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Powerful Attachments
Why we love the one who hurts us
Represent staff

the former clinical director of The Fostering Connection (TFC). TFC is a New York City organization that provides free long-term therapy to
foster-affected youth to heal the wounds of trauma, loss, and separation. He talked to us about the power of attachment between a parent and a baby.

Q: Why are people so attached to even bad parents?

A: The way babies attach to their caregivers (usually a mother, but not always) is biologically driven. Every newborn is completely dependent on whoever feeds and shelters her. That person is so important that the baby will get attached, even if the caregiver is neglectful or cruel or not meeting core needs. The child adapts to and puts up with the person she depends on.

Q: What’s the long-term effect of that?

A: If mom beats you, you figure out how to not make her mad when she’s drinking, or to make sure nothing upsets her. You may also blame yourself: “She must beat me because I’m not lovable.” And that shapes your other relationships. You start to believe things like, “When there is conflict, I must take this role,” or “It’s my job to take care of the other person’s needs before my own.” That can lead abused kids into other abusive relationships.

Q: What can you do?

A: Well, as a therapist, I’m going to say therapy! A safe relationship with a therapist you can relate to can help a lot. Hopefully, you’ll start to feel about the therapist, “You’re not going to hurt me. I don’t have to do my same old attachment script with you. We can disagree and it won’t become violent and you won’t throw me out.” If there’s conflict, a good therapist will say, “Tell me more about this,” and, very important, “I don’t want to end this relationship.” That’s where the brain can shift to better ways to connect.

It doesn’t have to be a therapist; it can be a caseworker who really gets you, a teacher, a coach, a grandparent, or any caring adult. One adult can help a kid learn healthy relationships. It shows that the terrible parenting experience isn’t the whole story.

image by YC-Art Dept

Q: How do you deal with an abusive parent when you’re older and out of their house but you both still want some relationship?

A: It’s hard to navigate a relationship like that alone. There’s so much that needs to be acknowledged, including that you still want the nice mother she couldn’t be in the past. You need to mourn and grieve that you did not get that before you can move forward. It’s easier to do that grieving when you are getting some of those nice mother things from other people.

You need to stop that vicious cycle of continuing to want from your bad mom what she can’t give. The abused kid adapts very early to a caregiver’s erratic behavior, and even after you’re grown, you still keep responding like you did when you were little, trying to make it OK.

To truly move beyond that cycle, you need to say, “Wait, this hurts. I’m not getting what I need. I need to grieve that. She’ll never be able to take care of me; she can’t even take care of herself. She’ll never be the mother who can take care of me financially or hold me in her arms. I won’t look to her for those things; I’m going to go to people who CAN give me those things.” It’s hard to make that adjustment without having good relationships with caring adults.

Many people want to confront their abusers, but it’s not always helpful. You probably imagine a specific scenario and you probably won’t get it. It can be re-traumatizing to confront the abuser and have him deny it altogether or blame you. Play it out with your therapist or someone else you trust, who can ask you, “What do you want her to say? What if she says this thing?” Sometimes a letter is better, something that says, “I know you did this and I just want you to know I know,” but doesn’t demand a response. Sometimes you just want someone to know.

Q: Is forgiveness always appropriate?

A: It makes so much sense to want to forgive and move forward, yet it’s not always so easy. Until the longing for what you didn’t get has been addressed and you’ve accepted the abuser as she really is, you can keep getting hurt over and over. You can’t forgive before you grieve and accept that she can’t give what she doesn’t have.

If your abuser was herself abused, eventually you can say, “I can see that she was doing the best she could given her own trauma.” But that requires a certain distance from the original trauma. Other stages need to come first.

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