Hello, it’s been quite a while since I’ve contributed to my blog. I am writing this article because I know it has been very helpful to me to hear about the experiences of people with disorganized attachment in successful, committed relationships. I am hoping that others in situations similar to mine can get something out of it.
What are Attachment Theory and Attachment Styles?
So, if it wasn’t clear, I live with a disorganized attachment style. If you have never heard of attachment styles or theory before, it is a really powerful tool for understanding how we come to develop the strategies we employ in relationships to get our attachment needs met. Attachment theory itself began with John Bowlby, a British psychologist. Later, Mary Ainsworth expanded on his theory with the “strange situation” experiments which lead to the defining of the different attachment styles in the 1980s. Through Mary’s work, four attachment styles were identified: secure, anxious-avoidant (also called “dismissive avoidant” or just “avoidant”), anxious-ambivalent (also called just “anxious” or “preoccupied”), and disorganized (sometimes called “fearful-avoidant” or “anxious-avoidant”…yes, it can get confusing). As implied, of the four attachment styles, the latter three are “insecure” and are associated with challenges in relationships and mental health later in life. Some of the core tenets of attachment theory are: 1) That humans have an instinctual drive to form attachment bonds with their primary caretakers as children, and later with other people as adults, and 2) That the interactions between caretakers/parents and infants/children determines whether the child will develop a secure or insecure attachment style, and 3) That these attachment relationships shape internal models of the self and others and have significant impact on an individual’s ability to self-regulate emotions.
Attachment bonds are vital to a child’s survival – when we are children, especially as infants, we are entirely dependent on our caretakers to care for our physical and emotional needs. Children will adapt their behavior to the behavior of their caretaker to ensure their vital needs are able to be met, and that is how we come to different attachment styles. In adulthood, we often unconsciously seek partners that recreate the attachment dynamic we grew up with. I find attachment theory is very critical to understanding why we get stuck in unhelpful or even harmful relationship patterns and the really wonderful thing about it is that you can heal your attachment style by seeking a secure relationship (often this is done in therapy, but it can be done with anyone who is able to model secure attachment to you). To learn more about attachment theory, I deeply recommend Dr. Kirk Honda’s podcast Psychology in Seattle. He is an attachment-focused therapist who posts a variety of content through his podcast and YouTube channels. He has done a deep-dive series of episodes on attachment theory, which is about several hours of content, on his Patreon and I believe subscribing to his Patreon is worth it just to access those deep dives. Prior to becoming a patron, I also got a lot out of his 90-Day Fiance reaction videos.
Back to the purpose of this article – I just wanted to share my experience as someone who has a disorganized attachment style and is also in a long-term relationship with another trauma survivor, my husband.
Some Background on Disorganized Attachment
With disorganized attachment, the primary caretaker becomes a source of fear for a child. This attachment style is more common among households experiencing domestic violence and substance abuse, which were present throughout my childhood. Sometimes this style gets presented like it is just a 50/50 mix of anxious and avoidant attachment styles, but that is not the case. Everyone can relate to and employ strategies from the different attachment styles from time to time, but what separates disorganized attachment from the rest is that the unpredictable nature of the parent due to their abusive tendencies leaves a child with no reliable strategy to get their attachment needs met. With the other styles, their strategies work to get their needs met and a resolution is obtained.
When you have a parent who is abusive or abusing substances, their response to the child’s behavior becomes inconsistent and erratic and thus the child comes to negative conclusions about themselves AND other people – not just one or the other as it is with avoidant or anxious styles. My husband and I both have significant trauma histories (including various attachment trauma), but it’s always been very interesting to me that he experienced a lot of attunement from his parents that I didn’t get from my own, and the apparent impact it has on his ability to cope with our relationship challenges that comparatively leave me in persistent distress.
So what is it like to have disorganized attachment?
Well, it’s a lot of hard work. I am prone to doubting my relationship and am particularly hypervigilant towards flaws in my partner. I have a hard time knowing what my true feelings are. I actually relate quite a lot to people’s experiences with “Relationship OCD” or ROCD for short, and would not be surprised at all if I met the diagnostic criteria for OCD. I’ve learned that the fear of uncertainty is at the core of OCD, and I can see how that sort of dynamic can easily arise from a disorganized attachment style.
When I was very young, my dad became addicted to meth and began an affair with his dealer, whose house he sometimes brought me to. I have memories of my dad doing drugs in front of me with his friends. My parents also argued quite a lot, and there was one time that my dad hit my mom while I was in the room (I have no recollection, but my mom says I turned white). I remember my mom crying and cutting all of my dad’s t-shirts with scissors, things like that. My mom took me and my brother to a hotel – they were very close to divorcing. Then, my parents had to file for bankruptcy and our home was foreclosed on. I remember our home being empty and not really knowing what was happening, just that we had to eat KFC for dinner. I remember being at the courthouse too. Miraculously, my dad quit meth and found us a new place to live. I had to change schools and leave my best friend behind (I was in kindergarten by then), and just like that my parents seemed to suddenly be in love again. I don’t remember receiving any kind of explanation for any of these events, and for a long time immediately following the transition into the new home and life, I developed this fear of getting in trouble whenever I injured myself or lost my baby teeth and would do everything I could to avoid having to tell my parents I hurt myself or lost my teeth. I remember stepping on a rusty nail and sneaking home to wash my foot in the tub without my parents noticing, and hiding my baby teeth in my toy chest, things like that.
My parents were “ok” for several years after that until my dad became addicted to opiates while I was in middle school, following a series of spinal injuries and surgeries that would essentially leave him disabled. Shortly after that he was also diagnosed with several debilitating conditions and became an alcoholic as well, though I suspect he had been an alcoholic the entire time and I just hadn’t noticed until I was old enough to figure it out and he was drinking out in the open. His personality appeared to change and he became very emotionally abusive while my mom remained very emotionally unavailable and focused on working to support the household. I was heavily parentified by both of them.
I’m bringing all of this up to illustrate the tremendous and prolonged experience of chaotic uncertainty that existed in my household. This had an incredible impact on how I view relationships in ways that even after years of therapy and self-guided inner work, I am still learning to make sense of and separate from my marriage. Not only was there the uncertainty about where we would be living, moving to a whole new school, not knowing whether or not my parents would remain together – there was also layers upon layers of enmeshment and poorly defined or nonexistent boundaries within our relationships to each other that persist even today. As a result, I ended up avoiding intimacy with others for many years.
Where my husband comes in.
I mentioned my husband is also a trauma survivor. In a lot of ways, he shares many traits with my dad. Many of them are good traits that I admired about my dad (and almost none of the toxic ones), but a lot of what they have in common is that they both experienced similar hardships in life, like homelessness and juvenile delinquency. My husband also struggles with intimacy for reasons that are similar but different from me. He is more or less avoidant, and sometimes he seems a bit like a fish out of water in this domestic dream we have methodically and tenaciously cultivated. This is the longest relationship we’ve both ever been in – him never having been in a relationship that lasted longer than a year, and me six months. We have been together for seven years now, closer to 9 if you count our long-distance courtship. My husband has seen and experienced things that most people would not wish upon their worst enemies, on top of having been subjected to drug abuse in utero; he simply is not wired like most people.
I often have to remind myself that my husband is not my dad. My husband has never raised his voice to me, he has never acted violent around me, and he has never shamed or chastised me for being sensitive and highly emotional. He is very patient with me and responsive when I voice my needs. If I have a nightmare during the night, even if he is in the middle of getting ready to leave for work, he will take a moment to hold me and soothe me if I ask him to. There have been times when I was quite literally functionally disabled by panic and obsessive ruination over fundamental questions about reality (existential anxiety was a beast of a dragon for me at one point), where all I could do was lay on the floor and breathe for days at a time – and he was there to cook the meals, take care of the dog, take notice of my empty water bottle and fill it, all without being asked. Still the fear festers and compels me to doubt our relationship.
After all, he’s not very expressive. He comes home and usually hops right onto his computer. He doesn’t initiate a lot of affection; I have to prompt him nearly exclusively to kiss or hug me. When I ask him what he is thinking or feeling, there isn’t much to be said. He doesn’t always have an interest in doing things together and he’s quite detached from the things most people tend to take for granted in relationships, like sex and celebrating holidays or special occasions. He’s also done things in our past that shattered my trust, that he’s since atoned for. A lot of these things are traits and experiences that would be deemed dealbreaking red flags by conventional relationship wisdom available on the internet (r/relationships, anyone?), but are very standard unfortunate side effects of PTSD (not so much the trust breaking, but in my husband’s case his actions were very much related to his trauma history). It took me a very long time to start to figure out what it meant to not take these things personally, though I am still challenged by these things occasionally – particularly whenever a conflict treads into dysfunctional territory. I also must admit that on some level I find his detachment comforting – when I imagine what it would be like for him to be the perfect fantasy partner I think he should be, I feel very scared.
That’s what can be so confusing about this whole experience. I have to constantly investigate and question my assumptions because it’s not really clear to me what’s what I want or what’s what I think I should want – a consequence that comes from being parentified as a child. It feels very safe to know that my husband rarely, if ever, depends on me emotionally – and my emotional engagement with him is completely within my control, initiated when I feel safe enough to do so. Is this…a bad thing?
My husband recently told me that he doesn’t feel safe enough to disclose his insecurities and needs to me. That was distressing – because I truly want to support him and help him feel safe, and I thought if he wasn’t saying anything or asking anything of me, then he must feel safe and secure with the way things are. At the same time, the last time I was close enough to someone to have this kind of emotional interdependency, I was a child being verbally abused for not doing something well enough to prevent my dad’s emotional distress, or receiving an unprovoked deluge of emotional dumping from my mom about her job and her troubled relationship with my dad. Having someone depend on you emotionally is a terrifying and resentful experience for me. My husband tried to tell me that seeing me ungrounded and panicked about existential triggers and not knowing when or if I will ever feel ready to have children left him feeling insecure. At this point of the conversation, I shut down – all I heard was what a problem I am, even though that’s not what he said. I also had no idea what he wanted from me in that moment and everything he said sounded vague and confusing – listen? I thought I just did that.
I think I’ve come a long way, because some years ago at that point of a conservation instead of shutting down, I’d get angry. I’d deny the validity of my husband’s needs and attest that I had done nothing wrong. I got highly defensive and withheld validation until my husband would take back what he said and validate me. I was acting out what had been done to me. After some years of therapy, a consistent meditation, yoga, and journaling practice, and probably nearly fifty books on psychology, I could notice I was scared and hurt and needed space to process. Communicating my experience took priority over addressing my husband’s insecurities in that moment. This left my husband feeling dismissed and unheard, and I regret that. I see that I have more work to do. At the same time, he recognizes that his own avoidant behavior works against him and is committing to a new journaling practice. I am very proud of him. I am looking forward to new opportunities to meet his attachment needs.
Still, in the days following this event I experienced a prolonged stress response that triggered a cascade of doubting and questioning whether this relationship is good for me or needs to be excised from my life. No amount of rationalizing could abate my compulsive questioning and certainty-seeking. I knew I had to just ride it out – I have felt this way many times before (even in platonic relationships) and I knew I was just triggered and needed to calm my nervous system. This pattern serves two purposes: it recreates the uncertainty I felt as a child about my own parents’ relationship (reinforcing the subconscious beliefs I have about what relationships are supposed to be like), and it creates emotional distance between me and my husband. He had been vulnerable with me and that scared me, because to connect I needed to respond in kind. I mentioned before that I feel safest when I’m the one in control and initiating vulnerable exchanges. My husband has learned to receive and step up to my initiations reliably, while I tremble at the opportunity to return the favor. Likewise, while I have gotten skilled at communicating what I need from my husband (“I’m scared I’m letting you down, can you reassure me?”), doing so himself is fear-inducing. We have been fulfilling the roles to each other that we are too scared to play ourselves, while experiencing deep yearning to switch positions every once in a while.
How do we switch?
We have to keep on learning and growing and challenging ourselves. It’s a scary process – what if I can’t change this about myself? What if he can’t change this about himself? What if all this work doesn’t matter and this is just a bad relationship? We only have this present moment, and right now we are facing this challenge. I can’t know what the future is going to be like; I can’t be certain of our success. The only thing I am certain of is that in the last 9 years we have managed to change and grow and repair over and over again, so the odds are pretty good that we can keep doing it. We are also both incredibly stubborn and resilient because of our trauma histories, not in spite of them.
There are some practical steps we are taking. As I previously mentioned, my husband is taking up a new journaling practice. We are also re-committing to certain practices as a couple that we’ve lagged behind on – things like sitting down and eating together at the dinner table regularly, going out to a restaurant or on a walk and checking in with each other once a week, and this will probably also include utilizing an intimacy card game we used to play. I have also reached a point in therapy where it’s difficult to progress without addressing my sensitivity to triggers and am searching for an adjunctive EMDR provider. I’m sure we will identify even more strategies as we move forward.
We have already tried couples therapy and while it was helpful to me, there were things that make my husband reluctant to return to it as a resource. This hurt to hear, but I was delighted when he told me that the books I’ve recommended to him and that our couples therapist recommended to us were more helpful to him than the couples therapy itself. I am an avid bookworm, and my husband is really brilliant at speedreading and putting what he reads into practice. This is something that’s gone on between us since he courted me in college by offering to do my reading assignments for me and give me the information I needed to write my reports (a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do when she’s a full-time student, a full-time employee, and a part-time intern). When he first moved in with me, empathetic listening was a challenge for him and so I gave him my college textbook on interviewing clients in human services. It worked pretty well all things considered.
Right now I just started reading The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk. I started reading it to understand myself better, and I find myself understanding my husband better too. He said he will read it after I finish, and that so far the things I’ve told him about it make a lot of sense. This leaves me feeling very assured that we can do something together to strengthen and improve our relationship. This feels like teamwork. It feels good and I like it.
What does a healthy relationship look like?
Valentine’s Day was recently, so my newsfeed has been inundated with articles about relationships for the last few days – a curse and a blessing for me, as it were. I read a blurb from Dr Julie Gottman in one such article that really gave me some peace of mind:
What really stood out to me was this specific sentence: “When you couple up, you’re picking a set of perpetual problems you’ll have with a partner.” I can’t tell you how much relief I felt from reading this – I really needed permission from a relationship expert to have problems with my partner, apparently. I feel a little emotional just thinking about it. Yes, we did choose a specific set of perpetual problems we’ll have with each other, and they’re the kind of problems we keep getting better and better at solving. I can live with these problems. I can even love these problems, as so much awareness and many opportunities for growth and intimacy have been brought into our relationship because of them. Our problems are helping us become better people and face our deepest fears about intimacy and connection, together. I think that sounds like a healthy relationship.
So what is it like to live with disorganized attachment and be in a long-term relationship with another trauma survivor? It’s realizing that we both have access to a deep well of resilience to overcome many, maybe even any challenge that arises in our relationship (barring abuse, obviously – if you’re not sure if you’re in an abusive relationship, you can check this out). We’re not perfect, and sometimes we can even be a little toxic to each other, but we’re both committed to doing what it takes to make this work – and I think that’s all commitment really is at the end of the day. There will be ups and downs and relapses into old patterns here and there, but my husband is worth the effort. I, too, am worth the effort and deserve to experience deep and secure connections even if the work scares me.
Thank you for reading about my experience. If you feel comfortable, I’d be interested about hearing about my readers’ experiences with relationships and trauma in the comments below. I hope this was helpful, as it was quite cathartic for me. I leave you all with a song that came to mind as I was finishing: