6 Lessons From A Love Avoidants Journey To Secure Attachment
There comes a time in a man's life when he looks around and realizes he's made a mess of everything. He's dug a hole for himself so deep that not only can't he get out, but he doesn't even know which way is up anymore. And that hole for me is, and has always been, relationships. - The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, Neil Strauss
The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships chronicles the difficult journey to secure attachment by the commitment-phobic, sex addict, love avoidant author, Neil Strauss. In his younger days, Strauss was awkward, geeky and had little success with girls. He became a successful journalist and was asked to cover a story about modern-day pick-up artists. He went undercover, befriending pick-up artists and studying the techniques they used closely. The resulting book, The Game, was a New York Times bestseller. The book became an unofficial guide on ways to pick up women, with many of the techniques involving manipulation. The pick-up artists behavior had dark undertones. They had ultimately found a way to distract themselves from deep insecurities and fears:
For the most part, these are alienated and dysfunctional people, some profoundly damaged by childhood neglect or abuse. It soon becomes clear that the approval they get from other men is more intoxicating than the pleasure they get from sex. It is unfortunate for Strauss, and his reader, that it takes so long for the realisation to dawn that they might have been getting this trust and support from women, had they turned their minds to it. - Observer review: The Game by Neil Strauss, Rafael Behr
Perhaps the notoriety of writing a book, that helped contribute to a toxic dating environment, weighed heavy on Strauss's conscious. Perhaps finally facing his demons meant that Strauss felt compelled to tell the real truth of his relationship journey.
1. On - Off Relationships Are Common
Using his newfound tricks from the pick-up artist community, and with the success of the book under his belt, Strauss found that he had no problem attracting beautiful women. However, he could not make relationships work in the long term. His relationships were typically on-off again, with the hot and cold behavior typical of a love avoidant (also known as dismissive-avoidant attachment style). The book allows the reader to view through the eyes of the love avoidant, to get a real sense and understanding of how ambivalence feels. His love interest, Ingrid is described as the girlfriend of his dreams, who seemed perfect. She was someone that any guy would be lucky to date. However, Ingrid is a love addict (also known as preoccupied-anxious attachment style). She had an emotionally distant and physically abusive father, who cheated on her mother and abandoned her at a young age. She displays typical behavior of the preoccupied-anxious attachment style. They soon fall into the familiar pattern of the love addict, Ingrid pushing for more closeness and the love avoidant trying to create distance. Struggling to fully commit and feeling trapped, Strauss cheats on Ingrid with her friend.
Stopping and restarting relationships, cheating and other distancing behaviors, highlight the constant state of internal unease in love avoidants. They still have needs for closeness and intimacy, but attempt to push away or disguise those needs by using defence mechanisms, to stop attaching fully to another person. This creates an internal battle within themselves.
I'm ruining this one all by myself. And that's because I am the king of ambivalence. When I'm single, I want to be in a relationship. When I'm in a relationship, I miss being single. And worst of all, when the relationship ends and my captor-lover finally moves on, I regret everything and don't know what I want any more - The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, Neil Strauss
After Strauss checks into rehab for the first time to address his sex-addiction, miraculously Ingrid takes him back. Only for Strauss to break-up with Ingrid to go on an exploration of alternative types of relationships. After that fails and Strauss finally does some serious healing work, Ingrid agrees to take him back again. Many securely attached partners would have cut their losses and gave up on the relationship a long time ago. People with secure attachment generally take the view that if a relationship doesn't work out, there are plenty more fish in the sea. They generally will get tired of an on-off scenario. However, on-off cycles are frequent in the avoidant/anxious attachment pairings. Acting almost like a magnet, each person's wounds have found someone that will be able to reinforce their beliefs about love.
2. Insecure Attachment Links To Distraction Seeking Behavior
The book explores how childhood environments can contribute to avoidant attachment and sex addiction. Studies have started to explore the link between insecure attachment styles and sex addiction. Insecure attachment styles are found to be present in more sex addicts than those with secure attachment style. Those with insecure attachment styles often did not learn how to adequately self-soothe themselves in childhood and can turn to addictive behaviors as a substitute. Self-soothing skills are essential to help process unpleasant feelings. If these skills are not present, addictions provide a distraction from the feelings. Chasing after different sexual partners then becomes a form of escape. Persistent unpleasant feelings can arise from low-self esteem. Validation from sexual partners also provides a temporary external source of esteem or ego boost.
However, the core beliefs driving low self-esteem are beliefs of not being worthy of love or of being bad. Ultimately hurting others with their actions reinforces core beliefs of not being worthy of love. Most frequently core negative beliefs come from unprocessed childhood trauma. Even smaller traumas that happen regularly, can have a similar effect to a single serious traumatic event. The small traumas could range from critical comments, to being told how to think. Essentially the child was not getting its needs met on a regular basis and was not given the opportunity to form a healthy sense of self.
When children experience trauma, they tend to absorb the feelings of their abusers and store them in a compartment in their psyche that we call the shame core. It contains the beliefs I am worthless, I am unloveable, I don't deserve." "To survive painful beliefs and feelings, we often mask them with anger. That way, we don't have to feel the shame behind it. The payoff of anger is mastery, control, or power, "Lorraine continues. "So the anger makes you feel better and one up. And when you use sex to restore power or feel better about yourself in a similar way, this is what's know as eroticized rage- The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, Neil Strauss
3. Sex Addiction Can Be A Result Of Enmeshment Trauma
During rehab, Strauss realizes that throughout his childhood he was enmeshed with his mother and overly responsible for her feelings. His mother was constantly confiding in Strauss about the problems in her relationship with his father. Using him as a substitute adult relationship to get her emotional needs met. His father also had emotional and sexual issues, was disengaged and withdrawn. Strauss's own emotional needs were not recognized by his mother, who as is often the case in these scenarios, displayed some narcissistic tendencies.
It is important to further discuss the role the father could have in the sexualisation of addictive behaviour. McDougall (1972) hypothesises that part of the mother’s seductiveness is to give the child a sense that there is little need or reason to admire or emulate the father, and that the child has become the perfect partner. Coen (1981) supports this by adding “the child’s illusion of his adequacy as mother’s lover may be encouraged, discouraging him from growing up, from identifying with father in his adult masculine role, and from further differentiation from the mother” (p. 900). Rosen (1979) also agrees that a failure by the father to protect the child against the mother’s influences of seduction can lead to sexualisation - Impaired Self-soothing, Sexualisation and Avoidant Attachment: Are These Significant Precursors To Male Sexual Addiction, David Rowlands
Strauss's mother was controlling, enforced strict rules, constantly criticized him for small things, told him what to think and who he should be friends with. The degree of enmeshment from his mother was pretty extreme. She required him to give her foot rubs, acted jealously when he had girlfriends and did not allow him his own key to the house. Not surprisingly, Strauss had to learn how to sneak around and lie to get any taste of freedom. This learned behavior can then carry on into adulthood. The belief being transferred onto partners, that they still need to sneak around and lie to have freedom. At times of feeling out of control or weak, they will act out sexually and lie to re-establish a sense of self and control.
Instead of taking care of a child's needs, the enmeshing parent tires to get his or her own needs met through the child. This can take various forms; a parent who lives through a child's accomplishments; who makes the child a surrogate spouse, therapist, or caretaker; who is depressed and emotionally uses the child; who is overbearing or overcontrolling; or who is excessively emotional or anxious about a child. If you grew up feeling sorry for or smothered by a parent; this is a sign that enmeshment likely occurred: In the process, enmeshed children lose their sense of self. As adults, they usually avoid letting anyone get too close and suck the life out of them again. Where the abandoned are often unable to contain their feelings, the enmeshed tend to be cut off from them, and be perfectionistic and controlling of themselves and others. Though they may pursue a relationship thinking they want connection once they're in the reality of one, they often put up walls, feel superior, and use other distancing techniques to avoid intimacy. - The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, Neil Strauss
4. Acting Out To Escape Feelings
A love avoidant is usually charming in the early stages of a relationship. They can quickly mould into what their partner needs, as they grew up learning how to not have needs of their own. Ignoring their own stifled needs and solely focusing on another, soon starts to make them feel resentful. Acting out provides a release for pent up feelings of resentfulness. A love addict partner will allow acting out to continue, retreating into a type of fantasy relationship, creating excuses for the avoidants behavior.
Strauss explains how his mother taught him to fear women, and the weight of carrying his parent's issues contributed to his trapped feelings in relationships. For many love avoidants, the burden of their parental relationships is carried on into their intimate relationships. This is why all intimate relationships feel burdensome to them on some level. We can then begin to understand the insatiable desire for freedom. However, the unresolved issues are what is trapping them on the inside. Another trigger to acting out for love avoidants is feelings of shame. When anything feels like it is going wrong, the shame reaction is so intense that it triggers acting out. Acting out gives the love avoidant back some control of their feelings, which again leads to a sense of regaining power. I have heard many stories of an avoidant partner making a snap decision to leave a relationship or withdraw if they are confronted with even small issues with their behavior. There seems to be an inability to sit with the feeling of making a mistake, even a small mistake. Mistakes lead to an intense shame reaction which renders them unable to reflect on or repair minor disagreements. This is another reflection of low self-esteem and often corresponds to the degree of punishment or shaming they experienced whilst making mistakes in childhood.
5. Polyamory & Open Relationships Are Not The Solution
Love avoidants will often use the idea of someone else or a fantasy relationship to maintain emotional distance from their current partner. Beliefs that they can find someone better are mostly attempts by the attachment system to deactivate and not form a close bond with their partner. Strauss makes some very risky decisions in the book. He cuts his treatment off for sex-addiction and decides that he doesn't have a problem, that if he found the right situation, he would be happy. Rather than having those nagging questions always in the back of his mind, he wants to experience what it would be like to live out those wishes in real life. He decides to try out alternative types of relationships and try to find his version of freedom. He now steps into the world of polyamory and open relationships.
The book explores these experiences in quite some detail. He struggles to relate to most of the people in the polyamory groups he visits. He generally has difficulties finding people he is attracted to, encounters unusual beliefs and is unsure how to deal with men making advances towards him. Another issue for Strauss, is that in these types of communities there are actually often more rules and restrictions involved than a monogamous relationship. With so many peoples feelings to account for, there may be quite a long list of what is and what is not allowable. He goes through many awkward experiences in sex clubs and swingers parties, still unable to escape that fact that he doesn't feel good about himself. He even tries having three girlfriends at once, persuading them to all move in with him. Whilst Strauss struggled to cope with one person's needs in his relationship with Ingrid, he is now relatively swamped by three peoples needs. Jealousy issues are rife and his shame issues magnify. He recognizes that he is effectively giving the girls scraps of affection when they deserve real affection. He's also finding out that many of the people in this world have deep intimacy issues. The reader discovers how selfish he is, as though he wants complete freedom himself, he doesn't want his multiple partners to have the same freedom.
Finally, Strauss tries an open relationship with a woman who is pretty much the female version of him. They quickly form a co-dependent relationship, spending all their time together and for a moment it seems that Neil has found his version of heaven. She's happy to allow him to bring other women into their sex-life, sometimes even without her present. However, when his new partner shows interest in men that Neil feels inferior to, he is now the one struggling with the jealousy issues.
For a guy who doesn't want to be controlled, I never noticed how controlling I actually am. - The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, Neil Strauss
Strauss is soon the one filled with insecurities about what his partner is doing and if she will leave him. Finally, all the confusion and insecurity is enough for him and his partner admits that she usually tries to be what someone wants her to be, then runs from relationships as soon as she begins to feel trapped. It all sounds so familiar to Strauss.
"I want to be in your arms all the time" she yells. "I need that more than anything. I feel like I belong there"- she kicks an arc of sand into the air-"but I also want to have my cake and eat it". I try to disentangle her words: She wants me but she doesn't want me. She needs the security of the relationship but she doesn't want the responsibility of it. She wants my commitment but she wants her freedom. And slowly the truth dawns on me. I've gotten what I deserve: someone just like me. - The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, Neil Strauss
Strauss was at the more extreme end of the spectrum of love avoidance and sex addiction. It seems he had to eat as many cakes as he could before he realized that this was making him sick. Sometimes our fears are fooling us into thinking we want something, when that thing is not going to bring us long-term happiness. Strauss was finally able to see that his issue was not being unable to find the right relationship, it was not feeling right within himself.
6. Recovery Must Take Priority
All the things you've been trying to get from these relationships-freedom, understanding, fairness, acceptance-are exactly the things that you never got from your mom. So every time you load all that unfinished business onto your partner, you're setting yourself up for another disappointment. Because as an adult, the only person who can give you those things is you. - The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, Neil Strauss
The ending of the book follows Strauss as he goes back to rehab, immerses himself in different types of therapy, self-help groups, workshops, meditation and reading. That's one of the most important things you can do whilst healing, to make your recovery one of your main focuses. Going to therapy once a week will help, but dedicating additional time to do your own self-healing work will make the therapy even more successful.
The next morning, I start filling him-and me- with the things I needed but never had as a child. When I have a negative thought about myself, I gently replace it with a positive truth. When I make a mistake, I forgive myself. When I'm too thin-skinned or thick-skinned, I gently guide myself back into moderate reality. And when I regress, I silently soothe myself as if teaching a child not to be afraid of the dark. Just as I told Anne to be a good mother to herself, I'm re-parenting myself. It's somewhat pathetic that at this age, I need to properly learn how to be an adult. But if the problems I have in relationships are the result of developmental immaturities, then by nurturing these stunted parts of myself into a growth spurt, perhaps I'll finally attain the happiness and stability that have eluded me through them all. - The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, Neil Strauss
Then finally when he has done a substantial amount of work on himself, Strauss feels able to have a healthy relationship. He discusses how he would now prefer to make a deep emotional connection with a partner before being physically intimate with them. Recognizing, that this gives both people a chance to see who the other really is, that they have enough compatibility and that they are able to accept each other. He learns how to set and communicate boundaries, which is especially important for someone recovering from enmeshment trauma. He understands that both partners to a relationship need to take responsibility for their own feelings. You can contribute to a partners happiness but you can not solely be your partner's happiness. This helps prevent the trapped feelings that enmeshment trauma can bring. In their time apart both Ingrid and Strauss worked on their attachment insecurities. This meant that when they got back together for good, they were able to understand each other better and find ways to manage any issues. The on-off again cycle was broken and they were finally able to stay together.
As I dealt with my enmeshment issues, I became less concerned about wanting sex outside the relationship. And as Ingrid dealt with her abandonment issues, she became less concerned about losing me if I happen to feel attraction to another woman. In fact, once she saw that I was completely happy and fully satisfied to be exclusively with her, anything became possible. As a result, we developed the relationship I'd been looking for the whole time, only I didn't know what it was: a relationship without fear. Without fear of intimacy, without fear of suffocation, without fear of loss, without fear of speaking our truth, without fear of being hurt, without fear of boredom, without fear of change, without fear of the future, without fear of conflict, and even without fear of other people. The opposite of fear is not joy. It is acceptance. And that is what we've replaced the fear with. - The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, Neil Strauss
Neil Strauss, The Truth An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships - 13 October 2015 - https://www.neilstrauss.com/the-truth/
Rafael Behr, Observer Review: The Game by Neil Strauss - https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/sep/25/biography.society
David Rowlands, Impaired Self-soothing, Sexualisation and Avoidant Attachment: Are These Significant Precursors To Male Sexual Addiction - Research Gate.net - http://aut.researchgateway.ac.nz/bitstream/handle/10292/951/RowlandsD.pdf;sequence=3