Are You Always Leaving?

Attachment Theory helps Sue Gill illustrate how processing our sexuality can effect our ability to build and sustain lasting relationships.

Attachment Theory helps Sue Gill illustrate how processing our sexuality can effect our ability to build and sustain lasting relationships.

I love the smell of jet fuel. It takes me immediately to memories of the great adventures of my life. India, China, Canada, the Pacific Northwest… just naming these places brings a smile to my lips, and I feel a lightness throughout my body. I can almost smell the overwhelming greenness of a Pacific rain forest as I sit here on this cold Wisconsin day. My skin remembers that first blast of desert air as I stepped off a plane in the desert of central China. My knees get weak when I remember with awe my first experiences in the Canadian Rockies.

I love road trips, too, and have come to learn that travel doesn’t always have to include exotic destinations. Lake Superior is one of my favorite places in the world. I love to experience the moods of that lake and was amazed to discover last February that she has a whole set of winter moods I had not known about. I am looking forward to spending some more time with Lake Superior in winter. I think she has some lessons for me.

My travels haven’t always been for vacations. As many do in our community, I used to move a lot. In fact, throughout my twenties it was a source of pride that I could fit everything I owned into my car. It seemed important at the time to be able to move at a moment’s notice. Times sure have changed for me. I moved a few months ago, and it took weeks of packing and a mountain of boxes to hold all of my stuff.

This experience made me wistful for my twenties and got me thinking about healthy lifestyles. How can we tell when living light is a sign of ill health? When does frequent change move from adventurous to avoidant?

John Bowlby wrote the book, “Attachment and Loss” (1969), that launched the line of study called Attachment Theory. This field might help to understand relationship health, and also why some within our community have a hard time putting down strong roots. Attachment Theory proposes that the relationships we had with our primary caregivers while growing up created a template through which we see future adult relationships.

Some of us have grown up with primary caregivers who were consistently available both physically and emotionally. As our world expanded, we continued to return to our caregivers for reassurance and when we felt threatened. This can be seen in the toddler who bumps himself and goes running to Mom in the next room, and in the college freshman who calls Dad crying when she has her first fender bender. In both cases, as the parent is appropriately supportive, the child’s inner template solidifies into a Secure Attachment Style of understanding relationships: “Those who love me are there for me when I need them.”

In contrast, some of us have grown up with caregivers who were inconsistent, chronically distracted, or abusive. This can lead to an inner template that says things like, “I’m better off without any close attachments because people will always let me down,” or, “I can’t live without you,” or, “I need you; no, wait, now you’re too close, get away!”

Even the most secure attachment can be challenged if we come from a family that is not supportive of our sexual orientation or gender identity.  Many of us had a sense of our emerging identity long before we told the important people in our lives. Some of us have chosen never to reveal aspects of our identities to people whom we hold dearly. This can be tremendously challenging to our inner template of relationships: “Those who love me are there for me, except if they know who I really am.” For those of us who came into identity struggles with a less secure attachment, the inner template can become even more rigid: “People will never be there for me, not when I skin my knee, not when I am in a car accident, and especially not if they knew the real me.”

With these profound challenges to our core understanding of relationships, I was not surprised to hear that the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force estimates that as many as 20 – 40% of our nation’s runaway youth identify as LGBT. An adult consequence of attachment struggles can be more subtle types of running away. This can include chronic instability in relationships, numerous partners, or inability to stay in a committed relationship. Some people may show an extreme fear of loss that keeps them obsessing about the faithfulness of their partner, or that keeps them in a relationship long beyond the time they should have moved on.

I am a fan of getting away. Especially when the winter is droning on and the green of May still seems far away.  The next time you are in an airport, please take a good deep breath of that jet fuel for me and embrace with joy your next adventure.

I am also a fan of self reflection. You may benefit by taking some time to think about running away. Identify areas in your life where you may be chronically running. Ask some friends if they can see any patterns that look like running. Identify the beliefs that you have about important relationships in your life. By doing so, your inner journey of personal growth can be as exciting as any travels that may come your way.