Divorce and Attachment Issues
by Shonnie Brown, MFT

Alyce came to my separation/divorce group full of shame and regret about her own infidelity and her husband's subsequent decision to end their marriage. The more she delved into her feelings, the more she became aware of panic at her very core. She described feelings of "no longer being tethered to the earth," and "free floating without any ground." Returning each day to an empty house was terrifying. She had lost her "secure base", her attachment object, not realizing that the idea of his simple constant presence in her life was holding her fragile self together despite the quality of their relationship. Her secure base was, in actuality, an illusion.

We confront this illusion regularly in my groups. With divorce recovery, as with any major life loss, developmental processes and normal grief responses are interrupted to the degree that the person is insecurely attached and/or lacking the ability to internalize the image of loved ones. Thinking in terms of attachment theory (John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth) and object relations (Margaret Mahler, etc.), I observe a full range of attachment responses to spousal loss.

In Alyce's case it was apparent that the very deepest attachment issues had been triggered and that she had no ability to comfort herself internally. With no internal comforting mechanisms, the abandoned person often feels suicidal, depressed and completely without coping skills. Frantic attempts to fill the void through alcohol, drugs and indiscriminate sex are common responses. Alyce needed new external attachments (friends, structure, church, etc.) as she began the slow work of building the inner resources she'd never known. Unfortunately, this work was very scary and she left the group prematurely rather than continuing to use the group resource as a new attachment object.

Another client, Michael, was originally very fearful of leaving a wife who greatly inhibited his healthy developmental need for growth. After considerable therapy, he finally let go into the unknown. Leaving his home and moving into a small, temporary space was frightening, as his home and his wife were both very strong attachment objects. But, as he acknowledged his fear and loss of structure, he simultaneously began creating a vast network of relationships based on old and new interests. He began saying "Yes" to offers he had declined for "decades" and had longer and more varied conversations with people in coffee shops and at parties. He learned that at heart he was an adventurer of sorts, and by saying "Yes!" to life, he kept surprising himself and liking himself more and more as he did.

Interestingly, after a couple of years of marital separation, Michael's ex was still clinging to his memory (the illusion of the constant object) as her secure base even though they barely had contact. I understood that her denial and resistance to forming new attachments was another response to the panic of object loss. While Michael had been in a new relationship for several months, she was still focused on their reconciliation as a shield against the void. Because Michael still struggled with object loss himself, he colluded with her fantasy by remaining a bit ambiguous in their conversations, not daring to mention the dreaded "divorce" word. In our continuing work, he focuses on developing the ability to tolerate truly letting go.

Pamela felt completely abandoned when her husband left their long term marriage for another woman. She came into the group with significant pain and rage addressed towards her ex as well as his family. She didn't shy away from expressing her anger in group, while she simultaneously worked on developing her spirituality and creating a network of loving friends. Within a short couple of months, she was focusing on her future, laying the past relationship aside more and more. Knowing that most people who have been thus betrayed and abandoned have such a difficult time moving on and creating new attachments, I asked how she had succeeded in staying grounded and connected during this most challenging time.

"I adopted a litter of kittens," she told the group. "It's hard to be angry, to keep your heart closed and to not feel connected when you have five little furry ones purring in bed with you each night. I feel needed and animals are very grounding.

"And, though I may never really trust a man again," she continued, "I am busy creating a real network in which I can be fully passionate about my spiritual growth and surround myself with like-minded friends."

Pamela's response is a healthy one. Having a long history of abandonment, she recognized that she was left without structure or an attachment object and took decisive steps to attend to feelings of emptiness and unboundedness. She is working hard at an interesting job. She has set financial goals for herself. And she is "filling her nest" with literal warm fuzzies.


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