Transformation and Healing After Trauma, Loss and Grief

My Mythic Garden

A blog by author and trauma expert Gary W. Reece, Ph.D.

Falling in Love/Soul Mates
Gary Reece, Ph.D.
Do you remember the first time you “fell in love?” Probably not, because the first time you fell in love occurred at birth, or at least it should have. Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist talks about the moment when the infant is greeted by his mother and she looks into his eyes, holds him in her arms, brings him to her breast and from that moment he feels cherished, whole, enveloped by warmth and acceptance as if he is in the hallowed presence of a god. This intense emotionally charged moment is the beginning of the actual attachment/bonding experience which is the foundation for all future psychological development. John Bowlby, a pioneer in attachment theory wrote of the power and importance of encounter:

That intimate attachment to other human beings is the hub around which a person’s Life resolves, not only when he is an infant or a toddler, or a school child but throughout adolescence and his years of maturity as well, and on to old age. From these intimate attachments a person draws his strength and enjoyment of life and through what he contributes, he gives strength and enjoyment to others. (Attachment and Loss)

The absence or failure to establish the hallowed connection Bowlby wrote, leaves a child with a haunting sense of life-long melancholy or mourning.

Secure attachment is the basis of our ability to fall in love or what we call finding our soul mate. The establishment of secure attachment is imprinted on our unconscious/implicit self. It is also hard wired into certain neuro circuits in our emotional brain (limbic system) so that when we meet someone it is almost instantaneous, we look into the other person’s eyes and it is as if we are repeating the original experience: the same intensity, recognition, attraction, emotional connection.

A great deal of very technical material has been written about attachment, its function, and importance to our psychological well being: Essentially attachment is about how the effective, caring mother responds to her child’s cries of distress and learns to decode these messages so that she can respond accordingly and sooth and restore the child’s physical and emotional equilibrium. This pattern of responsiveness is called “attunement.” It is from this repetitive, consistent caring that a child soon learns the dependability and consistency of others in his world to meet his needs. This becomes the original relational paradigm, his working model of the world of relationships. This internal working models according to Rose:

Reflects the child’s view of and confidence in the attachment figure’s capacity to provide a safe and caring environment. Moreover, these models, in turn organize the child’s thoughts, memories and feelings regarding attachment figures. Inevitably they will also act as guides and predictions of future behavior for the child and other attachment figures. These are burned into the unconscious at the neurological level and hence are highly resistant to change when they experience different care situations. (Life Story Therapy with Traumatized Children.)

In essence the attachment bond serves the powerful function of creating a self-regulating, feeling, thinking, caring, individual who through this experience is capable of intimacy, empathy, trust, and the capacity to engage in hopeful and positive interactions with others. At the core is the integrated empowered self.

It is easy to see, then, why attachment is so critical to all development and why disruption of this bond leads to faulty brain development, predictable changes in self image, attachment style, behavioral problems, and inability to regulate emotions. When the child becomes securely attached the natural progression of development has occurred. The very self of the child is developing: nurtured and shaped by feelings, thoughts, interaction patterns, expectations, roles, communication structure, safety, security, identity, and the daily interaction patterns of those closest to the child.

Attachment is the key. It is the process, the psychological system which is responsible for our very survival. In sum, the attachment paradigm leads to the development of a child’s ability to:
• Deal with threat and cope with stress.
• Know how to be soothed and eventually to soothe him/her self
• Make sense of the world through a working model of how the world works—cognitive map development
• Communicate and regulate emotions and eventually contain big emotions and impulses
• Enter comfortably into dyadic relationships—intimacy-social relatedness
• Develop a basic sense of self-identity
• Form a conscience through establishment of empathic/ compassionate connections

Allen Schore spent a great deal of time and research categorizing types of attachment and he organized his observations into three basic types: (1) Secure, (2) Anxious/Ambivalent and (3)Disordered. Each is the outcome of a particular type of parenting. And reflects the kind of relationship the carer established with her child.

Anxious and Ambivalent parenting creates an environment more characterized by threat, less affectionate touching and resolution of anxiety within the dyad, and less opportunity to resolve the threat and return to a calm state through reattunement.

Studies of Disorganized Attachment also reveal that dissociation can develop as a response to repeated overwhelming events with attachment figures, fragmenting the child’s sense of self, making relationships with others problematic, and disrupting the continuity of consciousness and adaptive emotional regulation, especially in response to future challenging situations. (Daniel Siegel-Developing Mind)

A great deal of material has also been written about traumatic relational trauma in infancy, in fact my last book: Broken Systems/Shattered Lives explored the effects of early trauma on psychological development. One of the more important findings regarding early abuse is that attachment trauma becomes the basis for how emotional surges and relational conflict and breeches are established and dealt with. By continually living under conditions of threat a child learns to accommodate to that world. It becomes the Norm for that child. One complication of unresolved trauma is that the victim unconsciously recreates the traumatic event over and over again.

So the point of this whole blog is that when we fall in love with our soul mate we probably are instantaneously attracted to our original love imprint. They can be our soul mate or as is often the case our wound mate. This can be good news or bad news depending on the type of attachment you had as an infant. If it was secure and consistent then you probably will find someone who is capable of intimacy and maintaining a loving relationship. If the original attachment was less secure, ambivalent or traumatizing then you will also probably have the tendency to find your “wound mate” and reinact all the pathology and ambivalence of the original attachment. This is the repetitive cycle of reenacting the original relational trauma. You find someone, “fall in love,” expect to heal your wound through this person, then become disillusioned, break up, change partners and start the cycle all over again. Wound mates seem to be able to find each other in uncanny, unconscious, intuitive ways. Their attraction is often powerful, passionate, but unstable as well as painful and often abusive.

Intimacy is the tipping point in any relationship because it relies on trust, empathy, and the capacity for vulnerability, attunement, problem resolution and reattunement, or as it is commonly called, Regulatory Repair. In other words it depends upon our ability to regulate the powerful emotions generated in any long term relationship. Falling in love is not the problem, it is easy to do, the problem is finding ways to maintain and nurture the love if we are lucky enough to find someone. This takes awareness and commitment to do the work of resolving conflict, mistrust, hurt, anger, bruised egos, disappointment and unintentional wounding that goes with any relationship. There are many ways we have learned to manage our relationships through the original attachment. Through Regulatory Repair and management of emotion we developed ways to cope with the stress when they become conflicted or disrupted. These defenses were learned at a very early age by how our parents modeled their relationship. “OMG, I not only behave like my father; I married my mother.” This was said by an attendee at one of my workshops: A truly sobering realization, but nevertheless true on many levels.

Couples who are fight phobic, afraid of conflict and unable to tolerate anger, tend to let anger build and fester beneath the surface until the relationship either dies because of the inability to repair and heal the breech or the love dies from neglect. Powerful emotions arise because of intimacy, all of our deepest fears of dependency, shame we may feel for being vulnerable, mistrust and the need for control, lack of esteem which leads to feeling of being unworthy of love, fears of abandonment, all of these may be triggered by our hunger to connect. Navigating the often turbulent waters of intimacy calls for our best skills learned so long ago at the first meeting with our teacher-mother who brought to the meeting all that she could muster based on her life experiences. Often these old habits are dysfunctional and lead to much disappointment, disillusionment and heart ache. That is why the divorce rate is now over 50%. However, with awareness, sensitivity and hard work, new, more effective skills for developing intimacy and trust can be learned. But this means that old wounds and behaviors need to be confronted and dealt with. Otherwise we continue to live unconsciously and repeat our histories, making the same mistakes and failing to fill that original hunger, that emptiness that haunts us in our aloneness.

And so relationships run the gamut, exhibiting all the types of attachment styles, problems and peculiarities we humans seem to create out of our mad search for our soul mate. The styles are an endless combination, variations on a theme as it were: the dance of intimacy.

Some couples may have an ambivalent attachment and fight like cats and dogs and then passionately make up. They are acting out the original trauma drama. Still other couples find a way to establish a stable distance in their relationship which is neither intimate, nor volatile. This is a non-attached form of attachment. There is typically no intimacy, but also no rage or volatility. In all of these relationships it is the capacity for intimacy which determines their success or failure. All of this is determined by the original moment of falling in love for the first time. The disordered attachment relationships are the most difficult, they are full of rage, mistrust, unregulated anger and generally are abusive and violent. These are the relationships which make headlines and end up with partners getting killed or being involved in chronic domestic disputes. Their relationships are characterized by chaos.

I have friends who have been married a very long time and I asked them about the secret of their longevity. They all report that they are friends. Their relationships are characterized by stability, mutual respect, trust, affection and the ability to work out conflict and repair rifts in their relationship. They seem to have resilience, both personal as well as marital, both the qualities of fortunate early family stability and family cohesion. They not only found love, but they were able to nurture and maintain it. They also produced children with the same qualities. Secure attachment creates secure attachment: individuals capable of intimacy, trust, empathy, and the ability to bring their own strengths to the relationship enrich not only each other but also the relationship. Those who have found their wound mates bring their own impoverishment and need: depending on the other to make them a whole person. Healthy relationships are not based on two wounded, needy people looking and expecting the other to make them whole. This is the difference between soul mates and wound mates.

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