Being powerless is scary: confronting the delusions of the romance narrative trap


Over the last few weeks a good friend and I have been having this recurring conversation about attachment and intimacy. We have both been struggling with attachment issues arising in different situations. She says needs intimacy but doesn’t know how to pick which situations are worth her energy. She will meet someone and think they have a connection, only to find that person ambivalent, or find herself in the reverse situation, withdrawing from a love interest who has become too needy. Sound familiar? Just more of the ins and outs of the romance narrative trap, right?

We have been going over and over various factors in this conversation, and listing our limited options: look for someone who is…, learn to be single better, etc – when it occurred to me that maybe our biggest problem is that we think we actually have more control (or should have) than we really do. “That’s a scary thought,” my friend replied, “How do you navigate romance if you have no control?”

Really, with these ‘matters of the heart’ we don’t really have much control, do we? We can’t control who we like or how they will respond to us – our control is very limited to small gestures and behavior… It’s kind of like steering an inner-tube down a river. You never know who you will bump into or whether you can stay connected for very long… or what debris you will encounter along the way.

“So is the bottom line that you should just accept the lack of control in romance and let yourself be swept down the river?” – That’s up to you, but given the lack of control, is it not a bit futile to gesticulate wildly at the current? “Very futile.” And we do seem to strain ourselves going over and over our very limited options… but lack of control is so hard to accept that we get caught up in the minutiae all the same.

This was starting to look rather bleak: “What that means is even though I’m putting time and energy (and getting caught up) in situations I maybe shouldn’t, there is no point trying to do anything to change the pattern, as I really don’t have any control over stuff.” Well, you only (mostly) have control over how you react to the powerlessness… which is your pattern. It is hard to face sometimes, especially if you’re someone with slightly neurotic over-thinking tendencies, but while some things can be relatively self-determined, a lot of the time in life things just happen to us and all we really get to choose is how we react.

“Being powerless is scary, people never care enough about me for it to feel okay.” For you to feel safe? “Yeah… seems that the only person in the end who fully cares about my well-being is me.” Well.. we are all the centre of our own universes – so that makes sense – for everyone…

“It would mean that if you want to be looked after by another person you’d have to accept that they won’t always care about you.” They may not – and they will definitely die at some point too. “Another truth!” Yup – it’s the dirty truth about attachment – and why Buddhists say it’s the root of all suffering… which it kind of is… but is also pretty integral to life. “Maybe life shouldn’t be totally without suffering.” Well, if it should be, we’re all doing it wrong – these are all things that are we are better off learning to accept – over and over – acceptance is a practice, not a one-off event. it’s like emotional breathing. “Emotional breathing?” It’s a metaphor. “Oh”…

Trying not to hurt someone, and other self-fulfilling prophecies

It is almost the plot of every romantic comedy and about half of all dramas: X knows/thinks/finds out something about Y but doesn’t say anything. Ridiculous things ensue that would never have happened if X was just honest about the situation from the beginning, but hey, then we wouldn’t have a plot, would we? Y eventually finds out and feels betrayed/hurt/angry – and much worse than had the information been effectively communicated in the first place.  We are often careful about what we say to the people we love. Sometimes this is sensible, there’s no need to be an ass, after all, but usually when there’s a real tension, and often insecure attachment, trying not to hurt someone goes beyond politeness into dishonesty and manipulation.  We are actually trying to escape taking responsibility for reality, and we might be deluding ourselves on the road to even more pain and destruction.

trying not to hurt someone walking on eggshells

It is one of life’s great ironies that being well-meaning often leads to making a much bigger mess.  The little wall of dominoes we build up in order to protect people we care about from what we actually think is just waiting to cascade into chaos.  If only things were simple and easy. If only contradictions cancelled themselves out and disappeared in a puff of logic. Most of the time we are not even honest with ourselves. We convince ourselves we are doing the right thing when really, trying not to hurt someone is actually trying not to hurt yourself. No matter how altruistic you think you are, you’re acting in your own self interest and avoiding potential stress/pain/guilt.

Speaking of guilt… what I call guilt-cake is another fear-based self fulfilling prophecy. This is evident in people dieting in a conventional way (or giving up smoking). People start by feeling guilty about their weight and fearing the social/personal stigma and so on. This motivates the restrictive diet. The diet causes stress which causes people to feel bad which causes them to feel entitled to eat cake to feel better. Cake causes more guilt which causes more cake which causes more guilt. Here is a carefully constructed diagram:

guilt-cake

If guilt is a secondary emotion based on fear, as we have been led to believe, then perhaps all this fear stuff is self-fulfilling when left unchecked. This sentiment is expressed by Wait But Why in their post How to Pick Your Life Partner:

Fear is one of the worst possible decision-makers when it comes to picking the right life partner. Unfortunately, the way society is set up, fear starts infecting all kinds of otherwise-rational people, sometimes as early as the mid-twenties. The types of fear our society (and parents, and friends) inflict upon us—fear of being the last single friend, fear of being an older parent, sometimes just fear of being judged or talked about—are the types that lead us to settle for a not-so-great partnership. The irony is that the only rational fear we should feel is the fear of spending the latter two thirds of life unhappily, with the wrong person—the exact fate the fear-driven people risk because they’re trying to be risk-averse.

Of course, it all comes back to fear, so be careful if you’re making decisions out of fear, they may not be the best ones. Human beings are not very good at dealing with fear.  The protection patterns we develop unconsciously through watching our parents and society, as children, are often not very helpful, in fact, they are awfully dysfunctional and account for a lot of what is wrong with this world.  The end.

Oh wait, not the end; there needs to be some advice. Okay, so here’s the thing: be honest if you possibly can. Don’t be an ass, but try not to hide the truth either. If your significant other is really insecure, you’re not doing them any favors by propping up their insecurity with lies and obfuscation. If you can’t work out how to communicate effectively and openly, you may both need therapy.  But really, who am I to judge? I’d just rather not have to cringe at the obvious chain of events leading to relationship train-wreck that comes from trying (too hard) not to hurt someone. Oh yeah, and don’t feel guilty for eating cake. Break the cycle.

How to get over someone

Are you caught in a bad romance narrative? Maybe X has suddenly broken up with you or you really need to break up with her/him… Or perhaps you’ve never even gotten close enough to that lusty bottle-store clerk to even have the chance to go out, let alone break up and yet you can’t get the beer chiller fantasies out of your head. If a crush, unhealthy infatuation, pathological relationship or similar is getting you down or making you crazy, have I got the post for you.

Unhealthy romantic attachments can soak up a lot of time and energy. The drama can be exhilarating, but after a while you might notice you’re stuck on the same roller-coaster and you can’t seem to figure out how to get off. As I discuss in the Romance Narrative Trap, these kinds of things function much like addictions, producing the same neurotransmitters (like dopamine) and activating similar pathways. The patterns that we tend to fall into come from the attachment patterns we learn in childhood. I discuss this in more depth in my post about insecure attachment. The good news is that all these destructive mental patterns can be changed, you just need to change the way you think. The first thing to come to terms with is that you really want to get out of the loop. Then try out some/all of the following advice:

 

1. Get some perspective

Step back from the drama of the romance, to stop sinking my energy into crazy fantasies. Don’t turn into a love zombie, you’re too good for that, and after a while your friends will stop wanting to hear about X and how awesome or horrible they are. Maybe X is your soul-mate, but that’s neither here nor there. In your present life you have other more important shit you could be doing. Do it.

2. Bring it back.

Bring your focus and your energy back to you.  You have been leaching it all over the place and it’s making a mess on the carpet.  I have this mantra which also resembles this 90s song, which ironically has extremely love zombie lyrics if you read the rest of it. Play this song and try to dance like in the music video. Go on.

3. Balance. 

Balance everything – food, sleep, exercise, entertainment, meditation… be calm. Balance out your one preoccupying attachment with X by spending time with other awesome people. Balance out your brain chemistry with lots of hugs from different sources. Don’t rely on any one person/thing to be your opiate. Regular exercise does wonders for the brain. Try going for a stroll in the sunshine (when possible) and eating a salad every day.

4. Get fulfilling creative interests. 

There’s nothing better than fulfilling creative interests. Do something, make something, build on something. This will get your dopamine/reward pathway functioning more healthily because you are being awesome and getting rewarded for it.

5. Learn to meet your own emotional needs.

Easier said than done, but you really are the most qualified person for the job. Be sensitive to your own feelings and figure out what needs aren’t being met – then find more awesome ways to meet those needs.  People who actually have healthy relationships tend to be experts at meeting their own needs, they tend to have good self-esteem and realistic/adaptable expectations.

6. Stop talking about X all the time

Just stop it. stop thinking about it so much, think about cats, cats are nice. Okay, if you can’t stop it, write it all out.  Journal every thought you have and watch how circular it is. Get it out of your head and onto the paper. You can always burn paper.

7. Bring the relationship to its logical conclusion in your mind.

Stop playing white picket fence in your mind and get real, even if X changed and got totally into you the relationship would probably end because… Take off those rose tinted glasses and have a healthy dose of reality. If X fell madly in love with you/told you what you wanted to hear/stopped being a ____ and so on, what would actually happen? Probably in a few months you would get sick of the relationship, X would become too needy, you would out-grow him/her. Face it: if you’re in an unhealthy attachment with someone, the chances are they’re not really the best person for you to be with, anyway.

8. Get Freudian.

Let’s talk about your childhood. There’s nothing like incest to ruin the mood. Most likely, your unhealthy relationship-infatuation patterns come from unresolved childhood attachment patterns. Don’t beat yourself up, its normal to project your mommy/daddy issues onto lovers, its just not a sexy thing to think about. So think about it: what needs were unmet, as a child? Is X like your mum or dad? Maybe a sibling? Do you want to punish him/her for mistreating you in the way children react to betrayal? Is X a healthy or unhealthy model for a parent? Either way, it kinda kills the romance buzz, doesn’t it?

9. Resolve the underlying issues:

This is something that can take years of therapy, but is ultimately worthwhile. Basically, if you have unstable foundations (the kind that cause insecure romantic attachments), it won’t do you any good to keep piling bricks up. Your structure will always be wonky unless you take everything down, brick-by-brick, peel back the layers of protection and self-deception, and heal the primal wound.

10. Let Go

To really get over someone and get out of the romance narrative trap you need to let go – over and over. Surrender is a powerful life-skill. My good friend writes the Surrender to the Infinite blog. She has some great posts about letting go of a lover, letting go of Prince Charming, letting go of jealousy and letting go of grudges, among other things one might benefit from letting go of. The wonderful thing about letting go is that it can only do more good than harm. The  unhealthy/unreciprocated attachment you have is hurting you. Letting go won’t get in the way of any future romantic possibilities with X, in fact, it will only make future possibilities more likely because you won’t be so crazy/attached. The tricky thing is, you have to want to let go in order to make everything better and when you are attached you don’t really want to let go, but you can get there, step by step, until it’s not even a big deal anymore, I promise.

The story of your life: on the genre and plot of your personal narrative

We all use narrative to tell ourselves (and other people) the story of our lives, to try to justify ourselves or make sense of the craziness. Have you ever had a friend who went from one crazy drama to the next? Sometimes all you can do is sit back and watch the soap-opera unfold from a safe distance, right? I was recently recalling the few friends that I have fallen out with over the years. Underneath from the incredible theatrics of our friendships ending, there were always similar tales they had confided in me: “Sarah and I used to be so close, then she betrayed me”, “Lucinda was my best friend, then she stabbed me in the back.” On reflection, it was the same story over and over. I’m so relieved not to have these people in my life anymore, especially when I hear through mutual acquaintances that even more shit has gone down. It does make me wonder about the narratives of my life – of everyone’s lives. What stories we are telling and repeating?

Listening to other peoples narratives

Have you ever reflected on the stories your parents tell you to make sense of their lives, or how your story is similar and different from theirs? Families often have repeating themes that cross generations: infidelity, wanting/trying to have children, failed career aspirations, trauma, being neglected or abused, winning, achieving, and so on. The way our parents make sense out of the world affects the way that we learn to see it as children, and sometimes it we never even question their truths. If we don’t question we just go on subconsciously living the same plot with the same villains, be they personal acquaintances, the government, rich people or criminals. We go on striving for the same goals without figuring out whether we actually want the things or not. It can be liberating to step out of ones family narrative and have a really good look at it. Are you stuck in the same kind of romance narrative trap or have you got your own unique brand?

Have you ever thought about the repeating stories your friends tell you? Are they the hero? Did they just discover the most awesome zombie apocalypse defense plan ever? Do they feel the urge to name drop in conversations and talk themselves up? Are they, maybe, overcompensating much? People sometimes feel the need to tell their story (at least outwardly) as if they are the best thing since sliced bread. This can be a bit exhausting if you want to chill and have genuine conversations about important things, like cats.  But at least people who are telling you all these great stories, like how they saw Elijah Wood once in the cosmic corner in Cuba St and he was getting his head massaged by an Orgasmatron, and, wait, look at me, I’m talking… these kinds of people are a little less difficult than the opposite kind of narrative…

“Why does this always happen to me? I can’t believe he would do this?” Can you hear the cries of the victim? Perpetual victims are also very exhausting, and everyone has an inner-victim, everyone knows what it feels like to be victimised, to be mistreated, to be hurt: c’est la vie. Most likely, people who are incessant victims can’t see the pattern very clearly in themselves, and perhaps if they could the gained perspective would be an invaluable asset.  Instead of projecting all that pain onto absolutely everyone who comes into their lives, maybe, just maybe, they could step slightly to the left and edge out of the vicious cycle consuming their lives.  It’s an interesting thing to think about, anyway: everyone has an inner victim and an inner hero because everyone is the protagonist (main character) of his/her story. These character archetypes tend to fit easily into a genre and follow the same plots over and over until something changes.

Comedy or tragedy?

There are two meta-genres that date back to at least the ancient Greeks. They would go out, in their togas, to see a play like Oedipus – that was all murder and incest and suicide, followed (thankfully) by a ridiculous comedy like Lysistrata – that was all sexually frustrated husbands and giant erections.  The tragedy plot is the one most sensible people want to avoid. It goes like this: Life is okay but a bit shit, oh it just got worse, oh dear, more worse, now it couldn’t possibly get any worse than that, but just when you think it might get better, from left field, comes something… something so horrendous you can’t even imagine, then it gets worse again. Sometimes it ends there, sometimes there is a bit of a resolution tacked onto the end. Think: 1984, Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream, Biutiful, and just about every horror film ever made.

A comedy, on the other hand, is usually silly and amusing, much lighter and more palatable than it’s tragic cousin. A comedy used to be anything that wasn’t a tragedy, for instance, some Shakespearean comedies aren’t even funny, but no one dies, so it’s okay. Traditionally comedies end with people getting married or engaged À la Importance of Being Ernest, because marriage is funnier and more palatable than death, apparently. It seems pretty obvious that unless, you are a total martyr, you would prefer life to be a comedy than a tragedy, and probably if you are a very serious person who wants to be taken very seriously, you’d prefer a more contemporary genre, a modern drama perhaps. You could be the lead role in Grey’s Anatomy or something less medical but equally tense and pointless. Probably, you are too edgy for these kinds of mainstream things and are more like an indy/artsy film: some things happen, something is odd, there is food, roll credits.

What’s the plot?

The plot of one’s life tends to be a lot to do with aspiration, meaning and your ability to achieve.  If you’re trying to figure your plot out, think about: what is important to you? What are you trying to do? Is it working? I have come across people who are always on the verge of a big break-through. Every time I see them it’s something else that is almost about to happen – they are just about to be famous, just about to be recognised, just about to actually do a thing, but it never works out. There is so much energy thrown into this unrealised destination thinking, this great hope and expectation and then, into dealing with yet another disappointment. This one seems to be a dysfunctional plot because instead of actually doing all the things, a huge amount of energy is wasted in unrealistic expectation.  Other people have dysfunctional plots and sub-plots that center around always being too busy, being broken and trying to fix oneself *hem hem*, never being the one who is chosen, being left out, someone else is the bane of their existence, being betrayed/rejected/abandoned, being sick, being guilty/sneaky/a bad person, and so on.

Transformation and losing the plot

Obviously not all plots are a problem, but when they are, and when you start to see them in all their repetitive, cyclic glory, you have the opportunity to step back and get better perspective. Perspective helps, and when you start to change one part of a plot the rest will have to change too. Unfortunately you can’t fix other people’s plot dysfunctions, and most of the time, the really dysfuctional people are not interested in seeing outside of their circular universe because they’re so enthralled by the mounting drama, but you can try to point out the giant ice-berg beneath the water.  Either way, if you don’t buy into the drama, it has less effect on your life… and then what? Well that is up to you. How do you want to write the story of your life?

Do you fall into the lottery trap? On real happiness and problems with fantasy/destination thinking.

If you reach the destination of life, then what? Then you will be very embarrassed. – Osho

When I was growing up us kids, enthralled by the deluxe smorgasbord of TV advertising, would continuously ask mum “can we go to Disneyland?” or other requests obviously out of our budget. “When I win Lotto” she would always reply. It took a while for us to realise she never bought lottery tickets. Despite that, she still had the fantasy herself: if I win lotto I’ll buy a place in the Coromandel…” I didn’t question it until recently when I started to wonder if this mass social delusion that more wealth (particularly if won) equals more happiness. Apparently it doesn’t.

Research on happiness suggests that people are generally no happier (or sadder) a year after winning the lottery – even if they win millions. Interestingly enough, people are apparently about the same level of happy, a year after becoming paraplegic, as they were before.  Now, that is something to really chew on for a while. If these things we wish for, long for, fantasise about are not actually associated with happiness, then what are we doing to ourselves?

We are projecting our happiness into the future. This is so appallingly common. We have been taught since childhood that when we get to the next stage happiness awaits us: when we finally get to school – when we can read/write/swim/ride a bike we will finally be happy.  When we have a friend, or a lot of friends, when we have a boyfriend, when we graduate, when we finally get a job or clock this XBox game or reach our weight goal we will surely be full of endless joy. Obviously, when we grow up we will be happy. Yes – because we can have ice-cream for dinner and no one will tell us what to do and we can have all these cool jobs and things: happy as! Wait, being grown up is just as much work. Making decisions is tricky. Money is tricky. I bet I will be happy when I reach that next goal: have a baby, get a promotion, get married, buy a house, sell a house, buy another house: happiness will abound! Oh, wait, I’m still chugging along. I know, when I get discovered for my real shining talent as a singer/actor/genius or win lotto or NZ’s Next Top Model I will then be happy… except it hasn’t happened yet, so where is my next goal? I know: when I retire I will be incredibly happy because I can do whatever I want! Yay! No job! Except that retired people often (not always) get depressed because they aren’t contributing to society as much as is satisfactory. They have removed the work from their lives and many interesting things can fill those empty hours, but real happiness is still only a goal away, or did I waste my life going from one goal to the next, projecting my happiness into the future instead of realising that happiness is only ever now? After all, what is the real destination of life? Death? Are you just biding your time ’til the Armageddon comes? Are you hoping for a blissful after-life instead of making the most of this one?

All the Zen dudes will tell you that: happiness is only ever now. They reckon now is the only thing that really exists anyway. The past is just muddled memories in the narrative we tell ourselves about our lives.  The past is often full or sad stories or nostalgia that we can re-live over and over to no-avail.  The future is just projections and uncertainty. Many an anxiety can be found in thinking too much about the future. Life is very uncertain (yes, I have been reading too much Osho).  All this is very obvious. Happiness is a choice, moment to moment. If our established thought-patterns are interfering with our happiness we can change them through therapy or self-help or bazillions of other methods. Thoughts can be changed.

The problem with the “if only”, lottery-type thinking is that it’s not in the moment. It comes from being unhappy with our jobs and our lives and our lack of options. We have been taught to think that money is the problem and that money (particularly a large lump of it right now) is the answer, but really, with more money just comes a different level of finance to deal with.  Don’t get me wrong, having not-enough money and struggling for survival really sucks, but unless your fantasies about winning lotto are a helpful coping strategy for dealing with real hunger and desperation they are probably doing you more harm than good.

For most people who read this, who are in the pattern of ‘lottery thinking’, it is a little escape from the drudgery of every-day life. You wake up, you go to work, you work, you come home, you *insert escapist media here, eg: Playstation, movies, TV series, Facebook*, you maybe get a bit of creative time to work on building that model air-plane, writing that screen-play, painting that impressionist take on the New York skyline, re-designing your poodle’s coiffer, you practice in your steam-punk death-metal band and so on… and you dream… you dream of all the poodling, steampunking, screen-playing you could do if only …If only you had more time, if only you didn’t have to work.

Well, here’s a thought: how about, instead of fantasies and escapism, you try making little baby steps toward genuine happiness. There are two ways to do this and you probably should do both:

1: Choose to be happy. Try it now. Just one moment of happy. Just one moment of letting go of the struggle. Relax those shoulders. Breathe. Good, now go on. Don’t grimace. Smile. Yes, yes! That’s it!  You’re doing it, baby. Every time you realise you’re in a yucky mind state, your going around in circles, you’re dreaming of that day you finally reach heaven STOP! Yes, now, relax. Smile. You don’t even have to smile, but find a tiny bit of happy just by dropping all the shit. I’m glad you’re so good at following instructions. The more you can choose happiness in moments, the more moments of happiness you may experience in your life. Don’t just depend on the external world for you happy, DIY it.

2. Make steps towards doing more of the things you really love. What really feeds you? Do you even know? If you’re not sure, think about the experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve created and done, that have given you moments of happiness. Don’t tell me you’re not creative. Creative is part of human. You are continuously creating the story of your life in your head (right now), how do you want your story to go? Try new things. Figure out what brings your joy, little by little. Write a list. Figure out what you want to contribute to the world in your lifetime. Make baby steps. If your job sucks the life out of you, look for a better one. If you don’t have a job, figure out how you can contribute to your community. Community can feed us when jobs can’t. If you love to paint, sing, write, draw, ski, ride, explore, love, share, don’t relegate your passion to: ‘if/when I have time’. Everyone has the same amount of time. Everyone. It’s how you use it. If you want to be happy, let yourself do the things that bring the happiness with them. Let go of your own internal barriers to happiness. It takes a lot of time to master an art so start right now. You never know, you could be the next professional poodle coifferer.

The insecure attachment trap

Are you too needy or too aloof in relationships? Are you constantly pulling or pushing, or are you involved with someone else who is? Do you avoid relationships and attachment altogether, or perhaps you are actually happily attached and not prone to these things at all but are occasionally caught wondering about why other people around you keep getting sucked into the insatiable drama of the insecure attachment trap…

Attachment

Attachment is the mother of all suffering, according to Buddhism, but it’s also a pretty necessary part of life that can bring deep fulfillment if you do it right. It is rather self-defeating to get too attached to detachment like those meditation geeks who feel super superior to everyone less enlightened and more pleasure-seeking than themselves. Attachment comes in many forms and the the kind we form to other people can be the most volatile and painful – and also the most wonderful and satisfying. In a close relationship, attachment is a lot like a rope that both people are holding. When the attachment is secure, the rope is not being pushed or pulled much, it can hold some tension or hang there comfortably. When the attachment is insecure, however, it gets to be rather like an emotional tug of war.  Attachment theory comes from the pioneering work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. This is a brief spiel about it that may reflect the original massive texts to a greater or lesser degree.

What is insecure attachment?

Attachment theory looks at the way children develop healthy or unhealthy attachments to their primary care-givers in childhood and how these patterns are transferred into their adult relationships. The following patterns are probably easily recognisable because they are ridiculously common and bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the romance narrative trap one encounters in Hollywood movies and other mass media.  Of course, it is entirely possible you have very secure attachment patterns, but if your emotional needs weren’t met as a child you are likely to fall into one of several categories:

  • anxious–preoccupied (pulling on the rope)
  • dismissive–avoidant (resisting the pull/pushing away)
  • fearful–avoidant (in denial of the existence of ropes and not wanting to hold on in the first place)

Anxious-preoccupied:

“I want to be with you/someone, why don’t you want to be with me? I need you. Please respond to my text. I’m going on Facebook to paste love songs on your wall. Why don’t you love me anymore?”

Anxious-preoccupied people tend to latch on to attachments easily. They are uncomfortable when not in a relationship and are likely to always have at least one person they are infatuated with, involved with or longing for. They experience a high level of anxiety over the other person’s behavior – especially when they feel neglected. They are likely to put the other person up on a pedestal while devaluing themselves. They are consistently preoccupied with the relationship, with circular patterns and anxieties around it and with trying to figure out what kind of action might generate the desired response from the other person. Anxious-preoccupied people tend to attract dismissive-avoidant people – or generate dismissive behavior because they are so over-anxious about the attachment, however, if the other person becomes too attached, an anxious-preoccupied person may flip and become dismissive, then transfer their anxious pattern to someone who is less available. People with this pattern are so afraid of losing or damaging their ties to the other person that they don’t say many of the things they really think. They withhold any information that might threaten the other person’s attachment to them and as such, cannot maintain an open, honest, genuine connection.

Dismissive-avoidant:

“I’m sweet as by myself. This person keeps texting me. Awkward. I don’t need anyone because I’m a super human machine. They probably write books about people like me. What I’m doing is way more important than you.”

Dismissive-avoidant people don’t need relationships at all, apparently. They want to be independent and tend to be quite critical of the people they are involved with. Instead of putting them on a pedestal they relegate them to the lost and found. They consistently put up barriers against the behavior of anxious-preoccupied people, and their aloofness and disdain is likely to generate anxiety in anyone who is attached to them – even people without strong anxious-preoccupied patterns.

Fearful-avoidant

“I hope I don’t have to have a genuine intimate human interaction, it might upset my equilibrium. I’m just going to hide behind this rock.”

Fearful-avoidant people tend to avoid relationships altogether. They are likely to have had primary carers come and go in their childhood and are afraid to form attachments lest the other person disappear. Fearful-avoidant people are not likely to get involved in them and when they do, it takes a lot of work for them to take down their emotional barriers of steel and communicate openly with another person.  When they do form relationships they may slip into either pattern above at various times, but as they are cautious and slow to bond, they may form quite secure attachments in time – they are also likely to be afraid to leave a relationship for fear that they will never have one again.

Secure attachment style

“Relationships are pretty awesome. Being single is pretty awesome. What’s the big deal?”

People with a secure attachment style probably had stable happy attachments in childhood. These people are mythical, like unicorns. You may occasionally stumble across couples who seem radically free from the underlying tensions most ‘normal’ dysfunctional’ relationships have. If you have never seen this, you probably don’t believe it exists, but as a true believer I can tell you that I have witnessed a handful of really good, healthy relationships in my time. Some of these people are lucky enough to have had happy childhoods, others just sort their shit out emotionally, drop their self-protective behavior, and learn to be good at relationships.

The usefulness of knowing

Wherever you stand on the spectrum, it is helpful to have some ideas about these patterns. Putting people in boxes can also come in handy when they are getting out of control and need to be contained. Some people seem to flip between different attachment styles, depending on their situation and the people they are involved with – pulling on the rope creates resistance after all. It is probably possible, with the benefit of greater understanding, to begin to resolve the underlying insecurities and childhood issues that create unhealthy relationship patterns in one’s life, rather than just projecting them onto other people.

What does a really good relationship feel like?

Some people just seem to relationship well, others just don’t. If you’re like me you tend to fall into the latter category. Perhaps you grew up with unhealthy relationship models rather than healthy ones. I mean, if you’ve never really known healthy relationships then how the hell are you supposed to have one? What does a really good relationship even look like?

It doesn’t help that the relationships reflected in mainstream movies and advertising are over-the-top romance narrative traps: nauseatingly can’t-live-without-you, pushing/pulling, roller-coasters, co-dependent drama sagas.  Even a lot of the happily coupled people I know seem to relate in a way that makes me uncomfortable. I sense the undercurrents of subtle power-struggles, dissatisfaction and difficult projections behind their smiles and public hand-holding. Yes, I am paranoid about co-dependency.

After a while I started to wonder if a healthy relationship even exists – or whether it is mythical like unicorns and ideological utopias. Lo and behold, a few years ago I made some new friends, S & P, who have a really awesome relationship. I like to watch them (not in an invasive way) relate to each-other in an easy, friendly way devoid of passive-aggressive currents. When tensions come up they communicate about them – really well. They share creative interests and collaborate on projects but also maintain their own interests. They don’t need to sit next to each-other at parties but genuinely enjoy each-other’s company. It’s lovely.

Knowing S & P has helped break some of the my underlying negative assumptions about relationships. When one day I repeated the much-used phrase that “all relationships are hard work”, they casually disagreed with me, leaving me with the impression that, although life can be challenging, as long as people are self-aware and communicate well, relationships don’t need to be hard work.  I was surprised to learn that S has a hap-hazard relationship history a lot like my own. Eventually she got to a point in her life where she wanted to have a relationship with someone she would want to be with for a long time, so she started imagining what that might be like, which eventually led to her current very-good-relationship. It makes sense, how are we supposed to have good relationships if we don’t even know what they feel like.

Now, I’ve done the ‘write a list’ thing lots of times, listing very particular characteristics of potential partners, but when I heard S stalk about her imagining I was terrified. I don’t really know what I want; I don’t even know what gender I’m supposed to be imagining. S clarified things just the other day as we lay on couches in the sun: “I didn’t think about what the other person would be like,” she said, “I just imagined what it would feel like – what it would be like waking up in the morning next to someone you really want to be with for a very long time.” As I stretched out on the sun-warmed sofa it seemed obvious that she was talking about the very same feeling – basking in the sun – on an emotionally intimate level. So that settles it: a really good relationship feels like warm sunshine.