You’ll remember how Goldilocks wanders into the house of the three Bears and how she has trouble finding just right; she’s hungry but the porridge is too hot or too cold, the chair is too big or too small, the bed is too soft or too hard. She’s thinking only of herself until the three bears come home. The daughter whose emotional needs aren’t met in childhood, especially if she’s marginalized, dismissed, or constantly criticized by her mother, comes into adulthood with her own version of Goldilocks’ dilemma and, yes, she has trouble finding “just right.”
“The last two serious relationships I was in—one lasting four years and the other five—ended with the guy breaking up with me. They both said I was too needy and demanding but I still don’t see why what I was asking too much. They both complained about how jealous and possessive I was too. Isn’t it normal to expect a lover to meet your needs? Isn’t being jealous a sign of love?”
Understanding the anxious-preoccupied style of attachment
There are three types of insecure attachment: anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. Please keep in mind that these styles aren’t as set-in-stone as the labels suggest; you’re looking to identify which style most readily describes your behavior most of the time in relationships. Someone with an anxious-preoccupied style actively seeks out relationships; she doesn’t like being on her own, and may even say that she somehow isn’t “complete” if she’s not coupled up. Her extreme neediness makes her open to the blandishments of partners high in narcissistic traits; she’s not likely to identify love-bombing or the whirlwind courtship with quick declarations of love as problematic. She needs and wants validation—that’s a direct consequence of how she felt marginalized, dismissed, or ignored in childhood—and when she finds it, she’s likely to seize on displays of aggressive courtship as proof of the “real thing” even if it isn’t. But for all that she needs love and a partner, she’s also highly distrustful and terrified of being hurt. I always describe this daughter as one who goes sailing on a cloudless day and spends it looking anxiously at the sky, expecting a storm. Her childhood treatment has made her hyper-vigilant to being slighted or left; that’s why the attachment style is called anxious-preoccupied.
These women are volatile, and quick to react if they detect even a whiff of betrayal or possible rejection. They often suffer from what experts call rejection sensitivity, which basically involves seeing rejecting behaviors or slights in every corner even when there aren’t any. This Goldilocks is in a perpetual defensive crouch, unable to believe a partner’s declarations of love and reassurance even though she desperately wants to believe them. As researchers point out, her rejection sensitivity often becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy as her reactivity may weary a potential partner.
The childhood experiences that make you this way
Over the course of researching and interviewing women for my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, certain discernible patterns emerged. A daughter with an emotionally unreliable mother—one who is sometimes attentive and sometimes dismissive or ignoring—becomes that wary sailor scanning the skies for trouble. The problem is that she never knows which Mommy will show up, and the lesson she draws from her experiences is that love isn’t stable and can be withdrawn or replaced at a moment’s notice; that’s what reinforces her preoccupied and worried stance. A daughter of a hypercritical and demanding mother is also likely be anxiously attached; she’s super-sensitive to any kind of criticism, no matter how mild or well-intentioned, and she’ll go into over-drive at a moment’s notice. Again, despite their real need for love, support, and attention, these women often come across as “high maintenance” and overly demanding to their partners and lovers even though that’s not precisely true; they’re simply not capable of regulating their emotions and putting on the brakes.
Daughters of mothers who are self-involved or high in narcissistic traits may also display an anxious style, although they may also develop one of the two styles of avoidant attachment depending on the position they occupy in the household. This mother is the sun around which her children obit in an effort to get her love and attention and, of course, to prove themselves worthy. Mind you, she sees her child or children as extensions of herself so she focuses on performance, adherence to her wishes and desires, and, most of all, making her look good. These mothers care a great deal about how they and their household appear to the outside world; there’s no room for the off-beat or quirky, much less a child who looks like a failure or flop. This mother also pits one child against the other; while in some families, the role of the trophy or golden child is fixed on one individual and the role of the scapegoat or trouble-maker on another, in some families these are rotating roles. While some daughters weary of the constant jousting and develop a dismissive-avoidant style in adulthood, others are made hungrier and more desperate by the occasional scrap of affection and attention thrown their way; they are likely to develop an anxious-preoccupied style.
Likely relationship scenarios for the anxious-preoccupied daughter
Unfortunately, the importance the unloved daughter puts on romantic connection—and her understanding of what passion and romance look like—often puts her at risk of being attracted to potential partners who are more like her mother than not. That’s actually true of everyone—we are attracted to the familiar—which is great if you received love and affection growing up since it increases your chances of being drawn to people who are just like your mother or father. It’s obviously a real problem for the daughter whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood.
We learn about love secondhand and so, unconsciously, we bring those mental models of what relationships look like into adulthood until we bring them into conscious awareness and change our behaviors. These daughters often mistake the love-bombing of someone high in narcissistic traits for romance or confuse volatility with passion; because of their childhood experiences, they think that love must be hard and fought for. When they’ve paired up with someone with an avoidant style, they’re likely to dig in their heels and try even harder to get that person to be close to them because that’s what they learned in childhood. Alas, they have no clue to what real love, built on interdependence and true independence, looks like.
Sadly, this daughter is also likely to spurn someone who’s securely attached, mistaking the lack of drama for boredom or lack of passion; the slower pace of how he gets to know her may also seem unromantic or too cautious. And if she doesn’t spurn him, her bouts of jealousy and constant need for reassurance may simply be too much for someone whose vision of love is based on stability and dyadic communication. That’s the self-fulfilling prophesy part of rejection sensitivity.
The good news is that once you become aware of how your behavior is being directed by old, unconscious scripts, you can change. It takes time and effort, best accomplished by working with a gifted therapist but can be bolstered by self-help.
Photograph by CocoParisienne. Copyright free. Pixabay.com