Category Archives: anxiety

Just Not There: The Emotionally Unavailable Spouse

I was musing on a heartfelt comment a reader had left asking for more information about anxious-withholding attachment types. I had wracked my brains trying to thing of what else I could write and then out of the blue an article popped up in my Facebook news feed which hit the nail on the head. It was one of those ah-ha articles where I suddenly understood something, ‘ping’ the lightbulb went off.

You see I had got myself all confused about what emotionally withholding actually meant. In my mind it was all cold-hearted bastard behaviour, the guy who never returns your calls, doesn’t like cuddling, prefers not to hold your hand. You know all clenched jawed and distant, stiff upper lip to the nth degree. NO. Duh (bet I wasn’t the only one that thought that though huh?) The article which you can read in its glorious entirety is here at Ravishly.com . Really go and read it.

What it means to be emotionally available (to quote the article)

“is not just about sharing his/her emotions; it is about his/her openness with another person and him/herself. It’s about where s/he is at in this moment emotionally and staying with that discomfort, instead of running or presenting it as fixed, resolved or all sorted out.

It is not about oversharing or being dramatic for the sake of it, it is sharing what is relevant to develop that connection in an authentic way. It is about knowing the personal behaviours that avoid true openness and availability. It is at the start very uncomfortable, awkward and even alien to someone who wasn’t taught how to be available emotionally growing up.”

God how brilliant a summary is that? There are so many interesting strands to pull out of these to paragraphs. It got me thinking about Brene Brown and her work on how shame can block us from truly being open and authentic with people. Shame is one of the emotions narcissistic families are steeped in but avoid facing.

Emotional availability is not developed properly in families where you cannot be yourself, you cannot show certain emotions, you do not address problematic interpersonal behaviours, where you do not even really know who you are because someone else gets all the limelight.

It’s about their openness with another person and themselves

The children of narcissists have such deep fears of being abandoned and rejected that any part of themselves they feared their mother may turn on gets shut down. A narcissist will turn on another person’s needs and feelings as the only feelings that matter to them are theirs. The narcissists’s children’s emotions get locked far away from their own conscious minds. These children grow up and wriggle away from their feelings. They can ignore, minimise or dismiss their partners emotions because they do not know how to handle the feelings they arouse, or worse they are so conditioned to suppress emotions in themselves and others they do it reflexively with no conscious awareness of what they are doing. I think they feel fear and shame of their needs and emotions.

Donald Winnocott the British psychoanalyst describes how children in these circumstances develop a “false self” which is the face that gets presented to the world, the one mummy wants to see while the true self is hidden back behind a thick curtain. The false self has few needs, experiences a limited range of emotions, is available whenever mummy wants them, achieves publicly in ways that she deems desirable. You are all familiar with this. Some children of NPD mothers will know they keep a lot of themselves back, some will believe the false self is really who they are. The true self may never be experienced. This is especially true of the narcissistic mother was the smothering controlling sort rather than the self-absorbed couldn’t give a damn sort. Why? because the smother mother tells the child what to feel, how to react and what face she wants them to show at all times. The child grows up to expect some outside agent to prescribe their emotional state to them, they don’t really feel it themselves.

If your household growing up was one where only one person’s moods and thoughts counted no one else’s inner world was ever given the time of day then the child will become an adult who simply doesn’t know how to share what is going on in their minds. They don’t know how to be open.

It’s about where they are at this moment emotionally

My husband has struggled enormously with being aware of his emotions from moment to moment. We often experience a sort of emotional jet lag where something has happened, an awkward phone conversation with his mother for example, and then two or three days later he starts acting out. The emotions of frustration or anger at his mother have taken that long to bubble up and even then he experiences them in a displaced way, getting cross with me or the kids, being petty or passive aggressive about something. Thank God for the marriage therapist. Each sessions usually involves the therapist stopping my husband and asking him “how are you feeling right now?” and he can describe a few basic emotions now, sad, angry, that sort of thing.

This is not being emotionally available. It’s like going to your fridge and having the milk tell you it will be available for your cup of tea in a couple of days when you need tea right now. Where does that leave you the partner? Hanging around twiddling your thumbs unable to connect to your partner about what is bothering them or you. By the time they feel it it’s too late. It means in the moment when you have a need for them to be relating to you they can’t, they let you down and you have to deal with your stuff by yourself. This is a lonely, wearying experience and over years you can just give up turning to them for support or sharing in this way altogether. Winnicott describes how relationships with people acting from their false self are always unsatisfactory in the long run.

The key to moving past this is mindfullness and an emotional vocabulary. I bought my kids this fantastic set of emotions cards which show a funny cartoon of a person looking sad or excited or whatever and the word is written on it. I ask them sometimes “how are you feeling?” or “when have you felt this way?” and they pick one of the cards and talk about it, it’s like a game. Your spouse needs this kind of a game. Something like this wheel of emotions is helpful. Google it, print it out and stick it up somewhere.

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It’s about sharing what is relevant to develop an authentic connection

Relevant and authentic being the key words. Relevant according to my dictionary is:

Closely connected or appropriate to what is being done or considered and appropriate to the current time, period, or circumstances; of contemporary interest.

In short – appropriate and timely. I had a conversation with my spouse about something I had done the day before (stayed in bed in a dismal and despondent heap). In this conversation my husband shared how he had felt worried about what was wrong, but then went on to say he didn’t want me to tell him what the matter with me was, he just wanted to say how it had made him feel. He was dutifully doing what the marriage therapist has asked he do, share his feelings (and only his feelings), a day late. Not relevant. This is not timely because it didn’t happen in the moment while he was feeling the emotion. Not appropriate because in this scenario there was clearly something major going on with my emotions not his, but they were not made part of the conversation.

He actually said he didn’t need to know what was going on with me, just needed to say his bit. NOT AUTHENTIC. Why? Because just doing robotically what the therapist asked him to do without attempting to discover where I was is not a genuine connection, it is obediently acting in the way a grown-up (the therapist) has told him to and actively avoiding the uncomfortable bit of asking about my feelings and sitting there and listening to the reply. And let me tell you that is how it feels, it’s like watching Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory TV show read an appropriate response from a cue card that Penny or Leonard had prepared for him. My husband is not on the autistic spectrum but sometimes it really feels like he is.

big-bang-theory-depressing-funny-funny-gif-Favim.com-1033111

So how could that have been authentic and relevant? On the day, at the goddamn time, he could have said he was worried. He could have asked “do you want to talk about this?”, “what’s going on love, you seem really sad today”, “I’m worried and confused”, “please talk to me about this when you’re up to it”. You know because it wasn’t about him giving me some automated status update on what he was feeling like a talking emotion thermometer.

It’s about personal behaviours which avoid true openness and availability

What kinds of personal behaviours avoid intimacy? Avoiding a person or subject if you get a whiff of uncomfortable emotions around them, over analysing someone as they talk to you rather than listen and feel, jumping in with solutions, being busy all the time so you can’t talk, staring at your phone or tablet all day, not thinking about your own moods or reactions, not reflecting on how a conversation has gone, not asking for feedback, not checking in with the other person after a tricky conversation, intellectualising the conversation by quoting books or theories, outright dismissing someone’s concerns as silly, unimportant, unlikely to happen, telling them they are overreacting, using formulaic responses “how are you?”, “I’m here for you” without actually doing anything else at all. You get the idea.

At the start it is very uncomfortable, awkward and even alien

I am struggling with the robotic nature of my husbands attempts to talk about his feelings. He uses the words but isn’t actually there. He is still hiding, peaking out from behind the thick curtain to see if it is safe. It isn’t. It won’t ever be completely safe. And no one is there telling him how to do it like his mum did all those years. You just get stuck in and thrash it out.

I feel a mixture of exasperated and anguish at how he is struggling to do this, it’s like watching a toddler stumble but not rush to pick them up. I have no idea how long it will take for him to get to a point where a normal conversation about how we both are is possible. I’m not talking about big, heavy topics here, just simple ones like what colour to paint the spare room. In the meantime I feel lonely. I still don’t have a relationship with someone who can be emotionally available or supportive and I have stopped expecting or even hoping for it. You know it’s not like watching my toddler stumble, it’s like watching someone else’s toddler stumble, I feel slightly sympathetic but at one step removed, apart from the occasional miserable half-day under a duvet I get on with my life.

That is the real tragedy of emotional unavailability, they crave closeness but act in ways which sabotage it. Ultimately the person they wish to be close to gives up and walks away.

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Filed under anxiety, attachment theory, Communication problems in NPD, Effects of NPD on others, emotions, family roles, fear of abandonment, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, marriage and NPD MIL, narcissistic mother, rejection, Uncategorized

The Fear of Feelings

I feel things intensely, too intensely sometimes if my other half’s reaction is anything to go by. My husband and his family in contrast seem to have a much more limited emotional range. Compared to me, my husband inhabits a narrow range of pastel emotional states. Some of this can be attributed to nature, not everyone feels the blackest black or soars to the most dazzling white heights. But it’s not just nature. My husband has learnt not to show or even recognise some of his emotions because it was too dangerous for him to do so as he was growing up.

 

The control that his mother has exerted upon the family over the years extends to the control of emotions. She does not want to be argued with, nor does she wish to see anger, defiance, disapproval, contempt, sarcasm, irritation, independence, strength or anything else that may challenge her position or suggest she is not perfect. The dominant emotional state in the household was hers and others were expected to cater to it at the expense of having their own emotions recognised at all.

 

It is remarkable how all rebellion or objection appears to have been squashed out of not only my husband but his sister and his father also. They practically squirm with discomfort when witnessing someone showing irritation or raising their voice. A sort of panic spreads across their faces and they act to divert the conversation or remove themselves from the scene. It causes them considerable anxiety to see other people express the forbidden emotions. They appear so condition to suppress these emotions in themselves that they automatically act in ways that try to suppress these emotions in their environment, in others too. This is done through an arsenal of withdrawing, sulking, diversion, shutting down conversations, conveying disapproval and even suggesting the person showing the emotion has something wrong with them.

 

The sad effect of such emotional conditioning is that even positive emotions are reduced. Spontaneous playfulness and fun is noticeable in its absence in my husband’s family. My siblings and I get together and crack jokes, tease, provoke, pile on top of each other like puppies and laugh till we get tears in our eyes. We sit comfortably next to each other and show affection with hugs and touches. My husband’s family do not. Sometimes I think they look at my family’s interactions like bemused and rather uptight Victorian anthropologists viewing some unexpectedly expressive tribal customs deep in a jungle.

 

My husband describes how he cannot recall being hugged as a child, expect from when he was very young and remembers sitting on his mother’s lap. His family show little physical affection to each other and struggle awkwardly with greetings and goodbyes as this involves a social kiss or hug. My FIL is getting much better at this as he is no longer married to my MIL. His partner is lovely; warm and expressive and has had a good effect on him. You can see him slowly thawing after years of holding everything in so tightly just to get by living with my MIL.

 

I struggle with all this emotional control as my husband has tried to limit my emotional expression to match his own range. I am told not to raise my voice, that I have an anger problem because I show it when I feel angry. I have been happily singing in the house and told to hush because I am too exuberant. I think he thinks I am a bit unstable sometimes, too emotional. The reactions of my friends and family when told that I have an “anger problem” are either astonished disbelief or laughter. It is sad, my husband fell in love with me because I am emotionally open and expressive but he just cannot feel comfortable with it even though part of him really wants it.

 

I can only speculate about how this level of mental conditioning was achieved by my mother-in-law. My husband says he feels a great fear of being abandoned or rejected that goes all the way back to his early childhood. I think his mother must have used the withdrawal of her affection and presence as a way of getting the children to do what she wanted. For a small child the withdrawal of a mother’s attention would mean certain death, that is what happens in the wild when a mother rejects her young. That same primitive fear would be evoked in a human child faced with a callous withdrawal of affection and attention by a manipulative mother. A child threatened with such a potentially devastating event would do whatever it took to get mummy back, even complying with her need for him/her to repress their emotions to please her. That’s what I think happened.

 

After years and years of reinforcement of this taboo on free expression of emotion my sister-in-law and husband are perfect children, they can suppress their emotions by themselves, their mother doesn’t have to be anywhere near them. They carry the “mother” inside as a voice in their heads, ever present, which stops them being open and expressive even though they are now adults and there is no existential threat to them from maternal abandonment or rejection.

 

In a marriage or relationship with someone who has a list of taboo emotions there will be problems. The partner will either be scared of the taboo emotion being expressed as they fear abandonment (you can’t love me if you feel angry with me) or annihilation (you are so angry I will be obliterated) or they will unconsciously agree with their parents dictates and judge the emotions as bad. This judgement can extend to the person showing the emotions also, they may out of fear or habit try to control and suppress the emotions of their partner.

 

Being a parent can confront you with the out of control emotions of a toddler tantrum, the defiance of a child testing the boundaries and the contempt and burgeoning independence of a teenager. “I HATE you Mummy!” is normal from a three year old told that they are not getting more ice cream or access to their older siblings most favourite new toy. How does the emotionally controlled child of a narcissist deal with their children’s problematic emotions? Without guidance they will repeat the patterns they learnt in childhood. They will quash their children’s emotions either directly by telling them they are not OK or indirectly by withdrawing from the child when they show them. With effort my husband has stopped walking away from our small kids when they have a tantrum and instead has started sitting with them so they know they are safe and accepted even when they are really cross or frustrated.

 

Children need to know that they are safe physically and emotionally but they have so little experience with life and with themselves that they need to be regulated physically and emotionally from the outside. Slowly they learn how to do it on their own. They have to know that Mummy and Daddy can cope with their fears, anger and hysterical giggling when they have lost it. If they see Mummy backing away looking scared or overwhelmed then they do not have that safety. If they see Daddy strongly disapproving of their independence they will feel that emotion is bad and they will push it away.

 

But of course emotions don’t go away just because they are judged bad and shoved down. They are still there lurking in the unconscious playing havoc with our state of mind and jumping out and taking control when we are stressed. This happens often to the child of a personality disordered mother, they can suddenly be cruel or weird and act like they are just not themselves. Worse by limiting the pallette of feeling available to them their life becomes bland; it takes no chances, it never falls madly in love, dances in the rain, has a food fight or confidently seduces a lover. These things need the feeling of anxiety that goes along with the romantic head rush, the inhibition that goes with not judging oneself, the strength and power of desire. If “mummy” is in their head glowering her disapproval  and they have shut off those emotions  then they don’t live a full, glorious, messy life and worse still, deep down they know it.

 

Fear of feelings leads to a overly controlled, inhibited life and fear of other people’s feelings leads to attempts to control and inhibit their lives. This is a lose-lose scenario. The way out is for the narcissists child to accept all emotions as completely valid without judgement or fear. Then become aware of them as they emerge, don’t shut them down. Then sit even for a while with someone showing the ones that make them most uncomfortable. Like any phobia, the fear of emotion is tackled through a combination of knowing intellectually that no harm will come to you while slowly increasing your exposure to the thing you are afraid of. A trusted friend or partner (you!) can act as the reassuring voice repeating “your fine, it’s OK, your safe” if they are unable to do that for themselves. Therapists are excellent at guiding people through the rediscovery of their own emotions. Every emotion has its positive aspects (fear saves you from harm, anger is energy to act, envy show what you want and can work to have) and when they find the positive and feel comfortable with that feeling within they will no longer have the urge to suppress it in anyone else.

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Filed under anxiety, Controlling behaviour, Effects of NPD on others, emotions, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, marriage and NPD MIL

Attachment Theory and Your Spouse

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.

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Filed under anxiety, attachment theory, Controlling behaviour, Effects of NPD on others, emotions, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, marriage and NPD MIL