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”…

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.