Wondering what attachment trauma is and whether it may be negatively impacting your intimate relationship?
In this post, you’ll discover the signs of attachment trauma, the attachment types and when you need to seek professional help.
For over 12 years, I’ve been a Licensed Professional Counselor and relationship expert in private practice. I’ve helped thousands of couples work together to resolve attachment trauma.
This post will help you identify exactly what you need to do to have a successful relationship, even if one or both of you suffers from attachment trauma!
Let’s get started.
Why Do I Seem to Have So Many Relationship Problems?
If you’ve struggled with a series of intensely unstable relationships, you may be wondering what is going on.
You may have a lot of questions about what attachment trauma is and whether it’s causing problems for you in your intimate relationships.
You may be wondering:
Is attachment trauma preventing you from having a good relationship?
Is the trauma you experience in your adult relationships connected in some way to the trauma you experienced early in life?
How should you deal with attachment trauma?
Maybe your partner is calling you names, like “codependent,” “overly emotional,” or even “crazy.” You might notice that you have a lot of difficulty managing your own emotions. These experiences may make you wonder if you should see a psychologist or a psychiatrist.
You may have experienced attachment trauma in the past and have no idea how to stop yourself from replaying this trauma in your relationships now. As a child, frightening or dangerous relationship experiences with parents may have made you feel terrified of engaging in intimate relationships as an adult. Later in this post, we’ll discuss how trauma in early childhood relationships can lead to disorganized attachment, making it hard to form warm, secure bonds as an adult.
Even entering into this discussion of attachment trauma may be bringing up very painful, difficult feelings for you. Remember that your safety is the top priority. If you are experiencing a mental health emergency, please go to your nearest emergency room, or make use of these resources:
- United Way Crisis Helpline: 📲 1-800-233-HELP (4357)
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 📲 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Crisis Text Line: 📲 Text 741741
It’s also important that you reach out for professional help from a licensed therapist, so that you can work through your attachment trauma and build a healthy relationship.
What Is Attachment Trauma?
Attachment trauma is a term that gets thrown around a lot in our culture without much understanding of what it really means, or the impact of attachment trauma on intimate relationships.
To understand attachment trauma, let’s talk about trauma first by itself.
Trauma occurs when your nervous system gets overwhelmed as a result of a life threatening, frightening or dangerous event.
You might experience that event in one of three different ways: It could be that the event happened to you personally. It could also be that you heard about the event from someone else. Or you might have witnessed the event, instead of experiencing it directly yourself.
Notice that the traumatic event doesn’t necessarily have to be something that you personally experienced. In fact, studies show that witnessing or hearing about an event can produce vicarious trauma, which can sometimes be even more powerful than when you experience the traumatic event yourself!
What Makes Something Traumatic?
What makes an event traumatic isn’t so much the nature of the event, how objectively dangerous it was, because people will respond very differently to the same event. What produces trauma is that your nervous system was unable to process your personal experience of the event.
Your nervous system became overwhelmed.
Let me explain what I mean by overwhelm.
You’re processing information that you receive from your environment all day long. That stimuli might be something that excites you or something that relaxes you. But whatever it is, it’s important that what you’re taking in from the outside not be too much for you. If it’s too exciting, too scary or too dangerous, that can be a problem.
There’s a difference between watching a scary movie and feeling a little bit afraid, versus somebody running after you with a butcher knife. The first experience might be a little bit frightening, but enjoyable in a certain way. On the other hand, when someone runs after you with a butcher knife, it’s probably overwhelming to the point of creating all kinds of problems in your mind and body.
Fight, Flight and Freeze
When your nervous system gets overwhelmed, you’ll try to use a defensive strategy to escape the problem. This could include running away, or if possible, fighting back to protect yourself. At the very least, you’ll play dead like a possum, which is what we call a freeze response.
Those are the three strategies that your nervous system uses in order to cope with an overwhelming event: flight, fight or freeze.
Trauma happens when the situation prevents you from using one of those three self-defensive strategies. As a result, the energy generated by the threatening event can’t move through your body.
All that energy literally gets stuck in your cells!
Now how does attachment play into the experience of trauma?
Remember from our previous videos that an attachment figure is someone with whom you share a special bond, whom you rely on when you’re in distress. In childhood, that person is your parent or primary caregiver. In adulthood, that person is your intimate partner, (although close friends and family members can also serve important attachment functions as well).
As a child, you may have had frightening or dangerous experiences in relation to your attachment figure. In this case your attachment figure was doing something that you perceived as life threatening, or truly scary.
Studies show that any of the following forms of abuse or household problems are associated with childhood trauma: Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; Emotional or physical neglect; Having only one or no parents; Exposure to alcohol or drug abuse in the home; An incarcerated family member; A mother who is subject to violent treatment; Or, a household member who is chronically depressed, mentally ill, institutionalized, or suicidal.
Here’s an example of how this could work:
Imagine you’re a kid and you’re trapped in a room with your scary father who is yelling at you. You are terrified of your father. You can’t get away and you certainly can’t fight back. You can’t hide or freeze because he sees you. That’s an example of an experience that could overwhelm your nervous system because in the moment, you’re unable to defend yourself in any way.
Just to recap, trauma is when you have an experience that’s frightening or dangerous, and that overwhelms your nervous system.
In the case of attachment trauma, this scary experience occurs in the context of an attachment relationship–in the hands of the very person who is supposed to keep you safe!
Your nervous system is unable to process the experience because you can’t do anything to protect yourself, like run away, fight back or freeze. As a result of being unable to keep yourself safe, that natural self-defensive energy becomes trapped in your body.
Frightening or dangerous experiences at the hands of a primary caregiver aren’t the only thing that can produce attachment trauma. The loss of a parent or other important caregiver is another possible cause.
And there’s a third possible cause as well. Read on.
How A Lack of Comfort Can Lead To Attachment Trauma
Another kind of attachment trauma happens when you experience an overwhelming event, such as being the victim of a natural disaster or a car accident–and there’s no one there to comfort you afterward.
Studies show that you experience trauma when you have no support, no one to soothe you or help you manage your energy in the aftermath of a scary or dangerous experience.
As a child, your parent or primary caregiver might have been physically absent, preoccupied, neglectful or uninvolved in your life. When you were in unsafe or harmful situations, you might have had to go it alone. In this case, the real trauma is the aloneness you had to face as you tried to navigate the situation.
By contrast, when people have someone there with them to help them process the terrifying event, they usually don’t get traumatized.
For instance, they did studies on the victims of Hurricane Katrina back in 2005, and found that those people who had someone there to comfort them after the hurricane didn’t get traumatized. These hurricane victims had either been seriously injured, or they had had all their belongings swept away by the storm.
But because a friend or family member was there to relieve their emotional distress, they didn’t experience trauma.
It was the people who had to face the catastrophe alone who developed trauma.
So, children or adults who experience something scary or dangerous, and are lacking an attachment figure to help them through it are more likely to develop trauma.
Trauma Changes A Child’s Brain
Regardless of how attachment trauma occurs, it affects the brain of the developing child.
When a child is traumatized, the child’s brain produces a greater than average amount of the well-known stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol production is useful in the short-term when you need a burst of energy in order to get away from something dangerous, to get you moving and activate your nervous system.
But when cortisol is activated in the long-term, it can do irrevocable damage to your brain-especially in the early years of life when your brain is just developing. Long-term cortisol activation actually damages and kills your brain cells. These brain changes can cause a child to develop lifelong, trauma-induced behaviors.
Trauma-Induced Behaviors Negatively Impact Your Life
Trauma-induced behaviors can occur at any age, depending on how old you are when you experienced trauma. These behaviors may be causing you a lot of difficulty in your intimate relationship and your relationships in general.
For instance, you might find that when your partner looks at you with irritation on their face, you swell with anger, and want to punch them!
Or perhaps whenever there is conflict between you, you find yourself wanting to run out of the room. Maybe you tend to check out and suddenly feel like you’re falling asleep when the two of you have a disagreement.
All of these reactions could reflect different trauma-induced behaviors that are being triggered by the stress in your relationship.
These behaviors probably fall into one of three categories that correspond to the three self-defensive strategies of fight, flight and freeze:
Lashing out: You might get hostile, verbally aggressive or argumentative when you and your partner get into a fight, flying into a blind rage. You might even have a tendency to get physically violent and want to hit and kick. As damaging as these behaviors can be, they are all forms of fighting back and demonstrate that a part of you is alive and well, ready to defend itself.
Getting out: Running out of the room during an argument, leaving the house, or going jogging when you run into trouble with your partner are all ways of avoiding a stressful situation instead of facing it head on.
Checking out: You may disconnect from your partner, turn your phone off and go missing for a few days. You may hole up in front of the TV and zone out. You may even experience a phenomenon called dissociation, which means disconnecting from your thoughts, feelings and body sensations
Why do these behaviors persist in your life, long after the trauma is over?
It’s because your nervous system is still trying to process the trauma. You weren’t able to exercise your natural self-defensive responses at the time of the trauma. That energy is now stuck in your nervous system.
Fundamentally, trauma gets created when you feel you are under an enormous threat–a perceived life threat. That experience of threat then replaying itself over and over again whenever you feel even the slightest bit threatened-and that includes threats in your intimate relationship!
If the way in which you and your partner fight feels threatening to you in any way and you have a trauma history, you can expect these self-defensive trauma reactions to show up.
That’s why it’s so important that couples learn how to manage the threat level in their relationship so that it doesn’t throw either partner into the danger zone.
How Attachment Trauma Affects Adult Intimate Relationships
Take a look at this video about how attachment trauma can impact your ability to engage in a loving, secure relationship with your partner:
As you can see from the video, attachment trauma can lead to a whole bunch of problems with your intimate partner.
This could include any of the following:
- Fear of falling in love
- A general feeling of uncertainty or instability in relationship
- Being easily triggered in relationship by seemingly small things
- Feeling repeatedly blamed by your partner, like you’re always being seen as the problem.
All of these problems in relationship are not necessarily a sign that you’ve experienced attachment trauma earlier in life. Just because you have a fear of falling in love, does not mean you experienced relationship trauma as a child.
Maybe you learned that trusting the people in your family only lead to heartbreak and disappointment.
As a result, you might have developed an insecure attachment style.
But that’s not the same as experiencing trauma because it does not involve the experience of physiological overwhelm that happens with frightening or dangerous events.
When it comes to distinguishing whether your problems in relationship are being driven by trauma versus insecure attachment, it’s a question of degree:
Are you unsure about falling in love or are you completely terrified?
Do you get annoyed with your partner when they things that bother you, or do you feel completely devastated?
The intensity of your reactions is one data point for determining if you might be dealing with unresolved attachment trauma.
For an overview of attachment styles, I’d refer you to my earlier videos on this channel.
Attachment Trauma Is More Common Than You Think
You’d be amazed at how common attachment trauma actually is.
Even very high-functioning, securely-attached people can have what we call “pockets” of attachment trauma. Those usually relate to discrete terrifying events that they experienced as children where nobody was there to comfort them.
But what happens if you had frightening and dangerous experiences kind of all the time as a child?
That’s not going to create a pocket of trauma. Trauma will become more like an ongoing part of your experience of yourself and other people.
Maybe you grew up in a home with a parent who was physically or sexually abusive. Maybe you grew up in a home with a raging alcoholic parent. Experiencing life threat might have just been the name of the game.
What Is Disorganized Attachment?
If you grew up under an ongoing sense of life threat or you lived through a series of perilous, unsafe events as a child, you may have developed what is known as disorganized attachment.
Disorganized attachment tends to produce a chronic feeling of terror, of being fundamentally unsafe in relationships with other people.
When you’re dealing with real disorganized attachment in relationship, the relationship has a fundamentally different quality than insecure relationships.
Something just seems really off.
There’s a level of incoherence in the conversation with your partner, where things just don’t seem to be lining up. It feels scary, and dangerous, unpredictable.
Disorganized attachment leads to behaviors in relationship that have a chaotic, unpredictable quality to them. With the other insecure attachment styles, (the avoidant and anxious styles) behaviors are very predictable.
For instance, a person with an anxious attachment style will have a tendency to feel angry or hurt every time their partner turns their back on them.
For a person with disorganized attachment however, it’s anyone’s guess how they will react in this situation.
For this person, when their partner turns their back on them, the person with disorganized attachment might react with anger; they could become suddenly afraid; or even start to exhibit bizarre behaviors like strange movements or vocalizations.
You can imagine that this leads to an experience in relationship of immense instability and threat.
How Do You Know If You Have Disorganized Attachment?
There are specific signs and symptoms that you might have disorganized attachment. Keep in mind that everyone might display some of these things some of the time.
But if these signs and symptoms are part of your ongoing experience, that’s an indication that you might actually have a disorganized attachment style.
Here are the signs and symptoms of disorganized attachment:
- Hyper-vigilance: Constantly scanning the environment looking for the next thing that’s going hurt you.
- Paranoia: Being afraid that people are out to get you.
- Irrational fears: Dreading people, places, or things.
- Dissociation: Spending a lot of time feeling detached from yourself and others, like things around you don’t feel real.
- Rapidly-shifting highs and lows: Vacillating very quickly between feeling on top of the world, to feeling down in the dumps. Your moods are unpredictable and cycle rapidly.
- Pervasive feelings of shame, suicidal thoughts, or angry outbursts: Struggling with feeling not good enough, wanting to harm yourself or flying off the handle at the drop of a hat.
Remember that just because you experience any of these things from time to time doesn’t mean that you have a disorganized attachment style. But if these types of experiences are more the rule than the exception for you, you might in fact be struggling with disorganized attachment.
Obviously, these kinds of behaviors can wreak a lot of havoc in your intimate relationship.
Because disorganized attachment tends to make you extremely untrusting of other people, it’s going to be very difficult for you to rely on another person for things like self-esteem building or distress relief, as well as being able to provide those types of experiences for your partner.
But this doesn’t mean all hope is lost.
Couples Therapy Can Help Heal Trauma and Disorganized Attachment
If you are struggling with attachment trauma or disorganized attachment, it’s important to know that help is available to you. Reach out for professional help from a licensed therapist who can work with you and, hopefully, with your partner to help improve your relationship.
Although many people assume that they need to go to individual therapy to work on their attachment issues, couples therapy can be just as effective, if not more effective at resolving attachment trauma and disorganized attachment.
As Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally-Focused Therapy says, “There is no better place to heal than in the arms of someone you love. “
If you’re like a lot of people, you may not have realized that what’s at the root of your troubles is disorganized attachment. If you recognize yourself or your partner in these descriptions of trauma and disorganization, please take a breath and understand that there are good reasons why you behave the way they do. At one time, you were doing the best you could to keep yourself safe.
The good news is that help is available to you to work through these types of early childhood issues.
Rest assured that you can have a healthy relationship even with disorganized attachment. It just may take some professional intervention and a lot of hard work.
Now I’d like to hear from you:
Which of the three self-defensive strategies do you tend to use when you feel triggered?
- Are you a fighter, who wants to duke it out until you feel resolved?
- Do you tend to run away when things get tough?
- Or, do you freeze and go MIA?
If you feel you’re struggling with disorganized attachment, how would healing this attachment pattern change your life?
- Would it be easier for you to trust and fall in love?
- Would it be easier for you to maintain a calm and stable mood?
- Would you experience more freedom in relationships and just being yourself?
Leave me your comments below, I look forward to reading them!