Most of us have fallen in love at least once with someone who has not loved us back in the ways that we’d hoped for. For some of us, this is a difficult recurring pattern, and over and over again we fall in love with those who do not or cannot love us back, causing ourselves a great deal of pain, sadness and grief.
One of the major causes of this heart-breaking pattern is attachment trauma.
In the last few years, we have all become very conscious of just how common childhood trauma is. We have all become especially aware of physical and sexual abuse, and the lifelong trauma that they create. But we don’t hear a lot about attachment trauma, although it is equally devastating. While all trauma indirectly affects our ability to have healthy, satisfying, mutually loving relationships, attachment trauma is a direct cause of relationship difficulties.
What is attachment trauma
Attachment trauma results when there’s some kind of significant disruption to the normal process of bonding, attaching and falling in love that’s meant to occur between parent and child. Basically, it’s when our parents are not able to provide us with the love and emotional security that we need.
There are three kinds of parenting that can create attachment trauma in children.
– Some parents are consistently emotionally distant. They do not support or mirror their children’s emotional lives, and keep their own emotions well hidden. They are mostly unable to participate in a healthy emotional back-and-forth, and consistently reject or evade their children’s loving advances. If we have parents like this, we usually experience them as cold, distant and unavailable, and we feel unseen and unloved. As a defense against these painful feelings, we often become emotionally distant ourselves.
– Some parents are emotionally available, but only some of the time, and quite unpredictably. They swing back and forth between being loving, supportive and truly there, and being cold, rejecting, angry or abusive. If we have parents like this, we often become anxious, clingy, and dependent.
– Other parents are at the effect of their emotions to the point where they are unable to provide much in the way of parenting at all. They may in turn be self-centered, needy, anxious, angry, intrusive, impulsive, changeable, withdrawn, depressed, critical, negative or neglectful. If we have parents like this, we often feel confused, isolated, out of our depth, and as though nothing and no-one can be relied upon except ourselves.
Often, we’re aware that there was a certain lack of a safe and loving connection with our parents, and that they could fit into one of these descriptions. But what we don’t fully understand is just how deeply we have been impacted by that loss. We don’t realize that the loss has been profound enough to create an attachment trauma that’s as deep as any caused by obvious and overt abuse.
You might be wondering what it is about a lack of connection and attachment that’s so traumatic. After all, as adults, if someone rejects us we may feel very hurt, but we are seldom traumatized. But it’s quite different for infants.
Emotional abandonment feels like death
When we are infants, it is actually deeply terrifying when our parents are emotionally absent, even if they are physically present and meeting our physical needs. When we sense that our parents are not firmly and consistently tied to us with the bonds of love, we are deeply afraid that we could be abandoned at any moment.
And our traumatic primal fear is that if we are abandoned, then we will die. This may seem extreme, but we need to remember that a few centuries of civilization do not negate the millions of years when an abandoned baby almost certainly died or was eaten in a very short time.
Together, the deep lack of connection plus the profound fear of death create an attachment trauma within us.
The quest of the abandoned child
If we have suffered an attachment trauma, as adults we find that underneath our distancing, clinging or confusion is an inner child who is absolutely desperate to be loved. Because it’s a matter of life or death for that inner child, we find ourselves doing whatever it takes to get even the tiniest crumb of love for her.
But the problem is that our earliest crumbs of love came from distant or unpredictable parents, and so we are unconsciously drawn to distant or unpredictable friends and partners, the kinds of people who we first associated with “love”. But these people are actually the least able to give us the whole-hearted love that we need. We cling desperately to those who give us even the tiniest, most erratic gestures of love, and yet it is a sadly futile quest as we constantly look for love in all the wrong places.
It becomes clear that our inner child is engaged in a constant quest to get from others the love she did not get from her parents. She does not know that once we’ve grown up, the love of others actually cannot heal her. And so her quest is doubly futile – not only does she look for love from those who cannot love, but even if they could, it would not heal her wounded heart.
Spirit heals the abandoned child
The only love that can heal our unloved inner child is the love of our own inner being, our own spiritual self.
What’s needed is to embrace the desperate, traumatized inner child, love her unconditionally, listen to her pain, and let her know that we will not abandon her. As we do this, her pain is soothed, and she starts to relax, to feel free, playful, loving and loved, and no longer needs to drive our life with her love-seeking agenda. We find that we are no longer desperately focused on finding love, but are more truly self-loving and self-sufficient. Our relationships work much better as we start to enjoy, rather than need, our friends and partners. And paradoxically we start to be drawn to those who are more truly loving, even as we need their love less.
The process of learning to channel the love of spirit into the healing of our abandoned, love-starved inner child can look daunting at first, but it is actually surprisingly simple when we have the support of a counselor or therapist who’s skilled at healing traumatized inner children. And it is truly wonderful to find that as the inner child transforms, we not only becomes freer and happier, but there is space for us to be more fully the loving spiritual selves that we ultimately are.
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