posted by Amy on May 12
Both of my parents were unattached or anxiously attached. I think I know why, based on what I know about their childhoods. My younger sister is also severely attachment disordered. Because of a lucky combination of birth order and gender (my mother wanted me, and wanted a girl), genetics (I have a naturally sunny disposition and a strong constitution), and some key people who served as lifelines for me at critical times, I was less affected by it than my parents or siblings. But I spent most of my life harboring an unconscious fear of abandonment and trying to rescue abandoned babies. The embryonic true selves of people who lived behind false selves called to me, and I was irresistibly drawn to them. The only time it worked (although it took over 20 years) was when I rescued an actual abandoned baby. All the other projects failed.
“It begins with a blessing, but it ends with a curse, making life easy but making it worse. . . . Why, why, why are we sleeping?” Those song lyrics have been stuck in my head for almost forty years, beginning when the man who was to become my first husband said them to me, then played me the song. It’s an apt description of addiction. The addict finds something that fills a hole, that seems to make life better. Some addictive behaviors are highly valued in our culture, and most are at least tolerated or trivialized. The workaholic’s dedication is held up as a model for others. The anorexic, bulimic, or exercise addict is admired, at least for awhile. Such discipline! Such a thin, lovely body! The alcoholic “loosens up” after a drink or two and becomes more garrulous, gregarious, and charming. The codependent is such a “good” wife and “good” mother, never thinking of herself, sacrificing, working her fingers to the bone, living for her family. Such loyalty! On top of that, of course, is the high: the endorphin rush from exercise, the altered brain chemistry from starvation, the alcohol or drug “buzz,” or the adrenaline rush of careening from personal crisis to personal crisis.
Reactive Attachment Disorder (“RAD”) is a childhood diagnosis. It is defined in the DSM as “markedly disturbed and developmentally inappropriate social relatedness in most contexts, beginning before age 5 years, as evidenced by either (1) or (2): (1) persistent failure to initiate or respond in a developmentally appropriate fashion to most social interactions, as manifested by excessively inhibited, hypervigilant, or highly ambivalent and contradictory responses (e.g., the child may respond to caregivers with a mixture of approach, avoidance, and resistance to comforting, or may exhibit frozen watchfulness), (2) diffuse attachments as manifest by indiscriminate sociability with marked inability to exhibit appropriate selective attachments (e.g., excessive familiarity with relative strangers or lack of selectivity in choice of attachment figures).” These children often have other diagnoses, such as bipolar disorder, ADHD, or conduct disorder.
RAD kids grow up to be RAD adults. People with RAD fall along a continuum. On one end are people who appear to function pretty well but are “intense” or “difficult.” On the other are psychopaths and sociopaths. These people can be very charming and attractive. To strangers and casual acquaintances they seem to have it all together. They are exciting, glamorous, romantic, often very appealing. There may be a hint of melancholy or hard luck stories. It often seems like all they need is love. That’s true, but love from outside themselves will never heal the holes inside. They will never get better unless and until they figure out that they are the common denominator in all their failed relationships, and that they are causing their own misery. This is very, very unlikely to happen, largely because there is an unlimited supply of codependents who will follow the right script for keeping everything hidden and unchanged. Their frames for categorizing their feelings and experiences always deflect the responsibility onto others, making it impossible for them to see themselves.
Most RAD adults will form emotional bonds with adult partners and friends. At first the relationships will seem quite satisfactory and secure. But, after the “honeymoon” is over, the RAD will begin to be very uncomfortable and unhappy. You’re pretty sure you haven’t changed, so this is quite confusing. The RAD person’s hidden inner child takes over and begins controlling the relationship. You will feel instinctively that something is amiss, but you will be unable to stop or redirect the process once it starts. RAD people are afraid to love and unable to trust. They have never known true love or trust. They hide this in the early stages of a friendship or romantic relationship, but they can’t keep it up. Their fear has many of the characteristics of other phobias, notably claustrophobia. They will express this fear as rage or withdrawal, or they may alternate between those two poles. Addictive behaviors may increase. Cross addictions may appear. They do and say irrational, disturbing, often abusive things. You are both in for a very bumpy ride.
Once the process starts, anything you do will make matters worse. Try to be more attentive and loving, and it will be interpreted as engulfment, triggering more fear. Defend yourself from verbal attacks, and it will feed the RAD person’s belief that you are the one with the problem, which will engender more criticism and rejection. Take issue with the behavior, or ask for changed behavior, and you will be accused of nagging, or of being overly critical or picky. Try to rise above it and not react, and your RAD partner will interpret your behavior as uncaring, and will feel rejected.
Like everyone else, RADs want to love and be loved, but for them their attempts to have intimate relationships cause severe distress. When these behaviors and attitudes appear the RAD person is experiencing, reacting to, and blaming the partner for the intense fear and despair that were laid down in her or his infancy and early childhood. What the RAD person really seeks is freedom from the pain that is caused by loving and being loved.
You can’t provide that. The only thing you can do about it is not take it personally, take care of yourself, stand your ground, and let go of outcomes. It is an opportunity to learn true humility, to learn to love yourself, and to learn to love another person unconditionally. You have no control over the other person. You cannot make it turn out well. No one can force anyone to love or to trust.
However, only if you love and trust yourself, take care of yourself, and protect yourself and the rest of the family from abuse AND find ways to stay and not reject him or her will your your partner or friend have any chance of eventually learning to do the same. You can’t change your partner, but you can change how you see the situation. You can’t change your partner, but you can stop doing the dance. You can change how you respond. In fact, you don’t even have to change your behavior, if you just change your own attitude. If you accept that your behavior is a choice that you freely make; it is not something your partner “makes” you do, and you could choose otherwise, then that one change will have a profound difference in how you feel about it, and in how the RAD responds. That alone can disrupt the pattern enough to bring change. In the process you will learn valuable relationship skills and build emotional maturity and competence. Do not stick around, though, if there’s physical danger, and do not do it so you can “win” the control battle. Do not do it out of a sense of martyrdom or in order to feed your own inner drama queen.
There is some reason you find this kind of person appealing. Figure that out, and heal the weak spots inside yourself. Is it a smoke screen for your own fear and insecurity? When you were growing up did you have an attachment figure (mother, father, main caregiver) who was like this? Do you have attachment issues of your own? Did you grow up with a problem drinker or addict? Do you have PTSD? Find a therapist who specializes in attachment, or join Al-Anon, or both. Spiritual practices, such as yoga, meditation, or centering prayer, can also help.
Here is a list of characteristics of adults with Reactive Attachment Disorder. No one has all of them, and the healthiest people have a few, at least once in awhile. Look for patterns of avoidant or ambivalent personal relationships, dishonesty, and lack of authenticity. If you keep getting into relationships with addicts, chances are you’ll see items in this list that also apply to you:
1) Poor peer relationships/few friends
2) Internal chaos externalizes in messy house, losing things, disorganization
3) Won’t ask for what he or she wants
4) Compulsive self-reliance
5) Passive withdrawal
6) Lack of empathy
8) Life drama—consistent theme
9) Hypersensitive to perceived rejection by others
10) Victim mentality
11) Superficially charming to strangers
12) Smart person acting dumb
14) Black and white thinking
15) Excessive need for control
16) Resents structure imposed by others: oppositional, noncompliant
17) Words and actions don’t match—talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk
18) Poor to zero follow-through, leaves things unfinished
19) Fear of abandonment—excessively clingy
20) Fear of engulfment—aloof, distant
21) Poor limit-setting with kids and/or pets
22) Temper tantrums
23) Crazy lying
25) No object permanence—out of sight out of mind
26) Ego centered as opposed to other centered
27) Judgmental, critical, self-righteous
28) Little or no remorse or “odd” expressions of remorse
29) Appears much younger when scared or angry
31) Excitement junkie—got to have a “fix”
32) Unreliable, “forgetful”
33) Binge eating or drinking; sugar addict; abnormal eating habits
34) Unaware or disrespectful of others’ personal space
35) Excessive chatter or excessively quiet; no modulation
37) Scripted interactions with attachment figures
39) Very sensitive to change
41) Doesn’t call self or others by personal name
42) Phony: pontificates, repeats self, tells the same stories over and over, for years at a time
43) Yo-yo behavior—come here; no, go away, “push-pull”
44) Poor eye contact except when angry