We are in the middle of a series where I am sharing with you the key lessons I learned as I earned my way out of my relationship with my sexually addicted spouse. The first lesson I presented was how to step out of the cheater’s gaslighting game. The second lesson was how to stop talking and start observing. The third lesson was how to stop giving your power away. This brings us to the fourth lesson and the subject of this week’s post: learning how to deal with attachment loss.
I knew for a long time before I separated from my spouse that I needed to leave. It was clear to me that I needed to put space between myself and my husband so I could settle my body and mind and begin to really heal. However, despite knowing that this was what I needed to do, I was unable to do it. For months, I struggled and waffled. Weeks would go by where I wouldn’t even think about leaving, having tucked the idea away in a corner of my mind. The mere thought of walking away created so much anxiety and terror for me that I couldn’t stay with the idea for more than a few minutes at a time before I had to disconnect.
When I finally did separate from my husband, I moved in with some good friends while I got an apartment set up. Lying in bed in their spare room at night, I tossed and turned and stared off into the darkness while my body felt like it was plugged into the wall socket. Anxiety and panic attacks rolled through me, lighting me up from head to toe. There were nights when I didn’t fall asleep until seven a.m. And when I did finally sleep, I would wake up and feel a sense of shock spark through me, surprised that I was still there. Surprised that I was still breathing. Still existing. During the day, I felt untethered, like I was falling through space with nothing to catch me.
My story is not unusual. In fact, I find that these are the internal dynamics that we all experience related to attachment and loss of attachment.
Our first attachments are formed in childhood with our parents and other primary caregivers. Out of these original bonds, our attachment systems are shaped, and what emerges is a style of attachment (a pattern of engagement with others).
John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory, talked about the “internal working models” of attachment that we all develop in relation to both ourselves and others. These internal working models are the assumptions and expectations that we develop through the experiences we have about how others are likely to respond to us and our own sense of value and worthiness to be responded to.
My family of origin bequeathed me an anxious attachment style. People develop an anxious attachment style when, as an infant/child, they experience intermittent caregiving where sometimes their needs are met and sometimes, they are not. Sometimes they are paid attention to, and their pain is comforted; other times they experience acute distress because their needs are either ignored or inadequately addressed.
Anxious attachment comes from activation of the ‘fight’ response (which is part of our threat response system) as we attempt in childhood, over and over, to capture the attention of our caregivers so we can get our needs met. Because sometimes our efforts work and our caregiver responds, we are motivated to continue this hyper-activated response to distress as a means of attempting to restore safety and security through reconnection. But because the response we get is inconsistent, we develop anxiety with our attachments. We continually wonder: “Will I be responded to, or won’t I?”
Children who learn this type of hyper-activated, anxiety-driven attachment strategy will usually develop into adults who are anxious about their closeness to others, preoccupied with their partner’s availability, and turn to a ‘fight’ response or pursuit behaviors to protest the distress experienced from both real and anticipated disconnection.
Anxiously attached adults have an internal working model built around doubt about the self and others. Doubt that the self is worthy of consistent care, attention, and protection. Doubt that others are able or willing to provide that care, attention, and protection. Anxiously attached adults bring this assumption of doubt to all of their relationships, and when their doubt is triggered, they will fight or pursue their partner to try to get a response that alleviates the pain of feeling disconnected.
Another way of saying this is, “My connection to you means I am worthy. My disconnection from you means I am not worthy. Therefore, any feeling of disconnection sends me into anxiety and distress and stirs shame. I must re-establish connection to alleviate my anxiety and shame, and I will invest enormous amounts of energy pursuing you to get reconnected.”
If you have an anxious attachment style with these often-unconscious internal beliefs about yourself and others, you can easily imagine how difficult it can be to try to leave a relationship – even when you know that you need to. Leaving puts your sense of self-worth on the line and threatens any sense of safety and security that you have.
For an anxiously attached person to leave a relationship, there must often be a lengthy process of learning how to manage the fear of loss and how to change internal beliefs about the self and others. That idea will be discussed in part two of this topic.