Lesson 1 of 7  - reduce psychological wounds

About Bonding
(Attachment) Wounds

Why Some People Can't
Feel,  Need, or Love Others

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/gwc/wounds/bonding.htm

  Updated  April 30, 2015

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      This brief YouTube video previews much of what you'll read here:

  Learn something about yourself with this 1-question anonymous poll.

       The article covers..

  • Perspective on feeling and bonding

  • What causes this "bonding block" (wound)?

  • How does this bonding wound relate to giving and receiving love?

  • How does this psychological wound affect typical family relationships?

  • What are typical behavioral symptoms of this wound? And...

  • Can wounded people learn to genuinely bond (feel and receive love)?

If you know someone who seems "unable to love," keep them in mind as you read this.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lesson 1

  • two brief research studies on maternal bonding

  • the [wounds + unawareness] cycle and its effects

  • reprint on early-childhood attachment (bonding)

 About Feeling and Bonding

      Part of what follows is based on the widely-acknowledged work of British psychiatrist Dr. John Bowlby. This summary of his "attachment (bonding) theory" is well worth reading after you finish this.

      Newborn humans and other animals have the primitive instinctual ability to form strong emotional attachments, or bonds, to special "things." Universal examples are the fierce bonds between parents, specially mothers, and genetic offspring; and the bond between healthy mates. When young children are deprived of psychological nurturances "too much" for "too long," they survive by automatically evolving a fragmented personality.

      Parts of their personality want to emotionally attach to (care about) special people. From abandonment and abuse trauma, other parts develop a primal terror of attaching too much or at all. Depending on many variables, such wounded girls and boys grow into adults who are ambivalent about true bonding and commitment, or are too shamed, distrustful, and fearful to achieve real bonding with appropriate people. For a detailed explanation of this, see this article after you finish here.

      Such Grown Wounded Children  (GWCs) are burdened with the indescribable anguish of wanting to exchange loving communion and attachment with special people, and being unable to do so - living in a society that relentlessly glorifies pleasure and love.

      Shame-based  kids may be able to care for others, but their ruling subselves feel worthless and reject others' love. People who experience "soul-mate" relationships eloquently affirm that there is a deep spiritual dimension to the bond between them.

      Other common facets of this tragic psychological wound are being unable to (a) care about yourself (self-neglect), (b) empathize with others, and (c) an inability to bond meaningfully with a nurturing Higher Power 

q-mark.gif (70 bytes)  What Causes this "Bonding Block"?

      Shelves of scientific, philosophical, and romantic books focus on this pervasive human mystery. After 36 years' clinical study and 29 years' wound-reduction learnings, my guesstimate is this:

      Every infant (including newborn you) has the innate capacity to attach (bond). S/He is exquisitely responsive before and after birth to the sensory interactions s/he has with primary caregivers. A newborn's pre-birth experience and perhaps genes may influence her or his predisposition to trust themselves to connect with this awesome giant being later called Mother, Mommy, Mum, Mutter, Madre, or Mama.

      If a baby's physical, psychological, and spiritual needs for gentle attention, security, touching, stimulation, mirroring, feeding, rest, comforting, and cleaning are filled well enough by a primary caregiver who is consistently...

  • emotionally present ("available"), vs. distracted or absent ("unavailable"),

  • genuinely pleased the baby is there, and wants to nurture him/her; and is...

  • able to attach (does not have significant psychological wounds), and is...

  • able to feel and express emotions and needs, and to empathize; and is...

  • steadily alert to things that please and upset the baby and is effective at providing comfort (filling needs), then...

the baby and caregiver will probably develop a genuine mutual bond.

      Initially, the baby's side of the bond is dependence. Over the years, if the growing young child steadily experiences being prized, wanted, and important ("loved") by key caregivers, s/he'll shift her part of the bond from "I need you" to "I love you." 

      If the baby's needs are inadequately, erratically, and/or harshly met, or caregivers' looks, sounds, and actions send confusing "You're good! / You're bad!" double messages then the baby instinctively begins to form a fragmented personality in order to survive.

      Her or his bond becomes ambivalent: "I need you / I fear you." Over time, that promotes self distrust, dislike, and shame ("bad me" feelings), confusion, and significant guilt. Typical babies begin to develop protective false selves to reduce these discomforts.

      If the child's first three to six years feel too confusing (I'm safe and good / I'm unsafe and bad) and/or too scary and painful, then her or his psychological wounding and unconscious bonding-ambivalence deepens. If s/he experiences "too much" shame ("bad me" feelings), guilt ("I do bad things"), and fears (distrusts and anxieties), s/he begins to protectively numb out, distract, and/or detach psychologically from the people associated with their pain.

      The young child's personality subselves who want to trust and bond are overruled by protective distrustful subselves who say "No! It's not safe (to care) because we always get hurt!"
These subselves form the child's "bonding block." Such children increasingly depend on themselves to get key needs met. This becomes normal, reflexive, and unremarkable. They neither expect or ask for help.

      Other wounded kids become apathetic and numb. Still others become strategically helpless to force caregivers to attend them, but life is still not really safe because the care they get doesn't feel genuine, spontaneous, and loving.

      Genetics and the nurturance level of the growing child's environment over time determine how her or his subselves develop, and which subselves dominate. Accumulated pain, pleasure, and parental response patterns shape...

  • how intense the bonding ambivalence or block is (weak to strong);

  • how wide it's scope ("I trust soft furry animals but not short red-headed women who frown and growl");

  • how the child adapts to the environment's reaction to their block (brazenly, furtively, apologetically, etc.); and...

  • how their family reacts to their growing distrust, detachment, and perhaps pretense.

      A major aspect of this bonding wound seems to be the child's ability to experience some or all emotions. Some children who learn to automatically associate feeling with guilt, shame, and fear respond by muting their ability to feel. As teens and adults, they must compute what they're "supposed to" feel to be accepted as "normal." This promotes feeling (even more) abnormal, weird, and shamed without knowing why. 

      The bottom line seems to be: if a young child feels genuinely wanted, safe, noticed, appreciated, stimulated, comforted, and enjoyed enough during early years, s/he'll probably develop a healthy-enough ability to bond with others. If s/he's too deprived too often of genuinely loving attention, touching and holding, encouragement, affirmation, comforting, and protection, the child develops a protective group of Guardian subselves who provide comfort and distraction from current or expected pain.

      Inner Kids and Guardian subselves form a false self which causes up to five other psychological wounds. If dominant subselves are too fearful, distrustful, and ashamed, the child has trouble genuinely attaching with selected others, themselves, and/or a benign Higher Power.

q-mark.gif (70 bytes)  How Does this Bonding Wound Relate
to Giving and Receiving Love?

      Until well into effective wound-reduction, many survivors of major childhood abuse, abandonment, and/or neglect (Grown Wounded Children, or GWCs) unconsciously associate love with disappointment, rejection, and abandonment - i.e. pain. From early agonies, alert subselves are sure "If I risk loving (caring about) somebody, it will hurt."

      Trauma-survivors who have never experienced healthy, sustained, genuinely unconditional love from another person often can't comprehend that love is other than a mix of lust, neediness, duty, and pity. To such disabled people "I love you" really means "I feel sad / lonely / sorry / compassion / lusty / responsible for you."  They semiconsciously equate giving material things as a way of "showing love."

      If a mate complains "I don't feel loved by you," unrecovering GWCs protest uncomprehendingly "but I do - why don't you see that?" (i.e. "What's wrong with you?"). Similarly, shame-based GWCs have little idea of what it feels like to "love myself."

      To gain some self and social acceptance, Most false selves develop the survival skill of camouflaging this "shameful" inability to really give and receive love from themselves and others.

q-mark.gif (70 bytes)  What is "Pseudo" (False) Bonding?

      Psychologically-wounded adults and kids who can't feel, bond, empathize, or exchange love live in a society which glorifies and idealizes love, "closeness," "connection," intimacy, and caring. Behavioral evidence of genuine bonding is an inescapable social norm.

      Seeking to feel normal in their own eyes and in society's, these wounded people often become experts early in life in pretending to feel true attachment to parents, relatives, friends, and lovers. They observe how loving adults and kids behave, and become skilled at sounding and acting just like them - but they don't feel attached, empathic, or committed.

      A common result is they convince themselves that they can bond and love - so if another person doesn't feel a bond, the GWC in protective denial is sure the other person is the problem, not them (reality distortion). These wounded people are often very attractive socially and professionally.

      However, eventually their behavior doesn't match their words in key relationships, which leads others to feel confused, hurt, guarded, and distrustful despite the GWCs earnest proclamations of "But I really do care about you!" Paradoxically, that's their truth, for they don't know they don't know what genuine caring feels like.

q-mark.gif (70 bytes)  How Does Difficulty Bonding and Feeling
 Affect Family Relationships?

      In ways like these:

      One or both courting partners commit to each other for the wrong reasons (like duty, rescuing, loneliness, sex, social normalcy, or revenge), rather than for real commitment and love;

      After courtship excitement and illusions recede, one or both mates feel increasingly "empty" in their partnership. This bonding wound promotes emotional numbness and hinders or blocks the normal exchange of emotional-physical-spiritual intimacy. Over time, this usually promotes secondary relationship problems like hurt, frustrations, distrust, resentment, disrespect, avoidances, distancing, and affairs.

      People with this "hole in the soul" and other psychological wounds often are controlled by an Addict subself who strives to mute or distract inner kids' discomfort or numbness and emptiness. Addictions to substances, activities, relationships, and/or emotional states inevitably corrode personal health and marriages, promote low-nurturance environments, wound dependent kids, and cause more inner pain;

      Adults unable to feel, empathize, and bond (and some professionals they hire) may misdiagnose their persistent emptiness (emotional + spiritual disconnection) as "depression." This can raise personal and family anxiety, and usually doesn't respond to "anti-depressants" and/or therapy. It also lowers trust in the outcome of hiring professionals to help.

      People with serious bonding blocks are prone to having loveless (physical only) sex, leaving one or both partners increasingly dissatisfied and unfulfilled.

      Partners who feel "empty" (as in childhood) are vulnerable to the excitement and temporary relief of (a) fighting or rebelling, (b) taking major risks, and (c) sexual affairs. including possible incest.

      And this bonding-block wound can also affect family relationships like this...

      Kids raised by adults who can't empathize and genuinely attach often feel unloved. They conclude "something's wrong with me - I'm unlovable and bad." They develop a shame-based false self, which deeply distrusts that anyone offering love really means it. This promotes social isolation and/or approach-avoid or "hollow" (emotionally-spiritually empty), "independent" relationships. It may also contribute to codependence;

      A parent or grandparent with this bonding wound may not be able to nurture kids effectively. Their ruling subselves may provide care from duty, guilt, or anxiety, but not from their heart. This risks recreating the low-nurturance ("dysfunctional") family environment that the wounded adult survived as a child, specially if s/he divorced and/or re/married another Grown Wounded Child.

      Because people with this disability form weak or no genuine attachments, they have little to grieve. That may confuse or alarm caring (unaware) others who judge the wounded person as cold, indifferent, self-absorbed, detached, intellectual, phony, plastic, materialistic, wooden, frozen, egotistical, Narcissistic, or uncaring. These labels strengthen subselves' belief that their host person is alien, bad, and defective as an individual, a fe/male, a mate, and/or caregiver.

      Attempts to heal a low-bond or no-bond relationship through marriage counseling usually fail, unless ...

  • the therapist knows how to assess and treat psychological wounds (e.g. with some version of inner-family therapy), and...

  • each wounded partner accepts personality subselves and wounds, and admits their true Self is disabled, and ...

  • each commits to intentionally freeing it from false-self control (Lesson 1).

My professional experience is that over 80% of typical troubled adults are significantly wounded, and are unaware of this and what it means. Many of them have some level of this bonding block.

Typical Symptoms of an Inability to Bond

      The inability to feel, empathize, bond, and love probably results from all five other psychological wounds. This inability has common behavioral signs like these:

_ 1)  Often feeling alone with (“disconnected” from) other people.

_ 2)  Periodically feeling “There’s something missing in my life, but I don’t know what.

_ 3)  Inability to relate to “a still small (spiritual) voice within.” (intuition)

_ 4)  Being harshly cynical, scornful, and critical of religion (“a crutch for the weak"), clergy, church, worship, “do-gooders,” missionaries, etc.

_ 5)  Periodically feeling sad, empty, or depressed “for no reason.”

_ 6)  Often feeling "nothing," and/or being unable to feel normal emotional pleasures (anhedonia).

_ 7)  Often feeling like “being on the outside looking in (at others’ lives).”

_ 8)  Feeling “There’s something basically different about me - I’m not like other people.”

_ 9)  Having chronic difficulty empathizing with other people, and denying, joking about, or rationalizing that. A related symptom is being unable to do empathic listening.

_ 10)  Being “religious” but not spiritual, and denying or justifying that.

    More common behavioral symptoms of an inability to empathize, love, and bond...

_ 11)  Having no genuine two-way relation with a personal Higher Power (“God”).

_ 12)  Being puzzled by, and unable to empathize with, others who talk about “feeling God’s presence” or “having a personal relationship with God.”

_ 13)  Often being unable to identify clearly “what I feel, want, or need now.”

_ 14)  Not really understanding or empathizing with any of these symptoms.

_ 15)  Being described as cold, phony, "plastic," over-intellectual, distant, aloof, insincere, glib, uncaring, "unavailable," selfish, egotistical, self-centered, Narcissistic, unapproachable, and/or impersonal.

_ 16)  Confusing “love” with pity (for a needy partner), so “I love you” means “I feel sorry for you.” This promotes marrying to rescue, and later heartache.

_ 17)  Emotionally numbing out or withdrawing when real unconditional love and intimacy is offered, and denying, rationalizing, and/or minimizing this.

_ 18)  Being unable to describe clearly what adult-partner love feels like or means.

_ 19)  Becoming anxious, evasive, defensive, mute, reactive, or numb if intimate conversation or behavior turns to "caring," "intimacy," or “love.”

_ 20)  Confusing “love” with lust and intercourse, soI love you” means “I desire you sexually;

_ 21)  Complaining that a partner never demonstrates their love enough or "right." This can be true, or an inability to receive (feel, trust, and respond to) love.

_ 22)  Righteously expecting something in return for providing “love;” Not really understanding unconditional love.

_ 23)  Confusing “love” with dependence, so “I love you” means “I (mainly) need you, and expect you to fill my needs.”

    More common  behavioral symptoms of an inability to empathize and bond...

_ 24)  Insisting “I love you,” but the receiver doesn’t feel loved (but they may have a bonding-block too.)

_ 25)  Showing “love” by providing physical things and/or money and feeling frustrated if told "that's not enough."

_ 26)  Confusing “love” with duty, soI love you” means “I’m supposed to feel ‘love’ for you (but I can only guess what that is.)”

_ 27)  Chronic self neglect - being unable to genuinely feel and demonstrate consistent, unconditional love for one’s Self - e.g. putting healthy food, rest, exercise, and medical care at low priority and trivializing, justifying, or joking about that, or saying "I can't help it." This is also a symptom of excessive shame.

_ 28)  Confusing love with power: “If you really loved me, you would/n’t…”

_ 29)  Habitual discomfort with, or avoidance of, spontaneously expressing love physically - i.e. avoiding appropriate caressing, hugging, stroking, and kissing. Alternative: pretending to want to do these ("faking it"), and denying that.

_ 30)  Having acquaintances but few or no real friends. Paying professional counselors to listen, because "there's no one else I trust."

_ 31)  Often experiencing family gatherings and social events as boring chores to be endured or avoided, vs. enjoyed.

_ 32)  A history of approach-avoid relationships, marital separations, affairs, and/or emotional or legal divorces, or never really committing to a mate.

_ 33)  Appearing to feel more attachment to animals or plants than people; or having no interest in pets or plants at all.

_ 34)  Having one or several addictions, and focusing on denying that, and/or on reducing the secondary problems they cause rather than assessing for psychological wounds. Addictions (compulsive self-medication for inner pain) imply several or all six psychological wounds, not just a bonding block.

      In general, the more bonding-block symptoms like these that you or another person has, the higher the odds you or s/he is dominated by protective false selves.The checklist above is one of several you can use to assess someone for inherited psychological wounds. Use them all before drawing any conclusions.

Can This Bonding Wound be "Cured"?

      My clinical experience since 1986 is that psychological wounds can be reduced (vs. cured) over time, when the wounded person (GWC)...

  • accepts the reality of personality subselves;

  • fully acknowledges that s/he has inherited significant psychological wounds (hits true bottom and breaks denial),

  • genuinely wants to heal, and makes that a stable high life-priority; and...

  • finds and uses competent clinical and pastoral help, over time.

      As our culture wakens to the reality and meaning of the toxic [wounds + unawareness] cycle, effective wound-reduction help is slowly becoming easier to find.

      I believe this inability to bond and experience love results from having all five other psychological wounds. If this is true, patient work at reducing each of them and harmonizing the inner family (personality) under the true Self's leadership will also reduce this tragic wound. My clinical experience is that skilled inner-family therapy ("pars work"). psychodrama, and/or Voice-dialog therapy can help self-motivated GWCs do this.

      Lesson 1, Part 3 includes detailed parts-work strategies for reducing many common psychological problems, including each of the six GWC wounds.

      For more background and resources, see the Association for Treatment and Training in the Attachment  of Children (ATTACh) and this CDC study.. The clinical name for this widespread psychological wound is "Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)." It's usually associated with young - vs. adult - trauma survivors. Option: search the Web with that term for perspective and resources. Don't expect any to acknowledge false selves and  psychological wounds yet.

  For more general perspective, study these:

  • overview of the silent [wounds + unawareness] cycle that may be harming your family and descendents;

  • an overview of psychological wound reduction. and...

  • the childhood roots of empathy


      This Lesson-1 article focuses on the last of six common psychological wounds - the inability to feel, empathize, bond, and love. The article includes...

  • Perspective on feeling and bonding

  • What causes this "bonding block" (wound)?

  • How does this bonding wound relate to giving and receiving love?

  • How does this psychological wound affect typical family relationships?

  • What are typical behavioral symptoms of this wound? And...

  • Can wounded people learn to genuinely bond (feel and receive love)?

      The ability to bond may be improved by admitting and working intentionally to reduce the five other psychological wounds that cause it. Lesson 1 in this nonprofit Web site offers an effective way to do that for people who have hit true (vs. pseudo) bottom.  

      Pause, breathe, and reflect: why did you read this article? What are your subselves thinking and feeling now? Did they get what they needed here? If not, what do they need? Who's answering these questions - your wise true Self or ''someone else''?

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