Attachment Panic, or Why You Can’t ‘Just Chill Out’
Woman: Why didn’t you call me when you were going to be late?
Man: Something just came up at work. What’s the big deal?
Woman: I was waiting for you! We were all waiting. I made dinner!
Man: So, I always say eat without me if I’m not there. Why are you making a big deal out of nothing?
Woman: It’s not nothing! You promised me you would call! This is so disrespectful. I make dinner and it’s like you don’t even appreciate it or care. You just think about yourself.
Man (with disgust): Why can’t you just chill out?
Does this sound familiar? Are you the dinner-maker in this scenario, and do you secretly wonder if you are really as nuts as your spouse makes you out to be? Are you secretly ashamed of not being able to “chill out” and just take things more in stride? Well, I am here to tell you that you’re completely normal, and there are even exciting psychological terms for why you’re reacting the way you do. So get yourself a snack and keep reading, Grasshopper.
Do you remember attachment? As a faithful reader of this blog, pretend you do, and then click back on that link to refresh yourself, aka read it for the first time. Or else, here’s a cheat sheet, because I don’t enjoy watching you squirm.
So, if you’re always wondering if your spouse loves you, and asking them if they think about you, and you tend to be anxious in relationships, you’re likely preoccupied. As a child, you likely learned that a primary caregiver was not reliable, and although they loved you, they were not attuned to your emotional needs. (We’re not blaming them. They likely had a lot on their plate and were raised in the same way they raised you.)
If your partner complains that you’re detached and unemotional, and if you pride yourself on needing nobody (despite knowing the cliche “no man is an island”), you’re likely avoidant. You learned that a primary caregiver, although they loved you, mainly wanted you to do your own thing, and wasn’t big on emotions. (Again, a lot on their plate and were probably raised this way themselves.)
If you know your spouse loves you and you’re comfortable and easy with expressing love back, you’re likely secure. Your caregiver was openly loving and supportive, and you always trusted they would be there for you.
If you just read that last one and hesitated and thought, “Well, with the right partner I’d act secure,” you should probably pick one of the other ones. Have it? Okay, let’s move on.
So now comes the idea of attachment panic. According to the book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson, attachment panic is at the heart of all conflict between partners. What does this mean? Well, Dr. Johnson (and I) would say that in the conversation above, you’re not really fighting about dinner, as you could guess. You are really struggling to feel heard by your partner, and to make sure that the relationship is strong and secure. You’re likelier to need this reassurance if you’re a preoccupied partner, since you start out insecure about whether your partner loves you in the first place. You’re also likelier to need reassurance if your partner is avoidant and therefore finds it difficult to express his emotions.
Attachment panic is the same thing that a baby feels when his mother looks at him with no expression, aka the Still Face Procedure. When the baby gets no emotional and visual feedback that his mother loves him and is attuned to him, feels that the relationship is not secure, and this causes panic. Why? Because he is a mammal, and mammals need relationships to survive. For example, my 1-year-old baby would not get very far without me, which is why he is evolutionarily motivated to be affectionate.
Romantic relationships, on a deep level, are emotional parallels with parent-child relationships. What we need from our partner, therefore, is to feel loved, valued, and important. We need to feel that they are seeing us and that our relationship bond is secure and can be trusted.
In the late for dinner example, the wife is not aware that she is experiencing primal attachment panic. She may even wonder, “What the hell is wrong with me that I freak out about him being late for dinner? I need some Prozac or something.” But, her reaction makes perfect sense given her husband’s invalidating responses. His dismissiveness of her feelings is what escalates her attachment panic, because she feels that he completely does not see, understand, or value her. Here is what’s being said underneath the surface conversation that’s transpiring.
Woman: Why didn’t you call me when you were going to be late? (I have told you this bothers me, and when you do it again and again, I fear that you don’t actually listen to me at all. I feel like my opinion, and therefore myself, mean very little to you, and there is in fact no secure relationship here at all.)
Man: Something just came up at work. What’s the big deal? (Uh oh, here she goes again, if I defend myself then maybe she will stop attacking me and we can have a nice evening.)
Woman: I was waiting for you! We were waiting. I made dinner! (You still don’t understand me, you are not listening. I fear that this means you don’t care about me and the relationship.)
Man: So, I always say eat without me if I’m not there. Why are you making a big deal out of nothing? (Defend, ignore, deny, minimize, and maybe she will just lay off. I hate disappointing her. This night is shot.)
Woman: It’s not nothing! You promised me you would call! This is so disrespectful. I make dinner and it’s like you don’t even appreciate it or care. You just think about yourself. (I am panicking here! It is so upsetting to me that you don’t seem to register how bad I feel. You do not notice my pain at all. I must mean nothing to you.)
Man: Why can’t you just chill out? (Please let this be over. I hate when she gets mad like this and I don’t know what the hell to do. It scares me when she is this angry because one day she might just decide to end it.)
Hopefully you caught on to something intriguing there at the end. Not only you, the dinner-maker, but your husband, the dinner-evader, is experiencing attachment panic! Yes, even though in this case you are the preoccupied partner and he is the avoidant one, you are both experiencing attachment panic due to the conflict. His is triggered by your anger, and yours is triggered by his dismissiveness. But, you both fear that the relationship is in jeopardy, and you are both acting out because of this fear.
If you know about attachment panic, which you now do, you can imagine that the conversation might be able to go like this:
Woman: It makes me feel really hurt when you don’t call to tell me you’ll be late.
Man: Okay, I understand. I see why you’re upset, since you do make dinner and everything.
Woman: Yeah, I just start to wonder if you even care about me. That’s usually when I start to act mad.
Man: I know. I hate when you get mad because it really stresses me out. I start to worry if you even want to be in this at all.
Woman: Does that make you upset? You don’t seem upset, just irritated with me.
Man: Yeah, of course I get upset. I don’t usually show it, but I definitely get worried when you’re mad at me. I don’t want us to end up fighting all night or just not getting along anymore. I feel silly too, because it would be easy enough to call. I just forget.
Woman: Okay. I will try to keep in mind that you just forget. I will try not to take it personally. Especially if you tell me that you intended to call but you just got caught up with stuff.
Man: And I’ll try to call.
Woman: Okay. Hey, let’s go upstairs.
See, you can show this to your husband as evidence that emotional disclosure leads to an improved sex life. And now you know the term “attachment panic” and when your friend’s kid throws a fit, you can be all like “I think he’s acting out because he’s feeling attachment panic, so you should probably get off your phone and interact with him.” On second thought just say that in your own head. Either way, my work here is done.
Till we meet again, I remain, Your Favorite Blogapist Who Distills Your Worst Marital Moments Into Pithy Anecdotes That Teach You About Psychology.
Rodman, S. (2018). Attachment Panic, or Why You Can’t ‘Just Chill Out’. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 1, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/attachment-panic-or-why-you-cant-just-chill-out/