by Jill Call, AMFT
“I must be crazy!” A woman recently expressed to me. “I want to love and feel emotionally safe with my husband at the same time that I want nothing to do with him.” Maybe you’ve felt like this woman – caught between competing feelings of “come close” and “get away.” Well, you’re not crazy. You’re experiencing the pull and drama of attachment.
You may feel “crazy” because you want to push your partner away and yet long for his support and understanding too. This is natural. You are attached to your partner and naturally depend on him for emotional support. What makes this difficult is that, in the case of sexual addiction, he is the source of your pain and so you reflexively want to push him away.
Especially when you have been hurt by your partner’s actions, you might feel this tug-of-war between wanting to protect yourself from the hurt (and fear of future hurt), and wanting to feel reassured that your partner is still there for you. This can create feelings of confusion or thinking that you must be “crazy.” Actually, this is quite common, and is better understood by knowing about primary attachment.
Primary attachment is the inborn need we have to be emotionally connected to someone who will be there for us. In early childhood, primary attachment is with our parents. In adult love relationships, it’s the emotional bonding that occurs between intimate partners. You have an innate and lifelong need to feel loved, accepted, and understood by your partner.
Attachment is a biological wiring to need others. It’s not needy. It’s not co-dependent. There is nothing maladaptive about it. It is innate and good and healthy.
There is a myth about intimate relationships that if you’re “healthy” you should be able to keep yourself emotionally distant enough from your partner so that his actions and emotions will not affect you. This is simply not possible. Once you are attached to your partner, the two of you form a shared physiological unit. Dr. Levine, in his book, “Attached”, says, “our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood. We are no longer separate entities.” In a very real sense, then, you are one with your partner.
When you think your partner has acted out sexually, you may notice your pulse starts racing, your breathing becomes shallow, and your body speeds up. You might feel sick to your stomach. You may have tightness in your neck and shoulders. You’ll likely feel a full range of emotions like anger, hurt, sadness, hopelessness, irritation, frustration, helplessness and anxiety.
Since we are wired to seek comfort from our primary attachment figure when we’re in pain, we naturally seek out comfort from our partner when attachment needs are activated. In other words, we have an urgent need to feel safe and reassured. However, because of the effects of sexual addiction, your partner may not feel like a “safe” person to reach for when you need reassurance. The effect of sexual addiction on attachment relationships is relational trauma, also called an attachment injury. Noelle Christensen expertly addressed relational trauma in the LifeStar newsletter from September 2013.
Attachment injuries can change the climate of the relationship. You will have trauma triggers and your sense of attachment security will be undermined. Hence, the tug-of-war between needing to feel reassurance from your partner and wanting to push him away.
If your partner isn’t able to reassure you, your attachment system will continue to seek for comfort and closeness until it is sufficiently calmed. This is when it is critical to reach out to others for comfort and support. While they are not your primary attachment system and will not calm you as deeply as primary attachment, they are a healthy substitute and will give you support and strength.
Reaching out to another person will help to calm your physical and emotional reactions to an activated attachment need and help you feel some safety and reassurance.
Call a group member. Call a family member or friend who has earned the right to know your story. Talk to a neighbor. You don’t even have to share the details of what is going on. Just feeling connected to a compassionate person will help to calm your attachment system.
Once you better understand your need for attachment, you will be better able to get your attachment needs met in helpful ways – and then you can stop feeling “crazy.”