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The Pains of Preoccupied Attachment

We know so much about the bad sides of psychological labels, we can overlook the good ones. For some of us, it may be immensely helpful (and sobering) to discover the concept of preoccupied attachment – with whose help we may understand, at last, the logic behind a very painful yo-yoing movement of our hearts.

According to attachment theory, the simple-sounding yet revelatory theory of love first proposed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1960s, a portion of the population approaches affectionate bonds with a cluster of attitudes that can be grouped under the title of preoccupied. For those of us with a preoccupied attachment style, our lives are likely to be marked by some of the following…

1. We will, since adolescence, have been desperate for closeness in relationships. We will have dreamt of finding one very special person who can defend us against isolation and shame; someone who can be properly on our side, someone who knows how to soothe and reassure us; someone we can adore and in whose arms we will finally feel at home.

2. But unfortunately for our nerves, the task of locating such a person is likely never to have been easy; we may have been at the search for many years or decades. The partners we end up with, however kind some of them may be, have never in our eyes believed in love in quite the way we do. There has always been, somehow, a problem. It may be that we find inadequate partners in the first place but it is even more likely that we don’t find a way to trust the good enough ones we do locate. They may say they love us, but they are never able to give us affection at the level of intensity and thoroughness we hunger for. They forget to call us at the right time, they have a party to go to or a friend we don’t like, we’re in their arms but their minds seem always to be slightly elsewhere. 

3. The constant gap between our hopes and the available reality renders us volatile. One minute we are planning marriage, the next we want to exit a union and start afresh with a stranger. We shift in a heartbeat from a loving trusting state of mind to one of bitter fury. We may leave the house full of hope at 9am and by lunchtime, we are beset (and not for the first time) by a sense of crisis. Why has our lover not called us? Why don’t they think of us? What the dramas really come down to once we step back from their hundreds of instances is the same plaintive cry: Why don’t you love me properly?

4. Because the longing is so intense and painful, we may seek out counterproductive ways to calm ourselves down. We may use pornography, alcohol or affairs to take our minds off our letdowns. We believe in love so much in theory that no relationship can ever feel right in practice.

If this complicated set of traits sounds like they belong to us, they do so not because we are evil or bad mannered, but because we have – first and foremost – come from a very difficult place; because we have not had the close up experience of secure relationships that would have enabled us to remain steady in the face of the natural irritants and ambiguities of adult love. Our early lives will almost certainly have featured parents and caregivers who in some way left us uncertain and worried, who died or moved away, who blew hot and cold, who were consumed by work or the needs of another child: in other words, who were beset by preoccupations beyond us. 

Progress with our condition begins when we can learn to reveal our tendencies to partners before the arguments have started; before we have tried to act out and show them (indirectly) what it felt like for us to be disappointed as children. If we are fortunate, our partner will come to detect the vulnerable small person behind the worried and sometimes vindictive adult – and will see that what our anger calls for is primarily reassurance rather than retribution.

Preoccupied attachment is simultaneously one of the most despair-inducing of behaviours and one of the most poignant: an acting out of a suspicion that love doesn’t work – which ensures it can’t and won’t. We can be grateful when we have learnt to find a name for it and to tell others of our condition as a step on the path to living more wisely alongside it.

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