Brexit Separation Anxiety

Brexit Separation Anxiety

So the votes are in and the Leave campaigners have successfully convinced enough Brits to vote OUT. The claims are the OUT vote is for the greater good of the United Kingdom whereby the majority no longer want an attachment to the European Union. So what does the attachment mean?  According to the great British psychologist John Bowlby attachment is a deep and enduring emotional link that connects one person to another across time and space. If we apply this to recent events the voters have severed this deep and enduring connection with the EU. It means as nation we are now recognising how close we are to each other in proximity but emotionally miles apart.   

I have been curious whether voters’ over time and space have emotionally detached themselves from that deep and enduring bond. Or have they confused attachment with dependency? As we speak good old fashion anxiety has crept in, whereby it has left huge numbers of voters if not thousands wanting a second referendum. They are now feeling anxious and questioning their decisions. There have been traces of avoidance and ambivalence in the decision making but the overall outcome now presents itself as a more autonomous United Kingdom. We no longer have the dependency or partnership of the European Union to consider or lean on. So what is behind the anxiety?  Fear is the dominant emotion. The decision to leave or remain has exposed the nation’s fears and insecurities. 

The United Kingdom has historically formed special bonds with other countries dating back centuries however last week’s results divided the nation on what’s best for Blighty.  The fears surrounding immigration; border controls coupled with fears of NHS bankruptcy has wired enough fear sensors to keep voters trapped within an emotional structure. So how do we address the fear? If we imagine for a moment before last week the UK government was the “parent” or according to John Bowlby the “good parent”. The role of the good parent is to be present; be a good listener and to ultimately and reassuringly attend to the needs of the people. Remember we are imagining the “good parent” supports the voters to skilfully overcome any difficulties and dangers surrounding our shores. All of these qualities work towards a voter feeling safe and secure.

Unfortunately, the fantasy of the government being the good parent is just a fantasy. There have been inconsistencies; untrustworthiness; poor preoccupations and internal wrangling that have prevented the UK government from providing generous attention to voter’s needs. As humans we have a psychological need to feel safe, not necessarily to be safe but to feel safe.  So what happens when the maternal care of the government isn’t good enough? The process of Brexit has created a split.

Reflecting on two of Bowlby’s attachment theory, those who voted with an “avoidant attachment style” protested; felt despair and detached not only with the UK government but with the European Union. They are now portrayed as cold and remote and according to one of Bowlby’s attachments styles they are “attachment avoidant”. The closeness of the European Union and any emotional investment are now seen as dangerous. Those with this style focus on the small imperfections avoid compromise and have a sense of others wanting to infringe on their independence. Overall there is a feeling of being “tied down”.

Those who voted “anxiously” with very little information to go by possibly felt a pressure to feel involved in the process and craved intimacy. The “anxious attachment style” voter tends to worry and fear if they head to the ballot box they potentially can get some love them back. This fits well with the IN voters.

What is fascinating by all of this is that anxious and avoidant are risky combinations because the avoidant voters won’t give the anxious voters support and the anxious voters want to invade the space of the avoidant. Our styles are fed by early experiences which define our individual way of being with others. With the grey voters turning up en masse they bought along with them ancestry and historical influences. Bowlby acknowledges that “attachment is fiercely possessive, selfish and utterly intolerant of frustration”.  There is now a deep threat of separation anxiety for all voters and non-voters with the feelings of panic, uncertainty and uneasiness feeling palpable.  So are we as a nation more dependent on each other than we have anticipated?

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