I have been busy and have not posted for a while as we are selling our house. We have outgrown it and need to move to a larger home. It has been hectic, cleaning and presenting our house, viewing others, accepting and making offers, dealing with estate agents and solicitors. It all seems to be sorted, we have sold and we have somewhere to move to which is not bad given our house went on the market at Easter!
Moving house is cited as one of the most stressful things you can do in your life, beaten only by a death of a close one and divorce. Stress does funny things to people, I get butterflies in my stomach and find it hard to eat but I also find it quite energising. My husband gets very anxious and feels it somatically in his body as a pounding heart, tense shoulders and headaches. Anxiety is something he suffers with in many spheres of life. Looking at his relationship with his NPD mother helps explain why.
John Bowlby was a British psychotherapist who after the second world war researched the effects of being orphaned on children who were victims of the war. He developed a very influential paper on maternal deprivation for the United Nations and expanded this to a full theory of the emotional and psychological attachments formed by young children and the effects that they have on the child into adulthood. This is, hardly surprisingly, called Attachment Theory.
Attachment Theory Basics
The basic assumption of attachment theory is that a child needs to form a single, secure attachment to a loving and responsive caregiver (usually the mother) for the child to develop healthy emotional structures and ways of relating to others. Things that can disrupt this attachment would include being orphaned or separated from one’s mother, like during the war, or having an emotionally unavailable or abusive mother. You can see where I am going with this right?
Children form a particular pattern of behaviour as a result of the type of attachment they have with their main caregiver, I’ll just use “mother” from now on as I’m assuming like my husband your spouses were mostly cared for by their mum.
The most common attachment is a secure attachment that forms with a good enough mother, 60% of adults have this sort of attachment. The good enough mother hugs the child when they are distressed, mirrors their smiles and grimaces, makes lots of eye contact, strokes them, responds to their interactions and carries them close when they’re little. There is an approach to parenting babies called attachment parenting advocated by William Sears and others which encourages the key interactions that foster close, secure attachments. He advises skin to skin contact with newborns, lots of carrying and cuddles using slings if necessary, breastfeeding and eye contact and cuddles if bottle feeding, having the baby sleep close to the mother for 6 months, next to her bed within touching distance.
There is a lot of evidence that shows these sorts of interactions ensure the healthy, secure attachment forms. This then means the child grows up expecting their interactions with others to similarly be secure and they feel comfortable expressing their emotions and needs and responding to others emotions and needs. Thus the securely attached child forms healthy adult relationships and friendships with a good balance between independence and intimacy.
But not everyone has this secure pattern. There are other sorts of mothers with other kinds of interaction styles which lead to less healthy attachment patterns. There is an anxious pattern, an avoidant pattern and a fearful pattern. Some research has suggested a final ambivalent pattern of attachment formed by inconsistent caregivers. Mary Ainsworth carried out several experiments with children aged around 1 year old, small toddlers, which extended much of what Bowlby had described in war orphans.
The patterns of attachment in small children are best observed when they are confronted with new situations or their mothers leave them temporarily in a play group or similar setting. The securely attached child goes freely forwards and back to the mother, touching base and venturing forth. If the mother leaves they are upset and cry for her then show they are comforted when she returns.
An anxious child has a different reaction. They are clingy, find it hard to cope with their mother not there and need constant reassurance. Without the presence of their main attachment they are panicky and have no real security in themselves. What sort of behaviour from the mother creates this type of attachment? An excessively controlling, over-involved mother who doesn’t allow or encourage risk taking or the independence of the child.
An avoidant child doesn’t seem upset when their mother leaves and doesn’t show much comfort or pleasure when she returns. This child may even ignore their mother or turn away from her, not responding to being picked up by her. The child doesn’t feel much of a bond to the mother. The mother in this case is unresponsive to the child if they cry, in fact even discourages them from showing upset or distress and pushes them to be independent of her.
The fearful or disorganised child freezes or rocks when their mother returns, they try to approach her for comfort but are so unsure of the response they do this with their back turned or creep round the room to get to her. This is a hallmark of an overtly abusive mother. The child wants comfort from the person they fear.
Now there is a theory, not espoused by Bowlby himself who worked purely on children, but developed in the 1980s that adults can exhibit similar patterns of attachment in their adult romantic relationships. Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver spotted similarities between the ways adults react to the presence or absence of their romantic partners. In both situations the relationship with a person, the mother or lover, provides an opportunity for bonding and the enactment of expectations about the nature of close bonds that the adult has internalised through their previous close relationships. The most influential relationship in forming ideas and expectations about close emotional ties is the one we have with our main carer when we are small children, i.e. our mothers.
What if you are married or in a close relationship with a person whose mother has NPD? What sort of attachment behaviour will they have and how will it show itself in your relationship?
Attachment Theory and Adults
Having a mother with NPD means you could have any attachment pattern expect the secure one. Unless of course you weren’t actually raised by your mother but by another, psychologically normal person like an aunt or grandparent. You are reading this blog because your partner has a difficult (to say the least) mother who exhibits a lot of unpleasant and abusive behaviour. Your partner will not be fully secure and confident in their adult relationships unless they have done a lot of work on themselves in coming to terms with their family and its effects on them.
Hazan and Shaver described 4 patterns of adult attachment similar but not identical to the patterns of attachment in tiny children. They called them secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and dismissive-fearful.
Now my husband and I did an online test of adult attachment patterns http://www.web-research-design.net/cgi-bin/crq/crq.pl which is free and asks a series of questions where you choose your response on a scale of strongly agree to strongly disagree. I came out with a secure attachment style, not surprisingly as my main caregiver as a child was my good enough mother who gave hugs, played with me and responded appropriately to any distress or upset I showed. My husband has the anxious-preoccupied style. I am absolutely sure if my SIL did this same test she would be dismissive-avoidant.
How do these patterns show themselves in adult behaviour? My husband needs constant reassurance that we, our relationship, is OK. He needs me to act in ways that reassure him and he resists anything that makes him anxious, things that may hint at a distance between us or possible conflict or separation, not just physically but of ideas, views, aims and emotions. He cannot argue or tolerate my showing anger as this makes him so anxious. So he diverts the conversation away from the difficult topic onto something else, like my tone of voice (unpleasant) or blunt talk (can’t you phrase that nicely). He finds it very hard to deal with if I am unable to be there emotionally for him due to a crisis of my own. Postnatal depression a couple of years ago for a few months was the worst thing ever to happen to our relationship as far as he is concerned because I was not there for him.
The underlying dynamic involves his expectation that I will soothe his anxiety by modifying my behaviour or he will try to change my behaviour through control of some kind including passive aggressive acts, sulking, withdrawl, blaming, diversions etc. He sees his emotional regulation as being the job of an external person, the person he is bonded to. He is not clear where he ends and I start. This is entirely due to having an engulfing, controlling mother who expected him to cater to her moods and change himself for her. She dictated what emotions he could show and how he showed them. He people-pleases to ensure the continuation of the relationship thus avoiding his extreme anxiety at being abandoned or rejected.
His sister is dismissive-avoidant in her behaviour. She has had a series of unsuccessful relationships with unsuitable partners and works extreme hours, in a job involving extensive overseas travel making herself unavailable for long periods of time. When confronted with an emotional situation she shuts down. Told some upsetting news she failed completely to react, got down on the floor to play with her nieces as if nothing had been said. She avoids her own emotions and other peoples. Keeping others at arms length is normal for her. Her emotional regulation is to suppress and deny her emotions and needs for intimacy acting in a very independent and self-sufficient way.
Of course she had the same mother as my husband but she was the second child and so had less of her NPD mother’s attention, much less if her behaviour is anything to go by. She comments on how much fewer photos there are of her as a child compared to my husband and how she was given all his hand-me-down clothes. She was not the substitute spouse in the same way as my husband, my MIL was clearly overly involved with her son alternately infantalising him to keep him close and using him for emotional support.
Both these patterns have been described as pseudo-independent by Robert Firestone. True adult independence requires a complete sense of yourself as separate from others combined with a capacity to be fully able to emotionally connect with another at an appropriate time. It is all about balance. These two attachment patterns are unbalanced.
The final adult attachment pattern is dismissive-fearful and is shown in people who want, often desperately want a close bond but are scared of being hurt physically or emotionally by the object of their attraction. They fundamentally do not trust their partners and have doubts about their intentions as they have negative views about themselves. They ask “why are you attracted to me, what do you really want?”. This form of attachment in an adult can stem from sexual abuse as a child or teen or from a childhood with significant losses through the absence or rejection of a parent. Unlike a dismissive-avoidant person they are aware that they want closeness and intimacy but like dismissive-avoidant they act in a way that restricts intimacy and don’t share their emotions.
Which pattern does your spouse exhibit? I am interested to hear what sorts of attachments your spouses seem to have and how you think this may be related to their mother’s behaviour towards them.