Learning about your attachment style can be one of the most powerful things you can do to help shape the kinds of relationships you develop with the people you are close to. Attachment issues are one of my favorite things to work on with clients because of the broad ranging impact that can be achieved. It is tough but deeply satisfying work when clients are able to find security in themselves and their relationships rather than turmoil.
Signs of Anxious Attachment
- Anxiously attached partners tend to be described as clingy or overly dependent. They tend to seek approval and reassurance from others but seldom find relief.
- Anxiously attached partners are often self-critical and insecure; maintaining the deep-seated belief that they will be rejected by those they care about. This belief causes them to be emotionally desperate, often becoming angry and resentful when their partner doesn’t reassure them enough.
- Anxiously attached partners may vacillate between angry outbursts and pleas for forgiveness and support. This typically contributes to their partner’s distancing behaviors and creates a pursuer-distancer dynamic that reinforces feelings of rejection and engulfment.
- Anxiously attached partners tend to have difficulty asking for what they want from their partners. They give up important parts of themselves for the sake of maintaining the relationship at all costs but then become bitter and resentful of their partners when this happens.
If You Find Yourself with an Anxious Attached Partner
- Validate how they are feeling, even if what they are feeling is irrational. Anxiously attached folks tend to feel crazy already, invalidating their feelings only makes it worse.
- Stand firm. The more you run the more they will chase. Set clear boundaries in a loving empathic manner. Statements like “I want _________ too but when you do _________ it makes it difficult for me” can help the anxious partner better understand their role in things.
- Lean into the relationship. It may feel like your partner is a black hole of neediness that you have to escape but running from this particular black hole will only cause it to expand. Practice eye contact, hugging until you’re relaxed, playing scrabble or some other type of game of activity.
- Look inward. It would be unusual for an anxiously attached person to partner up with someone who doesn’t somehow contribute to their anxiety. As much as you just want it to be their problem, you play a role.
If You are an Anxious Attached Partner
- Pick a secure partner. You’re most likely going to be attracted to someone on the avoidant end of the attachment spectrum. Their air of aloofness and independence and lack of reactivity is everything you crave. But the two of you together will create a pattern of interaction that will drive you both crazy.
- Understand how your childhood experiences continue to impact the present. If you can learn to identify where your fear of rejection and critical inner voice come from it will be much easier for you to tell the difference between what belongs in the past and what belongs in the present. It’s often not really about the person right in front of us.
- Don’t try to fake it. Trying to play it cool when your anxiety is going through the roof will only make things worse. Better to own it, acknowledge it and move on.
- Work at clearly communicating your needs to your partner. Ideally we should be able to ask anything of our partners. The trick is respecting their right to say no. There’s no rule that says our partners have to meet all our needs nor are they capable of doing so. But ask anyway.
- Keep perspective. There are 7.5 billion people in the world (2017) so chances are that there is more than one compatible partner out there for you.
- There’s an old Bob Newhart skit where he plays a psychologist whose only intervention is to yell “STOP IT” at his clients. So here goes, STOP IT! If you are partnered up with an avoidant partner stop chasing them. They are only going to continue to run away. If you stop chasing it will give them room to turn around and move towards you; which is what you want (I write this knowing full well that it is much easier said than done when you’re in it).
How Counseling Can Help with Anxious Attachment
- Typically, the anxiously attached person is externally focused. Counseling can help you look inward to better understand how your attachment style developed and how you can move towards being more securely attached.
- The therapy room is a great place to practice becoming more confident in communicating what you need from your partner and relationship in a way that can be heard. It can help you learn to navigate situations in which your partner is unable or unwilling to meet your needs.
- Counseling can help you feel more empowered to reclaim or claim those pieces of you that you have put on the shelf for the sake of your relationship.
- Counseling can help challenge some of the irrational fears that often accompany anxious attachment while validating the source.
The cool thing about attachment styles is their fluidity. Certainly, our experiences as infants and children play a role in how we form attachments as adults but as adults we can deliberately steer ourselves towards more secure relationships. Working with a competent counselor who can help you untangle the contributing factors to how you relate to partners, friends and family members.