There’s nothing like parenting to open your eyes to how you were parented, and I’ve discovered that I have an avoidant attachment style.
As a mother of two, I know I’m passing on the damaging legacy of being emotionally distant. I push my older child away, keeping them at arm’s length. With the youngest, who is still a baby, it’s completely different: I know they are securely attached to me … for now, at least.
My mum had to retire at the age I am now (40s), as she was ill – she was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Despite having had counselling before lockdown – and having read about all possible attachment styles in books – I feel patterns repeating themselves. I want to be a warm, loving mother, and an affectionate, gregarious wife, but I don’t seem capable.
My husband has said he is struggling with me “closing him down” when he tries to tell me his feelings. He is right. I do it with him and my child. If they come to me with a problem, I immediately downplay it.
I am crying out for help with my fear of repeating the awful inheritance of avoidant attachment with my own children. And I want to be a better friend to myself.
Your original letter was long and detailed, but at the heart of it was confusion, sadness and loneliness. I wonder if it is significant that you are the same age as your mother was when she had to give up work?
But you are not your mother, and you are in control of your life, even if you don’t feel like you are. Your (self-?) diagnosis might be a barrier to allowing yourself to really feel. Analysis is useful, but it can be also be a great anaesthetic against pain; when we are constantly thinking about an issue, we don’t have to feel. Is this another defence against opening yourself up and making yourself vulnerable?
I contacted psychoanalytic psychotherapist Susanna Abse. We both felt you may have some misunderstandings about attachment styles. “They’re not fixed; people’s style can vary in different situations,” Abse says. This is why some people can make us feel safe, and some don’t.
“It’s in our most intimate relationships that we are most likely to be most fearful about being hurt, and this leads to us finding ways to defend ourselves,” she adds.
Abse didn’t think you were avoidant: “The opposite – you seem preoccupied with how people find you, and what others will do and think. On top of that, you have a nasty internal critic which further undermines you.”
She suggested: “Stop reading.” And while we noted you had tried counselling, she thought you might try a “particular kind of therapy, psychoanalytic or dynamic. One that isn’t necessarily about getting answers but where the therapist will help you work through, in real time, some of the anxious feelings that drive both the preoccupation and the remoteness.”
Could you allow yourself to be a bit less guarded and more curious? This may sound simplistic, but how much exercise do you do? Doing something physical is a great antidote to thinking: it can take you out of your head.
Next time your child or your husband comes to you with a problem, give yourself permission to say very little. Take a deep breath and just listen. You can even say, “I’m just going to think about that.”
The “roles” of mother and wife that you hold up are ideals, but not realistic – we are human after all.
Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to [email protected]. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.
Conversations With Annalisa Barbieri, a new podcast series, is available here.