Alexithymia and Attachment Style

A reader emailed me this morning with some very good information she’d found.  I’m going to share it (with her permission).  Two years ago, I wrote a post on alexithymia and marriage (Affective Deprivation Disorder and Alexithymia in Marriage), and I never thought about it again.  A year later, it exploded.  A psychologist cited it on Huffington Post, and, suddenly, I’m getting emails, comments, and questions.  I had never heard of alexithymia before I wrote about it.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one.  Lightbulbs were going off for many, many people.

What is the most common question around alexithymia that I’ve received?

What causes it? 

What is the second most common question?

How can I fix it?

Those were my questions, too, when I was married to a man who exhibited alexithymic tendencies.

What I was failing to really notice was the effect it was having on me, hence, the Affective Deprivation Disorder (AfDD).

Now that I’m no longer in that relationship I can say that there was absolutely nothing I could do to change or “fix” his alexithymia.  This is something I cannot emphasize enough.

You cannot fix your partner’s alexithymia.

Why?

Because alexithymia is a symptom.

Think of alexithymia like Scarlet Fever.  My daughter presented with Scarlet Fever at the pediatrician’s office after summer camp when she was seven years-old.  She had a sandpaper-like rash all over her body but was otherwise symptom-free.  The doctor told us to apply a cortisone cream; it was most likely an allergy.  I wasn’t the wiser so I took the doctor’s advice.

The only time I had ever heard of Scarlet Fever was from my grandmother.  Oh, the tales of Scarlet Fever that led to Rheumatic Fever that led to deafness and other lifelong ailments.  Honestly, I didn’t even know what it was.  My daughter did not improve, and she seemed to begin to feel worse.  I did what I never do.  I took her back to the pediatrician, but, this time, we saw our own pediatrician who was 55 and salty.  I dragged all my other daughters along, and they had to sit in the waiting room.

Our pediatrician walked into the examination room and yelled out upon seeing my daughter, “Where did your daughter contract Scarlet Fever in mid-July?! Bring your other kids in here now.  They all need to be tested for strep.”

As it turns out, everyone had group A strep infections but showed no symptoms except for my “Scarlet” daughter. Scarlet Fever is an uncommon bacterial infection caused by group A strep (GAS).  Because the bacteria releases toxins in the body, some people react to that and break out in a rash.  Unbelievably, one pediatrician misdiagnosed my daughter largely due to inexperience.  The rash, however, is not the problem.  It’s a symptom.

Alexithymia is like this.  It’s like the tell-tale rash in Scarlet Fever.  Many therapists, like that pediatrician, will not recognize it.  You cannot make the Scarlet Fever rash go away by applying cortisone cream because it’s not a skin problem.  It’s a bacterial infection.  Treat the underlying cause and the rash heals.

What is the underlying cause of alexithymia? That is up for grabs.  In this case, I am not talking about autism spectrum disorders.  It is not germane to this discussion.  Furthermore, I have known both children and adults on the autism spectrum who are in no way alexithymic.  But, in my observation, what holds true for both neurotypical and non-neurotypical people with alexithymia?

Problems with attachment.  What causes problems with attachment? Childhood experiences and, you guessed it, trauma.  More precisely, unresolved trauma.

The most common attachment style in which you will find alexithymia is the Dismissive-Avoidant.  Don’t be surprised if you find a personality disorder in the mix.

Here is a very helpful and informative video by therapist Mirel Goldstein in which she discusses this attachment style:

For those of you with trauma in your background, you might find this very affirming.  She discusses what healthy attachment looks like, and this is very helpful.  If you are in a relationship with someone who is alexithymic or dismissive-avoidant, then this will be very helpful to you.  It is very important to have an attachment style foil to look at so that you learn what is healthy and appropriate in a relationship.

You cannot fix your partner, but you can engage in a process that will ultimately bring healing to yourself.

Additional Resources:

  • Type: Dismissive-Avoidant
  • Understanding Anxious Attachment
  • Fear of Intimacy by Robert W. Firestone and Joyce Catlett
  • An online course designed to develop a secure attachment style: Making Sense of Your Life“The fantastic news is that if you can make sense of your childhood experiences—especially your relationships with your parents—you can transform your attachment models toward security. The reason this is important is that relationships— with friends, with romantic partners, with present or possible future offspring—will be profoundly enhanced. And you’ll feel better with yourself, too!”   ~Dr. Dan Siegel

11 Comments on “Alexithymia and Attachment Style

  1. Pingback: Affective Deprivation Disorder and Alexithymia in Marriage | Out of the Mire

      • Thank you for looking at it, I hope you enjoy it and finds it true to the disorder. I hope to help make this problem more known and… Understood, lol. No pun intended. 🙂

  2. My husband of 27 years is the same. I’ve been suffering from the effects of AfDD as well. But a psychiatrist diagnosed him as having Schizoid Personality Disorder, not Alexithymia. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard of Alexithymia. Thank you for sharing your experience. It helps to know I’m not alone, but knowing that not much can be done about his disorder (which came as a result of childhood trauma and emotional deprivation) makes me feel discouraged and hopeless about our future.

    • I am very sorry that you feel hopeless and discouraged. That is a very difficult emotional space to occupy. I don’t want to dish out platitudes because we are all on our own road. What I can say is that you are not on that road alone even though it might just feel like you are. I wish you all the best as you continue on your way…MJ

  3. Thanks so much for the video, this explains my relationship for the past 6 years. He tried on things he could do but the emotional aspect was horrible, I would think do i just want to much? And its so hard to talk to someone about cause they just don’t understand if they’ve heard of it they think he’s a monster and if they know him they are like oh he loves you so much, he does. It just doesn’t feel like it for the most part.

  4. How do you ever get them to talk about how they are feeling?
    6 years and one time I got him to start talking about what was bothering him, and of course it was something that I had done that was petty and a broken dryer most the time I was shunned for even asking if he was ok or upset.

    • That’s a good question. I can only speak to what I have experienced and the conclusions that I have reached after all the therapy and processing (and TBH continual processing and personal rumination). If alexithymia or the like is at play, then I think we are talking about capacity: a person’s actual ability to mentalize or understand their own internal dialogue and emotional status while putting some kind of meaningful vocabulary or description to the ebb and flow of those emotions and internal experiences. It is akin to looking at a letter and knowing what sound or sounds those letters make. A person may know what the letter is: “Yes, that is an A or a B,” but they may not know what that letter actually represents in terms of a phonetic sound and how to put letters together to create words. Apply that metaphor to our emotions and emotional experiences. So, having emotional literacy in a sense. When a person lacks emotional literacy and the ability to “mentalize” and lacks insight into their own psychology, they likely lack the ability to put words to how they are doing and what they are feeling. And if they lack the capacity to understand their own internal experiences, you can bet they can’t understand yours. So, they lack the capacity to have meaningful discussions viz. relationships, interpersonal interactions, motivations for behaviors and emotional displays and demonstrations because, while they might know what the basic emotions are (anger, sadness, happiness, etc), they may not be able to name or discuss their own experiences of those states. BUT, that in no way means they don’t experience those emotions. The result? Anger comes out as passive-aggression and outward demonstrations of frustration, anger, rage–the full spectrum of anger. Sadness is displayed, but, because sadness cannot be named, it cannot be regulated. So, when there is no capacity to name emotions, emotional states are not regulated. And, because of all this, healthy communication doesn’t ever happen because there is no emotional fluency, and the partner absorbs the negative inequities due to this lack of capacity. Also? The presence of blame. When a person has a low capacity for emotional understanding or insight, they often blame. And I borrow Brene Brown’s definition of blame which is the ejection of internal discomfort/distress onto another person. Often it is the ejection of anger onto someone else because a person cannot tolerate the intensity of their distressing emotions. Hence, someone else is blamed for one’s emotional state. To answer your question in a long-winded way: You can’t make someone talk about their feelings if they lack the capacity to do so. And if you are with someone who will not because they cannot, then please make sure that you are able to take care of yourself. And, as hard as it is, take a realistic look at what is presently possible in your relationship. If your partner is not actually partnering with you and you’re overcompensating for almost every relational deficit, then…that is not a partnership. I have lived that–for 20 years. We all deserve mutuality, reciprocity, and compatibility.

      • You are correct, it’s very hard because I can see times he tries so hard , but he won’t reach out for help or to even know why alexithimia is present. I had to finally make a stand and tell him he needs to get help, I cannot deal with it by myself anymore more. So hopefully he is, for even just himself. And I’m working on trying to get some self love and boundaries, and connecting with my emotions better myself.

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