What's an Anxious Attachment and How do I Change my Attachment Style?

In my last post, What’s my Attachment Style and Why Does it Matter?, I gave you an overview of the three primary attachment styles (secure, anxious, and avoidant) and how attachment styles become the blueprint for our adult romantic relationships.

Securely attached people tend to have happier, longer lasting relationships built on trust. They feel comfortable expressing their feelings and needs. They can also reciprocate and meet their partners’ needs.

Those with an avoidant attachment style want more independence. Too much closeness feels vulnerable and suffocating to someone with an avoidant attachment. They tend to connect and then pull away when the relationship feels too intense. They probably don’t talk about (or even think about) their feelings very much. They need a lot of time to themselves and may have had a partner say they’re afraid of commitment.

In contrast, if you have an anxious attachment style, you tend to feel insecure and need frequent reassurances. This can feel overly needy to those with secure or avoidant attachment styles. You crave close intimate connections. You may find ways to test or manipulate your partner to find out if s/he really loves you. Your need for closeness and intimacy never seems satisfied and you’re left wondering if your partner really wants to be with you.

 

Understanding anxious attachment

An anxious attachment results when your parents (or early caregivers) were inconsistent in meeting your needs. They didn’t always pay close attention to your physical or emotional needs and when they did respond they may have been distracted or preoccupied. You experienced your caregiver as inconsistent or untrustworthy. You craved attention and nurturing, but didn’t receive it. You may have been a clingy, insecure child. You continue to need a lot of intimacy as a way to quiet your fears. You question your worth and suspect there’s something wrong with you. As a result you worry that you’ll be rejected.

 

Someone with an anxious attachment might think or feel:

  • I want to get close to you, but I’m not sure you want to be emotionally close to me.
  • I want to be around you constantly or have constant contact with you to reassure me of your love and commitment.
  • I feel anxious about whether our relationship will last.
  • I worry you’ll leave.
  • I question whether you love me as much as I love you.
  • I want you to reassure me of your love.
  • I wonder if there’s something wrong with me that makes you pull away.

 

Why do people with anxious and avoidant attachment styles end up together?

According to the book Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, approximately 50% of adults are securely attached, 25% are avoidant, 20% are anxious, and the remaining 5% are a combination. Securely attached individuals tend to couple with other securely attached people and form healthy, lasting relationships. This leaves people with anxious attachment styles and avoidant attachment styles over-represented in the dating pool.

At first glance, it seems like two anxiously attached individuals or two people with avoidant attachment styles would make good matches. However, when we look more closely at the unconscious motivations that drive our behavior, we see that these matches have some problems and that we’re much more likely to be attracted to someone with the opposite attachment style.

Two people with avoidant attachments are unlikely to form a lasting bond. Although people with avoidant attachments do want connection and relationships, they’re also quick to pull away, leave, or break off relationships at the slightest feeling of criticism or conflict. Two avoidantly attached individuals might create a superficial bond with lots of physical and/or emotional space between them. And if two anxiously attached people were to date, they would both enjoy the closeness they crave, but may run into trouble due to their sensitivity to rejection and hurt.

The more common and troubled relationship is the one between someone with an avoidant attachment and someone with an anxious attachment. These relationships are fraught with turmoil and chaos. The anxious person never gets his/her emotional needs met. S/he is always left wanting more closeness than an avoidantly attached person can give. And the avoidant is constantly overwhelmed by someone who’s anxious. As a result, s/he keeps pulling away which activates the anxious person’s fear of rejection and attention seeking behaviors.

Consciously it makes no sense for an anxious and avoidant to connect, but unconsciously this pattern keeps those strongly ingrained internal beliefs about ourselves intact. In other words, we recreate relationship dynamics similar to those we had with our parents because they’re familiar, reinforce our beliefs about ourselves, and we’re trying to get our needs met in the best ways we know how. The anxious person feels unworthy (or flawed or unlovable) and an avoidant partner’s distance serves as proof of his/her unworthiness. And when the avoidant person dates someone’s anxious, it validates his/her belief that relationships are overwhelming, disappointing, and s/he is better off relying on him/herself.

 

What can you do about an anxious attachment pattern?

If you’ve got an anxious attachment there are a number of things that you can do in order to have more satisfying relationships.

  • If you’re single, look for a partner with a secure attachment.
  • Learn ways to soothe yourself.
  • Spend time getting to know yourself.
  • Practice communicating your feelings and needs directly.
  • Set realistic expectations in relationships (for example, recognizing that your partner can’t meet all of your needs all the time).
  • Be aware of over-reactions and jumping to conclusions about your partner.
  • Consider working with a therapist (individually and/or as a couple).
  • Be patient with yourself and your partner. Change is hard work and it takes lots of practice.
  • Give yourself love and compassion.

 

Suggested reading:

How to Stop being so Needy and Dependent by Sharon Martin

Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller

Wired for Love by Stan Tatkin

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©2017 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.

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