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Men and Attachment Trauma

A major component of my practice the last 25 years has been working with men and helping them become more relational. I have followed the research, the social trends, and the current therapies and if wasn’t for what I have learned in the last 5 years I would be quite disheartened.

And what I have learned isn’t that men are becoming better able to be in intimate relationships, as I believe the opposite is true, but rather I have learned how to be more effective in my working with them. And that is because I understand more and working better with the attachment trauma men are so visibly displaying.

There is much exciting research coming out around attachment issues and the importance of the early development of attachment in an infant and how it effects whatever capacity the infant will have across its lifespan in being able to securely attach to others.

And even more exciting is that we have learned through recent research that early attachment trauma does not need to be the final word on one’s ability to attach, but because of neuro-placticity and the brains capacity to change some of that attachment trauma can be healed, and it can happen in our offices.

What is disheartening for me is that these men are walking into my office in greater numbers then they ever had. While understanding the huge importance of early life in the development of a man’s ability to attach, we can’t forget that attachment is much more complex then that. We have known for decades that boys are raised and socialized in ways that contribute to this inability to attach to others in a dyadic relational way.

Then we throw in the rapidly changing world and its impact on boys. We have the world of technology starting ever earlier in our children’s lives and we see their growing attachment to their screens. Then we have the neurologically intense games on screens that boys are playing, often into their 20’s and beyond. We have texting as a new norm of communicating with a girl, and then we have the disturbing reality of porn entering the lives of adolescents earlier and more dramatically then ever before.

And not surprisingly men are now walking into our offices with, in my experience, a decreasing capacity to be in real, intimate relationships. They very much want to be in a relationship but don’t have many skills to maintain connection so they avoid most areas of conflict. One therapist calls this approach “I love you, I just don’t want to be in the same room with you.” And they are sitting in front of us needing our help.

And one thing we know from the research and certainly from our own personal and professional experiences– you cannot teach attachment to them like you can teach communication skills or CBT techniques. To learn about attachment they have to experience it, and while they are in our offices, it is with us.

If we want our male clients to be able to be more relational, we have to be more relational with them. Teaching communication skills, helping them understand the family of origin issues that impact them, and if you are like me, at times imploring, cajoling, pushing, pleading, confronting, guilting, etc, to get them to try harder at being relational, you will know as I do that all of these fall frustratingly short of helping them in the way they need.

So how do we help these men begin to develop a secure attachment? This emerging research tells us that you can learn attachment later in life under the right circumstances, a “learned secure attachment” as it is being called. What we need to do in our offices is what every good enough parent does in those early months of a child’s life – you attune to the client through facial expression, auditory tone, and body gestures.

We now know that the major interaction between a parent and infant is happening between their right brains, the unconscious aspect of both of them. An infant is tracking with the minutest of facial movements, the subtle shifts in the body and listening to the smallest intonation of the voice and translating this and sensing whether the parent is open, welcoming, closed, shut down, rejecting etc. And we also now know that this is also true for any two individuals who are interacting, that our right brains are doing most of the interacting.

The good news, or bad news, for us is that the client actually does know, on that deep unconscious right brain level, how we actually feel about them in every given moment. They know if we are present, if we are distracted, if we are pretending to care, and if we are truly interested in them. They are unconsciously watching our eyes, face, body movements, and listening to our voices and they know, at times, more clearly then we do, what we are thinking about them.

So let’s think about our voice. Most parents have some innate skills at soothing their infants with their voice, or mirroring them. This is exactly what we need to do with our clients. Certainly not in the amplified or exaggerated way we do with our infants, but we need to let our voice convey our emotional attunement to them.

For me this was awkward to do to begin with but now I can’t imagine not letting my voice convey my sadness, anger, delight and all my feelings as I engage in this relationship with my clients. Certainly my practicing the art of being a therapist has me at times being very judicious in how much of this I convey, but mostly I let my clients see and hear my direct response to what they tell me.

Then we think about our body gestures and postures. Am I sitting in a way that suggests I am neutral, interested, tired or detached, or curious and engaged? What are they seeing as they look at me? I used to feel great about my sitting with a straight back and openhearted manner, in a mindfully present way. I think I conveyed I cared about them, but from a distance, and it was clearly what I was comfortable with, that distance, and I am now sure they knew that.

I didn’t know to allow myself to sometimes lean far forward with a caring or sad face, to lean back and grimace, to turn slightly away, etc., all gestures that would have been coherent with what they were telling me and how I was somatically experiencing my relationship with them at that moment. All of which would have been very helpful to their sense of being listened to, attuned to, and cared about. Now I try and let my whole body, voice and face hold coherence with my experience of them. And I know it sends a very different message then that of my being mindfully present.

Certainly there is never perfect attunement to anyone, even our infants. Failing to be attuned certainly upsets the infant but we now know that it is in the repairing of the missed attunement that builds the secure attachment. This translates into our offices by our needing to do the same thing – to repair the places where we miss our clients, where we don’t hear them correctly, where we misinterpret, where we hurt them by what or how we say something or let them down in any way.

I say I am sorry so much more then I ever did to my clients and try and take full and articulated responsibility for where I hurt them or let them down. I also thank them for correcting me when I didn’t hear exactly what they were saying and I tell them it helps me know exactly what they want me to know about them and how important that is to me. Many of my clients have told me how much they appreciate my humanness and my concern for them. And I know what they are telling me is “thank you for attuning to me so I can feel more securely attached to you so that you can help me heal.”

So when a client walks into my office and I am willing to be attuned with them and be as relational and human as is therapeutically appropriate, I know that regardless of the content of their issues or the length of their work with me, I am working at the deepest level possible to help them learn to be more connected and relational with others.

And, by the way, this deep attuned relational approach to our clients constantly reshapes us, deepens, us, and helps us to continually evolve because, as we know from our own personal research, that is what happens when we allow ourselves to lean into and be present to any real relationship.

* If you'd like to learn more about this topic from Patrick Dougherty, he is offering a workshop entitled "Men and Trauma" in St. Paul, MN on February 12, 2016. Click here for information and registration details.

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