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March 5, 2021

When Love Sucks: How Attachment Trauma Bites us in Relationships.

“I love you as a human being, as a friend, and as a boyfriend. This is hard for me to say, but it’s not working for me.” 

And with those 26 words, I left him. 

We may not be single because we fail to meet the right people. We may be single because we have attachment trauma.

I grew up as the child of a child of an alcoholic. Generational trauma that began in WWII, with a grandparent who returned from the war unable to speak of the atrocities he encountered and finding solace in a bottle of Scotch.

It became a point of family pride to turn off emotions: we were to blunt boisterous joy, halt sorrow, and display love with appropriate stiff-upper-lip levels. Only emotions of the mildest effect and range were permitted.

In my parentage, love was always present. Attunement, presence, and safety were not. It was not given to my parent, so it couldn’t be given to me. The way our brains develop as children relies on adult attunement: an energetic circuit between two people. Without it, we may not have the processing capacities we need to have as adults.

If we feel anxious, hypervigilant, or stressed during the process of falling in love, we may be blind to our attachment traumas—our bodily responses and brain chemistry established in childhood.

Yet, the longer we are in the dating pool, the more likely it is that we are single because we are grappling with attachment traumas. We can identify it if the earliest phases of love and dating feel easy, but deepening it, retaining it, and keeping it is a near impossibility.

As I got in, and subsequently out, of relationships, each of my love stories had a predictable cloak of sameness. New partners became ex-partners when a familiar sense of constriction started to weave atop my torso like a thick macramé rope, coinciding with the first stirrings of desirous love. Already months in, I could no longer relationally breathe.

As I lost air in each relationship, I fled and abandoned my partners lest I suffocate. I would begin my search again, only to feel the same strangulation with my next partner.

At first, we may genuinely feel like someone else has conducted the crimes that lead to relational deaths. We can commiserate with friends, who will reinforce our narratives by proclaiming what offences someone else has done to our poor wounded heart.

Yet, eventually, the rope burns of attachment traumas start to sear. We may realize it’s not our partners: it’s us.

I was forced to confront myself. I struggled to find internal safety in long-term relationships, and I terminated them because the burning pain of anxiety became greater than the pleasure of staying. I turned into a child with a brain that didn’t chemically process love the same as other people’s did.

Falling in love sucked.

As adults with attachment trauma, we may feel that something that comes naturally to other people confounds us. We may find a hollowness when we attempt to access our gut, our body, or our brain: that which we need in order to deepen the love we find.

As I confidently uttered “I love you” to a boyfriend, I could feel the familiar sensations of dissociation: my back flushed with a clammy heat, the colour of the walls becoming blindingly sharp through my newly-dilated eyes, my muscles tight, and my mental capacities fogged over with vertigo. I stopped breathing.

If we have attachment trauma, love might literally take our breath away.

Awash in a chemical bath, my mind now blank, there was no mental narrative to access, just a hole in its place. And in that instant: I recognized that I could leave, but I would have to start over, only to have it end the same way.

We need to see that it doesn’t matter where we meet a potential partner; it doesn’t matter how attractive someone is or what hobbies we have in common.

We may continue our search for the “right” partner, but the search is within us for what was lost or what we never had: presence, safety, and attunement. Love itself is not enough.

We are born with a capacity for expression: we unabashedly cry in order to garner care and attention from our caregivers. The resulting eye contact and touch is the earliest form of attunement. This energetic connection with another is how our brain develops the neural pathways that allow us to process emotions.

As adults, if we: dissociate and feel lightheaded or get preoccupied or overwhelmed when faced with strong emotions, we may not have had caregiver attunement.

Our body chemistry may interpret the chemical flush of love as a lack of safety. We may fear that we will not get our needs met, we may be afraid we will have our desires ignored, and we may process attaching to another as a pathway to feeling isolated and alone.

We may feel like love is the rope of constriction rather than the sails of freedom.

In my childhood, I was often sent to another room, or banished to the top step outside the house, to process my emotions.

Alone.

I didn’t know how to do something that was never demonstrated, never given, and never taught, so I learned to repress, suppress, avoid, compress, rationalize, and dissociate.

These adaptations from my childhood developed as a pre-verbal infant and carried forward as something that felt normal to me as an adult, holding no position in my conscious awareness. It was simply how I processed life.

If we have attachment trauma, we may get panicky or anxious when feeling emotions and notice our self-love collapsing in relational capacities. We may not trust that our feelings can be held by another without shame.

Once we recognize how attachment trauma impacts our relationships, we can begin to learn new skills and tools: a process that takes years but can begin to amend our body chemistry and bring us more connection within our primary love relationships.

We can learn to identify the holes: the missing words or sensations that felt too unsafe as a child to express. We can forgive our caregivers, who had no access to respond with skills they didn’t possess.

We may benefit from practicing presence and mindfulness: an ability to stay with the sensation in the here and now in order to detect and decode the information our bodies are giving us at the moment.

What is our heart telling us? How do we feel around someone else? Do we feel open or closed? What is our body communicating? Can we find and name the emotion in our bodies?

We can learn to communicate and share our feelings with another person and to allow time and opportunity for response: the very thing we did not get in our development.

And we can practise not leaving or fleeing in order to escape our own feelings due to fears that our needs will not be met.

One of the gifts of attachment trauma is that no amount of self-love or self-care will repair this. We must be in a relationship in order to rewire our brains.

The constrictive ropes of trauma can loosen and allow room for us to breathe. We can stop looking for love with new partners and find freedom within ourselves.

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Janis Isaman  |  Contribution: 74,665

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Editor: Kate Force