Wednesday, April 15, 2015

No Forgiveness For You: Dealing With People With Attachment Problems

This past fall my wife and I befriended a college student we met at work[1]. The student had aged out of the foster care system, had just arrived at our school, knew no one and clearly needed more support to get off to a good start. We made introductions, provided rides, opened our home and generally did what you would expect nice middle aged people to do to help out a struggling college student.

There are a few different ways a story like this could progress and eventually end. It ended exactly the way I expected: with screaming, tears, insults, accusations and hurt feelings for all parties involved. The only thing that surprised me was that it took as long as it did--two months.

If you are, or have ever been, part of a foster or adoptive family "aged out of foster care" told you everything you needed to know[1.5].  You probably know what happens to the emotional life of a child when they experience the repeated insults and disruptions associated with being removed from their original family and spending years in foster care[2]. Frequently these kids experience abuse, neglect and change homes way too often. These experiences often lead to a range of relationship dysfunctions I will call "attachment problems[3]."

If you have read my really depressing 2008 piece about adoptive parenting you know that I have raised both adoptive and biological children, some of whom are quite troubled.  Not everyone appreciates my honesty about how hard it has been.  To which I say, "Am I asking you to pretend your life story is more heartwarming than it really is?  No?  Then shut up."


Were you looking for the Hallmark Channel and somehow ended up here?  Let me help you out, http://www.hallmarkchannel.com/.

Here is what the research says.  If a child does not form and sustain an emotional bond with at least one caregiver shortly after birth and for a number of years following they will struggle with relationships.  All relationships.  Forever.

Anyone reading this who has ever had their heart broken, which is all of you, is probably thinking "We all struggle with relationships.  Relationships are hard."  True enough, but people with attachment problems struggle in a different way.  They don't just struggle to answer questions like "How do I want my marriage to be different from my parents' marriage?"  Should they try to formulate such a question they may not even be able to do it.  They lack the fundamental relational experiences underlying the emotional intelligence underlying the psychological frameworks underlying the language assumptions underlying the social concepts needed to make the question meaningful.  Their capacity to have relationships is compromised because their capacity to think about relationships is compromised.

Life is full of things you can't understand until you have experienced them for yourself. LSD, severe stomach flu and good sushi are semi-trivial examples.  In addressing attachment problems I am talking about two groups of people who are experiencing two profound examples of this phenomenon.  They are so profound as to define their relationships.  People with attachment problems can not understand two experiences that people who love them have all had.  They can not understand how we can love them.  They can not understand the soul-destroying pain we feel when that love is returned as anger and hate.

As an adoptive parent I signed up for this.  I was warned.  I do not feel sorry for myself nor do I want anyone else to feel sorry for me.  I will not, however, pretend to feel happy or fulfilled.  I also want everyone who has experienced this to have the courage to also be honest about it, whether it fucks with other people's adoption fantasies or not.  Other people's fantasies are not your problem to preserve, protect or reinforce.

I don't know if this is documented in the research, but there is a strong pattern my wife and I have identified in other attachment-troubled people.  I encapsulated it this way a few days ago.   "They can't forgive you for anything and they are offended that you won't forgive them for everything."

Again, even healthy relationships can have instances of harmful score-keeping, but when attachment problems come into the picture any sense of perspective or scale is gone, never to return.  Let's stick with the score-keeping concept and, just for illustration, look at healthy reciprocity as benign score-keeping.  Now imagine what keeping score in a game of cricket would be like if you couldn't grasp the concepts of runs or wickets or why either team is so invested in them[4].  Now imagine you are asked to keep score while playing this game you not only don't understand, but can't understand.

Reciprocity is an important relationship concept that is normally refined in a person's mind as they grow up.  Most people never develop a true peer relationship with their parents, but one does learn that it is polite to pass food back to them at the table, even though they actually fed you with a spoon when you were very young.  The relationship never actually becomes equal, but the expectations on you gradually become closer to the expectations on your parents as you get older.  Some of these expectations become generalizable to other relationships.  Eventually, we learn that things like returning something that was loaned is always important.  Not only does it avoid conflict, it is part of showing understanding of and investment in a relationship.

It is hardly surprising that someone who has had this learning process undermined by shitty parenting at an early age might struggle with this.  What reciprocity of forgiveness might look like between two adults is complex and subtle stuff.  Still, reasonable adults set things aside and work conflicts out every day.  Because they can do so they keep their jobs, their friends and their spouses, at least for a while.  

A person with attachment problems may tell a lie that causes you tremendous trouble and hurt, and be genuinely angry if you ever bring it up again after their breezy apology.  You, on the other hand, had better be ready for a harangue whenever they remember the one time you accidentally called them by the wrong name.  Their apology is of value.  Yours means nothing.  Their hurt is of value.  Yours means nothing.  Ditto for time, money, property and other relationships.  

A parent finding their child to be demanding and ungrateful is an overworked trope.  Whether the storyteller sides with the parent or child depends on the age of the audience.  The problem with the trope is that it is dismissive of the child and the parent.  It trivializes both of their emotional realities.  What adoptive parents and others in the orbit of attachment problems deal with is the collision of healthy emotional realities with ones that are so skewed that they can never mate up with another.  In stead they crash, over and over, harder and harder into whoever isn't smart enough to move the fuck out of their way. . .or loves them too much to leave them to their fate.  Eventually, the pain becomes too great and turns the love into smartness.  

In my case, what drove this story home for me was seeing it play out in fast forward with someone I wasn't related to at all.  That was when the truth of these patterns, the bloody swirling kaleidoscope of broken relationships I'm surrounded by, appeared to me in a new way.  It wasn't abstract anymore.  I know a shitload of adoptees and adoptive and foster parents.  I'm married to a child psychologist.  I read.  I've known this stuff for a long time.  What I saw this past fall took the lines off of the page and carved them into a cliff face.  

When I saw the truth of why some people treat other people like shit in this new, bigger, clearer way I felt like I had graduated.  I graduated to a higher level of understanding human brokenness.  I'm a musician and that's as precious as realization can be.  In case you didn't already know, human misery is beloved by musicians above all else. . .except heroin.  Musicians really love heroin[5].  

All joking aside, this experience did bring about a terrible moment of clarity for me.  

This is how this particular type of brokenness (attachment problems) works.  This is why it hurts so much.  Sometimes you can help a lot.  Sometimes you can help a little.  Sometimes you can't help.

This time we were only able to help a little.  Neither of us will hear from the student again.


1. My wife and I work for the same university.
1.5.  OK, not everything, but a flag went up, right?
2. Not all foster homes are bad. Not all kids are fucked up by their contact with "the system."
3. Clinical names (mostly used with children) include: Attachment disorder. Reactive attachment disorder. Social engagement disorder. Disinhibited attachment disorder. 
4. I chose cricket because I think it is funny that at my age I still don't understand how it is scored.  The analogy works just as well for simpler games scored with generic points.
5. I've written elsewhere about the staggering number of musicians who are, were or have been heroin addicts.  I probably shouldn't make light of it, or addiction at all, but if you are reading this footnote I'm encouraging you to think seriously about this problem and why it so disproportionately afflicts musicians.  I find it frightening.

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