Disorganized Attachment Style and Domestic Abuse
An IFS Perspective
In a previous article I mentioned that there are four main attachment styes an individual can develop in childhood, and how these styles directly impact adult interpersonal relationships. Those attachment styles are:
Anxious-avoidant (also called disorganized)
In this article I’ll be focusing on the disorganized attachment style, and how painful this inconsistent dynamic is within the context of relationships.
Someone with a disorganized attachment style experiences a push-pull of emotions. On the one hand, they desperately long to draw close to their intimate partner—while on the other hand, they’re terrified to do so.
What’s going on?
To briefly recap, a disorganized attachment style is developed as a result of a repeated childhood history of abuse (including neglect) or trauma. It can also be caused if the primary caregiver is experiencing ongoing trauma of their own, and therefore can’t be fully present for their child.
To best understand what’s happening inside with someone who has a disorganized attachment style, an IFS (Internal Family Systems) approach is most effective.
Internal Family Systems (IFS): A model of therapy developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz that understands human beings to be comprised of a core Self and many different parts. Parts are unique aspects of our personalities (subpersonalities) that have their own thoughts, feelings, sensations, and agendas.
(Jenna Riemersma, LPC, Altogether You)
We all have various parts of ourselves: a creative part, a vulnerable part, a frustrated part, an impatient part, a critical part, etc. God created us as amazing, multi-faceted beings. The true “Self” is that core inner person who you were meant and designed to be, created in His image and likeness—the Imago Dei of Gen. 1:26-27. This Self is expressed most beautifully in the words of St. Catherine of Siena: “If you are what you ought to be, you will light a fire in all the world!”
By using this model of therapeutic healing we can more easily see what’s going on with someone who has a disordered attachment style.
If you’re in a relationship with someone who is attached in a push-pull, disorganized way, the knowledge can take the sting out of the constant rejection you’re likely experiencing, and can help you clarify the direction you need to take in your own healing journey.
If you’re the one who has an unstable way of relating to others, understanding why you feel and act the way you do can guide you toward discovering the best way to recover.
Note: Someone who established a secure attachment style in childhood but has endured the roller coaster ride of intimate partner violence or betrayal trauma may have developed a disorganized attachment style due to abuse and gaslighting, but this is different than a style developed in childhood. For more, read my article “How a Trauma Bond Can Change Your Attachment Style.”
Those with disorganized attachment have insistent exiled parts, coupled with very strong protector parts. The exiled parts hunger for love, acceptance, and security. The protector parts are convinced those desires are weaknesses—weaknesses that will lead the Self to ultimately be hurt once again.
And they can’t let that happen. At all costs, they must avoid vulnerability.
When an exiled part steps forward, an individual often craves love and intimacy. They will attempt to draw close to their partner, showering her with flowers or other gifts hugs, and terms of endearment, and other affectionate gestures.
However, when their partner responds positively to the gestures of love …
That’s scary! Screams another part of themselves.
As much as the individual may crave such closeness, it feels terrifying to them. A protector part steps forward to protect the self from vulnerability. In the past—far back in childhood—getting close to loved ones resulted in rejection, neglect, abandonment, or abuse.
The protector part, ever vigilant against future perceived injury, can’t let that happen again.
And so the protector causes the Self to pull back, to shove away that exiled part in need of love. The protector seeks to put that exile in jail, throw away the key, and dismiss it as if it no longer exists.
If the protector part is a manager, often the silent treatment will enter the relationship. Where once the partner was receiving gestures of love, gratitude and intimacy, now she’s being brushed aside with silence and the cold shoulder.
If the protect part is a firefighter, it’s not uncommon for them to isolate themselves in false and one-sided “intimacy” in the form of pornography addiction and other sexual dysfunctions and infidelities. These forms of sexual acting out allow for physical release while avoiding the possibility of intimate rejection.
Additionally, firefighters will often generate flames which create a burning wall between themselves and the one they’re seeking to authentically love. They’ll then put out those self-made flames in aggressive, often terrifying ways—for example, through various forms of domestic abuse, self-harming behaviors (reckless driving, alcoholism or drug abuse, cutting, gambling, dangerous sexual encounters, etc.).
These two parts—the exiled part desperately needing love and intimacy, and the protector part fearing vulnerability and hurt above all things—will continue to be at constant war within the individual who has a disorganized attachment style. The only way this war can be resolved is for the individual to fully recognize and integrate those parts in order to allow the true inner Self, made in God’s image, to take the driver’s seat.
And this is possible!
Attachment styles can change, and parts of ourselves that are causing harm within our lives can be transformed—yet all this just takes time, professional help, and Christ-centered healing. Working with an IFS trained coach or counseor is the first step to recovery.
Yet a person must first realize that recovery is necessary—and internally admit that change is possible. Without this first step, the healing journey will never begin.
And, again, there is no excuse for abuse. If you’re in a relationship with someone who seems to have a disorganized attachment style, and the protector part of your significant other is wreaking havoc on your relationship, your safety, and your sense of self—damaging who you truly are—an empathetic understanding of these underlying issues does not mean you should tolerate them. In fact, the knowledge will hopefully give you even more tools to help guide you as to how to set up appropriate boundaries in order to protect yourself, the rest of your family, as well as your own personal dignity and worth. This dignity and worth are gifts God gave you at your creation, and must never be forgotten.
To repeat the crucial words of St. Catherine of Siena in a letter she wrote to her dear friend Stefano Maconi, as he was struggling to overcome the coercive control of his mother:
“If you are what you ought to be, you will light a fire in all the world!”
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