Imagine feeling lonely inside and craving love and affection. Then you meet someone wonderful. You are full of joy and excitement. Now you can feel whole and good like like you know you should!
But several months later, when your romantic partner throws his or her arms around you and tells you that (s)he loves you, you experience a flood of anxiety and sense of impending doom. You try to act happy, because you know that is how a "normal" person would feel. But you have a hard time hiding your anxiety. You try to fix it by explaining, but this effort only makes you sound off balance and needy. Across the coming weeks you feel increasingly squirrely, start to pick up on signs that your partner is having second thoughts, and get that awful feeling in your gut...you know...the one you spend your whole life trying to avoid. As the relationship begins to implode you just want to scream, "what the heck just happened?!"
What happened is that you ran straight into your own defensive wall; that part of your personality that is trying to protect you and keep you safe. Of course, this defense is not a rational process; it is housed deep in the emotional centers of your brain and is automatically triggered by signals from the environment. It does not care about your rational thought processes or your adult need for love and affection. It would rather you be sad and lonely than injured.
Attachment theory can give us even deeper insight into this process. In childhood, the attachment system increases anxiety when the young person stays too far away from parent; the resulting discomfort then impels the child to re-establish proximity. Imagine what happens, however, when the parent you are seeking comfort from is himself frightening or frightened. If the parent yells at the approaching child, or even worse becomes physically abusive, then this "attachment figure" is just as scary as whatever the child was running from in the first place.
A terrified parent (who may herself be an abuse victim) also cannot adequately sooth a distressed child. In either case, the attachment system does not serve its intended function. The child cannot escape the anxiety coming from the environment and cannot be soothed by the parent. To make matters worse, the parent’s behavior might actually increase the child's anxiety and impel the child to once again approach the scary parent.
Children raised in such environments will become hypervigilant for threat cues (like those with anxious/preoccupied attachment) and simultaneously avoidant of interpersonal closeness and intimacy (like those with avoidant/dismissing attachment). When observed under laboratory conditions (in Mary Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” paradigm), these children can be seen to approach the parent, only to freeze and withdraw or wander about aimlessly. In a like vane, as adults they will simultaneously desire closeness and intimacy and approach potential attachment figures (close friends or romantic partners) but then become extremely uncomfortable when they get too close to those partners and withdraw; hence the message given to others is "come here and go away." Of course the person with this "fearful" attachment style is not likely to be fully conscious that he/she is enacting this process and may feel extremely misunderstood and victimized in professional, friendship and romantic relationships. This person may not perceive that (s)he is actually the one doing the distancing and rejecting.
If you see yourself in these descriptions and patterns, take heart. The defensive process is a normal reaction to a situational stressor in childhood. The situational stressor may have been physical abuse or assault (big "T" trauma) or angry hostility and scary parental behavior (little "t" trauma). Scary parental behavior doesn't even mean that the parent was overtly threatening. A very depressed or mentally ill parent who is emotionally unexpressive will be frightening because the child knows that the parent cannot provide protection or comfort.
The work by Dr. Ed Tronic with young children using the "Still Face Paradigm" (click here to link to YouTube video) provides an excellent example of the effects of parental unresponsiveness and unattunement. When parents do not accurately reflect and validate their children's emotional experiences, the children become emotionally disregulated. If this pattern is maintained over an extended period of time, it could have a lifelong impact on the developing person’s neurology and ability to accurately perceive and regulate emotions or sustain healthy and mutually reciprocal relationships.
Once you understand why your adult emotions are so disregulated and why you feel "crazy" in relationships, you can start the process of living with intent and you can refuse to let the process continue disrupting your relationships.
Here are some things you can do:
If you are reading this and wondering who you know who has this style, you should be aware that you might not see it until you start getting close and establishing a level of intimacy with the person. You may also observe the person becoming disreguated and disorganized if his/her persons security is threatened due to things such as a serious illness or being threatened with disciplinary action or job loss.
It is also important to be aware that even if you had a secure attachment style from childhood, this style could deviate in the direction of having a fearful style if you subsequently experience a major loss such as the death of a parent or you are otherwise traumatized (e.g., violent crime, battery, or being in a long-term emotionally abusive relationship).
If you are in relationship with someone with this style, be patient. Realize that it is not in your power to take away all of her/his pain. You can be there for them and provide comfort and support…be a secure base while they explore their own inner workings. If you want to stay in the relationship, you should be aware that you may also have to endure some “testing behaviors.” The person with the fearful style may engage in some negative/challenging behaviors to see if you are going to reject him or hurt him. After all that is what his experience has taught him to expect. If you take these behaviors for what they are, however, and don’t take them too personally (I know; easier said than done!) the person is likely to start to effectively regulate his/her emotions and become much more comfortable with intimacy in the relationship.