Romance, Dating and Trauma

Hello KittyWhy Dating Never Heals Emotional Pain

[Updated 7-26-17] People with attachment troubles or other child trauma often ask: why is dating so difficult?  It is, for a reason.

Banks assign teller trainees to handle a lot of good money, so if they’re handed counterfeit bills they instinctively feel something wrong, says Dr. John Townsend, co-author of “Boundaries.” It hits them without thinking: “Oh, that’s counterfeit.”

But if we didn’t feel safe parental love as kids, we’re used to counterfeit, so we gravitate to those who “feel counterfeit” and have no love to give.

Stop dating, John says, and go experience “rivers” of safe platonic love to learn how real love feels. That means a therapist, support groups, same-sex friends, pastors, teachers, anyone who commits to a purely platonic relationship where they’ll compassionately hear your hurts but never judge you.

Only after years of that can we can distinguish love from a come-on.

I woke up one day and said, “I’ve never felt anything but counterfeit. How would I know what’s real?  Nobody ever made a real commitment to me; my parents divorced me; my ex was in it for himself; and so were the rebound guys.

“I’m starting here. Bob’s cards and emails are counterfeit – so burn the sh-t,” I said. “Whatever feelings I have for him, I’ve got to pin them on Dad and mourn my Dad.  I’ve got to tell my emotions, ‘We can’t have Dad back. We’ve got to Accept The Loss’.”

Then instead of the dating hunt,  I invested my life, fortune, and sacred honor to work for “earned secure attachment.”  Dr. Dan Siegel says that’s when we start out with attachment damage from childhood trauma,  but grow into secure attachment by earning it as adults.  “It’s possible to change childhood attachment patterns,” as Dr. Mary Main says in a 2010 video. [FN1]

My plan: “become the change you seek,” as Ghandi said — and then a good-hearted mate will find me.  Either way, eventually I’ll have peace in my soul.

Look, Ma, no hunting or begging – for once in my life!  I’ve been begging since birth for a scrap of love like Oliver with his begging bowl, and I’m done.  Dating website emails go to my spam folder.

I know it’s possible to earn secure attachment, even for those with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) like me who’ve had developmental trauma “since the sperm hit the egg” and thus the world’s worst case of anxious attachment.

I know, because as I force myself to share my most gut-wrenching fears and most body-wracking tears, in person, face-to-face, with entirely platonic “Safe People” [FN2], I’ve felt a deep movement of architectonic plates down in my body and soul.

I’ve felt a tiny, new, fragile, and yes, vulnerable part of myself growing slowly but surely for the last few years. And yes there is no magic bullet; it takes time — months and years.  But hey, what else have we got to do if not finally feel some mental health?  “For everything else, there’s MasterCard.”

Dr. Dan Siegel does say earned secure attachment can come from a relationship not only with a friend or therapist, but also with a “romantic partner.”  But usually that’s a committed marriage begun young where two kids grow up together, not the on-off disconnect we get dating over 30. [FN1]

For me, dating would wreck my attachment process because a date “wants” something from us that we can’t do right now: affection, and often sex — as if we didn’t have a severe attachment wound.  But we do.

“Safe People” [FN2] do not want anything from us,  period. They’re just humans like me: my grief partner, my girl friend, my Al Anon sponsor, my therapist — anyone who’ll simply sit with me for 30-60 minutes once or twice a week and do compassionate listening.

Anyone who will listen like a good parent should have when we came home with hurts to cry about (hopefully not asking for sex).  Like Hello Kitty; she has no mouth; only big eyes that listen deeply.

And as they watch me share myself, they start to feel safe with me, because if I model it for them that emotions are a good thing to share, their mammalian brains pick up the vibe — and then they start to share their fears and tears as well.

That’s how attachment starts to grow: eye contact and emotional sharing; google “Limbic Resonance.”  The goal is to make these eye-to-eye meetings a two-way street, not a “charity date.” That’s why the Grief Recovery Handbook works;

On the other hand, deep eye contact with a date mostly leads nowhere but the bedroom, which never cured anyone’s broken heart. There may be great sex, but without attachment, that only layers more trauma on top of the trauma we have already. (See the “Good Sex in Bad Relationships” chapter in “Women Who Love Too Much” by therapist Robin Norwood.)


FN1  Earned secure attachment occurs when we experience harmful parenting, so we start with insecure attachment, but find ways to “rise above” childhood trauma and “are now securely attached… What’s more important than what happened to us, is how we’ve made sense of our own childhood,” Dr. Dan Siegel says. “When we make sense of our past… we become free to construct a new future for ourselves and for how we parent our children. Research is clear: If we make sense of our lives, we free ourselves from the prison of the past.”  (Source: video by Dr. Mary Main, Dr. Erik Hesse, Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, Dr. Marion Solomon: )
The question is: what ways?  How do we “rise above” and “make sense” of our childhood trauma?
“Mindfulness has been shown to be effective in healing insecure attachment,” say Siegel’s recent writings. “The purpose of both psychotherapy and mindfulness practice is to provide this internalized secure base. Attunement, whether it is internal in mindfulness, or interpersonal in attachment, is what leads to a sense of secure base.” (The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician’s Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration, W.W. Norton, 2010;   Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation,  Random House, 2010).
“The regular exercise of mindful awareness seems to promote the same benefits–bodily and affective self-regulation, attuned communication with others, insight, empathy, and the like–that research has found to be associated with childhood histories of secure attachment,” Siegel wrote earlier. “ Mindfulness and secure attachment alike are capable of generating… the same invaluable psychological resource: an internalized secure base.” (Siegel, 2007, Wallin, 2007, p. 5-6).
In his 1999 book “The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain interact to shape who we are,” (Guilford Press),  Siegel defined “earned secure/autonomous attachment” as a pattern noticed by therapists doing the Adult Attachment Interview:  “individuals whose experiences of childhood… [were] likely to produce insecure attachment (avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized),” but their AAI interview responses instead show “a fluidity in their narratives and a flexibility in their reflective capacity, such that their present state of mind with respect to attachment is rated as secure/autonomous. These individuals often appear… to have had a significant emotional relationship with a close friend, romantic partner, or therapist, which allowed them to develop out of  insecure…into a secure/autonomous AAI status.”

FN2   Cloud, Henry, PhD and Townsend, John, PhD, “Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You, and Avoid Those That Aren’t,”  Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1995

Tags: Adult Attachment Disorder, Adult Attachment Theory, Adult Attachment Interview, Secure Attachment, Insecure Attachment, Earned Secure Attachment, Brain Science, Brain Stem, Limbic Brain, Developmental Trauma, Fight-flight, Grief Recovery Handbook, Daniel Siegel, Robin Norwood

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13 responses to “Romance, Dating and Trauma

  1. Is it doable for a 65 year old man in total grief?

  2. Very helpful and Great information, we appreciate advise especially coming from a professional. Thanks again and keep up the great work!

  3. I always knew something was not right with me, but I thought it was spiritual. I began seeking and seeking which led me to all sorts of things that only brought me closer to regression. Then last year I went back to school (am 27) and the stress of being in school and the psychoanalysis I was doing (which ended up being regressive and traumatic as hell) brought me right back into a regressed state. My family–immigrants with a generational history of trauma–is not able to support me emotionally. I’ve had trouble making connections in life (no surprise). But now I am regressed, isolated, and unsure what to do. I’m working with an SE practitioner and in the process of finding an attachment therapist but the cards feel stacked against me. I can’t socialize well in unstructured time, and I’m 27…it’s hard to find people my age especially in this state. I feel hopeful about my healing but then in some moments I feel totally hopeless. Might you have suggestions/ words of wisdom?

    • We wouldn’t blame ourselves if we’d been in a car accident at 3. Now we have to practice over and over, not blaming ourselves for the emotional traumatic damage we innocently took. Being regressed is dangerous alone. My key was finding an experienced attachment therapist, then regression ended up beneficial. It was how I went back and healed so that now I feel great. But I had to find the right therapist. A good therapist lets our regression feelings come up and wash out–then scary feelings go away.
      Also try neurofeedback, I added that recently (not instead of but in addition to attachment therapy); helps enormously.
      I wish I’d discovered my child trauma at 27, not at 50! You can heal in 3-5 years, then you’ll have a whole life to feel good! Just avoid dating and don’t worry about how you do socially the next 3-5 years. If we “get out there” now, we attract “unsafe” abusive people like those who abused us. That’s not our fault; it got wired into our brain as kids. Not good to marry and have kids now, that passes the trauma to our kids.
      Right now you’re in “grad school” to heal. Keep a job, focus on our healing program, see our attachment therapist, do neurofeedback, attend a weekly women’s support group, call support group girl friends, exercise one hour every day, do “walking meditation” (sitting with eyes closed may feel too scary), cook and eat really well–and tons of sleep. A full time schedule the next 3 years. After that ask your therapist when you’re ready to date and socialize. After you heal some you’ll attract “safe” people who treat you well! For now, when you find a good attachment therapist you’ll feel better. If it takes too long, get to neurofeedback first as a stop gap — but keep seeking an attachment therapist, too.

      • Kathy, I loved getting your reply! I wish it was as easy as you make it sound. It’s more complicated for me. My mother and I have a failed, enmeshed relationship. She doesn’t get it but every time I set a boundary she tries to sabotage it. She just did it and it sent me into a tailspin. I haven’t been able to finish college (and it isn’t even meaningful for me). I’m in fully reactivated trauma living in and dependent on the same person who was part of creating it in the first place. And I totally get that my inability to separate is ironically a part of it and what makes it worse (though on a subconscious level I probably believe will make it better).
        I am at the stage where relating to others, jobs, even thinking are not things I can do. I’ve literally cleared away all the layers on top of my trauma. I am fully inhabiting it. I know this is a really tough situation, but I just want to be told I’m not hopeless and that I should do Neurofeedback and keep looking for a therapist… I need to know I’m not alone…

        • I have questions about finding a therapist and neurofeedback, which I will post in the appropriate sections of your blog!

          • I didn’t mean it’s easy! It’s terribly difficult, but
            my point is: it is DO able. And yes it’s more complicated for you and me, once we’ve gotten badly regressed, in my case by my own blunders, I guess in your case by a bungling former therapist? But NO, you’re NOT hopeless, because you ARE thinking and feeling, which is so appropriate! So YES: do Neurofeedback and keep looking for a much better, highly-experienced attachment trauma therapist. I have over 700 comments from people like you and me! We sure are NOT Alone!

  4. This is exactly what I have been trying to understand for years. I know I’m not really afraid of sex, it’s that whole dread of layering more trauma on top of the other trauma I’ve just begun to understand. Phew! Thanks again, Kathy

  5. This is great, thanks!
    This is what I am saying especially for young high ACE teens leaving their crazy home!
    “NEED TO KNOW” material!

  6. Years ago, I read Harry Allen Overstreet’s book: “The Mature Mind”, and its Personal and Organizational review of “Mature and Responsible Behavior” versus “Immature and Irresponsible Behavior. I remember the issue of Dating being something he critiqued in the book. I often thought my cultivating friendships seemed preferable, but this article [and the footnotes] has really given me something to think about, and to work on! I also appreciate the active links, too. Thank You, Kathy!

  7. Thank you, ladies! That means a lot, coming from great writers like you both…

  8. You are a fantastic writer. It’s so in depth and well researched. NICE! I shared it elsewhere, too, because it’s so so so so so good!

  9. Zoe Dewe-Mathews

    This is brilliant Kathy! I LOVE your style and appreciate your knowledge.

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