When my friends come across a YouTube video discussing childhood trauma and the destructive patterns that result from it, I’m honored when I’m the first person they think to send it to. Recently my friend sent me a very helpful video by relationship coach and psychotherapist Alan Robarge,“Growing Up Gay and Attachment Wounds: Impact on Relationships,” and it’s the first time I’ve ever enjoyed listening to a man explain something to me.
With the voice of a wise cartoon owl who’s just had six iced coffees, Robarge breaks down how growing up gay can create or worsen “attachment wounds,” which then permeate our nervous system and psyche, and affect how we develop relationships. If we don’t address these wounds, they’ll continue to show up in our relationships, because unfortunately intimacy is the trigger for attachment trauma.
“The greatest challenge of attachment trauma is it lives in the place of emotional intimacy,” Robarge says. “When you are attempting to be emotionally open and vulnerable and intimate and get to know and love someone and reveal who you are, to be seen, known, heard, and understood, it’s that experience that becomes the trigger of the attachment trauma.”
He calls this “wicked and unfortunate” and I agree. Gay attachment trauma is the result of being the “target of aggression,” whether overt or covert, when growing up, essentially disrupting your personal development. When you’re supposed to be forming the foundation for a healthy sense of self, you instead repeatedly receive messaging that you shouldn’t be yourself. And if you are, “you won’t be loved,” Robarge explains.
When your attachment trauma is triggered, your core beliefs are triggered, including the belief that you’re not lovable, especially if you’re fully seen. We are raised to believe there is something fundamentally wrong with us, and this makes us feel like we have to hide who we really are in order to be accepted and loved. We were taught love is conditional (i.e. if you were straight, you’d be loved) and so we believe we “can’t be loved and known at the same time,” Robarge says. So we hide who we are not just from others but from ourselves, too.
Gay attachment trauma can manifest itself in a number of ways, and impacts how we choose partners and how we behave in relationships. It also causes us to overcompensate as a way to “exaggerate our sense of worth” and override internal messages telling us we’re worthless, according to Robarge.
One way we can overcompensate is by being overly charismatic or the “life of the party.” By having a “winning personality,” we’ve proving to everybody that we’re worthy. It’s an adaptive response to a fear of rejection. This could look like being extra nice or friendly or maybe drinking too much and talking a lot (just me?). This big personality can be “smoke and mirrors” for your shame, Robarge says.
You could also be a perfectionist. You want everything to appear perfect in your life — neat and orderly — by “limiting and manufacturing the packaging you’re presenting” to others. This controls the amount of openings through which someone might actually see you for who you are. When everything is organized and wrapped neatly in a bow, the perfectionism serves as a buffer between you and others, making it harder for them to actually know you.
You might be an over-achiever, and protect yourself through achievements, setting up a “dynamic where your worth is linked to being the ‘superstar’” Robarge says. You’re basically trying to say: “You can’t touch me, you can’t hate on me, you can’t belittle my sense of worth anymore, because look at how successful I am.” This also creates a barrier between you and others.
Some people go the other way, becoming a “boring wallflower, not engaged in life,” Robarge says, or you could be “sloppy and messy” and not be able to “hold it together,” or you’re not pursuing a dream because you think “you’re not worth it.” This is born out of the idea that if you do pursue things, or “try” in life, you’ll be called out. In this case, your adaptive response is to hide.
Another consequence of gay attachment trauma is always feeling like you fundamentally don’t belong, or a “chronic separateness” or “chronic wandering” Robarge calls it. You might feel like you don’t have a sense of home, since your home growing up was never a safe space for you to be your full self. Your response could be to run. That means you could move around a lot, try new jobs all the time, and just generally feel like you don’t belong anywhere.
It’s important to recognize that all of these habits are born out of a dysfunctional past and we no longer need them to survive, Robarge says. Identifying these behaviors allows us to stop defaulting to them when our trauma is triggered — which is apparently any time we want to feel any kind of connection with another human being. The hard part about ending these behaviors is it causes us to be imperfect and messy and us gays hate that! But while growth is painful, it’s worth it. It’s also important to not only identify how these injuries have manifested in you, but in your partner(s), too.
The upside to gay attachment trauma is that it gives us the ability to be incredibly empathetic. “You value and prize emotional honesty and connection because you know what it’s like to go without,” Robarge says. Since you know what it’s like to be disenfranchised from the community and yourself, you can understand oppression and that is a “gateway to compassion and sensitivity and kindness,” and those are fucking superpowers!! And will lead you to healthier, happier relationships — so nurture the shit out of them.