Anxious Attachment and the Anger Paradox

Have you ever felt guilty about hurting someone’s feelings and tried to make up to them only to find them getting even madder at you once you apologize? Or, have you ever been hurt and wanted comfort and reassurance from your partner (or parent or friend for that matter) but found yourself feeling more hurt and angry even after the comfort is given? If the answer to these questions is yes then you may be in a relationship with someone who has an anxious/preoccupied attachment style or you might have one yourself.  

You can see this anger paradox on display when young children are observed in laboratory settings.

The child with an anxious ambivalent attachment style (the childhood term for what will be termed “preoccupied” in adulthood) may be highly distressed when left momentarily by his mother. He may be relieved and hug her when she returns. But, at the same time, he stays angry and will not be comforted or soothed, and may even attack her.

Higher levels of attachment anxiety, such as those present in people with preoccupied and fearful attachment styles relates to having less forgiveness for oneself, other people, and situations (Webb et al., 2006). This is because people with higher levels of attachment anxiety ruminate. They just can’t stop thinking about “the problem” and the wrong that has been committed (Burnette et al., 2009). They also might rate transgressions as being more serious relative to those with other styles (Blount-Matthews, 2005) and experience higher levels of anger (Kidd & Sheffield, 2005).

Preoccupied people, in particular, tend to get absorbed in their painful emotions and memories, can be flooded by feelings of anger, and be overly focused on their attachment figures (Rosso & Airaldi, 2016). When recounting memories of parents from childhood during the Adult Attachment Interview, adults with preoccupied attachment styles bring their unresolved anger toward parents from the past into their present adult experiences.

From a developmental perspective, inconsistent parenting in childhood makes it difficult to make sense of the parent’s behavior. And, if a child can’t understand why the parent is behaving in a certain way then she can’t predict how the parent will react in the future. If she can’t predict the future, then she can’t modify her own behavior to prevent painful rejections. Knowing that she cannot do anything to forestall being hurt, the anxiously attached child is left in a chronic state of feeling scared, anxious, and angry.

Of course, this process is rarely conscious or intentional. It is wired into the central nervous system and also is related to how human memory works. Once a problem is activated in your brain, it has a propensity to stay active until the problem is solved. The mantra of the preoccupied person therefore is: “If I can just come to understand this, what happened and why it happened, I’ll be able to let it go.”

The problem is that what happened often involves other people who have their own internal struggles and issues that they may or may not be conscious of. What I always tell my clients in these situations is that if you are trying to make sense of other people’s behavior you are assuming that they are acting rationally and with conscious intent. This is a bit of a stretch.

You can’t make sense out of other people’s non-sense.                                                     

Unless you are a skilled mental health professional, trying to make sense out of someone else’s irrational behavior will not yield satisfying answers. Problems that are left open in your brain will stay active in search of solutions and intrude on your awareness. Because of the way memory works, unresolved relationship issues and painful emotions will activate memories of similar events and feelings from the past. The end result is that you will be flooded with negative thoughts and emotions.

As an example, consider the case of Alex. Alex’s girlfriend was moving in with him after being on an extended summer vacation. He was excited all summer for her to move in. Just before she did, however, Alex found out that she had spent some time with her ex boyfriend while on her vacation. As she started moving in, she assured Alex that “it was nothing;” that she just wanted closure on that old relationship before fully committing herself to her new life. Alex did his best to accept her answer and put it out of his mind. He wanted to be that secure confident guy who didn’t get all emotional and needy.

In the weeks following the move-in, Alex’s girlfriend did her best to show him that she was fully committed. She told him she loved him. She showered him with hugs and kisses. She genuinely seemed happy and in love. Alex recounted how when he came home one day, his girlfriend literally came running to greet him at the front door. She hugged him passionately and told him how happy she was and how much she loved him. Alex realized that he should have been happy, but, at this moment, he was flooded with anxiety and a sense of dread.

Unable to regulate his emotions, he became increasingly distressed to the point that he elicited a confrontation, which, over time, contributed to the demise of the relationship. We will never know if there was a real threat to Alex’s relationship. Unfortunately, neither will Alex.

What happened to Alex is that he was continually reactivating himself. Remember, the human brain does its best to understand the world by putting things in well-defined categories. It also protects us against threat by scanning the environment for threat cues. Once a threat is detected, it goes into overdrive to see what other threats are out there. It scans the external environment and if it cannot find an external threat to explain the level of upset being experiencing, it will start scanning our memories. Every memory that comes up then triggers other memories that are associated with it. Before you know it, the weight of every heartache you ever experienced might be upon you.

And, this is where I believe that continual venting to friends (or general supportive psychotherapy for that matter) may fall short. I know this sounds callus, but I have had clients who sounded just as distressed and exhibited just as much (or more) negative emotion the 20th time they told me of a loss or heartbreak as the first time. In these instances, I usually assure clients that I truly care and value their story. But I go on to suggest that telling the story over and over does not appear to be providing them with emotional relief. After describing the patterns highlighted so far in this post, I ask if they will let me help them learn to think differently and interpret events in ways that might not lead to so much pain.

There is nothing to fix.

Look at it this way: the events that are causing the pain usually occurred in the past so you can’t change them. If the events involved relationships, you also can not get relief by “figuring it out.” You could bring it up again to the offending person, and this might lead to a little relief in the present, as long as you can accept that:

1. The other person might not be fully conscious of his/her own motivations for behaving a certain way (and so can’t tell you).

2. You are not going to have your distressed emotions fully soothed or regulated by the other person.

At this point you simply need to accept what is….what happened, what the other person did, and what their explanation was. Now don’t get me wrong. This is not the same thing as staying in a situation or relationship that would hurt you or would otherwise be unhealthy. And, I’m not saying this to let the other person off the hook. I’m saying it to help you let go of the pain and resentment that is tormenting you.  

And to this end, I often look at my client and ask: “What is the most basic truth about this situation?”

I usually let people work at this for a bit, but I am looking for a very simple answer:

It sucks! The truth is that this is a really crappy situation, it hurts, and it really sucks.

That’s it. There is nothing to figure out. And, if you can get there…to the point of accepting that it sucks, you may find yourself sitting with a heavy weight on your chest and an aching heart. But, your mind may be quiet.

Ride it out. That is all you can do.

As I write this I imagine some readers being bothered at what appears to be a suggestion to let other people take advantage or get something over on you. That is not at all what I am suggesting. Once you ride it out and regulate your own emotions, without needing the constant reassurance of another person–reassurance that you know will not last–then you will be standing in a position of power. You will be able to think clearly, set strong boundaries, and be your authentic self in all of your relationships.


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