"Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane."
Red, The Shawshank Redemption
Recently, one of my clients came to me with a puzzling event. She and her boyfriend had just had one of their biggest fights ever. On its own, this really wasn't so strange, since they'd had many of the same kinds of arguments before. But what made this particular explosion so disorienting for both of them was its timing. According to my client, they'd just returned from what had to have been their best day together in months. "We walked around downtown for hours," she explained, "strolling through Boston Common, holding hands, snuggling close–if you can believe it." (They'd hardly touched each other in weeks) "Then we even went back home, later that night, and had amazing sex. Two hours later, I was yelling at him. I couldn't even tell you why. It's all a blur."
"Do you think you were scared?" I asked.
She looked even more confused, "Of what?"
"Feeling too hopeful," I answered.
The end of a romance can be one of the most painful experiences of our lives. Recent studies even suggest that the hurt of romantic rejection lights up the same region of the brain as physical pain. In that sense, our minds see precious little difference between broken hearts and broken limbs. With as much pain as it causes when we open our heart to someone and have it crushed, perhaps the most remarkable thing is that we keep searching for love at all. But is it possible that sometimes the hope for love, itself, can become too frightening? That the cost of losing love far outweighs the potential benefits of finding and keeping it?
In my client's case, we didn't have to dig too deeply to find that she simply didn't trust the happy feeling she'd been enjoying that day. "Something felt off, " she explained. "Like I was standing at the edge of a cliff, and there was no safety rail. I actually felt relieved when we finally fought. I knew it, I told myself. It was all too good to be true."
Researchers understand these moments as the result of insecure attachments and, more than likely, they'd see my client as anxiously attached. As a result of her father's lack of interest in her as a child, and her mother's living in a fog of alcoholism, she questions whether or not any love will last, expressing constant doubts about her relationship, her boyfriend's faithfulness, and his investment in their future. In short, she displays the hallmark behaviors of the anxious style: a preoccupation with her relationship and worry about her partner's ability to be there when she needs him. Her boyfriend, for his part, seems to fit the avoidant style of insecure attachment–he keeps her at arms length, frequently "forgets" to call, and often hints at more than a passing interest in other women. According to research, avoidants equate intimacy with a loss of independence and, perhaps as result, they constantly limit closeness. Still, all these distinctions tend to obscure just how much the two styles have in common. Whatever their differences, the anxiously and avoidantly attached partners clearly share one, central feature: they're both convinced that hope–the hope for lasting love–is a dangerous thing.
Anxiously attached people often try to protect themselves from being hurt by controlling love with demands and questions. Avoidants manage their fear by keeping their partners at arms length, never letting them close enough to risk being hurt. For both styles, intimacy becomes fraught, and attachment is equated with loss (because the more you care, the more you stand to lose). It should come as no surprise, then, that the biggest fights between these two styles generally happen just when they start to feel close. It's during moments of true intimacy that people who fear losing love are the most adept at killing it.
Avoidants, in fact, have been known to make a laundry list of everything they don't like about their partners, as if they're deliberately turning themselves off when the pull of intimacy feels too great (researchers call these deactivating strategies). Anxiously attached partners, on the other hand, often scan their experience for negative information and react at the first signs of trouble. Rather than looking for positive moments, they fix their sights on disappointment. To them, momentary ruptures in the relationship are catastrophic threats to connection. If you can disappoint me now, they tell themselves, perhaps I can't rely on you at all. For people afraid to love, a good fight is comforting. It spares them the pain of betting on happiness and losing again.
The reason to study these styles, in my opinion, isn't just to understand how insecurely attached styles match or clash. It's to better comprehend how any of us handles what renowned psychoanalyst, Stephen Mitchell, might call the conflicting "hopes and dreads" of intimacy. We all long for closeness and fear being hurt. We all vacillate between the hope of finding lasting love and the dread of losing it. When it feels safe to trust our happiness, we feel at peace, and look to our partners as allies in life. When our fear of hope is in ascendance, however, we lash out and defend ourselves, taking comfort in the distance (because if we never attach, there's no fear of loss.) In the midst of our profound, existential isolation, loss and abandonment are among our deepest fears. When a partner threatens to disappear, and leave us in darkness, he or she instantly becomes the enemy. And so does our hope for love.
My client learned over time that as much as she longed for them, the greatest moments of intimacy were also, for her, deeply terrifying. As soon as she began to feel close to her boyfriend, all the memories of how he'd failed her would slip into her thoughts. "Don't you dare," a part of her seemed to say. "Don't let down your guard. Don't trust this." In fact, deep down she wondered if it was safe to hope for something better at all. Should she risk expecting more, or was it easier (or at least less painful) to assume her boyfriend would let her down again?
These weren't easy questions to answer. But she had to grapple with them. In truth, we all do. Remaining open to the hope for happy love maybe one of the scariest choices we can make, but given the alternative, it's worth it. In the end, it's our fear of hope that can drive us insane.
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Note: The individuals depicted are a composite of many people and experiences. All names and identities have been disguised to preserve confidentiality.