In this series of posts, we are exploring the way in which betrayal creates traumatic responses that impact our body, brains and minds. We are bringing together our understanding of our threat response systems and our attachment systems and the way these two systems interweave to create the behaviors and reactions that we experience after betrayal. To do this we are looking at five building blocks that all weave together and impact each other. Thus far we have looked at…
- Building Block #1: Defining Trauma
- Building Block #2: Affect and the Brain, Body, Mind Connection
- Building Block #3: Our Threat Response System
- Building Block #4: Our Window of Tolerance
This week we are going to look at building block number five: the dance between our attachment and threat response systems.
Building Block #5: The Systems Dance
When trauma is relational our attachment systems activate and are intertwined with our threat response system. Both systems fire in response to danger and relational threat. As this happens, our attachment style is animated by the hyper or hypo arousal that we are experiencing. If we are anxiously attached, we will tend to up-regulate into hyper-arousal when we experience threat and we will pursue our partner to try to reestablish safe connection and thereby get back to our window of tolerance and emotional regulation. If we are avoidantly attached, we will tend to down-regulate into hypo-arousal when we experience threat by pulling away and distancing to try to reestablish safety and thereby get back to our window of tolerance and emotional regulation.
In addition, regardless of whether our nervous system prompts us toward hyper- or hypo-arousal, our attachment system will respond with relational moves that are an attempt to cope with the loss of safety. These relational moves form a predictable pattern of protest, despair and detachment.
Protest is when we try to re-establish the lost sense of safety by reconnecting with our partner. When we are unable to get our safe connection back, we begin to protest the loss of it in different ways depending on whether we are in a hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused state.
When we are hyper-aroused, we tend to protest by clinging to our partner as we try to gain their attention and get them to respond to our distress. What can be confusing about this type of protest is that in addition to talking, reviewing events, crying and expressing hurt, we can also protest through having a turbulent fight where we express acute anger and rage toward our partner. While these fights can look like we are pushing our partners away, they are actually a form of protest and an attempt to get our partner’s attention so that they will move toward us to restore safety.
When we are in hypo-arousal our protest tends to look quieter, but it is a protest nonetheless. These partners will numb out, withdraw, become depressed, go inside themselves and retreat. They are protesting and signaling their loss of safety by shutting down.
Sue Johnson describes protest by saying, “Following traumatic abandonment, the entire relationship often becomes organized around eliciting emotional responsiveness from the other partner or defending against the lack of this responsiveness.” p.150
When protest proves futile, partners move into despair. Despair is the loss of hope that the attachment bond can be re-established in a way that provides safety and security. If protest is the experience of cycling through rounds of connection and disconnection, then despair is when the disconnection phase begins to last longer and longer and you find yourself returning to it more and more quickly. This is because over time as you have tried to re-establish trust and safety your attempts have resulted in more pain, loss or danger. Each time, your inability to find the safe connection you are looking for has thrust you back into the despair of not being able to get your needs for safety met. This despair moves you toward hypo-arousal as you experience more withdrawal, numbness and shutdown in response to your partner. As you experience this repeatedly, you move out of protest and more toward despair and long-term detachment.
Detachment is when you have lost hope in the restoration of a safe bond with your partner, and you move toward disconnecting from them emotionally and often physically. Betrayed partners often begin to move toward permanently ending the relationship at this point as they are no longer able to tolerate the level of pain and threat present in the relationship. Other partners, unable to tolerate the ultimate loss of the relationship move into a state of detachment within the coupleship, thoroughly withdrawing from their partner to stay safe while remaining in the relationship.
Protest, despair and detachment are functions of our attachment system. Our threat response system animates them so that they are exhibited in different ways for different partners depending on your attachment style and whether you tend to move toward hyper or hypo arousal when you are bumped outside your window of tolerance. However, the sequence of protest, despair and detachment is predictable and universal in response to the loss of our safe bond with our partner. We may be someone that spends years in protest with short visits to despair and then finally we hit our limit and move quickly through despair to detachment and end the relationship. Or we may spend months in protest with visits to despair as we wait to see whether our partner will enter recovery and do the hard work of repairing the relationship. As our partner does his or her part, we find ourselves moving out of despair and into more moderate forms of protest as our safety returns.
The way in which these attachment-based responses play out can look vastly different for each person. But awareness of them and that your attachment system is very much involved in how you are responding to the trauma of betrayal opens up new opportunities to cope in healthier ways that move us out of our trauma symptoms and toward healing.
Putting the Blocks Together
Whew! Are you still with me? We just covered a lot of territory together. So far in this series of blog posts we have identified the key building blocks that help us understand how our threat response systems and our attachment systems are interwoven and shape our response to betrayal trauma. We explored the connection between our brain, body and mind and highlighted the importance of affect that begins in the body and moves out from there affecting our emotions, thinking and behavior. We identified the significance of our window of tolerance and the way that overly stressful or traumatic events can bump us outside of our window of tolerance into either hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal and the way this is connected to our attachment style. We have connected this to our understanding of the way our threat response animates our attachment system and plays out relationally in moves of protest, despair and detachment.
All of these building blocks create an important foundation to help us understand ourselves, our relationships and how to heal after betrayal. Understanding opens the door to choice. Instead of feeling helpless to impact our behaviors, thinking and feeling, we become empowered to make choices that move us toward healthy coping rather than leaving us stuck in the confusing cycle of activation and reaction.