by Amy Alkon
Q: My mom left when I was young, and my former husband left me, too. Maybe because of this, I’ve noticed that I’m quick to assume that any man I’m seeing is ditching me. In the early stages of dating, if there’s a lag in calling or texting me back, I’ll lash out—block the guy on Facebook and delete him from my phone—only to feel stupid when I learn that his phone battery died or he was already asleep. As a relationship progresses, I still perceive relatively innocuous things as signs it’s over, and I keep testing a guy’s limits with demands and drama, pushing him to (finally) bail. How do I stop doing this? It’s totally unconscious in the moment.—Abandonment Issues
A: It’s good to make an effort to see what a man’s made of—just not to the point where he’s unsure of whether he’s in a relationship with you or he got really drunk and enlisted in the Marines.
You seem to be turning your past—getting ditched by those closest to you—into prophecy. This isn’t surprising. British psychoanalyst John Bowlby had a theory that our “attachment style”—the way we relate in close relationships—stems from how attuned and responsive our mother was to our needs for comforting when we were infants. If your mommy (or other primary caregiver) was consistently there for you during your infant freakouts, you end up “securely attached,” meaning that you tend to feel that you can count on others to be there for you when you need them.
Research on adults by social psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver did find that patterns of relating to romantic partners seem to trace back to childhood attachment experiences. But attachment history isn’t the whole story. Genes, temperament, childhood environment and other factors also shape how we relate.
And though research finds that securely attached children seem likely to end up securely attached grown-ups, adult shifts in attachment style are common. In other words, just because somebody’s mommy was kind of an ice bucket, they aren’t necessarily doomed to see every boyfriend as an ice bucket with a penis.
Unfortunately, though we have the ability to reason, we hate to wake the poor dear from its nap. As behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky pointed out, in the heat of the moment, the brain’s emotion department is our “first responder,” quick to hop on the drama pony. If our rational system parses the situation at all, it’s usually much later (often after we’ve burned two or three bridges and carpet-bombed a relationship into fresh farmland).
Not going all Full Metal Jackie in the moment takes preplanning—pledging to yourself to step back and run suspicious-seeming situations through the reason department. A technique called “cognitive reappraisal” seems to help. This involves dialing down your emotional response by changing the meaning some situation has for you. Instead of thinking, “I know he’s left me!” when an hour goes by without a text back, reframe his absence in a positive light. For example, “He’s out getting me flowers.” You don’t have to know that this explanation is true. It just needs to be positive and possible. Research by psychologists Iris B. Mauss, James J.
Gross and others finds that using this imaginative reframing not only decreases knee-jerk negative emotions, but activates the prefrontal part of the brain involved in emotional control and downshifts the pounding heartbeat of stress to the thumping heartbeat of possibility.
This next bit of advice may sound lame and unbelievable (because it did to me until I read the research by psychologist Mario Mikulincer, Phillip Shaver and others who suggest that it works). It seems you can boost your sense of emotional security through mentally “priming” yourself—like by repeatedly imagining yourself being treated lovingly by a man or a parent. You can get this security-enhancing effect just by viewing positive images—for example, by repeatedly looking at a photo of lovers gazing into each other’s eyes or a video loop of a mother cuddling her baby (as opposed to leaving it on a counter at a train station).
How secure you feel can also be transformed by whom you’re with. The best partner to help you shift out of auto-panic is one who is loving and caring and has a more “secure” attachment style—in other words, a person who doesn’t leap to the conclusion that your being in the bathroom for 20 minutes means that you’ve crawled out the window to freedom. With some consistent work and the right guy, you could someday get to the point where absence really does make your heart “grow fonder”—instead of making it get out a tiny hammer and wood strips to construct an itsy-bitsy coffin for your relationship.