and gains additional self-awareness. These capabilities sustain the closeness in the relationship with Rick.

Rick feels safe opening up to Ed about how he is feeling in the relationship, and Ed is able to tolerate the discomfort of Rick’s feedback and look inward. His introspective abilities allow him to own a mistake, communicate empathy, and adjust to remain close to a partner.

Although Ed may have experienced attachment trauma, he is capable of a secure attachment because he possesses the emotional capabilities necessary to maintain closeness.

Conversely, a person unaware of profound insecurities may be powerfully defending against them with deflection and projection. This type of person may seem secure but, in reality, may be too fragile to tolerate anything that taps his or her ego. This extreme defensiveness in a relationship may point to a person who has attachment problems.

For example, Stacy is at the park with her partner, Lisa. Lisa gently brings up Stacy’s verbal aggressiveness during disagreements as they walk. Immediately enraged, Stacy lashes out defensively; “Really!? That’s just who I am. I say it like it is. Maybe you are just way too sensitive.”

In place of considering Lisa’s feedback, Stacy’s knee-jerk reaction is to deflect accountability and project blame onto Lisa.

Stacy is robustly and rigidly defensive, which prevents her from acknowledging painful insecurities, looking inward, seeing a partner’s perspective, and experiencing empathy. Her self-esteem may be too fragile to tolerate the difficult emotions, such as empathy, necessary to remain close. Stacy may have attachment problems.

Despite experiencing attachment trauma, a person who possesses capacities such as empathy, awareness of insecurities or self-awareness, accountability, and emotional regulation, may be able to securely attach to a partner who reciprocates these abilities.

Alternatively, a person who staunchly acts out defensively in a relationship may lack empathy, deflect, and have significant difficulties maintaining a close bond with a partner. This may signify the presence of a serious attachment problem. Although the attachment problem probably stems from early attachment trauma, it may prevent a person from relating to a partner in a healthy manner.

Second, although it may be possible for a person who suffered attachment trauma to be clear of serious attachment problems, a byproduct of early emotional injuries may remain. A person may walk with a subconscious need to re-master the attachment trauma. An unconscious desire to win the love of someone who outwardly seems different from a parent but who actually relates in a very similar way may be both insidious and compelling. Winning the “ultimate love” may feel like it will erase all past heartache. Almost like a drug, the “high” which initially exists with this type of partner may turn toxic quickly.

Unfortunately, this may be because a person is involved with a partner with significant attachment problems. Deceptive, the partner is excellent at initiating closeness but is unable to sustain it. Because the partner begins to act like an emotionally abusive attachment figure, the person is blindsided and ensnared by an awful but emotionally familiar dynamic.

The person may find himself or herself panicked, placating, appeasing, and suppressing how he or she really feels. The partner’s unemphatic and defensive responses may manipulate a person into believing it is his or her fault, just as the emotionally unavailable parent did.

After several months, a person may begin to recognize a partner has profound problems with empathy, accountability, and insight within the confines of the relationship. In many instances, an emotionally abusive partner will reel a person in and then abandon the person to hide the fact that he or she can’t be authentically close for very long. In either case, a partner who emotionally abuses a person reinforces old insecurities and feelings of inadequacy.

This can take a toll on self-esteem and mental health. Understanding the difference between attachment trauma and attachment problems may help a person know himself or herself better, and quickly identify an emotionally abusive partner.


Early trauma, negative affect, and anxious attachment: the role of metacognition

The Link Between Types of Attachment and Childhood Trauma

Romantic love: What’s emotional intelligence (EI) got to do with it?

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