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.

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.

Avoiding the romance narrative trap

Are you wondering why your love life isn’t quite what it’s supposed to be? Why doesn’t your partner bring you roses, arrange surprise weekends away and find all your flaws lovable? Why doesn’t that hot guy or girl you have a crush on accidentally find your phone/wallet/umbrella, track you down then ask you out for a coffee at that cute cafe you’ve been wanting to go to? Why doesn’t the person you’re seeing reply to your texts straight away and always know the exact right thing to say to make you feel good about yourself? Well, my dear, it seems you are stuck in a romance narrative trap.

A what? 

Well, narratives are the stories we tell ourselves about our lives: our values, our pasts, our future ambitions, our identities.  Romance narratives are those that get all gooey and, well, romantic, like when you start to turn that girl/guy you’ve been hooking up with into a possible modern-day-fairy tale before you’ve even discussed politics with them.  Before you get all slushy and defend romance, just realise I’m not attacking all romance, just the romance narratives that are traps…

Whether you’ve been in a long term relationship that doesn’t quite measure up to rom/com standards or you meet someone who gives you butterflies, your brain chemistry goes out of control and all of a sudden you’re a love-zombie, checking your phone every other minute and day-dreaming about your shared future together, you’re in trouble.  Does this sound familiar?  Some people don’t seem to fall into the trap and some fall into the trap so well because it suits them so much that it isn’t even a trap, but I have been falling in and out of this trap for a long time and in the past few years I have been trying to figure out how to avoid it.  Part of the problem with avoiding it is that all those brain chemicals are highly addictive and neptunian-delusional. The other part of the problem is that the romance narrative is just so fucking pervasive.

They read ya Cinderella…

…you hoped it would come true, and one day your prince charming would come rescue you… Anyone remember that song from the 90s? It’s what I think of when I think of romance narrative examples – and IT’S A TRAP! Well, maybe not always, or maybe some traps are quite nice, but we’ve all grown up with unrealistic and unhealthy, bland and thoroughly hetero-normative narratives around romance – Disney is the easiest to blame, but really, it’s everywhere. Hey look, it’s a…

What’s wrong with Aladdin? 

Let’s not go into the insidious racism and sexism, let’s stick to the romance issue here.  So there’s this princess right, and she’s been sheltered and protected all her life and dresses like the genie in I Dream of Genie – and she’s just waiting for her hero, who is this nice, poor kid, with cool monkey who is very fit from running away from the police but, overall, a character with a good alignment (chaotic). You know how the story goes, even if you haven’t seen the movie, because it’s how all these stories go – there’s a bad guy, the hero saves the day with the princess helping out as his sidekick and they sail off into the sunset on their magic carpet: happily ever after.

This is what is supposed to happen, right? 

You’re supposed to meet someone, go through a few trials and tribulations, and then after the plot climax everything’s peachy. I was raised not to believe in happily-ever-afters but my cynicism hasn’t saved me – if anything, it’s only made things worse, putting me at cross-purposes with my brain chemistry addiction.

So what brain chemicals are involved? 

Dopamine: the reward pathway also associated with substances like cocaine and heroin. Dopamine is also known to affect your serotonin levels which can bring on low moods and further the motivation for more dopamine.  So when you don’t get the response you want, or you haven’t had any positive attention for a while the withdrawals kick in… love zombie attack! Yuck. If you’re wondering if he/she is your soul-mate, watching rom/coms imagining yourself and x as the leading characters, altering your appearance in accordance with what x might like… you’re in serious trouble.  Brain chemistry isn’t the only way of looking at this thing… there is all that aforementioned unhealthy-social-programming to deconstruct, “bad” habits to break out of and psychological issues to consider like insecure attachment.

Is it always a trap?

Yes and no. I have come to realise everything is a trap. Some traps are nice, some traps are comfortable, some traps help you feel like you’ve achieved something… saying everything is a trap detracts from the meaningfulness of the word ‘trap’, so we’ll just say it’s a trap when it’s dysfunctional. How does that sound? Is your romance narrative causing you grievous emotional harm? Are you wasting energy waiting for a text of continuously hassling your partner to be more romantic? Are you moping because there’s no one who loves you in ‘that’ way? Well, there you go… TRAP!

But what if x is my soulmate?

If you believe in soul-mates and that reincarnation shiz then take into consideration that a soulmate isn’t someone to give you happily-ever-afters, it’s someone who is here to give you major karmic lessons: lots and lots of pain and suffering, until you figure out how to learn from it and get out of the trap. The more you worry about whether it’s ‘meant to be’, the worse you are making it.  Focus on learning your lessons rather than controlling uncontrollable variables. If something is meant to be it’s not worth worrying about, anyway, is it? It will just happen, whether you like it or not. Don’t get your free-will tied up in your determinism, it’s not sexy.

Okay, I’m in the trap, what can I do?

I don’t have all the answers, but I have read too many self-help books, so here’s some helpful 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 psi-vamp, 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 soulmate, 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.

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 pathway functioning more healthily because you are being awesome and getting rewarded for it.

5. Meet ownemotional 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.

6. Stop talking about x all the time, 
Just stop it. stop thinking about it so much, think about cats, cats are nice.