attachment issues

Kramer vs Kramer, children of divorce.

Reader Mail: Recovering from Attachment Issues (and Helping Children!)

Interesting message from a reader who thoroughly absorbed the lessons of Avoidant and Bad Boyfriends.

I haven’t been able to reach her to get permission to quote her, so I’ll paraphrase and remove any distinctive information.

Thank you for setting out this masterpiece of attachment theory and its connection to the success or failure of relationships.

I feel deeply grateful for your work and I am, at the same time struggling with conflicting feelings of encouragement and also sadness at the reality of what I’m facing, and what my children are facing.

I’ve been working my entire life since a teenager when I read the works of Montessori… and determined that I would make my life better for my children….

I decided in my mid twenties, when I first started counselling, that “the buck stops here” and I started all of the work I could do, including EMDR, CBT; whatever was available on myself, so that my childhood would not be repeated in my innocent children’s lives.

However as your book illustrates so beautifully, the automatic attachment style that I had kept me at the fringes of healthy social relationships, and I have yet to learn how not to be a target for predators.

Your story about the owls gave me a metaphor for much of what has happened in my life. The abundance of untrained owls in the forest looking down and seeing a runner stimulates their automatic hunting instincts. The relationship that begins when there’s a pattern of being attacked and the fears that become programmed create a social structure that seems to be difficult to change… I now run through the forest of social gatherings, trying not to flinch when people approach, and it seems I just make myself more of a target.

I am 62 years old, I’m a Montessori preschool teacher, and I’ve raised my own five children from two different fathers, usually alone as a single mother. I’m still in counseling and I have made progress with my emotional regulation and a meaningful life, but not yet with a significant relationship.

All through my life, the rare men who do initiate relationships with me have each been human beings who were on the dark side pathologically, very good at appearances just like my father who was a well respected professional… and a pedophile.

Beyond my own personal struggle to find healthy attachment relationships, I am deeply concerned about the state of the culture. I researched ACES in my graduate program. I see the trend growing as each year more and more children in my work as a Montessori preschool teacher come in with serious dysregulation, much of which comes from attachment difficulties. Like your young Owls, they are untrained, and they seem to not know their own kind, attacking their peers and teachers and even parents, and are very distrusting.

My long-term goal is to create an organization that works to strengthen understanding of attachment, and to help parents and communities to increase their skills of attachment.

Do you think there is hope? What do you see? Do you have any suggestions, either personally, or for my work with children?

You have already accomplished a great deal in bringing up your children with a special effort to protect them from the consequences of absent fathers. I grew up unfathered, my mother worked hard to support us and I lacked a lot of skills and emotional support good parenting can provide. While a conscientious single parent can create a nurturing environment for children, having two parents gives a child a better chance of having at least one parent who can be relied upon as a safe emotional base. Notably, the absence of a father’s guidance can leave children to the mercies of peer groups and lacking self-confidence to grow into adulthood with a sense of responsibility and the tools to nurture their new relationships and children.

This post featuring a “Fiddler on the Roof” song gets at the responsibility we have to heal our own attachment issues or at least shield our children from them. You have chosen to work on yourself and work to limit the damage your own issues caused, and deserve to have all your work recognized. It’s hard to go through life, much less raise children, with absent or estranged partners. Your life has been meaningful and your work with children no doubt improved the lives of hundreds. Give yourself permission to feel proud of the good you have done in your life.

As I am near your age and was also raised by a single working mother, I thank you as I would my own mother, for all the toil and burden you shouldered. You took a problem and made it a mission!

As for relationships, some of my reviewers were appalled when I wrote about how the odds are stacked against you if you find yourself alone in later life. If you are aware of your own tendency to be attracted to Dark Triad types, you can learn to notice the less obvious, more reliable men who would make good partners — there are always people coming out of good relationships through death or divorce of their spouse, and late-life second, third, or fourth marriages can be the best — because both partners are wiser and often have learned from previous relationships how to be better partners. Resisting your attachment habits of gravitating to the most dashing and apparently capable men will serve you well.

It’s most important of all that you find your partner fun to talk to and be with — after all, the rest of life will be spent less driven by hormones and career, and more by companionship and cozy familiarity. Happiness is someone who understands you and will listen, while being there when you need him.

Your idea of an organization to raise awareness of attachment issues and promote healthier attachment among children and families is a good one, and please let me know if I can help. I and my partner are planning to have two kids by IVF (this late in life that’s safest, with youthful eggs from a donor.) I was one of the very few children in my generation who did not have two active parents, but by now divorce and migration are so common that the rate of underparented children has skyrocketed. And as parents themselves grow less responsible and take less time with their offspring, through economic stress and selfishness, the harm done grows. It only takes a few troubled children in a class to divert so much attention that the rest are neglected. Some inner-city schools that bear the brunt of this phenomenon are mainly run as daycare for children, with little education going on. The societal damage is enormous, with the well-off segregating themselves and their children in (sometimes literally) walled enclaves where public and private schools are still good.

Best of luck on your already-well-lived life. Be happy — you have better chapters ahead.