NYC Psychotherapist Blog

power by WikipediaMindmap

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Understanding the Impact of Early Attachment on Adult Relationships

This is the fourth article in a series of blog articles about how the early attachment bond affects adult relationships.  The prior blog articles were:

How the Early Attachment Bond Affects Adult Relationships: Part 1

How the Early Attachment Bond Affects Adult Relationships: Part 3 - What Causes Insecure Attachment?

Understanding the Impact of Early Attachment Bonds

Understanding the Impact of the Early Attachment Bond
As I've discussed in prior articles, when there is a secure attachment bond between the mother and infant, both mother and child are attuned to each other.  Even though the infant can't speak, the infant picks up on nonverbal cues, including the mother's gaze (see picture below).   Infants are hard wired to bond with their primary caregivers.

When there is an insecure attachment, which usually occurs on a spectrum from difficult to traumatic,   the impact on the child will be significant.  Depending upon how out of attunement the mother is with the child, the child can grow up having difficulties forming close relationships.

Unfortunately, even when these adults come to therapy, if they see therapists who have little or no knowledge about the impact of the bonding process between mothers and children, the attachment issue can be overlooked.

Let's take a look at a hypothetical example.  As always, this is a fictionalized illustration that is made up of a composite of many cases with all identifying information changed:

Ted's mother, Mary, was 17 years old when she gave birth to Ted.  She was still in high school, and she wasn't ready to raise an infant.  Mary's parents were unwilling to help her, and Ted's father wanted nothing to do with the baby.  So, when Ted was two months months old, Mary brought him to live with her maternal grandmother, who lived out of state.  While Ted was away, Mary hoped to graduate from high school and find a job so she could support herself and Ted.

Ted's grandmother, Nina, was in her late 70s, and she suffered with arthritis.  She agreed to take Ted in because she didn't want Ted to end up in foster care and there was no one else in the family who could take care of him.

Nina was able to take care of Ted's basic physical needs in terms of food, shelter, and other basic necessities.  But she was too tired and in too much physical pain to spend time creating an emotional bond with him.

So, Ted remained in his crib most of the time.  Nina believed that if a baby cried, the primary caregiver should allow the baby to cry himself to sleep.  She believed that if she picked him up, she would spoil him.  She had never learned that babies need love and attention when they're in distress, so she had no idea how detrimental her lack of attention would be for Ted.

Ted would spend a lot of time crying in his crib and trying to get his great grandmother's attention.  After a while, he became exhausted and he would withdraw and fall asleep.

By the time Ted was one years old, Mary missed her son so much that she decided she wanted him back.  She quit school in her senior year, got a job, and she and three other friends rented an apartment together.  Then, against the advice of her family, she brought Ted back to live with her and her roommates.  It was crowded, but Mary was happy to have her son home, and she and her roommates took turns taking care of Ted.

Initially, Ted, who was accustomed to being around Nina, was frightened of being around Mary and her roommates.  Even though Nina wasn't nurturing towards him, he knew Nina and he didn't know Mary.  Mary and her roommates were strangers to him.  During the first few weeks, he crawled around Mary's apartment looking for Nina and crying when he couldn't find her.

Mary was very disappointed that Ted was frightened of her.  She had been missing him so much, and all she could think of was holding him in her arms and kissing him.  But he tended to shy away from her.  It took a while before he warmed up to her and allowed her to be loving towards him.

A few months later, two of Mary's roommates decided to move out.  Mary and her remaining roommate couldn't afford to pay the rent on the apartment.  Mary's parents refused to take her and her son in, so Mary felt she had no choice but to bring Ted back to Nina's home, and she rented a room for herself.

This back and forth pattern between Nina and Mary went on throughout most of Ted's childhood.  Ted grew up to be a shy, withdrawn child.  He had difficulty making friends, and he tended to keep to himself as a child, a teenager and a young man in his early 20s.

Ted managed to just get by in high school, and he obtained a full time job after graduation working in a department store.

By that time, Mary was in a better financial position and Ted lived with her.  She continued to try to develop a better relationship with Ted, but Ted never thought of her as his mother, even though he knew, of course, that she was his biological mother.

In his early 20s, Ted wanted very much to have a girlfriend, but he was dreaded the thought of allowing anyone to get close to him.  The result was that even though he was very lonely, he couldn't bring himself to attempt to meet women his age.

After much consideration, Ted began therapy to try to understand why he was having such difficulty trying to meet women.  His first therapist recognized that Ted was depressed, but she didn't understand how he was affected by the upheaval of moving between his mother and great grandmother as a child and how this affected his ability to form close relationships.  She referred him to a psychiatrist for anti-depressant medication, which helped somewhat.  But Ted still felt lonely and empty inside.

After a year in therapy, his therapist conceded that she wasn't able to help him, and she referred him to a more experienced therapist who happened to be knowledgeable about attachment theory.

Ted's new therapist could see that he was depressed, but after she heard his childhood history, she also understood that a major part of his problem involved early attachment issues.

His new therapist helped Ted to understand why he was so afraid of forming close relationships, even  though he was very lonely and craved a loving, nurturing relationship.  Gradually, she helped Ted to manage his fear while he took small, manageable steps to meet women.  She also helped him to work through the early trauma that caused him to feel a combination of dread and longing.

Over time, Ted was able to work through the early trauma and begin to form a close relationship with a woman he initially met online.  Things were bumpy at first because Ted was still frightened of getting close to his new girlfriend.  At times, he would pull away from her when he felt overwhelmed by fear.  But, gradually, he learned to trust her and he continued to do trauma work in therapy, he allowed himself to open up more to her.

Getting Help
If you think you might have problems with relationships due to early attachment issues, it's possible to work through these issues in therapy with a therapist who know is knowledgeable about early attachment issues, trauma, and this affects your ability to have close relationships.

Rather than continuing to struggle emotionally, you owe it to yourself to get the help you need so you can live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR therapist, and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.