The child of neglect, often virtually from the point of conception, floats in a sea of solitude. Like a fish, the water may not even register, as it can seem “natural” or the norm, the absence of attachment being all that is known. Attachment, however, is not only a birthright – it is nature’s design. To be connected is a survival need, and in effect, nurture is nature. To be left alone and adrift is a crime against nature as far as I am concerned.
As the child grows older, solitude may become the default, seemingly “preferred” state, most likely not consciously. The less familiar state of being in company or connected with anyone may feel like a strain at the very least, if not foreign, impossible, even terrifying. More than a few neglect survivors I have known found the isolation of lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic barely noticeable or even a welcome “permission” to simply lay low. Often, I have heard their partners complain bitterly of feeling perennially rejected.
When I first started my anecdotal study and data collection about neglect and began to formulate the outlines of what I came to think of as the “Neglect Profile,” I noticed what I perceived as a seismic shrug, often accompanied by the words “I don’t know what to do!” or “There is nothing I can do!” Going back probably to the beginning of time in their relationship world, they felt that they had no impact at all, so the experience of powerlessness seems to rumble and quake from deep in their core. Often, these people are extraordinarily accomplished and proactive in other ways, be they professional, creative, athletic, or some other significant pursuit.
The domain of relationships confronts the child of neglect with their core paradox: the central conundrum that plagues them, whether or not they are aware of it. It is what local treasure, Berkeley attachment researcher Mary Main, calls the dilemma without solution. If they allow themselves to feel their natural longing for connection, they are faced with a story and the ongoing threat of agony and, at the very least, vulnerability. What is to be done? Most likely, the only viable adaptation is to freeze or avoid. Often this also is the complaint of their partners: numbing, avoidance, even paralysis.
The domain of relationships confronts the child of neglect with their core paradox: the central conundrum that plagues them, whether or not they are aware of it. It is what local treasure, Berkeley attachment researcher Mary Main, calls the dilemma without solution.
Most who have sought answers in the complex world of relationships have heard of the marriage researcher John Gottman. I have been an avid student of his for my entire couples’ therapist life of thirty years now. Although his therapy methods are different from mine, he provides a goldmine of scientific data, perhaps 40 years now of longitudinal research on what makes a relationship successful and the predictive factors of separation and divorce. He amassed all this information utilizing what he called his “Love Lab,” where couples would spend an uninterrupted weekend in his specially designed and equipped apartment/lab, with a video camera on them the entire time. It is amazing to imagine volunteering to be studied in that way – a heroic contribution to science and all of us, really.
Gottman is famous for identifying what he calls The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the four top predictors of relationship demise: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and withdrawal. I won’t detail each of them here, but Gottman’s books are imminently readable and well worth it. (Interested readers might start with his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.)
Often the adult child of neglect, when faced with relationship conflict, might lapse into defensiveness, which is a denial of responsibility or a pushing back when faced with a complaint, criticism, or rupture. And, of course, if I truly believe I am powerless, it is easy to claim, “I didn’t do anything!” or “It’s not my fault!” Ironic that the complaint might, in fact, be about what they did not do, when the child of neglect themselves have been largely victimized by missing behaviors that also were not done and experiences that did not happen. Oy vey.
Unwittingly, an expression of defensiveness can be “explaining” (“I only did what I did because…”), which sounds to the injured party like nothing but excuses, and is not helpful as a repair tool, unfortunately. But how would a survivor of neglect learn anything about relationship repair, having grown up in a relationship desert? None of us with attachment trauma of any ilk learned about relationship repair, which is what makes relationships so dicey. Without repair, any rupture in the connection is “fatal.” And, of course, no relationship is without missteps and misunderstandings at the very least. Of course, they seem like a collision course at best, and fatally dangerous at worst.
Unfortunately, for many a child of neglect whose futile effort at being perfect, or some other adaptation to the disconnection, resignedly resort to “leaving.” That was certainly my strategy, in its various forms: I tried to be away on my bike and then backpacking as much as I could; I lied and I drank, all from early ages. There was “nothing I could do…”
Though thankfully I was able to stop drinking and lying, I still hit the fourth of the horsemen pretty squarely if I am severely activated. If I am not mindful, I am still capable of withdrawing into a private and impenetrable cave if I am upset enough. And admittedly, withdrawal indeed has the potential to be the most deadly of all.
And what if I am not so fortunate as to have a partner who will go to therapy with me? Are we doomed to relationship misery or destruction? It is a good question.
Like many of us, I am a “double winner” with both attachment trauma in the form of neglect, and plenty of “shock” or incident trauma, so I am a veteran of some of the worst relationship-busting behaviors. Fortunately, although I defaulted to self-reliance like most of us children of neglect, that did not stop me from always seeking help. So, the one piece of relationship advice I ever give traumatized people of any stripe (or anyone really!) is to seek out a partner who is also willing to work on the relationship, because we will need to!
And what if I am not so fortunate as to have a partner who will go to therapy with me? Are we doomed to relationship misery or destruction? It is a good question. Partnering with a neglect survivor who is convinced of their powerlessness (blamelessness?) may make one feel saddled with all the blame and all the work of transforming both oneself and the relationship. Often there is a collusion about that, with both partners believing there is one problem child. Well, not on my watch.
I remember when my partner would say with the signature neglect shrug, “I will just sit here and wait until the sun comes out…” I would ignite with rage at the implication that the problem was all me, and its resolution was all my job. That in itself would make for a colossal escalation. I now know, and it is my intention to teach, that all relationship dynamics are in self-re-enforcing feedback loops – self-re-enforcing if they are allowed to continue with their own momentum. The best way forward is to work together to change dynamics. The good news, however, is that we each have the power to interrupt the cycle by simply not lapsing into the behavior that incites the other when they have activated us. I say simply, which is not to be confused with easily! Healing trauma is required, as well as building new brain circuitry. And yes, couples therapy is the more efficient way to create a new dynamic. Even that is a very tough road and takes longer than we’d like.
What if my partner, for whatever reason, can’t or won’t go to therapy with me? Does that mean we’re through? Well, not necessarily. It will mean that if one partner is willing to work hard, and carry the burden of stopping their side of the dynamic, knowing that it takes both of them to keep it going, or as I am fond of saying, “It takes two to escalate.” That means if I don’t react to the trauma reaction with my own trauma reaction, the old explosion will sizzle and extinguish; the drama will fade.
It is a hard sell that that might be the only way to change the tide of the relationship. It may be too much of a repetition of one’s lonely and burdened relationship past. It may also be a source of bitterness, that once again, “If I don’t do it all, there is no relationship…” However, there is a chance that it might begin a positive feedback cycle which makes the previously unable or unwilling partner believe, that it might be worth pitching in and doing more. At the very least, it might be a source of pride, joy, pleasure, and even gratitude. “I did it for us, because I could, and I win by ending up with you.”
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.