Currently, we are bystanders in a trial that has captivated the attention of so many. Why?
Fame doesn’t seem to spare us from the trauma of a toxic and volatile relationship. Underneath the he said-she said, claims of abuse, and the shock of fecal matter entering the scene, we have two adults who haven’t healed from their childhood trauma or past trauma prior to entering a romantic relationship. In the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial, we are witnessing two hurt people; two people who are reenacting their relational trauma from their childhood.
So many of us desperately seek romance thinking that love will heal us, that “love will conquer all”. Unfortunately, The Beatles had it wrong. You need more than love if you want the peace and fulfillment of genuine connection.
I have spent my entire career and built my private practice on helping couples and individuals mend their trauma so that they can have healthy interpersonal relationships. And it starts with understanding our own attachment style.
Our first attachments in our early life and our experiences as a child are a precursor to how we relate to others and process connection, whether in a romantic relationship, friendships, or in relationships with family. Research has shown that there are three types of attachment styles.
Now, people don’t necessarily fall into one attachment style, or stay in one attachment style throughout their lifespan. Experiences can cause fluctuation between styles, which means you can change or adapt in the ways you connect or process connections.
The first attachment style is what is called secure attachment. Those with a secure attachment style likely experienced healthy relationship bonds in their family or community growing up. Feelings were safely expressed. In childhood, emotional, physical, and psychological needs were met by parent(s) or primary caregivers. There is a sense of consistency, and people feel secure in consistency and intimacy.
The second attachment style is anxious attachment. Those with an anxious attachment style want connection- they yearn for it! But they tend to spend a lot of time excessively worrying that no one will love them back or they are not worthy of love. For these people, it is likely that their physical and psychological needs in some parts of their childhood were not consistently met. There may have even been an adverse event in childhood or adolescence that triggered this severe anxiety.
The third attachment style is avoidant. Oftentimes, people with an avoidant attachment style describe having a sense of emotional numbing. They are fearful of intimacy. They may have learned that intimacy or connection is not consistent or safe, that intimacy can be taken away, and so attaching any meaning or context to intimacy is therefore unsafe. Avoiding intimacy is a form of self-preservation.
When we are children, we are developing our attachment styles from our learned experiences in the world. These experiences set the precedent for how we think we are supposed to connect with people. The experience of trauma plays a big role in forming these “rules of connection”. Most of us have experienced some form of trauma, whether it's a small trauma or a big trauma. Regardless of the extent, traumas typically occur within the bounds of families or relationships. Now let’s talk about how this can impact your present day relationship.
If you've been watching the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial, you've heard testimony of Johnny Depp’s mother having a history of aggression and abuse towards her husband. You've also heard testimony of Amber Heard’s father’s pattern of behavior, described as physically aggressive and explosive. In those moments, when Amber Heard was triggered, she would fight back and stand up for herself. In contrast, when exposed to violence, Johnny Depp would retreat. He wanted to get as far away from the volatile situation as possible. So who’s right and who’s wrong?
It’s not about who's right or wrong, but about the impact of childhood trauma in shaping our ability to connect or process connections as adults. And the impact does not have to be as severe or extreme as Johnny and Amber’s relationship example. The one thing about their dynamic that is a common thread within many romantic relationships, is the power of opposites attracting.
Those with opposing attachment styles tend to gravitate towards each other in an attempt to fulfill a need or to correct past traumatic experience through their new partner, within the context of this new interpersonal relationship. And as you may have guessed, often this is a recipe for a toxic and volatile relationship.
The first step in avoiding this downward spiral is to become aware of your own past trauma, and how it influences your behavior today. Ask yourself: How was love displayed in your childhood and in your family? Was it a nurturing environment? Did it feel safe to be vulnerable? Did you watch your own parents or caregivers argue, yell, physically fight, stonewall or give the silent treatment? Were there relational traumas that caused great pain for you? With a family member? In early relationships? Try to describe how love, feelings and communication were displayed throughout your childhood and young adulthood. This will provide great insight into your wounds that truly need healing. Acknowledging and addressing these things are the first steps towards a consistent, stable, and secure relationship. The way we are attuned to handling external stressors is a key component of how we will manage stressors within a relationship.
The second step is to be more curious about the other person's trauma- from a place of connection, intimacy, and healing. It is important to create an environment of safety and openness to allow that person to talk about their trauma. Studies show that when two people foster an intimate relationship and deep connection, they can regulate each other’s psychological and emotional well-being. Emotions are contagious (both good and bad emotions), and oftentimes we can start to embody our partner’s emotional state. When we have emotions of peace, safety, trust, etc. this can have a very positive effect on the relationship.
Helping individuals and couples navigate this journey is central to the work that I do. It’s important to know that if you are struggling, you don’t have to do it alone. I would love the opportunity to help you ease the burden so that you may truly experience the peace and joy of healthy, fulfilling, and meaningful relationships.