Do you feel that the pattern of relationships in your life is horribly consistent, as if it’s been scripted by the same people who wrote Groundhog Day, or perhaps Titanic? That no matter where the relationship starts—whether it’s a romance or friendship—it inevitably ends up in the same place and you end up feeling betrayed, played, or used? Does it seem as though you’re a magnet for people who treat you as your mother did? Or who make you feel as you did in childhood? Do you find yourself poring over articles that are all about narcissists and how to spot them pronto? Maybe you’ve even read a few I’ve written.
So what to do? Are you stuck on this carousel forever? The answer is “no.”
The solution is seeing what you bring to the party
Hold on a minute before you start yelling at me for blaming the victim because I’m not. In fact, I tend not to think of unloved daughters as victims but as women who don’t yet appreciate their own strength and power, and who are sometimes not just prone to misread other people’s motivations but also to behave ways that don’t serve them.
These behaviors, alas, are maladaptive coping mechanisms we took on in childhood just to muddle through or to lessen the amount of pain and conflict we were feeling. Mostly, these aren’t conscious behaviors either; they are rooted in unspoken assumptions we’ve made about relationships as they played out in our families of origin or what psychologists call “mental models.” Our style of attachment reflects those mental models as well as what we didn’t learn about managing our emotions and reactions in moments of stress. Seen from one point of view, attachment styles are really about emotional regulation.
Recognizing your style of attachment
If you are securely attached—having grown up loved, heard, and supported by your mother and father—you go out in the world with resilience, a belief that people are caring and capable of close connection, and that you will be able to rebound from mistakes and strive to meet your goals. You think well of yourself and of other people. In time of stress—when you’re anxious, lonely, or afraid—you are able to calm yourself down because you bring to mind moments when you got past those feelings and the people who supported you.
In contrast, insecure attachment is thought to have three adult variations, all of them the result of growing up with an unattuned and unloving primary caretaker, or one who ignored, marginalized, or made you feel bad about yourself; insecure attachment results from not having your emotional needs met in childhood which, among other effects, causes deficits in the management of emotion in times of stress.
The first insecure style is anxious-preoccupied: this is someone who genuinely wants love and support but is also extremely sensitive to rejection and worries about it constantly. As a result, you tend to ruminate and over-think relationships and you can be very volatile and quick to anger when you feel threatened; you sometimes sabotage a relationship because of your need for reassurance which can be wearing to a partner. Because you don’t feel worthy deep down inside, you’re not very good at articulating your needs.
The second insecure style is called dismissive-avoidant and her coping skills are different in kind. The dismissive-avoidant has gotten through childhood by armoring herself and thinking of herself as fiercely independent and not in need of close or intimate relationships; you have a high opinion of yourself and a low one of others. You manage relationships by maintaining high walls and control; any threat to either your defenses and your control will be countered immediately, most usually by your exiting the relationship. Mind you, while these coping mechanisms work on some level to relieve stress, they don’t make you happy. But it’s the only way you know and you tend to look away from the fall-out.
But all avoidants don’t dismiss relationships; those deemed to be fearful-avoidant do want close connection but the word “fearful” captures the bind they find themselves in. While the anxiously-preoccupied daughter will keep re-engaging as she panics, the fearful-avoidant will push off, heading for the hills. Of course, because she wants connection, this protective mechanism doesn’t bring her happiness either. If this is you, you think well of others but have a low opinion of yourself and your relationships also tend to fall into a definable groove. It’s one near-miss after another and you’re still lonely.
As you consider your own style of attachment, keep in mind that these types aren’t as set in stone as they might appear; you’re looking for how you must usually react in relationships as well as how you manage stress and negative emotion.
Your emotional baggage: Is this what you carrying?
Figuring out the dynamic in your relationships requires you to take a hard look at your own behaviors; it’s only by becoming consciously aware of our automatic reactions and triggers that we can unlearn what was learned in our families of origin. (For more on this, please see my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.)
As you read, ask yourself whether these are scenarios and behaviors that repeat in your own relationships.
- You avoid any kind of disagreement
If you’re anxious-preoccupied, you will first resort to pleasing and effectively muzzling yourself; while you want your lover or friend to know you, you actually fall into the pattern of not giving voice to your own needs and wants and then end up getting angry because he or she isn’t listening. Unloved daughters are quick to identify any kind of disagreement as threatening; they don’t understand that learning how to deal with differences of opinion between people is a foundation for a healthy dyadic relationship. The fearful-avoidant too folds her tents.
In contrast, the dismissive-avoidant sees disagreement as a potential threat to her control and defense. She’s most likely to withdraw and stonewall.
- You can never meet in the middle
The idea of compromise is often foreign to all of these insecurely attached daughters, if for different reasons. The anxious-preoccupied daughter is too focused on possible threats—she’s the sailor focused on possible storm clouds on a sunny day—to really appreciate the give-and-take of a relationship between two caring equals. She doesn’t think of herself of demanding but her constant need for reassurance and validation make her very demanding indeed.
The dismissive-avoidant holds her ground because she feels she wants what she wants and the other person just needs to accept that; the mantra is control, control, control.
3, You get defensive or dismissive if you’re criticized
Daughters who were constantly put down, told that they were inadequate, or called names are highly reactive to the slightest hint of criticism, even if it’s meant to be constructive. Mind you, no one likes being reminded of his or her shortcomings or missteps but the securely attached daughter doesn’t freak out when she’s reminded she’s not perfect; no one ever expected her to be so it doesn’t come as new news. But the unloved daughter thinks that if you’re not perfect, no one will ever love you; she never learned that people love you for who you are, not some gussied up and perfected version of yourself.
For the unloved daughter, criticism becomes a threat instead of part of an ongoing dialogue about responsibilities, expectations, and needs in a relationship. Your partner is bound to find your over-reaction hard to deal with and incredibly frustrating. Is this you?
- You placate (and feel used) or you bail
Pleasing is a default position of the anxiously-preoccupied in her effort to avoid conflict but it also results in her feeling that she’s been made voiceless and used when, in fact, she’s actually initiated those responses herself. This way of dealing can become incredibly frustrating to a lover or friend who simply doesn’t see why every decision made or every action has to become high drama.
- Your fears get the better of you
When you can’t manage your emotions, they will end up ruling you and your behaviors; that is a sad truth. The anxiously attached daughter can’t shift her attention away from the storm clouds that might show up which means she’s basically going to miss every sunny day in the relationship and create drama that interrupts connection and happiness. If a lover or friend is late in calling or meeting some other obligation, you shift into high gear, calling and texting, with the worst-case scenario in mind. You are a spinning top set in motion by your own fears, even though you think you’re reacting to what’s been done to you.
The fearful-avoidant reacts the same way; her fears effectively disappear her lover or friend from her emotional radar and she starts packing her bags. You feel left but the truth is way more complicated than that.
Learning to be your own friend and not your enemy is part of healing from a toxic childhood. Seeing yourself clearly is an important first step.
Photograph by Clem Onojeghuo. Copyright free. Unsplash.com