Writers in the Storm

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May 20, 2013

Why We (and Our Characters) Fall in Love: Part Four

NOTE: Thank you to everyone who commented on the two-part blog by Jane Porter. Congratulations to lrtrovi who's the winner of Jane's "goodie bag."

This is Part Four is a five-part series on the science of why (and how) we fall in love based on a four-day workshop Fae Rowen attended on Attachment Styles. In case you missed any of the information, you can access Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3 by clicking on the links. Part Five (on Monday, June 24) will tie all the styles together and throw in current brain research tips that will help you create characters with believable emotions and actions--characters that your readers are hard-wired to fall in love with.

by Fae Rowen

Today we'll look at the fourth and final attachment style, the Disoriented/Disorganized Style. Don't be fooled by the name. Remember that your character's attachment style results from the parent's behavior. As an infant and toddler, this child survived interactions with the caregiver that were chaotic, frightening, and disorienting.

This child will run toward, then abruptly run away, from the caregiver. The child needs the parent but, at the same time, feels unsafe with him. S/he may run in circle, fall down for no apparent reason, rock back and forth, hit her head against a wall, exhibit trance-like states, or avert his gaze when the parent returns.

The parent's communication to the child contains "double binds" like "come here, go away" messages that present the child with an unsolvable problem. They give conflicting signals that make no sense to the child. Communication with a disturbing lack of clarity sets the child up for predictable failure. When the parent is internally triggered into sudden shifts of extreme states without reference to the child's signals, the child's world becomes dangerous and confusing.

As a result, the child cannot use the caregiver to soothe, because the caregiver is the source of the fear. Secure Attachment is designed around safety for the child. But when the child experiences physical, emotional or sexual abuse, a dis-attached/disorganized attachment style is developed.

Your Disoriented/Disorganized Attachment character is particularly well-suited as a protagonist in a suspense or mystery. Because of their childhood issues, they are particularly sympathetic to readers even before their entire backstory is revealed. Unfortunately, many readers will personally identify with the adult characteristics of this attachment style.

Unlike the other attachment styles, this character has minimal possibility of the flight or fight response. S/he tends to freeze into trance-like stillness and dissociate as a survival mechanism.

Possible Ramifications in Adult Relationships

  • Social difficulties
  • Attention deficits
  • Lack of coherence
  • May become aggressive with others or exhibit a controlling style due to danger experienced with out-of-control caregiver
  • Unsolvable paradoxes lead to overwhelming feelings most of the time
  • Cannot solve problems
  • May use the present tense to describe the past
  • May have prolonged pauses in speech
  • Has the greatest risk of psychiatric disorders
  • May experience panic or rage when getting close to another in relationship
  • Can experience extreme shifts of mood
  • Easily triggered into frustration, fear, or despair when circumstances are unclear
  • Inner chaos and turmoil brings a higher level of self-absorption
  • Wants relationship deeply, but fears relationship will be dangerous
  • May not experience the feeling of true protection even when it is available
  • May stay in an abusive or non-supportive relationship because they have not developed "good radar" for danger
  • Due to the amount of fear from relational trauma, they are easily triggered by partner to set off intense survival urges
  • Flight/fight urges make it difficult to stay and calmly resolve conflicts using effective skills
  • May ignore early signals of inappropriate language, touch or behavior and discount any "bad vibes" they have

How can this character heal? It seems not only unlikely, but impossible. Not true. Those with a Disoriented/Disorganized Attachment Style can develop a Secure Attachment Style. The following "repair" messages can be verbally or non-verbally conveyed to build the security necessary for a secure attachment to form.

  • I am sorry I scared you.
  • Let's all calm down and talk.
  • I will protect you and stand up for you.
  • I will be your safe haven.
  • You can trust me to be here for you and to keep you safe from the world.
  • You can trust me to keep you safe within our relationship.
  • I will repair the relationship when disruptions happen.
  • I am paying attention to you and what you need.
  • Let me give you clear directions.

A competent protector is particularly important to this character, hence the woman-in-danger protected by a Navy Seal or a detective. The black moment will be when your character disbelieves one of the repair messages she's been given.

Of course, male characters can have this style. They may have developed their "competent protectors" as a child from movies or books or pets. They use clarity to decrease states of confusion. They may be what we'd call "adrenaline junkies" and need danger--or drama-- consistently in their lives. Of course, female characters with Disoriented styles can do all of these things, too.

The key is that this character must separate their attachment style from their heightened survival instinct. As their partner assists in this endeavor to return to a Secure Attachment Style, the process of the two of them falling in love will connect with your reader at a much deeper level, because we all know people with this style.

Do you have a character that can be enhanced with this information? How can you use these traits to ramp up your black moment?

Join Fae on Monday, June 24, when she concludes this series. Oh, early next month she's taking the workshop again to pick up more tips. She'll be passing those on in Part Five.

26 comments on “Why We (and Our Characters) Fall in Love: Part Four”

  1. Wow, Fae, I learn something new with every one of these. Can't wait for the wrap up, and to see it all come together!

    This reminds me of Lisbeth Salander, from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

  2. Fae, this all harkens back to college when I doubled with English and psychology. So lucky to be in a "university without walls" degree program, I was able to lose myself in research and happily dove into each of those waters. The moment of truth for me was when I had to decide on a graduate education and become something. I went towards education and prevention and steered away from intervention.

    I admire your skill in getting under the first layers people use to hide who they are from a world that may not be safe or welcoming. There is so much in all of these styles that we can use for our characters. Thanks for today and for the series. I look forward to the next and last post 🙂

    1. Thanks for reading. I can identify with your choice, although I didn't "mindfully" make mine. I'm excited to re-take the workshop and find out what slipped through the cracks the first time around.

  3. When you lay all these attachment styles out they make more an more sensce and help to add a character dept. Sometimes it's easy to decide to handicap a character in one way or another but then knowing how to overcome that handicap properly isn't easy. So reading the "healing" part of these blogs identifies what the hero or heroine must do win over the one they love.

    1. That's why I knew this information would be so helpful to readers, Sharla. As humans, we "get" the theory unconsciously, but as writers, we need to understand how--and why--it "works."

  4. I just got onto your articles, and I have to say, it's about time somebody started discussing Attachment Theory!!! Thank you! I am an Attachment Theory parent, and as such I'm called a hippy. So be it. I have, though, the satisfaction of watching my son play with other children in the park, watching the other children's behavior, seeing the Avoid-ant or Anxious child play with my boy, then witnessing how my son's gentle and soothing behavior can turn almost any other child's behavior into secure and happy. No fighting. No bullying. Just playing. All conflicts are resolvable, except a few in which case my son turns to me readily, and we all figure it out.

    The Attachment Theory has played a vital role in my writing ever since I discovered it, some ten years ago. The neuroscience behind it is sound, but more than that, it just works. Have you ever read a story where the hero and heroine fall into bed or fall in love and you feel like you've been robbed of something? Their connection seems forced or inorganic? That's because the writer wasn't using the right cues to help the characters along, not using the Attachment Theory to have the characters connect. Writing ain't just about cause and effect; it's about psychology. Sure, we can write about lust, and hope that are characters will fall in love, but the most sure fire way of getting that happily ever after, so our readers won't worry about the anxious heroine who gave too much to the avoid-ant hero who just might leave her soon enough, is to get behind the psychology of it all, and make our characters become secure, happy, and, like my son, just have fun playing!

    1. Oh, Lani, thank you so much for this. It is wonderful to hear how Attachment Theory can make life better. Your son is very lucky to have you actively practicing it--and how lucky that you've had it in your writing for years as well!

  5. I'm so glad to read this post. I'm going back right now and reading the previous ones! Fantastic information. Thanks for doing this series.

  6. Let me echo Barbara! I am also digging through the past emails to see what I've done with the earlier ones. Thank you for your thoughtful presentation.

  7. I knew nothing of this theory until Fae took the class and started blogging on it and I have to say that using this for our stories is deep stuff! At the same time, it's an eye opener. As writers we're taught to know our character's background but this theory answers better than most explanations, exactly why character background is so important. Thanks again!

  8. Since you know that emotion is not my strong suit--in my writing and my life--this scientific approach works for me. I'm hoping when I re-take the workshop I'll learn what I missed the first time, before I finish with Part Five.

  9. These posts are so helpful! I need to print them out and put them in a binder for future reference. I find it all so interesting, too. I love learning about the brain, and definitely recognize that parenting styles have an impact on kids. However, I scratch my head over the completely different personalities, coping skills, and interpersonal skills my two kids have despite being raised in identical circumstances. Go figure.

    As an aside, National Geographic has a really interesting series on TV now called Brain Games. It doesn't relate to how we form attachments or relate to people, but it is fascinating nonetheless as it explores how we perceive motion, how our brain focuses its attention, etc. You get to play along with the show...it is great to watch with your kids!

    1. Thanks for the tip on the National Geographic show, Jamie. I love anything (and everything!) to do with brain research.
      I'm glad you've found the series helpful.

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