Toxic Love

Breaking free of bad relationships.

Bad, Mad Love

What to do when your love affair becomes a hot mess

There’s nothing like the joy of a new relationship when the road ahead seems sunny and bright. Your world becomes centered around this object of your latest passion, and you throw caution to the wind as you start to make serious plans. According to New York Times columnist Henry Alford, it’s all too easy to become “heedlessly romantic,” ignoring the rules of etiquette, if not common sense, and get too close too fast. Sure, there are times when these passionate affairs become the basis for a long and beautiful relationship. However, when these relationships come to their disastrous conclusion, we suffer inner torments at best and outer humiliation at worst. Johnny Depp tattoos “Winona Forever” on his arm; Taylor Swift crashes a Kennedy wedding with her new beau Conor Kennedy. These are just two of several examples that Alford cites when cautioning readers to avoid the fast lane in the romance highway. For that matter, if you want any relationship to last, there’s good evidence that taking it slow seems like the best way to ensure that the relationship will not only survive but will maintain its quality.

Alford’s article made me wonder whether the tendency to get into what I would call these “bad, mad” relationships varies by the individual’s personality. Some people seem able to make good relationship decisions fairly consistently, whereas others just go from one romantic hot mess to another. The most likely candidate among many possible personal qualities is what social psychologists call adult attachment style. Based on research conducted a number of decades ago on babies and children, psychologists who study close relationships developed a scheme for classifying the way that adults relate to their intimate partners. The resulting body of literature is now at the cornerstone for much of our understanding of adult relationships. In other words, the way we interact with our adult romantic partners carries vestiges from our earliest relationships with our parents.

Adult attachment style, then, reflects the grown-up version of the way we mentally represented our caregivers when we were infants. The large majority of adults are capable of “secure attachment,” meaning that they value their close relationships but don’t feel overly distraught at being separated for a period of time. People who are insecurely attached, in contrast, may fall into one of two types. If you are anxiously attached, you are overly sensitive to cues that your partner will abandon you. As a result, you become overly dependent on your romantic partners. In contrast, people who are high on attachment avoidance don’t want to establish emotional bonds with their partners.  

Following up from Alford’s article with what we know about adult attachment style, it seems that people with an anxious attachment style should be particularly prone to bad, mad love. They push their partners to become too intimate too soon because they fear the love object will slip away. When these relationships come to an end, the anxiously attached are driven almost immediately into another one, which they similarly pursue until it also reaches its logical, unhappy conclusion.

An answer to the question of whether the anxiously attached have these bad, mad relationships comes from a large-scale analysis by Tianyuan Li and Darius Change, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (2012). Looking at attachment style and relationship quality data from 73 studies of more than 21,000 individuals, they reported that people who are high on avoidant attachment have poor quality relationships. Whether it’s overall satisfaction, general connectedness, or support, the avoidant come out lower on nearly all measures of relationship quality. The avoidant strive to do just that—avoid getting close to others. When they are in a relationship, they constantly seek to maintain their own independence. The anxiously attached, in contrast, are happiest when they are in a relationship. Their constant need for closeness and support may create frequent conflict. The anxiously attached may sow the seeds for their relationship’s undoing by virtue of their constant need to have their partners close by.

Looking more specifically within the anxiously attached individual’s relationships, University of Western Ontario psychologist Lorne Campbell and Brunel University’s Tara Marshall (2011) identified several reasons for their being most vulnerable to bad, mad love. Their self-esteem is low, and although they feel positively toward their romantic partners, they fear becoming abandoned. As a result, the anxiously attached seek constant reassurance, emotional support, and closeness. Stress makes them even more emotionally needy and they can become obsessed with their partners.

Not only do the anxiously attached carry around with them this fear of abandonment, but their thought processes can even become affected. In a lab task where they are asked to respond as quickly as possible to a set of names, it’s the names of their partners that brings about the most rapid reactions. People who are anxiously attached seem primed to see and respond quickly to the names of their loved ones as if their loved ones are constantly on their minds.

As shown in research by a number of different authors, including University of Massachusetts psychologist Paula Pietromonaco, the anxiously attached have more highs and lows in their relationships. They become distressed when their partners withdraw from them, which they inevitably do, because of the pressure that the anxiously attached place on them. Their sex lives become less rewarding, because they seem to use sex to boost their low feelings of self-esteem. Campbell and Marshall conclude that anxiously attached men and women are constantly scanning the relationship for signs of impending rejection by their partners, seeing even relatively innocent events as posing a threat to the relationship, and constant worry that their partners will be unavailable to them.

People who are anxiously attached to their partners don’t spend their entire waking lives possessed by the need to keep their loved ones close at hand. It’s when they pick up on cues that their partner might be leaving them that their anxious attachment kicks into high gear. Of course, the process works two ways. In the interactionist model that Campbell and Marshall propose, the fact that they are so sensitive to rejection makes the anxiously attached more likely to cause their partners to retreat.

This pattern of emotional neediness, instability, and ultra-sensitiveness to rejection that the anxiously attached show could very well explain why it is that some people, under some conditions, become victims of bad, mad love. They may have a propensity to behave in this way that, when triggered by stress, causes them to cling that much harder to their partners who, in turn, actually become more likely to get up and leave. Without actually testing them, it’s impossible to know whether these attachment styles characterize the Johnny Depps and Taylor Swifts of the world. However, for the rest of us, the lesson is clear. Since stress plays such an important role in the equation, the only way you can avoid these fatal falls into clinginess and desperation is to learn ways to identify and cope with the situations that trigger your anxious attachment tendencies.

To sum up, here are the three best ways for you to manage bad, mad love and turn it into the positive emotion that can enrich your life and that of your romantic partners:

  1. Build a stable base of attachment. Use imagery to see yourself in a secure relationship, whether it’s with your current, a previous, or a possible future partner. Instead of imagining the worst, try imagining the best in your romantic relationships.
  2. Manage daily stress with constructive coping methods. When you’re feeling emotionally frazzled, you’re more likely to drill down into your own insecurities, which makes you more sensitive to possible rejection by your partner. Bolster your resilience by developing coping strategies that both make you feel better and help you tackle the situations that are stressing you out.
  3. Talk to your partner. Calmly discussing your feelings rather than acting on them will not only reassure you that your partner really does care about you, but will also help your partner gain insight into what sets you off. Anxiously attached individuals may have rockier relationships, but because they actually do care about their partners, they are just as capable of intimacy as people with a more secure attachment base.

By starting with these steps, it’s possible to grow a more stable and secure attachment base. People do change over their adult years, both as individuals, and as couples. Over time, you’ll find that your mad love doesn’t have to end badly, or even at all.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012

Campbell, L., & Marshall, T. (2011). Anxious attachment and relationship processes: An interactionist perspective. Journal Of Personality, 79(6), 917-947. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2011.00723.x

Li, T., & Chan, D. S. (2012). How anxious and avoidant attachment affect romantic relationship quality differently: A meta‐analytic review. European Journal Of Social Psychology, 42(4), 406-419

Toxic Love