So most of us who are survivors of childhood sexual assault have a ‘disorganized’ attachment style. This means that because the adults in our lives growing up were scary and abusive, we want to be close to others, but it scares us, so we might bolt or behave badly. Disorganized attachment is sometimes not even mentioned when discussing attachment styles, because of the stigma about talking about childhood abuse perhaps, or because the people discussing it think we are a lost cause.
We are not a lost cause.
Also less talked about is ‘earned secure’ attachment, which is when a person heals enough of their gunk to be able to have a close intimate, reliable relationship with at least one other adult without getting too freaked out about it. This is what survivors need to shoot for, I believe.
The thing is, beyond ‘lots of therapy’ most writers don’t discuss how to get from disorganized attachment all the way to earned secure.
Here’s what I know about how to get to earned secure attachment
Build a long term, reliable relationship with someone. Start with your cat, even. I’m serious. My big tomcat is a total love. He teaches me about what are called ‘bids for connection’ – how to spot them, how to respond to them and how to make them.
My cat and I learn about bids for connection
Here’s an example:
My cat climbs up on my desk while I am working, and walks in front of my eyes while I am trying to write. This is a bid for connection. He is there because he wants some attention or love from me, and is asking for it by waving his tail in my face as I try to concentrate.
I have some choices here.
- I can push him off the desk. (rejecting his bid for connection, which means he may give up making them)
- I can put my annoyance aside, take a break for my eyes and attentively snuggle him for a couple of minutes, remembering I love him and it’s nice to snuggle him, and then put him down on the floor ( accepting his bid for connection by connecting with him in the way he asks)
- I can put a basket on my desk out of the way of my keyboard and pet him when he jumps into it (recognizing the bid, declining it, but offering a solution that gets both of us what we want)
In general in relationships we value, we want to always go route two or three when someone makes a bid.
How does this work with people?
Say you are sitting at your desk at the office, and you are planning to eat your tasty packed lunch at your desk today. A coworker who you like stops by and invites you to lunch. Again, you have some options, based on what you actually want to do.
You have some choices.
- You can go to lunch with the coworker at the restaurant they want to go to (accepting the bid for connection)
- You can suggest you both go to an area where your coworker can get takeout and then eat outside together. (accepting with modification)
- You can say “Oh, thank you for asking, but I need to catch up and was planning to eat here. I’d love to go another time, though. Have a good time.” (accepting the connection, while declining the invitation)
- You can just say no. (rejecting the bid for connection)
Now where this gets tricky is when our gunk gets in the way. We might do #1 too much and deny our own needs, or we might do #4 and end up with no connection.
Any relationship, friendship, coworkers, your cat can be used to practice this skill.
Attachment with Therapists
Oh my Gods I am terrible with this. First of all going to one therapist long enough to actually get attached is very expensive. Secondly, they keep firing me because I am too functional. I have, however, learned to be vulnerable and trust that a competent therapist (most of mine have been) will respond basically appropriately and empathetically to vulnerability and frank honesty. Noticing this is the case is good for you, and is good practice for learning it’s fine to be vulnerable and honest.
Attachment with members of support groups
Support groups are cheaper, some are even free – like Survivors of Incest Anonymous, which I highly recommend. Support groups help you learn that everyone has a story and their own vulnerabilities, that you don’t have to rescue them or be rescued by them, and that you are basically a normal person for a person who has been through what you have been through. Attend such groups long term and you will find you are deeply annoyed by some people, and yet can feel compassion for them, and that you are inspired by and learn from others. Experiment with responding positively to bids for connection, with making bids for connection, and see how it goes.
Attachment with long term friends
This can be a great thing. Again, long term is the key. Take a deep breath and respond positively to bids for connection. Make bids for connection too, and make them again even if they don’t go well the first time. If the person rejects your bids for connection too much, move on to someone else. Be cautiously vulnerable and honest. Use empathy. Be loyal.
Attachment with the divine
This has been enormously healing for me. As an example, my therapist, knowing of my faith, asked me to imagine being comforted by my higher power / Goddess while doing an EMDR self soothing activity, crossing my arms over my chest and alternately tapping my upper arms with my fingers, left-right, left-right. I did this while doing a walking meditation I do in a place that feels safe to me. I ended up having a very profound feeling of being loved and held intimately by two of the deities of my religion. I wrote a poem about it (I’m an overachiever) and have it pop up on my phone daily. I read it to myself and recall that feeling of being loved, safe and held. I do a lot of things like this. My biological parents sucked, but my divine parents are loving, wise and available. If religion or spirituality isn’t your thing, this might not work for you. However, perhaps something else, like nature, making music or art, or a favourite place might work.
Attachment with a partner
Okay, this is the big leagues. There are types of post traumatic gunk that only come up in romantic relationships that feel permanent or long term. Take it slow. Notice bids for connection and choose how you respond to them. Take time-outs when you get worked up and anxious, but then go back and make and respond to bids for connection. When your partner is lost in their own gunk, try to notice and respond empathetically, vulnerably and honestly. Read up on Brene Brown and all her work on BRAVING – setting boundaries and learning to trust. Be kind to yourself, and then be kind to your partner. Take the high road, act with as much kindness and integrity as you can. When you make mistakes, admit them and be honest about it.
The end result
Secure attachment is when you are happy to be close, and content with some distance too. When you have another person’s back and they have yours. I had some of this, most of this with my ex-wife, and I hope to have it again with someone else. May you be secure and loved and securely attached too. We all deserve it.