I moved out of home in my late teens when I transferred from Waikato University to Otago University, which was about as far away as I could run. It was a move from the sleepy rural temperate Waikato plains...
… to the cold blustery coastal city of Dunedin.
I really did a very poor job of thinking it through. I had no plans for income, I did not try to find out whether or not I could transfer schools in the middle of my degree. I rode along with my girlfriend at the time whose approach to the move was more mature. I left feeling stifled by my mother and angry at her in a very self-righteous-teenager way. As we pulled out of the house and down the road, I remember turning on the radio and We Gotta Get Out Of This Place by The Animals was playing. So you get out of that place, and it turns out there’s a whole next step of getting into another place. The Animals never said much about that.
Concurrent with the unanticipated difficulties of moving , I was also unprepared for relationships, which were often permeated by a feeling that things were not going well. I reacted to this feeling by constantly asking if the other person was okay. Even if I received an assurance that they everything really was fine, I never really felt reassured. I often see variances of the same pattern reoccurring in couple relationships in counseling, so it seems to be something many of us experience. Why did I ask the other person if they were okay when I was the one feeling anxious? Why did reassurances not feel reassuring? Where did this feeling come from? I only recently began to understand some of the answers to these questions.
We have a hard-wired need to attach to other people. Perhaps this comes out of our historic need to belong to a community of people in order to survive. It also makes sense in terms of surviving as an infant since infants are totally dependent on other people to have their needs met. When we are not securely attached, life seems tenuous and fraught with risk. We get anxious, feel distressed, feel lonely. It’s usually reassuring to have someone to talk to, someone to be with. This can also be seen during times of trauma or crisis. People gather at funerals, the community comes together after a natural disaster. People seek comfort in companionship – the world feels more secure when we know we are able to trust in the willingness of other people to care for us.
So, what happens when our instinctive need to connect to people is formed in an environment in which our early efforts to connect or signal a need for connection are ignored or rejected? Imagine first your instinctual desire to eat. Hunger is your wired-in signal that you need food. What if you got enough food to survive, but much of it made you very ill. As an adult, you would probably develop an ambivalent relationship with food. You would still feel hungry and need to eat, but you would often feel anxious about whether or not the food was safe to eat, probably try to suppress your hunger in the first place to avoid the anxiety-provoking experience of eating, or seek repeated reassurances from others about whether or not the food is okay to eat. What couples with your instinctual desire for food is the level of trust you develop in whether or not food will be available and safe.
Human attachment works in a similar way. If we grow up in an environment in which our hunger to connect in a relationship is sometimes met, but often ignored or rebuffed, many of us naturally develop into adults with some related level of anxiety about the safety or reliability of relationships. We try to calm our anxiety about connecting in various ways: by seeking reassurance, by trying to avoid connecting to people, or by other means.
My mother did a superhuman job protecting us from very difficult circumstances, but to some degree I noticed the difficult circumstances. I did not want to add anything to a parent who already seemed overwhelmed. Sensing that our environment was unstable increased my reliance on the security platform of our relationship. But attempts to connect often met with an exhausted and overwhelmed, and sometimes irritated response. It became necessary to try to read the signs to work out when connecting might be okay.
I therefore learned to become more reliant on myself, to become my own secure base. That’s why moving seemed so easy – it doesn’t feel like taking a step off a cliff when you don’t feel like you are on solid ground in the first place. I didn’t expect to take all this baggage with me into other relationships, particularly when I had moved so far away from home. But moving involved leaving all the protections my mother provided, and I had to depend more on other people to survive, particularly people close to me. My anxiety in relationships after the move was a re-awakening of this early experience. In this new and somewhat tenuous and unpredictable environment, are you feeling overwhelmed? Are you able to reassure me? Are we going to be okay? It’s emotional really noticing the meaning of those old questions. Small suggestions a person seemed tired or overloaded ramped-up my anxiety, precisely at times when they were less able to give me the kind of reassurance I needed. Not getting the reassurance made me more anxious, and the pattern reinforced itself.
The good news is that this kind of attachment injury can heal. Repeated experiences of being able to connect to other people and feel reassured, and experiences of getting through difficult situations together, gradually reduced my anxiety. Added to that, the experience of being in therapy and building a space to explore and understand what the pattern was all about was tremendously helpful. I am now able to notice in the anxious moment that the anxiety does not indicate there is anything wrong with the relationship. It is more about old feelings surfacing – conjured by reminders of things past. Ghosts I can now dispel.