Attachment theory postulates that the quality of intimate connections adults form with others is like the ones formed their caregivers in youth. (For more information on attachment theory, see https://www.innerstatehealingandrecovery.com/attachmentbonding). When custodians cannot bond to their dependents, children learn distrust and maladjusted forms of relating to others. Insecure attachment styles remain at the base for multiple mental health difficulties. Depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and suicide are just a few examples of pervasive mental illnesses that can include an inability to form long-lasting, stable relationships with others.
Whether or not you like it, you are human. If you are reading this, you need to connect with other individuals. This demand is in our DNA. As a species, we learned to survive in packs, or tribes. Alone, we die. This is also how a child also perceives neglect. Kids internalize neglect and abandonment, which they perceive as a life-threat. Their brains cope by dissociating from the pain, or the dorsal vagal “freeze” state in Polyvagal Theory (see https://www.innerstatehealingandrecovery.com/boundariesareforstrength for full Polyvagal Theory description).
When we attach securely with others, we are most happy, healthy, and functional. It’s biology. Our brains produce chemicals that enhance wellbeing when we exist within a community and have a sense of purpose. In Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, he quotes, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose… Those why have a “why” to live can bear with almost any “how.”” A holocaust survivor and a neurologist, Frankl studied the devastating effects of hopelessness firsthand. In the Adverse Childhood Events (ACE) studies, vulnerable children’s outcomes strengthened the more positive, stable relationships they had with adults. The good news is this can change. The bad news is, building trust is an especially scary process.
In this era, COVID forced isolation drives disconnection. According to a June survey of approximately 5,000 adults, 13% reported using substances, atop a whopping 30.1% reported an increase in alcohol use, to help cope with the effects of COVID (Supplemental Research Bulletin, 2021). The isolation required for social distancing creates the perfect environment for using since isolation is a major behavior of addicts. Many say that addiction is a disease of connection.
These last two years have been the hardest for most. The mandatory shutdown of the economy, forced isolation, fear of death, and disconnection affects us all. Angry outbursts at loved one’s rose by 17% in 2020. Thoughts of suicide climbed 25.5% of GenZ, young adults ages 18-24 (Supplemental Research Bulletin, 2021). People are angry, scared, and tired. The resurgence of the COVID variant creates hopelessness in a society already crippled by economic insecurity and the first deadly impact of the disease.
More relationships have broken up than I have witnessed in a lifetime. I have also experienced the devastating effects of isolation. While an active alcoholic several years ago, I acted fantastically out of control. My behaviors pushed many away, ending some long-time relationships. There are some friends I may never get back. When I began this journey to sobriety, I learned how to make living amends and continue to live in accordance to the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Steps recovery traditions. As the 10th step says, “We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” Let me tell you how easy that is for a person who is fiercely anti-dependent (hint: it’s not, but much easier now with practice). Being independent is a benefit. Anti-dependency creates walls where intimacy is impossible.
COVID-forced isolation is easy for me because: 1) I’ve already lived through that type of environment; 2) I am introverted and thrive in alone time with creativity; and 3) I learned to find the blessings in tragedies. There is always a lesson. As Frankl apostatized, finding purpose in tragedy gives meaning to life. Suffering occurs, life spares none from it. It is how one reacts to suffering that matters.
Recovery from both trauma and addiction revealed hard truths. This is why and how group therapy is so effective. First, fears about what others think of me can get distorted because of shame and pain. Childhood bullying and parental emotional/psychological abuse left me with deep scars that took decades to heal from. When everyone you have ever known from birth has told you what a piece of useless shit you are, you believe it. Second, my reactions to others drive their behavioral responses. If I believe another person intends to hurt me, I react defensively. This defensive posture elicits a negative reaction from others, and I get hurt anyway through rejection or abandonment. This self-fulfilling prophecy is tremendously hard to recognize, and even scarier to break. Vulnerability in the face of shame feels deadly.
Relationships are challenging. It is extremely scary for most people to be vulnerable. The easiest solution is to stop contact and discard the person from one’s life whenever conflict arises. And while letting go of toxic relationships is necessary when it affects one’s mental capacities to function deeply, pushing all the people out of one’s life becomes a perilous coping strategy that kills intimate connection one needs in order to thrive. Relationships have seasons, with fluctuations of joy and hardship. Like the variation of the weather, environmental and psychological conditions of individuals in relationships vary. When in conflict, there are several responses each can have based on the attachment styles of those involved. And when these styles differ, the reactions may be offensive to one another. If insecure, the chances for rupture are high.
So, why try at it when you can just get another friend, lover, or adopted parent? If you have dumped close relationships before, you might realize how painful this process is. If this was a person intimately close to you, then the next person will not likely be as close. What if this is a child? You cannot replace all ties and expect the new ones to fulfill the same role of the last. Who defines the criteria for keeping a relationship or for letting one go? There are no instructions that guide us through this crazy process of building kinship and community. Also as delineated before, having connection increases chances for survival by substantially improving mental health and wellness.
Seeing interactions through a macro lens has strengthened my capacity to empathize, even with people that have exhibited harmful behavior. When I figured out others struggle and hurt as I do, it changed my reaction to conflict. People have different ways of dealing with pain. Some dump their emotional garbage onto others or repress it. I stopped personalizing most offensive behaviors and seeing these as responses from people who are hurting. When you take those dark lenses off, the world appears much brighter.
Putting myself in the victim role passed the responsibility off to others. I gained little movement forward. In reality, a person handles one’s own reaction. If a stranger walking down the street calls me ugly or stupid, I can take that one of two ways: I can believe that stranger and get sad, or mad by that emotional abuse. Or, I can choose to the boundary of that individual and trust the image created of self-esteem and refute that stranger’s unkind words. If I choose to assign little value to that verbal attack, the chances of getting upset are small. Pia Mellody refers to this concept as having internal boundaries or protecting the concept of one’s self. Anger takes a lot of energy. The consumption of brainpower is exhausting. When every incident creates this feeling continuously, life becomes debilitating and miserable.
I look for the human being underneath the offensive behavior. We all feel joy, pain, shame, and anger. All have unique experiences that make our personalities diversify. Each person exists at a particular life stage. Understanding the complete entity of a being rather than the slice of experience shifts my perspective to that of understanding and empathy rather than fight or flight. This compassion also gets extended to the view of me. When I move into insight, I pull out of judgment. And, I grow. The less I fight, or react with similar aggression, or run away, the better I can find a solution to the conflict. Tumult gets worked through and does not lead to the loss of the relationship.
Growing up is hard. Especially at thirty. Relationships are complicated, but incredible investments. Having no one is even harder. There is a delicate balance to keep relational allegiances that is easier for some to master. One must be able to determine what behaviors are tolerable and where to draw the line. In addition, boundaries are useless unless they become reinforced. For me, having these settings from the start creates relationship stability without question. Keeping oneself mentally and physically protected through the establishment of a healthy boundary system is necessary to create an environment that fosters growth. Without it, we struggle to coexist.
I have changed this cycle through establishing boundaries, reinforcing them, and assessing my personality characteristics to improve on what areas I can change. I also hold others accountable for breaking my boundaries. Consistent trampling over these lines shows to me that the other person places no value on our friendship. It takes two people to make an alliance work. If one is unwilling to do the work necessary, or respect the rules of the liaison, then there is no relationship.
So, though keeping up with relationships is a hassle, it is imperative for stable wellbeing. Isolation exists to make us sicker. It is through relationships people become hurt, and so it is through relationships we heal. Learning to keep those relationships healthy takes time, consistency, and patience. Finding the growth amidst the conflict broadens our outlook and purpose. In isolation we suffer, together, we are better.
Supplemental Research Bulletin: A Preliminary Look at the Mental Health and Substance Use-related Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA). May 2021. Accessed September 13, 2021 at: https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/dtac/mental-health-substance-use-effects-covid-pandemic-srb.pdf