Why Is It…?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q:  Why is it that I seek out romantic relationships but then feel insecure and afraid once I’ve connected to someone? It seems that every time I’m unattached, I look for that special someone, but then when I do become involved, I spend the whole time worrying about what might go wrong.

A:  As social animals, we all have a need for intimate relationships with others, but our ability to function in those relationships is often related to our personal styles of attachment. From a social psychological perspective, our attitudes toward intimacy are influenced by the types of bonds we shared with our parents/primary caregivers. Being that humans are relatively dependent for the first several years of life, the degree to which our physical and emotional needs were met as children can lay the psychological groundwork for our adult relationships.

According to some theorists, there are four basic styles of attachment worth examining:  secure, insecure, avoidant and anxious/ambivalent. If our physical and emotional needs were met as children, we are likely to develop a secure style of attachment and approach our adult relationships with a sense of trust – expecting that we will be respected, valued and loved. However, if our needs were not met and we experienced neglect as children, we are more likely to develop an insecure attachment style. In contrast, we will then expect to be neglected, hurt and disappointed by others. In extreme cases of parental abuse or neglect, an avoidant attachment style may develop, where we will distance ourselves from intimacy to prevent anyone from getting “too close.” But the attachment style that appears to relate most closely to your example, would be the anxious/ambivalent dimension.

While the insecure and avoidant types present difficult obstacles to forming intimate bonds, the anxious/ambivalent reactions are perhaps the most challenging. When as children, we experience both positive and negative responses from our parents, we learn that intimacy is possible but will also be conditional, temporary, and hurtful. Perhaps one parent was loving, trustworthy and accessible, while the other was cold, distant and neglectful. Here, the child may internalize the notion that intimacy can be a good thing, but also threatening. As adults, these individuals tend to seek out intimate relationships searching for the good, but once there, experience sensations of dread and anxiety – waiting for the “other shoe to drop.”

This anxious/ambivalence can also result from exposure to both positive and negative traits in one parent. For example, I had a friend who was raised by an alcoholic single mother. When sober during the day, the mother was caring, warm and attentive. But each night, once drunk, she became hostile, abusive and threatening. From these early experiences, my friend learned that each positive intimate experience would be inevitably followed by a negative and painful one. But she also learned that each act of abuse and neglect would be followed by a positive experience. This “good mom/bad mom” scenario represented a “Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde” expectancy as an adult, as she found herself approaching intimate relationships but fearing them at the same time.

If this dynamic characterizes your personal experiences with intimacy it is essential that you take time to reflect on your past experiences with intimate others. It is often the case that our prior experiences lead us to the expectation that the same pattern will repeat itself. Through critical thinking exercises, we may gain the ability to differentiate between feelings/expectancies that are “past driven” versus reactions to current realities. For example, just because “Dad or Mom” may have hurt and disappointed you, does not mean that all men or women will. Take stock of the details and actions in your current relationship and ask yourself if they warrant legitimate concern. If so, you are likely dealing with a realistic dysfunction and the relationship should be terminated. But if not, perhaps your fear is being triggered by your psychological “alarm” system that warns of imminent danger in order to protect you.

While it’s true that many relationships are actually harmful, it’s also true that our “fear of harm” may be a knee-jerk reaction based on expectations from early experiences with intimacy. It’s natural for humans to be self-protective, but its important to realize that while you are protecting yourself from harm by avoiding/fearing intimacy – you will also be sheltering yourself from all the good things intimate relationships have to offer.