This is a huge topic. Here’s the short version for childhood sexual abuse survivors.
When you had parents who severely abused or neglected you, it messes up your ability to be close to a romantic partner. Oh yay, another thing being a survivor has messed up, you say? Well, yes, but the good news is, it’s fixable. Also, and this is a big thing, knowing about attachment theory is very useful for settling down and reparenting our own inner abused children. Happy inner children (or dissociative parts) mean a more settled, healed and calm life.
Attachment theory basics for survivors
Here are the basics. All humans need someone to be their go-to person. Ideally, a baby has a parent who is their go-to person, the one pays attention to the signs baby needs something and makes it happen. This ‘attachment figure’ who is usually a close caregiver, is supposed to be reliably there, so that the baby and then child, feels safe. Ideally baby / child can then do more independent things like crawl across the room, try something new, ride a bicycle or go to school, knowing that their attachment person has their back if they need it.
So if you’re reading this blog, this probably wasn’t the case for you. I’m sorry. It’s worth grieving about this.
What kind of Attachment Issue Do I (or my parts) have?
All of us childhood abuse survivors have attachment issues. It’s a sure thing. If the abuser was part of the family, it’s doubly sure. Knowing how that affected your attachment style can help you figure out how to heal it. Having a more secure attachment style makes it easier to have happy relationships, and can help calm down your nervous system, making a lot of things work better.
Basically the type of attachment disorder you have, depends on how much your parental figures were there for you emotionally and physically. Also, people often have qualities from more than one type at different times of their life, and in different relationships.
If you had at least one person who was solidly there for you some of the time, but then was completely awol at others, you’re probably anxiously attached. This means that if you find someone you get connected to, you are always waiting for something to mess it up, and super sensitive to signs the person might be pulling away. You might even throw a bit of a tantrum if they seem to be doing that, or chase after them more than most people are comfortable with.
This is the attachment style you probably have if your parents were so neglectful that you couldn’t rely on them at all. A kid in this situation learns to be hyper-independent and to suppress any feelings of needing help or support. In studies with babies, they learned that even if the baby appears to be fine with being left by an attachment figure, sensors on their body detect just as much distress as an anxious baby. Its not that they aren’t freaked out mommy has left the room, they’ve just learned not to show it.
As adults we often suppress the recognition that things were really that bad. This kind of survivor will not remember much or anything about their childhood, and will say that it was basically all right. We pride themselves on not needing anyone, being low maintenance, and don’t want their partners to get ‘too clingy’. They might be more concerned with looking okay, and good to others in all ways than usual.
This type of attachment is caused when the caregiver scares, moves away from or ridicules the child when the child needs comforting. The caregiver may seem ‘helpless’ in the face of the child needing help, and only eventually comfort the child if the child is persistent. Over time the child may turn into the one that takes care of the adult. They may become an adult that either takes care of others at the expense of their own needs or who is impatient and hostile about both their own needs and those of others. Since most adults in relationships want a partner who is sensitive to their needs, and who is able to ask directly for what they themselves need, this makes it hard to connect and stay connected.
So what do I do about my attachment style as an adult survivor?
I’m going to devote a whole post or posts to this because it’s also a huge topic. But in brief form, you heal attachment problems by having close relationships with people who are able to have close relationships.
Oh, right, how the heck am I supposed to do that?
While most attachment books, being for a non-survivor audience, will say you have to find a healthy person to be a partner with. However, this can be too high a hurdle for a survivor. Some good ways to start healing attachment is to have supportive relationships with a therapist, a higher power / god / goddess, and maybe eventually a best friend. You can also heal this by having a good and supportive relationship with other parts of yourself, and strengthening your inner loving parent. This last I have found particularly powerful.
Once some of the gunk is cleared from doing the above, a healthy romantic or life partnership will become more possible.
The type of close relationship you have is important, though. it needs to be reliable and supportive. The other party has to be reliable, safe and consistent, and if it’s a partnership, you have to be reliable, safe and consistent too.
I know that those kinds of relationships with other people are hard to come by for survivors. This is why you can get started on the ones that are most accessible to you – relationship with a higher power, or your own inner parent are ones you can put energy into without having to find another person. Trusting relationship with a therapist, is also a good place to start.
Now that I’m into this topic, I realize there is way more to cover. I haven’t even talked about how I’ve cleaned up my attachment style (I’m doing pretty well there). More on this in future posts.