I’m ready to fall asleep and he is not, so I lie down with an eye mask and close my eyes.  I drift off for a while and then I hear the running shower.  I drift off again, and this time he’s coming to check on me.  I’m tired and I groan.  He teases me gently, sweetly.  I roll over and wrestle with a pillow.  I’m tired, and I’m not very amused.  Later some rustling from downstairs keeps getting my attention, then a noise outside.  I drift off again and wake when the light from his phone illuminates beside me.  I’m so exhausted.  It must be hours past my bedtime and I’m still tossing.  My head aches slightly, I’m hot, and I’m frustrated.  My heart is pounding.  My breathing is shallow.  Everything hurts.

He gets out of bed and goes downstairs again, and I agonize over what to do.  I don’t understand what’s going on with him and I feel shut out.  Lying in my boyfriend’s bed exhausted, irritable, in pain and alienated feels familiar in a way that suddenly makes me think I might throw up or hyperventilate or both.  I turn over fitfully, remembering how he held me close as we drifted off to sleep just the other night; I felt secure and incandescently happy.  Another train noise and I jump, clutching the pillow and crying out.

This is what my marriage felt like at night.  My abuser would go to and come back from a bar while I slept, or have affairs on the internet or play video games or whatever the hell he did while I laid there longing for connection and sleep that would not come–startling at every little sound.  I remind myself that Kevin* is very different from my abuser, but that doesn’t calm me down.

Eventually I begin to cry and he comes back upstairs.  Alarmed, he asks what’s wrong.  Inarticulate, I blubber about the headache and exhaustion and frustration and how everything hurts.  He asks what he can do and fetches me the requested ibuprofen.  He holds me and I calm down a little, then he asks “am I keeping you up?”  I’m afraid to answer this question but I nod, crying harder.  I apologize; I feel like a crazy, embarrassing burden.  He asks a few more questions and I attempt, through tears and labored breathing, to explain about how it’s noise and light but also hypervigilance and attachment stuff.  How it’s been bothering me and I’ve been trying to tell him and I’m struggling with it and I’m sorry.

I can feel his hand stiffen against me and he pulls away, just slightly.  I think I’m going to throw up.  This is exactly what I’m afraid of.  At first I try reaching out for him, but he feels far away so I let go and stop talking and try to breathe.  My attempts to slow my breathing produce a series of sputtering hisses.  He is silent, and I can’t see his face in the dark.

I ask him what he’s thinking, trying clumsily to repair the misattunement.  He says he isn’t.  More silence.  I hold the pillow for dear life.  My chest and throat are tight and my heart is pounding relentlessly.  I feel cold, merciless abject terror.  I love this man.  I can try one more time. I take a few breaths, as deep as I am able.  “Kevin*”?

“Yeah.”

“I’m really afraid I’m scaring you off.  Can you please tell me what’s going on for you?”

He says he’s just laying there.  That it’s 2 am.  That I have to get up in 4 hours and I should try to sleep.  His voice is icy.  I fight not to cry again.  I lay there, feeling ashamed and worthless, frozen terrified in space.  My eyes are wide open and I remember what it feels like to lay next to someone who wants nothing to do with me.  He’s right there but so far away.

Get out, a little voice in my head urges insistently.  I don’t want to.  I want to sleep at my boyfriend’s side.  My head throbs.  Kevin* looks at his phone.  I flinch and practice in my head; “Honey, I love you and I’m sorry.  I’m going to try to sleep downstairs.

I remember a conversation we had on the phone when we’d been dating about a week.  Something he said gave me an inkling and I mused aloud that if he tended to be avoidant in conflict, that might be a big problem for us.  He told me with the faintest trace of fear in his voice that he didn’t want to think we’d have problems.

Couples therapy, I think.

He sure as hell won’t consider it right now.

Come on, Laura.  You don’t stay where you aren’t wanted.  Go.

He looks at his phone again.  I push my face against the pillow and then choke out in a pinched voice, “I’m going to try to sleep downstairs.”

“Okay.”

I hit my shin hard on the bed frame walking away.  The pain is sharp and sudden–and it pales in comparison to what I’m feeling inside.

I close myself in the spare room downstairs.  I do not cry.  I climb into bed and try to sleep.  My heart continues to race.  My chest continues to quiver faintly with shallow, panting breath.  Several times, I give all my attention to slowing down my breathing and several times it goes right back.  I construct a little enclosure with the pillows, pressing them close to me.  I get hot and thrash some more.

I think about trying to talk to Kevin* tomorrow.  I think about how closed off he felt and I  choke a little.  I think about going to stay with a friend tomorrow night.  I wonder how he’ll react to that.  I begin to grapple with worst case scenarios–heated arguments or icy silence.  That he’s lost respect for me.  That he didn’t really know what he was getting into.  That I’ll need to collect my things and pile them in my car.  If we break up I could kill myself.  Maybe he just needs space.  My panicked torrent of thoughts pile on top of each other, and I do not cry.  I feel how my chest is so contracted there can’t possibly be room for my heart.  I feel my quadriceps grabbing.  My bag is packed–it’s always packed. I think I could leave now, in the middle of the night.

I think about my beleaguered nervous system and recognize this frenzied spin of tension and fearful musings.  I know that I am in limbic override.  I know that the connection I was trying to make with my boyfriend would have stopped it, but now it’s in full throttle.  Kevin* does not feel safe to me right now, his home does not feel soothing, and I’m dead certain that there will be no sleep for me.  Absent the longed for assurance that I am loved and held, I fling off the covers and prepare to leave.

*Name has been changed

3 thoughts on “Attachment Trauma, Misattunement, and a Sleepless Night

  1. Hugs. Attachment Trauma is scary, but all you can do is be vulnerable with where you are. You need a person who can still validate. My Partner learned to say something like “I’m angry and I need some space for a bit, but I still love you and we’ll talk later” instead of leaving it dangling. A time out from a tough discussion can be helpful, but we with attachment trauma never learned to feel like the person would come back, either physically or emotionally.

  2. That’s very skillful of your partner. It isn’t the need for space that’s a problem—that’s understandable, acceptable, normal and healthy. It’s the stonewalling which is alarming, frightening, and fundamentally detrimental to the health of a relationship, which is why it’s one of Gottman method’s predictive factors for relationship failure.

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