I’m about to throw a LOT of information at you. I’m actually going to break it up into multiple posts, to make it easier. We’ll see if it takes 2 or 3. Try to bear with me, because I really think this stuff is vitally important. And if you disagree, I am certainly open to other viewpoints. I always enjoy a good attachment theory discussion. 😉
Basically, just out of curiosity (it’s amazing how many things start this way), the other day I had the grandiose ambition to Google “attachment and dissociation.” What I found, essentially, blew me away, and I didn’t even get farther than a few links. One article in particular resulted in so much new understanding for me that I couldn’t get it out of my mind…so of course, naturally, I had to blog about it! The original article, entitled “Trauma, Dissociation, and Disorganized Attachment: Three Strands of a Single Braid,” can be found here. This is a scholarly article, though, so if you’d rather just read my synopsis, don’t worry about putting your brain in a cramp. I have already cramped my brain on your behalf. You’re welcome. 😀 (I seriously had to read every sentence about 5 times in some sections before I could comprehend the information it was offering.) I will try to provide other links on these topics throughout, as usual. Ready? Here we go.
I’ve had the theory for a long time that a lot of dissociation and dissociative issues come from early attachment issues. The research to support this is not insubstantial, and of course, my idea was not original by a long shot. I read or picked up on the trauma/dissociation/attachment connection from somewhere else, the source of which has been long lost. But this article spelled it out for me in a way that I’d never encountered before, linking unresolved emotional issues in the parents to the likelihood that their children will become disorganized in attachment style and pave the way for the child to develop dissociative symptoms/ issues/ behaviors as they grow and mature. This concept hardly seems far-fetched to me. Of course we know, and it makes perfect sense, that to the degree that a parent has unresolved emotional-trauma issues, it will affect their parenting style and subsequently their children. But I’ve never run across an article that actually had empirical research to back this up. For the record, the article also ties this into certain cases of PTSD and Borderline Personality Disorder, but since dissociation is my special interest, I will not be focusing on those other two disorders in my interpretations. At any rate, PTSD and BPD were not primary in nature as relevant to problematic attachment styles but were rather mentioned as being relevant in a small percentage of cases. Therefore I am not going to discuss those topics.
In order for anything else I say to make any sort of sense, one has to be minimally familiar with attachment theory. I will try to make it simple. If you want more in-depth history and discussion of attachment theory, the research is plentiful and easy to find. If you don’t like any of those links, Google “attachment theory” or “John Bowlby” and/or “Mary Ainsworth” and you will have an abundance of reading material. Their methodology for establishing the foundation for their theories is also available, which I’m not going to discuss because it’s not pertinent to the material at hand and I’m already trying to condense a whole lot of stuff. If you want a break down of the methodology, Google “The Strange Situation,” in conjunction with Bowlby/Ainsworth.
Attachment Theory in a Nutshell
Attachment theory is the theory that humans are born with an innate tendency to seek care, help and comfort from members of their social group when they are facing overwhelming danger and/or are suffering from physical or emotional distress. The group of behaviors utilized to solicit caregiving behaviors in their attachment figures is known as the “attachment system.” In infants, the primary attachment-seeking behaviors would include crying, and (when old enough), what is known as an “approach” method which seeks physical closeness to and (often tactile) comfort from the attachment figure. The converse to an attachment-seeking behavior is to “avoid” something in the environment that is perceived as threatening, either by ignoring it or by actively seeking distance from it, rather than proximity to it.
What is important to understand about the attachment system is:
1) it is primal and innate, as it has been linked to evolution and survival, and forms the patterns by which the person relates to others in the future,
2) it is formed during the earliest development of an infant through interactions with the mother, father, and/or primary caregiver(s), and
3) the attachment system is powerfully activated during and after any experience of fear and of physical or psychological pain.
So now that you know what it is, let me briefly describe the types of attachment that can be formed, depending on those crucial early interaction patterns. I am writing the next few paragraphs almost totally off the top of my head based on what I remember (see: too lazy for extraneous research), so please forgive me if you go to some of my cited sources and find that they have changed the terminology in the past 10 years. My apologies.
Attachment Styles – Secure, and Insecure
To break it down for you, if I can remember accurately, there are 2 types of attachment: secure, and insecure. Secure attachment is (or should be) the goal of all parenting behaviors and interactions between mother/father/caregiver and child, from birth to independence and beyond. Securely attached infants develop positive, healthy, and relationally effective internal working models (called IWM’s by the psych people) that become the blueprint – or software, if you prefer – for the way they interact with people and the world at large, generally speaking, for the rest of their lives. It also affects to no small degree their perspective of themselves and their own lives.
Insecure attachment, on the other hand, breaks down into 3 subgroups: insecure-avoidant is the infant that may appear content – or even indifferent – in regard to their caregiver. Sometimes these infants are even mistaken by people unfamiliar with infant development for securely attached children because they do not react to separation from their caregiver. They do not react to reunion either; they appear indifferent to their caregivers’ presence or absence. The truth is that these infants have closed themselves off to the world. Their IWM summary – if they were able to think abstractly – would be “the world is a bad place but I am a good person so I will shut out the world.” They do not turn to other people for help or comfort. Brain scans of these babies, when placed in a situation that would normally cause distress, shows that despite the fact that they do not cry or fuss, they truly are distressed and their level of distress – as shown by the brain activity on the scans – is the same or greater than their peers who are securely attached (or insecurely attached but in a different subgroup); they have simply learned to suppress it. They don’t actively seek caregivers’ attention. They turn inward and search for internal resources and solutions that do not involve other people.
Insecure-ambivalent is the infant that seeks their caregivers’ attention when distressed, but is not readily comforted despite their caregivers’ attempts to do so. Their IWM would be summarized: “the world is a good place but I am a bad person, so external comfort cannot help me.” These infants exhibit attachment-seeking behaviors but when received, it takes much longer to calm them down, if calming can be achieved at all. They seek outside help but simultaneously view such help as ineffective.
Insecure-disorganized infants have not managed to organize their reactions in any enduring way. Sometimes they appear avoidant, sometimes they appear ambivalent, and other times they appear secure. Their reactions to separation or distress are unpredictable and unenduring over time. These infants’ IMW would be summarized thusly: “The world is a bad place and I am a bad person, there is nothing I or anyone else can do to help me.” They sometimes exhibit both attachment-seeking and avoiding behaviors simultaneously or in rapid succession, as if they are trying to pursue two incompatible goals at the same time. It is this attachment style that the article focused on as the attachment style that could be readily and quite accurately predicted to occur in children of parents with unresolved emotional disturbances and/or trauma. The article showed that about 80% of these children developed disorganized attachment to their parents.
Why This Matters in Relation to the Possibility of Dissociation
The reason this matters is that people who had disorganized attachment styles with their parents or primary caregiver as infants, and this is not resolved at any point throughout the rest of their development, carry this dysfunctional IWM into every other relationship they enter, for the rest of their lives – unless and until they seek resolution for it. Our issues with our parents – whatever those might be – don’t stay there. They are carried over, and over and over and over, into every significant relationship in our lives, unless and until we find a way to heal those wounds.
This is a special interest of mine, not only due to my present situation, but also in light of the knowledge that my mother underwent several major traumas in the time period of 6 months or less before I was born. To me, this raises the question as to how much of my early experiences predisposed my developing brain to dissociation as a coping technique, due to the damaged psychological state of my mother?
Memory, consciousness, and identity are – in normal cases – integrated together to form a complete and coherent sense of self; including a unified sense of a person’s past, present, and future. Dissociation is a deficit in this ability to integrate those three components and is often related to traumatic experiences and traumatic memories.
The Caregiver Connection
The article clearly presented research that indicates a link in adults between attachment-related traumas, tendency toward dissociative states, and dissociated mental operations during a task involving autobiographical memory. The ability in an adult to construct a coherent, consistent, and unified account of their attachment history was a measure and predictor of that individual’s past and current state of attachment style and that of their children’s. In other words, someone who knows what they’re doing could evaluate an adult’s attachment history, and guess – with significant accuracy – the attachment style of that adult’s children! This is why psychological problems are often construed as generational. There has to be someone in the family line who is willing to do the work, face the pain, heal the wounds, and stop the transmission of unhealthy relational patterns.
Research also suggests, with confirmation by many clinicians, that while recalling memories of abuse does generate great psychic pain, the pain of the abuse is not nearly as great as the pain of recalling being betrayed by caregivers. To state in a different way: remembering that an attachment figure did not protect someone from abuse by another member of the family may be more painful than remembering the actual abuse itself. Attachment theory explains why a betrayal such as this by a caregiver who did not otherwise mistreat the child has so much dissociative power. Since infants and children have an inborn need to protect the attachment relationship and trust their caregiver, denial of abuse by the parent or caregiver may cause the abused child to side with the parent’s denial and dissociate the traumatic memory. Though the article did not raise the question, I also wondered as I read whether a parent who was unaware of abuse perpetrated outside the home may be inadvertently interpreted by the child as denying the occurrence of such abuse. Children see their parents as omniscient.
It is worth noting that although early disorganized attachment is a potential first step in developmental pathways that lead to dissociative disorders, this does not mean that such dissociative disorders are imminent and unavoidable. Disorganized attachment with no or very few traumatic experiences later in life can be resolved without necessarily leading to dissociative disorders. Even dissociative disorders brought on by extreme prolonged trauma can be resolved with proper help, so the point of the article or my interpretation of it, or anything I’m writing about, is not to make everything seem hopeless.
It seems to me like so much of the Good News is that we have a Parent we can securely and eternally attach to, who will not frighten or be frightened of us, who knows our deep needs and wounds and will always respond to us as our Comforter.
This post is continued in The Attachment Link, Part 2! Which is going to be posted shortly! Hope to see you there. Cheers. ~J8