5 Things to Know About Attachment Theory and Parenting When Divorcing a Narcissist

Studies have shown that spouses and significant others of those with narcissistic personality disorder, those with a high degree of narcissistic traits, or any other type of Cluster B psycho-pathology, have attachment-related traumas, typically deeply embedded in their childhood psyches. Most clinicians and mental health professionals agree that those suffering from personality disorders also have attachment-related traumas caused by inconsistent and abusive parenting. This information is especially useful to those of you co-parenting with a narcissist or divorcing a narcissist.

The Origins of Attachment Theory

In the 1960s, two psychologists, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth first developed their basic theory of what is now regarded as the most influential, psychoanalytic study in developmental psychology. About 20 years later, their original theories progressed to helping explain adult attachment styles. Adult attachment styles are heavily influenced by any disruptions, separations, or deprivations of a caregiver’s presence from a young child’s developmental life.

During infancy and early childhood, a primary caretaker forms a developing child’s attachment style by providing security, space to learn, and feeding the child’s ego by allowing satisfaction of some impulses and restricting others. To grow up securely into a mentally healthy and secure adult, an infant must experience a warm and intimate relationship with his mother or permanent maternal substitute (i.e., father).

Bowlby and Ainsworth came up with four different styles of attachment in their attachment model:

  1. Secure attachment. Their attachment model demonstrated that a secure attachment is the most adaptive attachment style and if parent(s) are caring and securely attached, the child will be securely attached. About half of us are securely attached adults.
  2. Anxious-ambivalent attachment. In their studies separating mother and child for a small period of time, Bowlby and Ainsworth found that the anxiously and ambivalently attached child showed distress and clinginess to her mother upon her return, and experienced high amounts of separation anxiety or was completely ambivalent to her mother upon her return. About a quarter of us fit this attachment model.
  3. Anxious-avoidant attachment. The separated child ignored his mother and showed little emotion upon the mother’s return. Bowlby and Ainsworth theorized that the child’s lack of distress developed as a “mask” to consistently unresponsive caretaking, and babies showed little eye gazing and discomfort when cuddled. Another quarter of us fit this attachment model.
  4. Disorganized/disoriented attachment. Bowlby and Ainsworth found overt displays of fear, dissociation, contradictions of behavior and flooding of emotions and behaviors upon the mother and child reunion. I think only a small number of us will be in this category, but it sounds an awful lot like borderline personality disorder. More studying to be done on divorcing someone with borderline personality disorder!

Bowlby and Ainsworth’s attachment theory has been repeatedly empirically tested for several decades and modified by different researchers.

Marital and Relationship Dissatisfaction Occurs When Insecurely Attached Individuals Pair

Dr. John Gottman’s pivotal work on studying relationship dissatisfaction shows us that the most relationship dissatisfaction occurs when an anxiously-attached adult pairs with an avoidantly-attached adult. Dr. Gottman’s studies indicate that the highest level of divorce occurs in this pairing because of fundamental communication problems. In my opinion, narcissists are generally avoidantly-attached, and those who put up with them are anxiously-attached.

I believe that parental alienation, a form of child abuse, occurs when the alienating parent is responsible for forming a deep-seated belief in a young child’s life that the other non-alienating parent is not reliable or loving. The normal attachment bond to the non-alienating parent is disrupted by the alienating parent’s attempts to sabotage any meaningful relationship between the non-alienating parent and child.

These are the 5 Things You Need to Know About Attachment Theory and Parenting When Divorcing a Narcissist: You Can Help Your Child Grow Up with a Narcissistic Parent

  1. Insecurely-Attached Adults Raise Insecurely-Attached Children. Insecurely attached adults may be responsible for raising insecurely attached children. The difference between you and the personality-disordered individual is that you can, with practice and therapy, change your own attachment style. I know you are committed to helping your child not pair up with a toxic, narcissistic partner as an adult. You as the healthy parent can help your child learn to trust others whom are safe to trust, even if you see your child only every other weekend. Make your time count.
  2. Parental Alienation is a Form of Child Abuse and Rooted in Attachment-Flawed Parenting. I believe that parental alienation, a form of child abuse, occurs when the alienating parent is responsible for forming a deep-seated belief in a young child’s life that the other non-alienating parent is not reliable or loving. The normal attachment bond between the non-alienating parent and child is disrupted by the alienating parent’s attempts to sabotage any meaningful relationship between them. To undo the alienating parent’s harm, the healthy parent must provide a safe environment for the developing child.
  3. Children of Narcissistic Parents Develop Attachment Traumas. Let me disclaim this by saying that I am not a clinician, but I am an experienced family law attorney with first-hand knowledge as to what problems can occur when a narcissistic parent spends any significant amount of time with a young child. Based on the work of Amir Levin, M.D., and Rachel Heller, M.A., I believe that because the narcissistic parent is unpredictable and inconsistent in his/her parenting, the child learns that love may be conditional and become afraid of intimacy or learn to adjust to a toxic person. The child’s unconscious hope seems to be that he can heal his childhood traumas and wounds by pairing with similar problematic partners.
  4. Help Your Child Learn that Ignoring or Stonewalling is Unacceptable Behavior. If you’re in a co-parenting situation, help your child recognize toxic defense mechanisms. Help your child recognize toxic behaviors and that neglecting a child or ignoring her because of some perceived slight is unacceptable behavior. Help your child learn that anyone worth her time will put her needs first and will not brush aside any of her concerns. She is not insignificant, and any of her concerns, small or large, are important. You know how frustrating and traumatic the narcissist’s silent treatment and stonewalling can be.
  5. Help Your Child Express His Needs to Safe People. Help your child develop a secure attachment to you by helping him learn that you will never abandon him. Help him learn that a fear of abandonment is normal as a child, but that you will always be there for him. Help your child express his needs to you and to learn that he doesn’t have to act out or create “drama” for your attention. Help your child learn about self-soothing during discomfort and anxiety and learn to self-regulate their emotions.

You can find other tips on how to co-parent with a narcissist here.

Fairfax Family Law and Divorce Lawyers: If you’re looking for an experienced Virginia family and divorce law attorney, contact Keithley Law,PLLC today by calling (703) 454-5147 and schedule an initial consultation in our Fairfax law office. Our attorneys are experienced in high-conflict divorces and helping people navigate through the frustrations of divorcing a narcissist.

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