The age-old love-hate relationship between men and women still continues: can't live with them, can't live without them. What is the cause of this ambivalence? Do men and women attach differently in romance, and if so, why?
A recent study looked at two well-researched patterns of human attachment. This study examined whether people got anxious when they were in romantic relationships, and also how avoidant they were. For some people, being romantically attached gives rise to feelings of anxiety for multiple reasons, ranging from the fear of revelations about themselves, to the fear of losing the person with whom they are in love. For others, rather than face this anxiety, they become avoidant. Avoiding the feelings associated with romance helps people cope with it. Yet, both of these ways of attaching, although very common, prevent deeper intimacy. The study asked whether men and women differ with regard to romantic attachment (i.e., does one tend toward the anxious style while the other tends toward the avoidant style?).
The finding, while not necessarily surprising, is thought-provoking. Overall, men tended to be more avoidant and less anxious than women. (Noticeably, in that study, being anxious was greatest in young adulthood, whereas avoidance increased as people got older.) When men attached, rather than dealing with the many anxieties that come up in romance, they distanced themselves from them. In effect, they avoided the feelings and the romantic attachment. Women, on the other hand, were more prone to being anxious. Being attached made them feel more anxiety, and the closeness was emotionally disruptive. So what?
I think that this study indicates that romance is challenging for people, irrespective of gender. Making love, sharing a bed, sending or receiving flowers and getting a great foot-rub are all wonderful things that are thwarted by the fear of sharing embarrassing secrets, the fear of losing someone one loves and the fear of one's own imperfections being highlighted in the relationship. Because the brain is geared to focus on negative things (presumably to protect us), we all tend to see the negative things under a magnifying glass. If you are a man, you avoid this. If you are a woman, it makes you anxious.
The problem with this is that both of these results make you want to leave the relationship rather than dive in deeper. It also causes arguments. Women may become resentful that men are "clueless" or not feeling the anxiety that they are feeling. Men become resentful that women are being too "high-strung" about simple issues. And it does not necessarily help if men become anxious or women become avoidant to be more like their partners. The problem of never being truly intimate still exists.
So what can we do about this? The first thing is to recognize that we may be wired this way, and to understand that this may be our default pattern of behaving. Rather than critique one another and be frustrated, we might recognize how both partners in romance need to commit to the romantic exploration before they feel comfortable committing. Otherwise, they will never go on that journey.
The trust that is required for this needs to come from each individual; it rarely comes from the other. But fear is the enemy that stands in the way of trust. The worst kind of fear is the fear of anticipation: Will he or she always love me? Will he or she leave? What if I am found out? When these questions come up, they need to be part of the romantic discussion eventually. Reassurance only helps temporarily. It helps when commitment is not optional.
Ask yourselves and each other: how will you deal with the challenges if they come up? Rather than idealize the ability to be honest or open, recognize how difficult this is. What you can do to help the other person? Rather than think that you are that different, know that avoidant and anxious responses are quite similar. The alternative, secure attachment, takes time and is not the same as being complacent. It is the genuine commitment to the excitement of a developing romance. This is by no means an easy or common state of being.
The more we are aware of how we respond in romance, the better we will understand both ourselves and the partners with whom we have chosen to explore this life.