How Does Childhood Trauma and Attachment Styles Show Up In Marriage?


How Does Childhood Trauma and Attachment Styles Show Up In Marriage?

Marriage is an attachment commitment to one or more persons who you feel connected and safe with. A person’s attachment style defines the way they organize relationships. People develop their attachment styles as children and often replicate them with their partners.

Mary Ainseworth, an American-Canadian Developmental Psychologist in 1969, observed attachment relationships with children and their caregivers in an experiment called Strange Situation. She observed four attachment styles: secure, anxious/avoidant, anxious/ambivalent, and disorganized/disoriented. Babies inherently know that they need to rely on their caregivers to keep them alive. Babies who felt safe and nurtured as children will go on to feel safe in the world and in their committed relationships. In the experiment the moms and babies played in a room together for a few minutes, then after which the mom left the room. When the moms returned the babies had various reactions.

The anxious/avoidant babies ignored their moms and played like nothing happened, even though they cried and looked for their moms when they left the room; seen as a reaction to consistent inattention to the baby’s needs. The anxious/ambivalent babies cried, clinging on to their moms, and were hard to soothe; a reaction to inconsistent attention to the baby’s needs. The disorganized/disoriented baby would tense the body, would not cry, and would go toward mom, then back away; they wanted connection but were fearful of it, some of these babies were found to be abused.

Why is this important?

When you know your attachment style you can understand how you react in stress. People who have experienced trauma in childhood often do not have a secure attachment style. These people survive their traumas; however, many are unaware of how their fear of safety shows up in everyday situations in relationships. You love the person you are with, you trust them. When upset, you find yourself acting like another person. You are reacting to feelings and your partner only sees your behavior not the fear that is underneath. You may shut down and not speak, or you may disconnect in other ways. You may overcompensate by checking in with your partner to make sure everything is okay after a fight more than once. The fantastic news is anyone can earn a secure attachment through relationships that feel safe and are nurturing. Becoming mindful of your actions, stopping and observing your behavior and the emotions that surface can give you insight into what you may need when stressed. For example, Do you need to feel safe? Do you feel worthy of being loved?

How fear of safety shows up in everyday situations in relationships

What does my attachment style have to do with trauma?

Trauma is an experience that leaves a person feeling deeply distressed. This is due to the mind-body relationship the person has with the event. Neuroscience has shown us people who have experienced trauma have reset their autonomic response center- they see a much more dangerous world. The traumatic experiences have made new neural pathways telling them the world is scary, much like an insecure attachment style.

Physiology of trauma

Human bodies have a central nervous system (CNS) connecting the brain and spinal cord where sensory and motor impulses are transmitted-this is the physiological basis of our experience of the world. The CNS is made of two systems, parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the mechanism gets you out of a crisis. People who experienced trauma spend little or no time in the PNS: their bodies are activated and ready to fight. Similarly, when a person with an insecure attachment style is upset, they are living in the SNS and are reacting to reach safety. Trauma robs you of feeling safe in your body. When you fight with your significant other you may be bringing in old wounds without consciously being aware of it. In order to recover from the experience, the mind, body, and brain need to be convinced that you are safe.

Now what do I do?

  • Slow down: take deep breaths in and longer breaths out, resetting your CNS. It is impossible to feel trauma in a relaxed body.
  • Learn your body: Yoga, Tai Chi, Meditation, Therapy, etc. are all ways of becoming aware of your body and mind.
  • Pay attention to the need that is not being met and communicate that to your partner. Looking underneath the behavior can help you to understand each other.
  • Communicate: Discuss with your partner what things make you upset, identify your triggers for anger, sadness, etc. When you feel a feeling identify what happened prior to that which left you with the feeling
  • Take a break: take a 5-20 minute breather when in an argument that is not going anywhere, then come back and talk.
  • Count backwards from 20, using your logical side of your brain will help balance the mind that is flooded with the emotional side.
Jennifer is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor Associate and a Developmental Disabilities Mental Health Specialist. She helps adults dealing with trauma, intellectual disabilities, neurological disorders and fetal alcohol syndrome. She has completed her bachelor’s from Antioch University and master’s in Mental Health Counseling.