Attachment Shame and Disconnection

In last week’s post I defined attachment shame as a specific type of shame felt by betrayed partners around their experience of connection and disconnection to the cheating partner and their ongoing attachment to and love for the person who hurt them and violated their trust. Attachment shame is part of the cycle of attachment ambivalence that manifests so often after discovery of betrayal. When the ambivalence of both wanting to be connected and wanting distance from the cheater is experienced, attachment shame often rears its ugly head as part of both desires, causing the betrayed partner to feel shame no matter which direction they move in relationally.

This week we are going to look at the attachment shame that is felt when relational disconnection happens. Next week we will look at the attachment shame that is felt around relational connection.

Betrayal automatically creates a rupture in relationship. The sense of safety that enables vulnerable interdependency is wiped out and the bond between partners is severely damaged as the premise of the entire relational connection (trust) is erased.  When this happens, there is an immediate sense of disorientation and disconnection that enters the relationship. We feel alienated from our significant other as they are suddenly a stranger to us – someone who says and does things we never imagined they would do. This sense of alienation and danger creates instant relational disconnection and distance.

When we experience relational disconnection from any person who we are dependent on and deeply emotionally attached to it signals danger to our threat system, sending us into alarm. This sense of danger and threat is often accompanied by an underlying shame hit. Relational disconnection creates shame because it threatens our most primary survival mechanism – the ability to bond with others. Shame is the experience of feeling unworthy and worthless in our essence. When our safety is compromised as we are alienated from our most significant relationship, a visceral experience of shame is created. The disconnection and distance stirs the uncertainty deep in our core that perhaps at the end of the day, we are not worthy of relational connection. Perhaps we are not worthy of fidelity, faithfulness, honesty. Perhaps we do not deserve safety, intimacy and the joy of being known. Perhaps we are unlovable and therefore incapable of ever experiencing the safe and secure bond that we long for.

For betrayed partners, the relational rupture created by the sexual betrayal and systematic lying instantly creates distance and alienation relationally and just as instantly sparks shame inside as self-doubt and insecurity about whether you are worth loving, worth being faithful to, or worth desiring come under attack.  This is a profound form of attachment shame experienced by betrayed partners who find themselves viscerally questioning their worth and value to the cheating partner in the aftermath of the betrayal. In addition, this shame is not a singular event but is felt over and over again as new revelations about the degree and depth of betrayal are revealed and the relational bond is stretched thinner and thinner.

As partners begin to experience attachment ambivalence resulting from the two contradictory safety seeking imperatives that betrayal generates, (the need to seek safety by distancing from the cheating partner and the need to seek safety by restoring relational connection with the cheating partner) shame enters the picture.

Each time the betrayed partner moves away, seeking safety through distancing behaviors, attachment shame is triggered as the relational distance reinforces self-doubt and insecurity about the partner’s worthiness. This shame follows betrayed partners like a shadow on a sunny day, inescapable and powerful in its ability to create doubt about one’s worthiness to be a loved and valued mate.

The shame resulting from relational disconnection is part of what drives partners to reach out for reconnection with their significant other, as re-establishing emotional connection temporarily alleviates the feelings of shame and self-doubt, providing a sense of reassurance of their worth and value. In this way, shame is a key driver in the cycle of attachment ambivalence experienced by betrayed partners.

In next week’s post, we will look at how shame also arises when betrayed partners pursue relational re-connection with the cheating partner.

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