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.