LOVE: Attachment Theory, Astrology, & Abolition

On October 1st 2020, the moon was full and bright. I was, at the time, still grieving the end of my relationship, one that had, too, been so full of light, deep love, and the magic of potential. By that time in October, I was also witnessing the wind-down from a summer of unending state violence and hundreds of thousands of voices across the country chanting who do you protect, who do you serve at cops who shot at us with rubber bullets, cops who stared blankly into the angry, devastated faces of people who were left with no legal real recourse, nothing to do but scream & organize & hold each other & light cop cars on fire & break the windows of stores that keep us trapped in the late capitalist urge to always want new, better, more.

I was filling my time with teaching, watching episodes of the reality TV show Married at First Sight (a show my parents and I like to watch together that is exactly what sounds like), going to therapy every Friday, building a mutual aid network in my Los Angeles neighborhood, and working with colleagues and community members to get cops off of the campus where I work. I was, also, tracking the sky and the movements of planets through it. I know this is where I’m going to lose a few folks but bear with me.

Hanging out right next to October’s full moon was Chiron, the asteroid associated with wounds and healing. Astrologer Chani Nicholas wrote about this conjunction (the moment when two planets line up at the same spot in the sky), saying:

“How we learn to hold what hurts shapes so much of who we are. What we choose to do with our pain defines us more than most things. When we act in ways that reduce harm, we are actively teaching others who we are, how we like to be treated, and what kind of world we want to live in.”

Two things immediately came to mind when I came across Chani’s words: attachment theory and aboliton.

Attachment theory is a psychological framework focused on the relationships between people, usually between child and parent/caretaker, then later between a person and their romantic partner. Since 2018, I’ve been learning about attachment theory for the sake of healing some of my own attachment wounds—times in my early life where my emotional needs weren’t met, resulting in me developing behaviors to help me survive the lack of connection that occurred when my needs were denied. Many of us have attachment wounds. They can be as big as losing a parent in early life or as small as crying out for attention and having those cries be ignored or, even worse, shamed. What I love about attachment theory is that it allows me to see myself not just as the 32 year old woman I am in this moment, but as a person who exists in a complex relational ecosystem with not only my family, friends, partner, colleagues, students, and community members, but with myself.

For the sake of grounding this abstract idea in something more concrete, I’m going to give you an example. Most of my life, I have pursued romantic partners who are, in some way, unavailable, at the same time that they put themselves forward as a potential mate. In my early 20’s there was the partner that wouldn’t fully commit and almost never lived in the same place as me. After them there was a close friend who treated me like a partner but denied doing so when I’d ask what was going on between us. There was the person who would act interested then disappear for days, weeks at a time. There was the person who already had a longterm girlfriend but pursued me anyway. Finally, there was long distance that seemed, especially in pandemic times, physically and emotionally unbridgeable. It was always something. Some barrier to connection. This, as it turns out, was not a coincidence, but a result of my attachment style. Some part of me sees the emotional chaos of these relationships as familiar, safe even (ironically). So let’s say I’m with one of these people and they don’t call me back. At first I might think, oh they’re busy. But if I keep not hearing from them, I start to think: something is wrong, I must have said something, they must be mad at me, maybe they’re thinking of leaving me. So I reach out more. I keep reaching out. And these people, the partners I choose, they’ve got these barriers to sustained connection with me for a reason. It’s their survival mechanism. It’s a result of their own childhoods where they maybe had to learn to deal with their needs alone and learned that the needs of others were an added burden on what they themselves were already trying to navigate.

Maybe those examples aren’t concrete enough, but I’m being intentionally vague here because frankly I don’t want to dredge up the past with these people in such a public forum. Hopefully you get the point. My assumption that someone is going to leave me just because they haven’t called me back isn’t an incident that happens in a vacuum. It’s not one of my “personality traits,” not some thing I was born to do. It’s a consequence of the complex emotional ecosystem that is my life from the minute I was born to the present moment. It’s a consequence of past bids for connection to caretakers or partners who failed to recognize those bids for what they were, leaving me to feel abandoned. Have you ever wondered why the same overarching issues follow you from relationship to relationship even though you couldn’t possibly have known they would when you first met and fell for your person? I’d gently suggest you look into attachment theory.

Going back to Chani’s words—”how we learn to hold what hurts shapes so much of who we are”—I cannot help but be reminded of attachment theory. We all carry with us the things that hurt us. And we (never an all-inclusive, universal “we,” just a rhetorical “we”) often think those things are in the past, even if we still remember them, without recognizing the ways in which those hurts actually shape how we interact with each other in the present. If I’ve learned one thing through all my romantic relationships, it’s that I choose partners that re-enact or re-surface my attachment wounds from childhood in an unconscious effort to feel like I’m in familiar territory AND in an effort to have a do-over. Maybe this time I won’t be abandoned. Maybe this time I’ll say the right words, do the right things, and they’ll stay. But they, my partners, were never the problem (well, not entirely). The problem was all these unacknowledged wounds they and I were caring around that informed how we reacted to each other, the assumptions we made about each others’ intentions. I learned to hold what hurts me, my old attachment wounds, in a way that disallowed me sustainable connection but also disallowed me the ability to walk away when I knew my needs weren’t being met. Little wounded Ali is always with me, whether she’s 3 and wants her mom to come home from work or 14 and wants the boy she loves to like her back, or 27 and making bad decision after bad decision because no one taught her she is acting from a place of hurt rather than from a place of emotional security, self-awareness, and self-possession.

What does all of this have to do with abolition?

The systems of policing we have were not born overnight. Our idea of what constitutes “crime” or “safety” were not born overnight. These ideas, these systems, have a long history that is inseparable from this country’s history of racial violence, slavery, Indigenous genocide, a valuing of white life over Black and Indigenous life, and a valuing of white, wealthy class interests above all else. This summer when my parents’ Republican neighbor said he was upset to see people looting stores, I knew that he was only seeing that moment, and maybe (consciously or subconsciously) how his own interests were related to/threatened by that moment. What he wasn’t seeing is the complex ecosystem in which, as Angela Davis reminds us, “there is an unbroken line of police violence in the US that takes us all the way back to the days of slavery.” The original wounds of America—slavery and genocide—have shaped who we are (and by we I mean this sort of broad, vague, never all-encompassing nationhood) and how we understand the present. Those of us who can see how the current systems do harm to those not inside the soft bed of dominant culture understand that throwing a brick through a store window isn’t about being “uncivilized” or needlessly destructive. We know that the person who throws that brick is also throwing a proverbial brick at all the systems that keep people from safety, from freedom, from an honest reckoning. We can see the ecosystem for what it is: past, present, and a future we want no part of where the harms of the past go unaddressed and are continually perpetuated in the forever present with no end in sight.

Therapists who practice in attachment-based frameworks want us to understand that our behaviors and reactions are rooted in our emotions, and that our emotional well was formed by our early attachment experiences with our caretakers. These therapists want us to be able to see our present actions/reactions not in isolation, but in lineage with our oldest, deepest wounds, so that we can heal those wounds and move relationally among each other from a different place. A healed Ali will no longer engage with partners who put up walls or barriers. That doesn’t mean I won’t unknowingly come to love someone who ultimately does create these barriers, but that I am finally prepared to leave what no longer feels sustainable because I’m no longer afraid of abandonment. I will never abandon myself.

Abolitionists want us to see how the systems we live inside of were not created arbitrarily, but with the intention of maintaining a historically situated status quo, a status quo wherein only the rich get richer, wherein Black people continue to be murdered by police not because of one “bad apple” cop and not even because of the whole rotten tree of policing, but because of everything about the ecosystem in which that tree was planted, raised, the air it breathes, the water it drinks, the nutrients that nourish it. Abolitionists want us to see these systems for the harms they have caused and will continue to cause so that we can dismantle them while building something else in their place: an ecosystem where the water and air and earth aren’t poisoned by white supremacy or patriarchy or settler colonialism or capitalism. These aren’t just abstract buzzwords but systems of belief and behavior that have real, material impacts on the world and beings, living and dead.

Angela Davis also says, “abolition is not primarily a negative strategy. It’s not primarily about dismantling, getting rid of, but it’s about re-envisioning. It’s about building anew.” We’re not just trying to dismantle these harmful systems. We are trying to build different systems in their place. Systems not geared toward reinforcing what has been, but oriented toward what could be: a world where everyone has the care and resources they need and no one is disposable or put into circumstances that might lead them to doing what the state considers “crime” or harm.

We call the police in America, we imprison people in America, because these are our solutions to conflict. Someone harms me, I will sue them. Someone harms me, the state will imprison them. The state harms people and, well, we’ll see if anyone does anything about that (*achem* Trump being acquitted *achem*). But as all abolitionist thinkers will tell you, the carceral system doesn’t just exist in the material landscape in the form of prisons, it also exist in our minds. We apply carceral logics of surveillance and punishment in classrooms to discipline students and even sometimes in our own interpersonal relationships. We see this even with the public calling for cops to be imprisoned for murdering Black people. We are asking to dismantle the prison industrial complex at the same time that we are calling for certain folks to be held captive in those very prisons. We have a hard time thinking outside of the structures we’ve always known. And we don’t know how to navigate conflict.

Chani wrote, “When we act in ways that reduce harm, we are actively teaching others who we are, how we like to be treated, and what kind of world we want to live in.” This is an abolitionist approach to thinking about conflict and harm, both of which are inevitable. People will do harm to other people and to themselves. The question becomes, how do we understand that harm? Do we see it as an isolated incident or as a series of isolated incidents that needs to be dealt with via law & order & policing & punishment (on a state level) or as something that will break our intimate relationships (on a personal level), or do we learn to see conflict and harm as part of a larger personal and national ecosystem that we have the power to address differently than we always have. We don’t have to run from conflict or harm, we don’t have to accept it either. We can find different ways of being with each other. We can consider the root causes of the harm and how to heal them. Do we heal our own personal attachment wounds by going to therapy/healing spaces? Do we heal systemic injustices by investing in alternative social structures and resources like mental health care, non-carceral rehabilitation for addiction, education that isn’t rooted in white supremacist ideology and that isn’t granted to only those with money?

Learning how to navigate conflict and harm in our personal lives IS abolition in action. It is no coincidence to me that Chani’s quote about the astroid Chrion and harm and wounds recalls attachment theory and abolition, because astrology, too, is all about seeing a larger system: the solar system. People often tell me they read about their “zodiac sign” and don’t see themselves in those words. What they are usually referring to is their sun sign. But the sun is not the only celestial body that was in the sky when you were born. So too were the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, and all the other planets. Chani always describes one’s astrological chart as a snapshot of the sky at the moment you took your first breath. That sky appears to be moving around the earth. The planets cycle, they spin around and around the sun and in relationship to each other. Understanding myself as just my sun sign feels to me as one-dimensional as understanding my pursuit of unavailable people as just being a mistake I make over and over. It feels as one dimensional as seeing looting and thinking of everything except for the deep and painful history of this country and its sins and its wounds and its systems that keep those wounds oozing and infected.

Of course not all three of these things—your astrological chart, your interpersonal relationships, and the violence of systemic injustice—carry the same weight or material consequences in the world. I am not trying to equate their importance. I am trying to paint a picture of how I have come to understand myself and my place in this world, and this world and its place in time, by understanding things systemically. The system of the planets in relationship to each other and how in astrology we revisit themes over the course of our lives as planets re-cross certain paths or re-connect with other planets under different circumstances. The system of me in relationship to my partners and how that system is not separate from my relationship to my wounds and to my family and to my family’s relationship to their family and their wounds. The system of injustice in this country and how nothing, not one thing, exists outside of that system. All three of these systems either urge us or require us to acknowledge them and to heal in order to move in relationship to each other and ourselves differently.

When I talk about astrology I am talking about healing when I talk about attachment theory I am talking about healing when I talk about abolition I am talking about healing. These are frameworks for understanding ourselves and our world differently. Each framework allows us to choose who and how we want to be to ourselves and to each other. Step by step, we can reflect and heal and build a different world.

And if that’s not what love is about, then I gotta throw it back to Derrida:

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