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How Early Life Attachment Affects Adult Intimacy and Relationships
At the dawn of the 21st century there exists an increasing isolation and separateness in men and women like never before. This resulting dissatisfaction has its roots based in the misplaced expectations that society now places on external objects, other people, and our relationship to both of these, as the basis for creating happiness in our lives. The idea that happiness is “out there” or an inherent characteristic in some external object or person dogs western consciousness.
There exists also the unrealistic expectation that one can validly expect and demand that one’s own emotional and other needs can be met and fulfilled through objects, and relationships with others. This object attachment underpins much of western thought, beliefs, and social norms. The notion of getting one’s own needs met through romantic relationship is a recurring theme in the distorted notions that underlie the Western romantic stereotypes of love and relationship.
The projection of one’s needs outside oneself has also led to rampant consumerism, and escalating rates of divorce, depression, addictions and suicide. In some cases there is equally an aversion to intimacy and the engagement that comes from adult relationships. Many shades of both exist.
The way society expresses these distorted beliefs through marketing, selling, in books and films, is merely an unconscious acting out of what are really unmet universal needs that were blocked, frustrated or denied during the formative years of childhood. The infancy/oral and oedipal stages of childhood development form the basis of the way in the later adult will approach and attempt adult relationships. The unmet needs from these childhood stages will be patterned in the adult psyche, awaiting a chance to be expressed through the inner child of the adult, via projection and demand onto the partner.
This connection drive or impulse forms much of the basis of the misunderstood word “eros”, whose current societal association has been debased to a sexual/pornographic context, rather than understanding its true basis as that for a heart/soul connection between two people. Because we are embodied, and have evolved from an animal instinctual basis, these base drives and instincts will also unconsciously motivate us on occasion to seek heart/soul connection at the bodily level via sex or the intimacy of sharing ideas, sensations, feelings and experiences.
This article concerns itself with the key role that the infant bonding with its mother will go on to significantly shape the now adult person’s ability to approach, enter, maintain and be healthy within adult intimate relationships. This early life developmental phase is one that each one of us had to go through, and which is not widely discussed in the debate concerning intimacy, adult relationships and romantic love. In my companion articles I will look at the other later childhood developmental stages of the key “oedipal/narcissistic” stages of childhood development that also shape the child’s ability to relate later on in adult life.
Taken together one will start to appreciate the key role we have as parents in nurturing our infants and children in preparing them for later adult life where their ability to form attachment bonds of an adult nature will be revealed. These articles will help to explain some of the key reasons why so many adults fail to be able to enter and sustain adult intimate relationships over a long period of time without “issues” and “patterns” of a negative nature surfacing and causing problems or the end of a relationship.
All human beings require an effective social engagement system in order to build attachment and affiliative relationships (Porges:2004). This social engagement system develops and is influenced by early attachment experiences that the infant has with its caregivers, and will shape how it deals with and regulates internal and external forms of stimulation (Siegel:1999).
We as human beings are only born with limited capacities for self-regulation. We learn and are dependent on those attachment relationships with our care givers to give us our context by which we as adults will then have lifelong tendencies for regulating arousal of stimulus and reactions that we will engage with as a result (Ogden:2006).
Early life disruptions to our process of attachment with parents will have major consequences for how we as adults will then deal with attachment as adults. This may show up as diminished capacity to modulate arousal of stimulus from internal or external sources, impairment in developing healthy relationships, and the ability to cope with stress(Siegel:1999).
Babies only have certain cues to use in its social engagement system with its parents. The baby will vocalise with sounds, cries, and also use facial grimaces to signal distress. The baby will smile, gaze, or use cooing sounds to signal love and safety with its care givers. The baby will also gaze at the parent and use neural or brain recognition of the parent’s eyes and facial muscles to ascertain the stance being taken toward itself. (Porges:2004). It is believed that we all inherit inbuilt templates of basic facial patterns so we can start to make sense of our environment as defenceless infants.
These behaviours and recognitions serve to increase proximity between the parent and the baby (Ogden:2006), and repeated experiences of attuned interaction form a bonding and understanding that allows the baby to become increasingly effective at signalling, engaging, and responding to the parent (Siegel:1999). The experiences shape and enhance the social engagement system of the child. The baby is totally dependent on the mother for all its resources, nourishment, needs and safety at this stage in its life, and relies on this social engagement system to communicate its needs.
The child learns via this system to experience safety and to maintain or return arousal to a window of tolerance by dampening their Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and Dorsal Vagal parts of the brain and nervous system (Ogden:2006). A well formed and stable social engagement system that effectively regulates the child’s brain and nervous system in this way will over time allow the baby to become a child with a wider window of tolerance of experience and stimulus that does not compromise its safety. This then becomes the basis for the later adult to have the capacity to tolerate, process, and even transform difficult experiences into opportunities for growth (Ogden:2006).
This social engagement system is built partly on face to face engagement, bodily contact between the parents and child, attunement and sympathetic interaction by the parent towards the child with bodily postures, facial muscles, word and sound tones, and touch and sensitivity. This interactive dynamic between parent and baby is believed by neuroscientists such as Merencich (Doidge:2007) to facilitate the development of the key emotional and arousal processing centre of the brain, known as the Orbital Prefrontal Cortex.
Neuroscience and trauma researchers have found that the capacity to self-regulate is the key foundation upon which a functional sense of self develops (Ogden:2006). This sense of self is first and foremost a bodily sense of self, experienced not through language but through sensations and movements of the body (Damasio:1994 and Ogden:2006). This is why body centric psychotherapy achieves such enhanced effects when working with people who lack a solid sense of self, or when doing adult repair to early life wounds such as attachment trauma.
The baby relies primarily on tactile and body centric interactions and communications when first born, and then over time is able to interact with auditory, verbal, and visual stimulus and communication becoming available and integrated into consciousness and experience. The baby develops their own sense of self through the careful and gentle attention and stimulation from the mother or parent in each of these areas from repeated and stable experience that allow the baby to sense and understand the contact and its meaning (Siegel:1999).
When this occurs, social engagement, secure attachment, and regulatory abilities in the child are established and adaptively supported (Ogden:2006). If however the child experiences some form of one-off trauma, or abandonment, repeated failure or neglect or abuse at this early stage, the interpersonal trauma is not only a threat to physical and psychological integrity and formation in the child, but also a failure of the social engagement system (Ogden:2006). This may not have been intentional but will create shock and trauma to the child nevertheless (Siegel:1999).
If there are problems, neglect or ignorance on the part of the parent in understanding their role in supporting their child at this critical age, this failure of the attachment relationship will undermine the child’s ability to recover and reorganise, to feel soothed or even feel safe again with the parent or other persons (Ogden:2006). The baby’s opportunity to effectively utilise social engagement for care, survival and protection will have been overridden, and the baby will experience overwhelming arousal without the availability of attachment-mediated comfort or repair. This is the basis for trauma.
According to Steven Biddulph (2007), studies have shown that society is now creating this outcome by parents placing babies prematurely into Day Care Centres. According to infant studies done in the European Economic Community (EEC), children placed into day care before the age of 3 years showed symptoms of trauma from the loss of parental contact (grief response), and the over arousal of their social engagement systems in strange environments. These children then showed a heightened presence of Cortisol in their blood streams which is a marker in the blood for a person living in “fight or flight”.
Cortisol is a key neurotransmitter that indicates the presence of trauma when sustained and heightened levels are found in the blood (Biddulph:2007). EEC child care policies are now such that children are not recommended to be placed into day care before the age of 3 years.
Other studies have shown that the practice of allowing babies to cry without the parent attending to the child(Controlled Crying) also create the same form of trauma (Biddulph:2007). The aim of having the baby fall asleep after such crying is the desired outcome by the parent. The only problem is that this is achieved via a primitive Dorsal Vagal system intervention by the brain that puts the baby to sleep to minimise the impact of the trauma being experienced by the child as it cries and its social engagement system is not working in that moment to alert the parent to its distress.
The same impaired outcome of the baby no longer feeling soothed or safe again, and becoming anxious and needy is a common outcome from this social engineering practice, as well as for any other type of social-engagement failure or trauma. (Ogden:2006). The result is the baby further develops into an infant who “are not able to create a sense of unity, and continuity of the self across the past, present, and future, or in the relationship of the self with others. This impairment shows itself in the emotional instability, social dysfunction, poor response to stress, and cognitive disorganisation and disorientation” (Siegel:1999 and Ogden:2006).
In Body Psychotherapy we see how such formative baby/infant trauma starts to literally shape the body and the personality in such a terror filled, anxious, and disorganised individual. Refer to our Characterology section of the Unwanted Child (Schizoid) for more information about this bodymind outcome.
The mother is the primary care giving object in the world of the baby and then the later infant (Siegel:1999). The mother modulates her child’s arousal by both calming the infant when arousal is too high and stimulating the baby when arousal is too low, thus helping the baby or infant to remain in an optimal state of self(Ogden:2006 and Shore:1994). Only the attuned presence of the caregiver can repair any breaches in the infants trust due to the failure of their social engagement system.
This is achieved by bodily contact and the nurturance and caring touch, sounds, looks and emotions from the parent towards the child. A parent who is emotionally unavailable, absent, drunk, drugged, angry, depressed, sick, or who is self-absorbed for any number of reasons, will not only fail to repair the trust, but will probably deepen the trauma and the breach of trust (Siegel:1999). Breaches of trust are life or death situations to the totally vulnerable infant and will be processed in this way by the infant. Abandonment is a death-like terror to the infant (Lowen:1996).
Parents have the primary responsibility to create the safe physical and emotional environment for their children. The parent must within a safe environment then be able to “contain” or provide a “holding environment” for the infant via creating a psychological environment that fosters the infants self-regulating capacities (Winnicott:1990).
This cannot be substituted for by strangers or strange environments such as Day Care Centres. Our evolution does not give us the resources to cope with being placed in strange environments without the presence of the life-affirming mother. The parent must literally hold and contain the child, but also emotionally hold the child as it expresses its self through its limited faculties, and the mother understand and meet those needs where possible through voice, touch, love and gaze through their eyes(Winnicott:1990). A stranger will create arousal and distress in the child in the absence of a mother (Winnicott:1990).
The “good enough” mother/caregiver that Winnicott describes (Ogden:2006) is able to put the child’s needs as separate to their own, to be there for the child, to mentalise the child and their developing self in a way where the mother understands and responds to the infants peculiar way of doing things and communicating with empathy. The mother and infant develop an intuitive resonance and “dance” of cues and expressions that are built on understanding and trust, and which cement the attachment bond, and allow the child to develop strong and secure social engagement systems and experiences.
In some forms of Shamanism this attunement process is described as the adult mother stepping into the myth of the child (Campbell:1990). This means the adult meets the child in their reality and deals with them compassionately in their world and their story or reality.
As the baby grows into infanthood and beyond it is better able to communicate and express with more and more of its own faculties coming online. Mothers and increasingly fathers then need to enrich the stimulation of the child and provide pleasurable experiences that take positive advantage of the child’s richly developing neural pathways in the brain (Doidge:2007). Novelty, new stimulus and experiences, and caregiver interactions of a more mature and advanced type in a safe container, will foster the developing child’s brain, nervous system and maturing social engagement system (Ogden:2006).
In the last 40 years it has been the way of the western world to witness the breakdown of the traditional family system where the mother was able to stay at home as a choice to be there and raise babies into children at least till they started school. A variety of social, economic and self-actualisation drivers and goals created much of this change. The increasing demand for raised standards of living and materialistic consumption also create the need for the family system to be underpinned by double incomes of both parents.
These societal and lifestyle choice outcomes have not served the early life developmental needs of children (Biddulph:2007). Statistics on many fronts are revealing increasing states of learning disabilities in children, anxiety and depressive disorders in school age children and teenagers, mental health issues and socialisation issues. Early life traumas have been linked to many of these conditions.
The attachment bonding process of baby/infant years is also significant in the later adult ways of finding adult forms of attachment via relationship and intimacy. Childhood developmental psychology has formulated some key ways and types of describing the infant attachment outcomes in terms of effect and their behaviours in the child, and then later as an adult. Attachment patterns, formed in infancy, usually remain relatively stable throughout childhood and adulthood (Cozolino:2010).
Pat Ogden (2006) describes well the basis for attachment patterns. “Attachment patterns are also held in place by chronic physical tendencies, reflective of early attachment. Encoded as procedural memory, these patterns manifest proximity-seeking, social engagement behaviour (smiling, movement toward, reaching out, eye contact) and defensive expressions (physical withdrawal, tension patterns, and hyper or hypo-arousal).”
The 4 key Attachment Pattern stereotypes that follow are generalisations and a summary. A wide range of variation may exist inside any one of these types, and no-one is one of these types, but an individual will have their own unique attachment pattern experiences and outcomes that lie in and across one or more of these generalisations.
Secure attachment is the healthy mother-child emotional bonding process described earlier in this article. It is a bond of emotional safety and understanding that secures the babies place in the world and which makes it safe to start to explore that world. The “good enough” mother accomplishes the task of creating secure attachment through reciprocal, attuned, bodily centric and verbal communication with the infant (Ogden:2006).
What one sees in such a securely grounded infant is:
- the start of exploratory behaviour in the presence of the parent;
- shows signs of missing the parent upon separation;
- approaches the parent without avoidance or ambivalence upon reunion;
- may often initiate physical contact;
- is quickly soothed upon distress and can resume exploration soon after;
Effectively these children develop a wide window of tolerance, are able to mentalise, form effective social engagement systems, and achieve overall adaptive functioning of parasympathetic and sympathetic states of their ANS (Ogden:2006). It creates a primary defence against being traumatised by events outside their control. These children are able to stay present to sustained arousal of their ANS in an optimal sense, and so are able to tolerate stimulus of many forms without activating defences.
An adult who encountered an infanthood of secure attachment has a solid foundation with which to face life’s varied and many challenges. If their childhood was otherwise stable and not subject to other major disturbances and traumas then the resulting adult will be able to face adult intimate relationships with an enhanced set of internal resources.
Such an adult can generally seek proximity to others with little or no avoidance or angry resistance of a passive or active nature, and can tolerate relationship frustrations and disappointments (Ogden:2006). Such adults are likely to be able to work with an adult partner beyond the initial fantasy phase of relationships where idealisation of the partner tends to exist (Johnson:2000). As a child they progressed from dependence to external and internal regulation of environments and feelings and developed abilities to regulate emotional arousal. They can then act appropriately in relationships when they are adults.
Such adults can be with oneself without anxiety and can also go to another for interpersonal support, both of which are critical skills in adult relationships. They normally are quite psychologically grounded in themselves and form attachments(relationships and friendships) easily from a stable social-engagement system.
The life cycle of the adult relationship typically involves many changes. It begins, of course, with the “honeymoon phase”, in which we are madly in love with our partner and everything is exciting and wonderful. This is where our bodymind floods us with endorphins and opiate like chemicals that send us into the “lovers swoon”. This can be notoriously short-lived.
This phase of relationship is commonly built on idealised projections about who the other person is and these fantasy projections are typically unmet hopes about our own natures (Johnson:2000). It may be based on suppositions about who the other person is, which can turn out not to be true. A person who is grounded in themself via a secure social engagement system normally navigates this phase without major issue.
The next phase of relationship may involve some disillusionment, as it involves the dissolving of false idealised projections projected onto the other person when our bodymind believes that we have achieved a social/emotional bond with that person (Doidge:2007). Each person starts to really see the other person in the naked light of truth and this may require facing some harsh realities. Many couples break up at this point.
The arousal of emotional states and any fighting that occurs in this period will typically be handled well by the person grounded in secure attachment. This is because their physical movements and tendencies reflect integrated, tempered movements of approach that are context-appropriate, such as moving towards, reaching out, or otherwise seeking contact (Ogden:2006). They take responsibility for their own needs and wants.
When in a conflict setting if they are triggered, and their arousal exceeds their window of tolerance, they are able to seek and receive soothing and calming, without ambivalence, and are also able to self-regulate (Ogden:2006). They remain harmonious in terms of predictable behaviours and emotions in respect to the context of what’s going on for them in the moment.
This ability to be modulated and grounded stems from the secure attachment outcome from childhood, plus other factors. In the child there was congruency between their interior psychological need and physical goals, and this is seen with harmonious movements of their body. Their congruent behaviour shows via their cognitive, emotional, and sensual levels of information processing being aligned (Ogden:2006).
This shows in the child’s behaviour. When observed their intention for such actions as proximity to the mother, exploration away from the mother, desire for play, and attention seeking for needs, are easily detected and seen in harmonious, cohesive movements of the child’s behaviour and body (Ogden:2006).
As adults such congruent behaviours will also be seen. These adults usually are comfortable being autonomous as well as comfortable seeking help and support from others, have good boundaries and are in contact with their inner life, needs and wants(Johnson:2000). As a general rule such people are a healthy basis to enter and conduct healthy adult relationships.
A healthy relationship might be said to be one in which there is freedom and support for each individual to pursue their personal goals, as well as nurturing and promoting the mutual goals which the two partners share. The relationship is able to simultaneously support both a “me” and a “we” entity for both persons in the relationship. Such a relationship may function without intimacy, but most adults have an intention to establish varying levels of intimacy in adult relationship
Intimacy covers not just sexual contact but mental and emotional contact and sharing, and physical contact. Intimacy is often alluded to as a magical “something” which gives excitement and depth to the relationship. Emotional intimacy is difficult to achieve unless the two people interacting with each other are relatively sure of who they are and have a fairly clearly defined sense of their own identity. One of the most difficult challenges is to maintain a strong sense of one’s own self whilst remaining in contact with the other person.
A person who has a past that involved a foundation built on secure-attachment is well placed to attempt a dynamic and flowing exchange of intimacy at its varying levels and with fluctuations to that dynamic over time. Such a person will typically seek a “stable” partner who can meet them in such a stable and adult place of relationship and intimacy. If the person has later or other disturbances or unresolved traumas then of course they may still attract and be attracted to unstable or destructive relationships and partners in relationship.
Another form of attachment outcome is what is known as “insecure-avoidant” attachment. Such an outcome is quite common in our society and sets up many adults with this background to have troubled later adult intimate relationships (Siegel:1999). It is still a relatively adapted and functionally organised outcome which can learn and modify itself with insight over time (Siegel:1999). This may involve counselling, Couples Counselling, psychotherapy or relational skills learning.
According to childhood developmental researchers such as Schore (2001), mothers of insecure-avoidant infants actively thwarted or blocked proximity seeking behaviours of the baby/infant, responding instead with punishment or by withdrawing from the child, or even physically pushing the child away. In this scenario the mother has their own unhealed emotional issues around physical contact and physical intimacy. The mother may have the same insecure-avoidant history as their own child and are now propagating and creating a next generational continuance of the same problem.
Mothers with this issue are seen to have a general distaste for physical contact except where they are in control and such contact is on their terms (Ogden:2006). The mother may respond to the baby/infant overtures or desire for contact with wincing, arching away, or avoiding mutual gaze or numbing out to responding at all (Siegel:1999).
The baby/infant is totally dependent on the mother for its existence and this set of behaviours traumatises the child (Ogden:2006). Unfortunately in some schools of parenting we now see mothers taught “not to spoil the infant” with too much attention and so we are potentially propagating this problem with contemporary parenting methods. What is not acknowledged is that the baby/infant only communicates its innate needs and is not faking it or capable of being “spoilt” in any sense. It is often an adult who has not met its own adult needs that needs to label a baby/infant as “spoiled” or “too needy”, except where illness creates exceptional needs from the infant (Siegel:1999).
The baby/infant must respond and adapt to this terror filled scenario that each time threatens its integrity and safety. The child adapts to this adult expression of communication of abandonment and unavailability by expressing little need for proximity, and apparently little interest in adult overtures for contact (Ogden:2006). The avoidant child does not sustain contact when it is made, and does not trust it, but instead will focus on toys and objects rather than on the mother.
The child tends to avoid eye contact with the mother and shows few visible signs of distress upon separation (Ogden:2006). Unfortunately this last outcome is a planned outcome of some parental training methodologies which create a “no fuss” or compliant child. This social engineering approach to creating a child who is minimally needy and demanding is actually creating the basis for a form of avoidant child who will later in all likelihood struggle in interpersonal dynamics as an adult. The child incurs a large cost to fit in with the modern parent’s idealised idea of what a child should be, act and become to fit in with the perfectionistic and tamed outcomes that reflect narcissistic trends in society (Meier:2009).
The avoidant child also actively ignores or even avoids the mother upon reunion. They may turn to toys, lean away, move away, and struggle when picked up, as they do not want to feel the pain of being rejected by the mother’s uncomfortable approach to social engagement with them(Ogden:2006). They generally do not seek proximity with caregivers and are reserved emotionally. The child may attach itself to a pet which gives it unconditional love that is missing from the mother (Siegel:1999).
Typically the child who had an Insecure-Avoidant outcome will display some key attachment pattern and social engagement traits as an adult. The adult may have a dismissive stance towards the importance of attachments in adult relationships. They often distance themselves from others, undervalue interpersonal relationships, become self-reliant, and tend to view emotions with cynicism (Ogden:2006).
The avoidant adult tends to withdraw under relationship and work stresses and avoid seeking emotional support from others (Ogden:2006). As they have a compromised social engagement system and have defended and cut-off themselves from internal states of feelings these adults typically minimise their attachment needs (Ogden:2006). They are emotionally deadened and defended (Lowen:1996). They prefer auto-regulation and self reliance to interactive support, and can find dependence frightening or unpleasant and avoid situations that would stimulate attachment or intimacy needs (Siegel:1999).
In these people we often see a defended body such as strong muscular armouring and rigidity which creates an independent but defended body structure where there is a deadening to the feelings and internal states of being. Refer to our Characterology section, under The Endurer (Masochist) and The Perfectionist / Obsessional (Rigid) characters have some relevance here.
Whilst the background and pure etiology of the Endurer and Rigid/Perfectionistic character structures classically has other contributory origins, the resulting defences are not unlike that outcome we find here in the Insecure-Avoidant. It is speculation as to how the whole attachment phase of childhood directly contributes to resulting characterology but writers such as Robert Johnson in his book Character Styles (Johnson 2004), links attachment phase disturbances to embodied character outcomes. The whole body of childhood developmental psychology and trauma was largely unknown at the time in the 1920’s that Wilhelm Reich first constructed the 5 key characterology archetypes.
The body of Insecure-Avoidant adults often show constricted or blocked muscles in the upper shoulders that restrict or make it a stiff gesture to reach out and hold another (Ogden:2006). Some may show passivity with little emotion or physical effort in touching or reaching out or hugging. Their bodies may appear unlived in (Lowen:1994). As adults when they are approached they may avert their gaze, pull back, become anxious, or reveal armouring or defences via a lack of emotional contact (Ogden:2006).
The adult may display a lack of congruency between their internal states and their external reactions and behaviours. The adult may fidget and be restless but when asked how they are will always respond with “fine”, and may be totally unaware that their reported state is not matched by bodily arousal or affect.
In an adult relationship the Insecure-Avoidant adult is often in a “pendulum swing” with their partner where they alternatively come just so far towards the other person, get over whelmed, and withdraw away from a mate who may chase after them (Goldberg:1997). When the arousal which has threatened to engulf them dissipates, they attempt to re-enter the relationship on their terms, and control the dynamics from there.
An alternative way of avoiding contact is to move away and disengage from the other person, so that one’s individuality is maintained clearly but the price one pays is that there is a gulf between the two people. The Avoidant personality may be driven by a phobia of closeness, such that it feels too threatening to get too close to the other. Alternatively it may be simply due to an inability to connect with others as they are shutdown inside emotionally, and so are unable to feel very much on an emotional level (Siegel:1999). Narcissistic personalities suffer from this same basic problem as wel l(Johnson:2004).
Their low threshold of arousal means that they typically learn to modulate it via solitude, turning inwards through reading, day dreaming, and worlds of fantasy (Ogden:2006). They are prone to internet addictions where alternate realities can be entered and which are “safe” and under their control (Buchanan:2009).
The adult can escalate quickly into frustration and anger as they cannot easily regulate their emotional arousal. They may express hostility in peer relationships due to a lack of social engagement skills in being able to resolve conflict (Ogden:2006). This is often a problem in their intimate relationships where emotional arousal is more likely to be triggered.
The avoidance of contact will exclude the possibility of intimacy. Intimacy can only begin to happen if both people are present as their true selves, and remain in contact. Contact is the dance of exchanging feelings and thoughts in an ongoing flow – honestly and without trying to control the outcome. This is difficult, scary, and exciting even when one has a functioning social engagement system from the attachment phase of childhood. When this system is compromised it becomes less possible without proper therapy to overcome such constraints and impairments to enter and sustain emotionally intimate adult relationships.
In my and others opinions, our current societal practices of controlled parenting, controlled crying, and the ever earlier abandonment of babies and infants into Day Care Centres by parents needing to pursue double income lifestyles, can only serve to contribute to, and accelerate this negative outcome in succeeding generations of society.
INSECURE – AMBIVALENT ATTACHMENT
A variation of the insecure attachment outcome is known as the Insecure-Ambivalent outcome. In this set of dynamics the mother is inconsistent and unpredictable in her response to the baby/infant. She may either over-arouse the infant or fail to help the baby/infant to engage (Siegel:1999). Mothers who suffer an alcohol or drug addiction may exhibit such varying tendencies, as may a mother with a medical condition such as Depression, where varying periods of being present to the child’s needs did not occur (Siegel:1999).
The interactions of the mother are often a response to her own emotional needs and moods rather than the baby/infants, this parent may stimulate the baby/infant inappropriately into high arousal even when the infant is attempting to alert the mother of trying to down-regulate the stimulus by some technique such as gaze aversion (Ogden:2006). The mother imposes her own emotional needs on the infant and effectively traumatises the child in the process (Siegel:1999).
In this dynamic the mothers own emotional need for engagement and contact overrides the infants state of being and its needs in that moment, and the mother invades and intrudes on the child causing escalation and dysregulation of the baby/infants arousal (Ogden:2006). This over-stimulation can easily threaten the child’s integrity and sense of safety.
A common dynamic of this sort is the Narcissistic mother who treats their baby/infant as a “showpiece” who they from time to time dress-up, trot out in public, and make them the centre of attention where the multiple gazes of others may overwhelm the baby/infant. The mother is treating the child as an extension of herself, and trying to get applause and good attention from having a “special baby or child”. The child is being used to feed the mothers narcissistic supplies (Lewi-Martinez:2006).
Another version of this intrusion is the parents desire to make their child into the next prodigy. Some parents overdo the stimulation of their child with demands they start to read/write, play piano, do mathematics etc far too early. The parents typically project their own narcissistic demands on the child to be “special” and force it to learn so they can then boast and “show off” the child to others. This can be abusive. The child is not seen for its innate self but is like a fashion accessory to be worn by the parent as part of their grandiose and “perfect mother/father” image (Meiers:2009).
A child used by the mother in this way gets confusing signals. The baby/infant will get “special” attention in public as the mother insincerely practices “good motherhood” in public and amongst friends as a way of portraying the narcissistic image of the perfect woman in society (Lewi-Martinez:2008). As it’s all about the mother it is in reality all insincere. Once home the child is then typically subject to indifference and rejection as the narcissistic mother cannot be there for the child, and instead the child only serves the purpose of being there for the mother to make her look good (Meiers:2009).
In this way, and via other types of behaviours, the mother is inconsistent in her availability, sometimes allowing and encouraging proximity and sometimes not, and so the child is unsure the reliability of the parent’s response to its bodily somatic and affective communications (Ogden(2006). The baby/infant responds to this uncertainty and inconsistency by becoming cautious, distraught, angry, distressed, and preoccupied throughout the separation and reconnection processes with the mother (Ogden:2006).
Upon reunion they may cry and be distressed and cannot be comforted by the caregivers presence or attempts at soothing the baby/infant. The child develops irritability, often struggles to recover from stress, show poor impulse control, fear abandonment, and engage in acting-out behaviours such as anger etc (Allen:2001). Such children are often tagged as having “difficult temperaments” with tendencies to intense expression and negative mood responses, slow adaptability to change, and lack of control over some biological functions, as seen in bed wetting etc (Ogden:2006).
The child may fluctuate between angry, rejecting behaviours and needy contact seeking behaviours upon reunion with the mother upon separation. The repair of breaches of trust and abandonment is not so easily made as the child has learnt to not trust the mothers consistency or safety, and fears being used again to meet the mothers needs which terrorise the child (Siegel:1999).
The adult who had an attachment phase childhood that fits the category of Insecure-Ambivalent are noted for having a preoccupied stance toward attachment in adulthood. They are prone to be preoccupied with attachment needs, to be overly dependent on others, and often have a tendency towards enmeshment and intensity in adult interpersonal and intimate relationships, with a preference for proximity to the other person (Ogden:2006).
Such adults may attract and be attracted to Narcissistic partners, or addictive partners who are emotionally unavailable or fluctuating in relationship. The person is effectively caretaking or enabling the other person in the relationship which is a re-creation of their childhood role with the mother (Mellody:2001). They may be co-dependent personalities. The adult with the Insecure-Ambivalent attachment issue will focus excessively on internal distress, and often seek relief as a matter of priority via their own addictions or anxiety soothing behaviours (Mellody:2001).
These adults have a history and patterns of experiencing unsafe or compromised social-engagement dynamics with their mothers. It is no surprise that they then recreate this in adult relationships and often are unable to recognise safety or its absence in relationship. They may have a series of unsafe relationships or be attracted to “bad boys” or “critical mother” types of partners.
Their stance in relationship is the availability of their own ability to attach to their partner and corrective measures when that person becomes unavailable, or threatens to abandon them (Ogden:2006). They are effectively co-dependent. They may not be able to “contain” their own arousal of emotions and anxiety and may seek to discharge it suddenly and without thoughtful, purposeful action that accomplishes a particular goal (Ogden:2006). They may show some dysregulated behaviours.
Writers such as Robert Johnson in his book Character Styles (Johnson 2004), links attachment phase disturbances to embodied character outcomes. The body of Insecure-Ambivalent adults often show a flaccid and undeveloped aspect due to a lack of nurturance by the mother. They may have under the flaccidity of their chests a deeper set of muscles that are constricted or blocked muscles in the upper shoulders that restrict or hesitate the gesture to reach out and hold another (Johnson:2004).
Some may show a deep longing with “puppy dog” eyes, and a passivity with a plea for contact (Johnson:2004). They are preoccupied with touching or reaching out or hugging for nurturance rather than adult intimacy (Lowen:1994). Their bodies may appear unlived in (Lowen:1994). As they are approached they may become nervous, agitate in their bodies, and a loss or increase in muscular tone at the thought of separation (Ogden:2006).
In their adult relationships they often seek to blur with or merge into the other person. This can happen in subtle ways like being accommodating and enabling the other person’s unhealthy behaviours(Mellody:2001). Often it is easier to go along with the other person’s wishes, in order to avoid conflict or making a fuss. This prevents arousal overwhelming the person and meets the unconscious familiar place of being there for the other person, just as they were for mother when they were a child.
If you step back from disclosing what you really want, or who you really are, then you have adopted a role which is a false self. This too can mimic a Narcissistic parent who lives effectively from a false self of an idealised image. If this becomes a repeating pattern, it gets to an enabling stance where your own identity and needs no longer matter, are met or acknowledged. This mimics childhood. The relationship becomes stuck and rigid because there is no room to move beyond the false identities, and neither adult is healthy. Eventually one can find oneself being slowly eroded away until one begins to lose a sense of oneself.
The inconsistent responses of the mother taught the child to increase signalling for attention, which escalated distress in order to solicit care giving (Ogden:2006). As adults they are find isolation stressful because they have trouble tolerating solitude they instead cling to social and relational contact (Ogden:2006).
They tend to become overly dependent on interactive regulation and nurturance from others. Simultaneously they experience a lack of ability to be easily calmed and soothed in relationship, as they remain distrustful of the contact and so remain hyper vigilant and hyper aroused at the thought of being invaded, used or hurt by the other person (Ogden:2006).
The feeling of merging with another person can be appealing at certain times. If you are in a state of anxiety, it can feel very safe and reassuring to dive into another person. It is an attempt to finally get the nurturance needs met that were denied all those years ago as a baby/infant. The emotional “fusion” can reduce anxiety and restore a sense of identity and purpose, even though the identity is now a “we” and not a “me”. It can and does also foster dependency on the other person, as the relationship is a co-dependent one.
Intimacy fosters the notion of healthy fusion from a place of strong boundaries and a healthy sense of self. The eros of adult relationship involves in part the melting of individual boundaries and the fusion of two people into a container of “at-one-ment” where temporarily we unite.
Healthy fusion can be an experience of ecstatic union – during sexual intercourse or moments of extreme tenderness there can be a feeling of melting deliciously into the other person. This is a healthy and desirable thing, as long as it is temporary, and one is able to freely move back to being a separate identity. This is not co-dependency.
A more severe attachment outcome is known as the Disorganised/Disoriented Attachment outcome. In this set of dynamics the mother is either neglectful or abusive or both. The mother often has their own set of trauma, abuse or psychological issues that have not been dealt with (Ogden:2006). The mothers actions with the child are either frightening or frightened or show role confusion, and act disoriented, abusive, dissociated, or traumatised around the baby/infant (Siegel:1999). There is trauma experienced by the baby/infant but no access to repair through the mother.
The mother may exhibit any number of gestures which threaten or traumatise the child. Writers such as Pat Ogden, Main and Hesse, and Siegel note that these include:
- Looming behaviours;
- Press face close to child’s;
- Sudden movements;
- Sudden invasion of the child;
- Yelling and angry or rageful expressions at the child;
- Attack postures;
- Fearful reactions, voices, looks;
- Backing away or collapse in front of child;
- Trance or “splitting-off” states where no contact possible with child;
- Aimless wandering and inattention to child’s cries;
- Mocking, teasing, pulling, pinching, punching, slapping the child;
- Leaving child around excessive stimulus, or un-safe environments or persons;
Unfortunately these scenarios traumatise the defenceless baby/infant beyond what their sensitive nervous systems can handle. The result is that it induces traumatic states of enduring negative effect. Often the mother is dysfunctional, or in a dysfunctional relationship where the attachment bond is weak and the mother provides little protection against other potential abusers of the infant (Ogden:2006).
Children raised in ghettos, housing estates, and families where adults have untreated drug and alcohol addictions, and occasioning psychological issues, are a typical type of scenario of such child raising (O’Donell:2007). The caregiver is inaccessible and reacts to the baby/infants expressions of emotions and stress inappropriately and/or with rejection (Ogden:2006).
The mother shows minimal and unpredictable participation in the various types of arousal regulating processes. The child is left hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused for long periods of time with no repair given to their social-engagement system or self(Ogden:2006). The child develops traumatised methods and states of dealing with the world, its caregivers, and often portrays contradictory signals and inconsistent internal and external states to others in interactions (Siegel:1999). They enact attachment and defence systems simultaneously as the two are fused or linked due to the original link between attachment and threa t(Levine:2000).
Main and Solomon(1990) named the “Disorganised/Disoriented” attachment style, and noted seven key categories of behaviour in such a child as they develop from baby/infant stages. Pat Ogden (2006) summarises these as follows:
- Sequential contradictory behaviour; for example, proximity seeking followed by freezing, withdrawal, or dazed behaviour;
- Simultaneous contradictory behaviour, such as avoidance combined with proximity seeking;
- Incomplete, interrupted, or undirected behaviours and expressions, such as distress accompanied by moving away from the attachment figure;
- Mistimed, stereotypical, or asymmetrical movements, and strange, anomalous behaviour, such as stumbling when the mother is present and there is no clear reason to stumble;
- Movements and expressions indicative of freezing, stilling, and “underwater” actions;
- Postures that indicate apprehension of the caregiver, such as fearful expressions or hunched shoulders; and
- Behaviour that indicates disorganisation and disorientation, such as aimless wandering around, stillness, or dazed, confused expression.
These responses are also found in adults who have encountered trauma from other situations or environments, for this type of child suffers from trauma as a result of such dysfunctional care giving (Levine:2000). The child is driven by instinctual forces towards attachment but must do so with extreme defences engaged to ward off or deal with anticipated threats when doing so, and so one sees both in action at any one time, which presents as a disorganised way of dealing with life (Van Der Kolk:1996).
Adults who have grown up with a Disorganised/Disoriented Attachment outcome, will often recreate the chaos, terror, and dysfunction in their primary adult relationships (Main and Solomon:1990). The child normalises and unconsciously seeks out a re-creation of disturbing childhood dynamics and abuse with love partners (Bradshaw:1988). They may avoid relationships altogether as their social-engagement system is not functional and gets overwhelmed and flooded by trauma re-creations when attachment is attempted(Main and Solomon:1990).
In any relationship their ongoing priority is to stay safe and to “hold it all together” within themself(Lowen:1996). Relationships do not have a typical style except to note that they are typically a struggle as in many ways all of life remains a struggle for the Disorganised/Disoriented adult.
Children and adults who experienced such attachment patterns in their childhood have been shown in medical studies to have elevated heart rates, intense alarm reactions, higher cortisol neurotransmitter levels in their blood, and legacy behaviours such as stilling or going into a trance, unresponsiveness, and a bodymind shutdown when triggered (Schore:2001).
What happens is that the person utilises its Autonomic Nervous system “fight or flight” defence in sympathetic mode, and when this fails, they then switch to a immobilisation or shutting down via the parasympathetic state with the Dorsal Vagal complex of the brain (Porges:2001). The effect appears to mimic a “death” or “freezing out” of all external stimuli so as not to create arousal symptoms in the person and so head off more trauma.
Their bodies reflect this same expression. According to Wilhelm Reich/Bioenergetics/Core Energetics theory of characterology, one can often find some distinct bodily outcomes in this adult person. Not all need be present and they are a summary of an archetype, not a person. I refer you the Unwanted Child (Schizoid) archetype best fits the Disorganised/Disoriented person. According to Alexander Lowen (1986) and Robert Johnson (2004), the following features may be noted.
The body tends to show the contraction of the muscles and movements that led to the original impulses that resulted in hostility, frustration, pain and negativity coming its way. These chronic contracted muscles then affect posture and possibly affect bodily system regulation and proper function. The person loses spontaneous movement, some feeling, and behaviour as a result. This trade-off occurs to minimise feeling pain. The person shuts down across itself, deadens, and survives.
Expression and release of the blocked impulses is equated to the illusion that this will annihilate them and others around them. They shut down and become deadened in the body, still, and peaceful in movement and mind, and adopt spiritual giving as a defence against vigour and energetic release, so reinforcing their blocks.
The body therefore appears deadened, stiff, and moves mechanically and with prior awareness of the person who ensures it is safe to do so. The child had to undergo a self-negation process where they disowned their impulses, faced intense attack and hostility, which produced sheer terror and pain, often from the caregivers. To stay present and to resist or protest were both too painful to bear, and could invite further punishment or abandonment. The key way we shut these down in the body is by restricting the breathing and so they may have shallow breathing.
This will be found in the tightness and constriction of the chest muscles, the tight intercostals muscles between the ribs which constrict breathing, and a raised set of shoulders, thereby creating a constricted and extended chest. The throat is constricted, the person chokes when excited or anxious, and feelings are cut-off between the body and the head. The person often has an under developed chest, with a possible spine twisting either as some form of Scoliosis, Lordosis or Kyphosis, as an expression of turning or twisting away from the terror.
In some adults they manifest a malnourished body that resembles someone who needs to eat more, or who looks like they were in a concentration camp. They often have a sinewy body, veins, muscles and bones are prominent. They are not in contact with their impulses which are repressed and so often are not aware of own hunger, thirst, heat or coldness of the body. They often dress inappropriately and do not align to their environment.
The eyes are striking in this personality as they normally deeply express the frozen shock of the terror that they faced in the baby/infant period and from whatever and whoever traumatised them. The eyes lack warmth, or are unresponsive, and stay frozen or fixed, and go classically vacant when the person dissociates or “splits off”. This is often termed the “Terror Response look”, and coupled with the raised shoulders, projects the classic frozen stance of a startled person. This block is considered to function to prevent the person becoming conscious to feelings and also so as not to actually see the outside terrifying object of hostility. As a consequence they may wear glasses or have sight issues.
The limbs of the adult may be weak, thin and under-developed and that may be locked and braced against threats. They may have suffered at the hands of poor parenting skills where the mother lacked an understanding of proper diet or nutrition for infants.
The trunk of the body may appear out of proportion to the limbs and head, and a general asymmetry may show up in the overall body. The body may not present as a unitary whole, or left and right sides may be different sizes. They often have hammer toes and a raised arch in the feet, reflecting the terror reflex where their toes are clawing into the earth like a cat. The feet may be larger than the ankles and out of proportion, be cold to the touch, have gnarled toes and poor circulation. They appear ungrounded and may walk awkwardly. They are ungrounded and this shows in the feet and legs. They often struggle with balance, posture or leg/feet issues which reflect their struggle in life.
In summary it is a fragile path to adulthood that a person must navigate to emerge as a functional adult who is capable of entering and sustaining healthy intimate adult relationships. If we define intimacy as a particular kind of knowing of the other person which is pursued for its own sake, and not for the satisfaction of any particular goal, then we can see how for many of us, we are still trying to be safe, get nurturance, autonomy or other needs and actualisations achieved whilst conducting relationship.
As a society we are increasingly conducting ourselves in ways that is only possibly increasing the problem with the social engagement process between mother and baby/infants. As a result we are possibly creating the basis for attachment outcomes that cannot be labelled as “Secure”. We may be educating otherwise “good enough” mothers to be behaving in ways that they do not fully understand has negative implications for their baby/infants immediate and future physical, emotional and mental health outcomes.
From this baby/infant stage the child must then go on to negotiate another important stage in childhood development whose outcome will also influence its later ability as an adult to enter and sustain adult intimate relationships. This oedipal/Narcissistic stage of the child’s development is covered in my companion article How Early Childhood Oedipal Narcissistic Development Affects Later Adult Intimacy and Relationships.
As Perth relationship counselling professionals. we assist adults in the repair and to heal childhood traumas such as those described in this article. For many this now shows up in terms of frustration and issues in entering and maintaining adult intimate relationships. The good news is that we as humans are “plastic” in the sense we are capable of repairing childhood issues and then as adults adapting and adjusting into ways of being that create more happiness and appropriateness in adult life.
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