“Tom” and “Sarah” were neighbors—an upwardly mobile Millennial twosome, she in designer duds and he in the casual attire that seems to be de rigueur for tech start-ups in Brooklyn. I didn’t know much about them except that Tom often worked from home and she left at the crack of dawn. I live in a large building so it didn’t occur to me that I no longer saw her but only him—I thought maybe her schedule had changed—until the day the hallway was filled with cartons and moving men. I asked Tom where they were moving too and he corrected me, saying “they” weren’t moving but she was. He’d broken up with her and she’d moved out after seven years together. The story he told me was a familiar one, though I usually hear it from the woman’s point of view.
Sarah had a rough childhood, he explained, with a very demanding mother who ran the home like a boot camp and Sarah was hell-bent and completely focused on being hugely successful. He allowed as how he had a laid-back upbringing; he’d grown up in California in a family that cared more about who you were and whether you were happy in life than whether you were making tons of money. I asked whether that had been the death knell for their relationship, and he said “no.”
Instead, it had been her constant anxiety about him and whether or not he really loved her. Apparently, she tracked his every move—monitoring his phone calls and texts, looking at his emails, double-checking whether he really was where he said he was. He took a deep breath and said, “It was like living with someone who expected a catastrophe 24/7. She’d get the idea that I was going to leave her or betray her and she’d get so worked up that she ended up fighting with me exactly as if I had slept with someone else. You know, when I first met Sarah, what attracted me to her was how vulnerable she was despite her incredible competence in the world. I liked her needing me and needing love and attention. But, at the end, I just couldn’t stand the constant drama. I miss her but I don’t miss how she acted out. It was exhausting.”
I asked him whether he had any idea why she acted that way and he shook his head.
But the truth is that what Tom went through with Sarah wasn’t all that usual—not for someone with an anxious-preoccupied style of attachment, that is. Roughly twenty percent of us—all of us—have this style of attachment.
Are you one of them? I was when I was young.
What does it mean to have an anxious-preoccupied style of attachment?
Yes, it’s the word “anxious” that pops out here because anxiety—and the inability to manage it—is the hallmark of how people with this attachment style connect in relationships. The word “preoccupied” squints at another typical aspect of how they behave—constantly fretting, over-thinking, and always attentive to possible signs that someone is going to do them wrong or betray them in some way. This mental model of relationships isn’t just limited to romantic connections; it leaks into and stains all relationships.
Of the four styles of attachment which also include secure, anxious-avoidant, and fearful avoidant, anxious-preoccupied is by far the most volatile. I find it helpful to see all of the attachment styles as reflections of an individual’s ability to manage and regulate emotions, as has been suggested by a number of theorists. All of the three insecure types of adult attachment—anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant—display difficulty regulating emotion but it’s only the first that puts the individual and potential acquaintances, friends, lovers, and intimates on a rollercoaster. It’s the constant vigilance of the anxiously attached—desperately needing reassurance, on the one hand, but continuously focused on telltale signs of cracks and fissures—combined with emotional reactivity that makes every connection more of a rollercoaster ride than not.
As you think about your own style of attachment, think about how you usually act; anyone who feels threatened in a specific situation can display this kind of behavior, after all, and attachment styles aren’t written in stone or as exclusive as they seem. So focus on how you are most of the time when you’re in a relationship.
The following strategies are drawn from my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, although I’ve modified them slightly. Underlying all these strategies are two assumptions: 1) anxiety and emotional reactivity are default positions learned in childhood, happen automatically and unconsciously, and are often inappropriate responses to the situation taking place in the present; and 2) deficits in emotional intelligence skills underlie much of the anxious-preoccupied’s behavior.
- Map out and identify your triggers
Since this reactivity is unconscious, becoming aware of what will set you off is absolutely key. Think about triggers in the broadest sense so that you get a full picture. For example, situations and environments can be triggering—a party where you don’t know anyone or a conference where you will have to speak to an audience, for example. Think about what’s set you off in the past, and determine whether you can find a common thread such as being very sensitive to someone’s not responding to you immediately when you’ve called, emailed, or texted or perhaps taking it personally when two people are engaged in a conversation and don’t make an effort to include you. How quickly do you go on the defense when there’s a misunderstanding, and do you tend to escalate the tension or withdraw?
- Begin to deal with reactivity by questioning
We’re not automatons and if you get into the habit of monitoring your reactivity—paying attention to your body as you become angry or stressed, recognizing that you’re about to go on auto-pilot—you can begin to use what I call the STOP. LOOK. LISTEN technique which can be very effective in derailing your usually inevitable responses. This was taught to me by a therapist when I was young and I have simply refined and given it a name. At the moment you feel yourself react, you STOP. Yes, a mental time-out or maybe even a physical one as you excuse yourself and leave the room. Then you LOOK and begin asking yourself questions such as: Am I responding to the moment or have I been triggered by the past? Are this person’s words reminding me of words I have heard before? Am I seeing the situation clearly? Then, you LISTEN. You listen and ask: Am I hearing the person correctly or am I reading in ? Is the situation what I think it is or am I projecting from the past? And, finally, you ask: Am I handling this the way I want to?
- Work on strengthening labeling your emotions
Knowing what you’re feeling in the moment—Do you feel threatened or are you afraid? Are you angry or nervous?—will help you deal with your reactivity. Work on labeling your emotions by revisiting moments in which you were overwhelmed and try to pinpoint why you felt as you did.
- Getting a handle on rumination
There are ways to stop yourself from spinning out into repetitive thoughts. For some people, assigning yourself a “worry time” works when you actually devote yourself to thinking about what provokes anxiety and confronting those feelings. (As an aside, this doesn’t work for me but it might for you.) Or, alternatively, you can defang worries by calming yourself and then considering the worst case scenario; this is an effective way of bringing the monster under the bed into the light of day.
- Work on self-calming techniques
Studies show that visualization can be an effective way of mimicking what securely attached people do to calm themselves automatically; it can be learned and, with practice, strengthened. When you are feeling anxious or stressed, visualize a person who makes you feel secure and imagine that he or she is with you, or bring to mind a place where you feel calm and safe; you can use photographs to prompt your recollections until you get better at it.
Relationships may falter when one person brings emotional drama to the party; if this is you, and you want to live differently, there are things you can do to help yourself change. Therapy is the best route but you can also work on your own behaviors.
Photograph by Tim Stief. Copyright free. Unpslash.com