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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.