How Insecure Attachment Predisposes Us to Anger Arousal
Identify ways in which an insecure attachment can foster anger in relationships.
Posted Nov 29, 2019
Anger arousal stems from a perceived threat: to our emotional or physical well-being; to our resources, such as our time, energy, things, and wealth; or to our loved ones. An important aspect of this definition is the keyword “perceived.” As such, we may feel threatened even when no real threat exists, or we may see the threat as being greater than it really is. Consequently, we may impulsively experience overly intense anger, when we perceive the danger to be greater than it really is.
Additionally, anger is most often a reaction to other negative feelings, such as sadness, anxiety, shame, guilt, rejection, as well as feelings of inadequacy. In this light, anger may serve both as a distraction from and reaction to experiencing the anguish and tension associated with these feelings.
Defined in this manner, anger can be viewed as arising from a call for self-compassion. In effect, with and without awareness, our first reaction to our inner anguish may be to focus our attention on the person or situation that we perceive as being responsible for our suffering. Through directing our attention outward, we distract ourselves from feeling the real pain within us.
Those habits in our thinking and feeling, which lower our threshold for feeling threatened, leave us vulnerable to increased anger arousal. An insecure attachment style enhances such tendencies. This is reflected in the following examples.
Ryan was a 25-year-old who was quick to feel threatened when his girlfriend returned home late, and when she socialized with her single friends. At times, he even experienced a threat when she voiced disagreement with his opinions—whether in regard to a movie they watched or how to spend the weekend. His difficulties related to an insecure attachment style undermined his trust in the relationship.
Additionally, self-doubts caused by an underlying sense of not being lovable further primed him for feeling threatened with regard to loss. This was reflected both in terms of having physical distance from his girlfriend as well as emotional distance—as when he felt they were not on the same page in their views.
Joan, 30 years old, sought my help in an effort to understand herself with regards to her romantic relationships better. She reported a pattern of dating that she had repeated for several years. She would see someone for three months before ending the relationship and seeking someone else to date: “I’m not sure what happens, but two or three months seems to be my usual timeline for relationships. I lose interest or find something I don’t like about them.”
Her pattern of dating reflected the powerful impact of having an anxious-ambivalent attachment style. As she grew closer to her partners, she would soon find sufficient fault with them to end the relationship. In a self-protective manner, she played out her ambivalence—both her desires for and fear of closeness. In effect, her quickness to end her relationships reflected a “preemptive” action to avoid experiencing the abandonment that she felt would certainly occur if she really made a commitment.
At times, I’ve worked with clients who are told by friends they seem to have an ideal relationship. Yet, further discussion reveals they have tremendous difficulty voicing their opinions to a partner. They may fear conflict and subsequently defer with regard to both major and minor decisions. They fail to recognize the adverse influence of an insecure attachment style that underlies their fear of conflict.
Unfortunately, their failure to express themselves leaves them feeling resentful and isolated. It is no surprise, then, that their fears and resentment often foster a lack of emotional and physical intimacy.
To better recognize these habits of attachment, it’s helpful to understand the differences between secure and insecure attachment. Each style is associated with different dynamics. And while one may be dominant in our personality, we may exhibit aspects of others.
British psychologist John Bowlby studied interactions between caregivers and their children (Bowlby, 1969). These included observations of parent-child interactions in which they were in a room together, when a parent left a room, and when they returned. He observed patterns of interactions that reflected an overarching style of attachment.
Since these early studies, there has been extensive research regarding how attachment styles are reflected in our adult relationships as well (Brown and Elliot, 2016), as they impact or correlate with other aspects of personality (Bowlby, 2014). They are characterized as being secure, anxious-ambivalent, anxious-avoidant, and disorganized/disoriented attachment styles.
A pattern of "secure attachment" arises when a caretaker is mostly consistent in how she positively interacts with her child. This involves dependability regarding meeting the child’s needs for nutrition, nurturance, and soothing. A mother who feeds her child because she recognizes his cry stems from hunger reflects such dependability and consistency. Similarly, she promotes a secure attachment when she recognizes and addresses his discomfort, whether related to a full diaper, a rash, or the need to burp.
Secure attachment is also reflected in the details of the connection. This may include a voice, eye contact, and touch that is both reassuring and soothing. Through these interactions, a child develops trust in his parents and in his world. Simultaneously, as a result of his parents being good to him, he develops an inherent sense of being good and deserving to be treated well. Additionally, he internalizes an enhanced capacity to self-regulate with regard to negative emotions.
When we have developed a secure attachment in these early interactions, we may become more open to trusting as an adult—of others and ourselves. We may be more accepting of our desires and feelings and, therefore, more comfortable in candidly expressing them. In effect, when a caretaker validates our internal experiences, we more readily trust and accept them.
By contrast, an insecure attachment derives from inconsistency in a caretaker’s response to the infant’s or child’s core needs. This may occur when a parent is preoccupied with physical or mental illness—his or her own or that of another family member—marital conflict, alcohol or drug abuse, or other life challenges. As an adult, those who have experienced such inconsistency may have an insecure attachment style. Research indicates that there are three types of insecure attachment styles: anxious-ambivalent, anxious-avoidant, and disorganized/disoriented attachment.
This type of bond is often a result of inconsistency in parents’ expectations of and responses to their child. Children who experience these interactions may show intense dependency as an adult, a strong need for approval, and great sensitivity to feeling rejected. They have a tendency to expect that things will go wrong, and most often focus on what is problematic in the relationship rather than what is satisfying. They may consequently manage their anxiety through escape or avoidant behaviors that might include substance abuse or other addictions.
This style of connection is characterized by difficulty forming close relationships. Individuals who have this tendency may seem quite independent, but they experience great anxiety with emotional closeness.
They are challenged in recognizing their emotions. This translates into behavior and attitudes that might be inconsistent. It’s often the case that those with this style of attachment had parents who were distant and lacking in support.
Individuals demonstrate this type of attachment in being close and then distant, warm and then cold, and friendly and then aggressive. These are often adults who experienced abuse in their childhood and/or great ambivalence by caretakers. To a great extent, this style reflects a mix of anxious and avoidant styles.
While childhood has an impact on our attachment pattern, attachment experiences during adolescence may also influence them. These may further solidify an already established pattern or move it somewhat more toward the secure or insecure end of the spectrum.
The Implication of Insecure Attachment for Anger Arousal
A review of the types of insecure attachment styles highlights the ways in which those with this attachment style are prone to feel emotionally threatened. It is no surprise, then, that individuals with these difficulties in attachment are vulnerable to anger arousal.
In general, individuals with an insecure attachment style experience a lowered threshold for reactivity to negative emotions when compared with individuals who exhibit a secure attachment style. This makes perfect sense, considering that those with an insecure attachment style are prone to have lower levels of trust—of others and themselves. Consequently, lowered self-worth leads one to expend great energy protecting oneself from experiencing doubt, insecurity, anxiety, and even anger—all negative feelings that may be perceived as threatening to one’s sense of self.
This heightened tendency toward physiological reactivity was further supported by research in which women were asked to think about various relationship scenarios while undergoing an fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging (Heller & Levine, 2010). The imaging of women with an insecure attachment style showed heightened activity in the areas of the brain related to emotion (while thinking of negative scenarios). Additionally, they exhibited lower activity in areas of the brain associated with emotional regulation. Simply stated, the reduction in the capacity for self-soothing and or sensitivity to feeling threatened resulted in heightened emotional reactivity.
Additionally, individuals with a more severe insecure attachment style spend much energy devoted to self-protection—both from their own feelings and thoughts as well as those of others. Their lack of connection with their feelings furthers their sense of confusion. This often contributes to heightened vigilance to keep them at bay. This way of coping can contribute to anxiety and anger, as well as depression.
Addressing the Impact of an Insecure Attachment Style on Anger
All too often, anger in a relationship arises over specific situations because one partner with an insecure attachment style expects the other to “make up” for what they did not receive in their childhood. They may unwittingly expect a partner to provide them with a sense of security that was never experienced as a child. While a partner may help by being more sensitive to these issues, it is not their responsibility—nor is it possible—to make up for what we did not internalize during our early development.
Addressing the impact of an insecure attachment style on anger calls for learning to develop strategies for anger arousal and a deeper understanding of its causes. As such, for many individuals, it entails greater awareness of how and when such an attachment can predispose us to anger.
Fortunately, there has been expanding research in recent years regarding attachment style and how to address disturbances in the attachment. Books such as Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller and The Power of Attachment by Diane Heller and Peter Levine, articles and videos on the Internet, as well as workshops, can offer readers the understanding and skills to deal with insecure attachment.
However, attachment style is complex, and how an individual is impacted by it may best be explored in the context of counseling and psychotherapy. In this context, individuals may be helped to recognize their tendencies and develop an increased recognition of their feelings, desires, and needs. Through a collaborative therapeutic relationship, insights may be gained, and skills identified that could help address the powerful interaction of an insecure attachment style and a disposition for anger arousal.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss. New York: Basic Books.
Brown, D. and Elliott, D. (2016). Attachment Disturbances in Adults. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Solomon J. and Gorge, C. (1999). Attachment disorganization New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Heller, R. and Levine, A. (2010) Attached: The New Science of Attachment and How it Can Help You Find–And Keep–Love. New York, NY: TarcherPerigree.