It was a pattern from the beginning. When he was late or forgot to call, I would freak out. He knew I was insecure and he thought that when I trusted him more, I would stop. Then we got married and it somehow got worse. I imagined him having affairs, finding someone new, when he was tied up in traffic. He complained, of course, and we started fighting. The saddest day was when, five years in, he turned to me and said, ‘I just can’t do this anymore. I can’t be accused if I spend an extra half hour talking to a colleague. I need normalcy, Adele.’ And he left.
This story is an extreme example of what the anxious/preoccupied style of attachment looks likes in real life, combined with a big dose of rejection sensitivity. Children whose emotional needs aren’t met in childhood may develop this style of relating which is highly volatile. Because these individuals are highly sensitive to the possibility of rejection, they are always on the look-out for signs that they might be. In their quest to protect themselves from hurt—a legacy of childhood—they tend to read-in meaning where there is none, and wrongly ascribe motivations to their partners and friends. Their past experiences—with an unloving or emotionally unreliable parent—animate their experiences in the present. And they are very reactive—quick to defend themselves in sight of perceived threat.
Does it surprise you that this style of relating is more likely to end with the person being left? Not everyone wants to live on a roller-coaster or with drama always in the offing.
My business trips were agony. I would tell her ahead of time that I would be in meetings but somehow she’d forget and I’d get a barrage of texts I couldn’t deal with. Then she would start leaving messages on my phone and I’d cringe at the thought of how worked up she’d be when we finally talked. I cared about her but I also needed room to be. She couldn’t give me that.
Signs of an anxious-preoccupied style
- You react and over-react to any perceived slight or lack of attention on a friend or partner’s part.
- You ruminate and mull over every exchange or interaction that didn’t go precisely the way you wanted it to or how you imagined it.
- You have trouble identifying what you’re feeling and naming your emotions.
- You’re not able to communicate directly about what you really need but, instead, resort to arguing or, sometimes, playing tit-for-tat. You feel jealous so you do what you can to make your partner jealous.
- You engage in brinksmanship and threats in the hope that you’ll get your partner to respond the way you want him to. You threaten to leave unless your needs are met in hopes of getting him to hew the line and say he’ll never leave,
- You need 24/7 reassurance that you are loved and cared for.
- You believe that you must be in a relationship to be happy and safe.
How to get off the roller-coaster
Therapy is the best and most effective way to work on changing your style of attachment but if that’s not a possibility, there are some self-help techniques drawn from research that you can use. Keep in mind that it took years for you to develop your behaviors in response to how you were treated in your family of origin; it takes time and effort (repeated effort) to bring these unconscious ways of thinking about relationship to the surface.
- Pay attention to what’s triggering you
Your physical responses may provide you with the first cues that you are feeling threatened such as a sudden tightening of your throat, trouble breathing, heart pounding, or breaking into a sweat. When this happens, take a deep breath and be aware and present in the moment. Ask yourself whether what you are reading as a threat is real or imagined. What in the situation are you reacting to?
- Give yourself a time-out
If your impulse is to lash out or engage in some other kind of behavior that’s ultimately self-destructive—such as starting a screaming match, sending multiple texts, hatching plots of vengefulness or making the other person “pay” in some way —stop immediately. Recognize that you’ve been triggered and are engaging in what’s called protest behavior. You have a choice here: To take a seat on the roller-coaster or to stay off.
- Work on identifying and naming your feelings
Much of your inability to communicate your needs directly has to do with deficits in emotional intelligence as a result of your childhood treatment; you may have been told you were “too sensitive,” told that your feelings were wrong or didn’t count, and so you disconnected from them. Luckily, emotional intelligence is a skill-set and can be developed.
- Stop rumination in its tracks
Rumination is the oxygen that fuels the fire for the anxious/preoccupied style. Engage in other activities that can occupy and energize when you feel flooded and steer away from talking about the relationship 24/7 with everyone you come into contact with. This is not healthy for you and you need to recognize that it’s really getting in your way. Love is not about being consumed or subsumed, despite the mantra of romance novels and movies.
- Identify your partner’s attachment style
Is the person you’re with someone who wants intimacy, is comfortable with relationship, but needs space to be himself (secure attachment) or is he someone who prides himself on independence and doesn’t want to be all that involved? Or is he anxious/preoccupied too?
Intimacy can only be achieved if both people want it.
If you’ve had a series of failed relationships, all of which have had pretty much the same endings, you will need to pay attention to what you bring to the party to get a different result. The good news is what is learned can be unlearned.
Photograph by Alexander Hermansen, Copyright free. Unsplash.com