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.
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.