So, I haven’t mentioned this, but the dogs I am living with seem like they have disorganized attachment. I know it may be like the med school student who suddenly sees symptoms of every kind of disease in everyone, but it’s interesting to see.

What I mean is one dog looks sad and ashamed when she comes to you, kind of like the dog who knows he just ate all the toilet paper in the bathroom or tore your shoes apart. The other one runs around excitedly when you call her, but won’t come. She barks at the door to be let in, and then runs away when you open it.

It’s interesting to think about how this might have happened. These are my friend’s daughter’s dogs, and my friend has some indication of disorganized attachment too. It’s not unthinkable for there to be some kind of relationship between all of their attachment styles.

I have been thinking about C’s attachment style, my ex, me.

The first key idea in my mind is this idea of “serve and return.” When I was in therapy, my therapist talked about getting inadequate “mirroring.” I wasn’t entirely clear what this meant. I am starting to think it’s not actually that important. “Serve and return” is more important in a child’s development, and it’s something we need throughout our lives.

“Serve and return” is just the idea that someone initiates an interaction, and the other person responds in a way that continues the interaction. So, the baby coos, the parent responds by making loving and affectionate facial expressions. It’s the foundation for human learning, and it requires the smooth integration of one’s own feelings and intentions, the other person’s feelings and intentions (what will the next move be?), and an ability to control one’s impulses so that the dyad can remain in a comfortable, connected place.

I think when there are attachment issues, “serve and return” does not happen smoothly. The parent–who with an infant must have the skills for keeping the dyad in a comfortable, regulated emotional place–is not able to keep the two in a regulated place. The infant is ignored, or overstimulated and then distressed, or the infant behaves impulsively in ways that upset the parent (most of us have been poked in the eye by a little one, or had our hair pulled) and then the infant is distressed at the parent’s reaction.

The child whose parent cannot manage serve-and-return may become fearful and anxious about initiating these important interactions–biologically programmed to try, and yet having had an experience of it that is upsetting or frightening.

I think about this in terms of my ex. When we were in a relationship together, there were a lot of times when our interactions seemed the typical pairing of someone with an anxious attachment style (me) and someone with detached or avoidant attachment.

In avoidant attachment, the most effective strategy for getting one’s attachment needs met is to simply wait. It seems most likely to come about when a parent is rejecting of the child’s bids for interaction. Better to sit tight and wait for the parent to have attachment needs. There’s little attunement, and the child does not stay in a regulated, contented place emotionally. There are long stretches of loneliness and boredom, interspersed with overwhelming intrusions. But there is something.

I can see how that would have been my ex’s style–just knowing her mother. How her mother would have rejected her bids for interaction but made her own bids intrusively and without an understanding of the need to keep the dyad in a regulated, contented place. My ex would have grown up perhaps experiencing herself as independent when in reality she lacked the confidence to reach out.

I think I ended up reaching out to my ex more because my own experience with my parents was that their bids for interaction were intrusive and frightening (for example, sexual abuse). I might have felt more comfortable with a partner who didn’t reach out or make demands, but then found myself starved for interaction. Being presented with attachment needs might have been frightening for me.

I don’t think I have a particular attachment strategy based on my childhood–I don’t think there was any strategy that worked in my family. But being with someone who did have an attachment style left one open to me to pursue. Being anxious and preoccupied did lead to some amount of interaction. I started to have a strategy that worked.

But it also left me with shame at being the “needy” one. In reality, I suspect, I was left to meet both of our attachment needs. Attachment needs are normal, but because we had had parents who couldn’t manage their relationships with their children, we felt ashamed of these needs.

Shame is best understood as lack of understanding. When a parent cannot process or understand their own feelings and desires and cannot understand others’, then we feel disconnected from them when we present our own feelings and desires to them. Shame comes from lack of empathy.

When my ex failed to identify or understand her own attachment needs that she could not meet, then she could not understand mine.

There is a point beyond simply the attachment style of my ex, and I think probably C in many cases–C, who tries avoidant attachment much of the time, and then is overcome by her own unmet needs and impulsively reaches out.

The point is that without this long history of experiences with finding ways to interact, ways to keep a dyad or a group in a regulated state, you don’t really learn how, and it leads to a social starvation later–even if you are outgoing and do have a lot of social interactions. Going out and meeting people doesn’t mean you actually know how to get fulfillment out of that. In my case, it leads to a lot of fear I have to manage.

My other thought about this has been that there is research that babies born to mothers who experience a lot of stress during pregnancy are born themselves more sensitive to stressors. These babies are more sensitive to stress, become stressed more easily, and are often difficult to soothe. So you can be born a fussy baby to begin with, a baby with a more intense, more easily triggered stress response and if your parent is themselves less capable of self-regulation, the parent can feel overwhelmingly frustrated or hopeless about trying to soothe the child.

I think that happened with me. Already, before any abuse happened, I was more difficult to soothe. My mother was less capable of soothing. It was hard for us to bond in the first place.

So there was no safe haven to return to when I became dysregulated. Infants who don’t experience that safe haven of the parent who knows how to help them return to a regulated emotional place are hypervigilant. They are constantly alert and tense.

As an adult, I have realized no one really wants to enter a shared emotional space with me when I can’t regulate myself. It’s not that they don’t care about me, but it’s not an emotional space anyone wants to be in. I haven’t really known anything different. I need to be able to handle my own shit. Some of my feelings about not ever having been loved or wanted have to do with having an internal state no one really wants to be a part of.

I had students last year who had trouble with self-regulation. I could enter into their emotional space with them at times, and help them to regulate, but there have been moments when I realized I needed to get back out of that space again, because the next student I was interacting with felt anxious if the anxiety of the last child was lingering on within me.

The greater satisfaction I feel lately comes mostly out of greater competence in self-regulation and in regulating social exchanges, so that we can all stay in a contented place.