Do you feel like you’re following the same toxic pattern in your relationships? In the first throws of romance, do you find yourself glued to your phone anxiously dissecting every small detail to your friends, convinced it’s all going to go horribly wrong?
You could be living out an unhealthy attachment pattern.
Attachment theory is a concept first penned by the psychologist John Bowlby in the 1960’s who put forward the idea that a child’s capacity for intimacy and sense of security in later life is determined by the relationship they had with their primary caregiver/s. Depending on your family, this is likely to be your parents - but it could also be someone else you formed an attachment to growing up.
Trouble strikes when our first attachments as children are unhealthy - or unfulfilling in some way. At the extreme, this might involve neglect or abuse (physical or emotional), but it can also be less clear-cut than this.
Perhaps your parents were dealing with their own life issues which meant their behaviour was unpredictable - warm and loving one day, and uptight and shutdown the next. Or maybe you had one parent who threw themselves into their career and weren’t around for you in the way that you needed them.
The common theme here is inconsistency. When we don’t know what we’re going to get, the outcome is anxiety. Life moves in ebbs and flows, but as children (and adults), we need attachments that fill us with a sense of security. When that’s absent, we start looking for it. And that means getting hypervigilant in looking for cues. People who are anxious in their relationships are especially good at sensing changes in emotions.
‘Predicting’ feelings in this way might have helped you cope as a child but it can be a huge hindrance in adulthood - mostly because it’s easy to get them muddled up.
When it comes to attachments, it’s thought the population can be divided into the following:
50% - securely attached
20% - anxiously attached
25% - avoidant attached
5% - various combinations of the above
If you’ve landed on this page, we’re guessing you’re already aware that you’re somewhere on the anxious scale. If not, here’s a great test which can provide a bit more guidance.
Falling in love is one of the most amazing human experiences we can have. But for the more anxious amongst us, it can also be a breeding ground for long-held fears and disappointments.
“Should I text them first?”
“What if they suddenly decide they don’t like me anymore?”
“What if their friends think I’m lame?”
“They’ll probably go off me when they get to know me better”
“Should I ask them out or keep playing cool?”
Of course, falling in love can make us all feel vulnerable. As with anything in life, the more we gain the more we stand to lose. However, these types of paranoid thoughts tend to push our partners away from us more than they protect us, not to mention dampening any joy and excitement to be found in the experience of falling (and being) in love.
If these types of fears plague you in your relationships, then you’re likely on the preoccupied-anxious scale.
But anxieties don’t just appear out of nowhere. So first, let’s try to uncover where it all started.
Deep down, everyone who plays out anxious attachment in their relationships harbers a sense of unworthiness. This is because somewhere along the way your primary caregivers were unable to meet either/or both of your physical or emotional needs. When we haven’t experienced stable and unconditional love like this, we naturally see ourselves as undeserving of it i.e. low value.
But it doesn’t mean that deep down we don’t crave for it - and look for it everywhere we can.
Like this, the anxious person - self-critical and insecure - chases after love. Things might go swimmingly at first, but there will come a point when the doubts and insecurity sets in. As soon as they sense the smallest change (it might be as simple as their partner taking longer than usual to reply to a message or changing a plan last minute), their attachment style activates and they start to panic.
For the anxious person, this is when the frantic search for reassurance happens. And usually it won't die down until they have a signal that things are still OK. Depending on the individual this could look like any of the following:
By clinging - incessant texting, calling or checking-in.
By rejecting or pulling back - to protect themselves from what they see as the ‘inevitable’.
By ultimatums - statements like ‘I can’t do this anymore’ in the hope of preempting their partner’s rejection.
By controlling - playing games, waiting certain amounts of time before responding or doing things they think will make their partner jealous.
Because the anxious person’s needs and emotions have been frowned up and their self-worth is low, not only are their triggers more intense but they will rarely think to set a boundary or express to their partner what it is that has made them feel vulnerable. And by the time they do, their panic might be so out of proportion that it is both confusing and intense to anyone who finds themselves on the receiving end.
Being anxious in relationships isn’t just damaging when we’re in the relationship itself, but it also can play a part in determining the type of relationship we choose. That’s because our early relationships set a precedent for what we expect - our idea of love. So whilst all the anxious person really wants is stable, reassuring love, they often go around subconsciously attracting that which feels most familiar to them; the very opposite.
But what’s the opposite?
People with a propensity to be avoidant in their relationships were taught to stuff their emotions down as a child. Again, it doesn’t have to mean that your parents were necessarily bad or problematic people but they were likely unequipped in dealing with their own emotions (and therefore those of anyone else’s). Perhaps your parents cared about you deeply but had trouble expressing it, or got cold and uncomfortable whenever you tried opening up. Or maybe they told you to “toughen up” when you were down or upset.
When this happens, the avoidant person will start to associate expressing emotions with rejection. Over time, the avoidant person will subconsciously begin to fear emotional intimacy and pull back when things get too close for comfort (the kind of closeness all healthy relationships need).
Because they’ve come to understand that their emotional needs cannot be met by others, they make a decision to push through, toughen up - and perhaps even “go it alone”. If they can’t rely on anyone else, in their eyes they’re better just getting on with things themselves.
The avoidant person might have a string of brief relationships (but find it difficult to commit or get close to anyone) or they might embark on a relationship with someone at the other extreme. You guessed it - the anxiously attached.
Because the avoidant person feels remarkably familiar to someone with anxious attachment.
This is the kind of relationship no one wants. More often than not, this relationship is marked by constant push and pull, failures in communication and a lot of toxic arguments.
The avoidant and the anxious feed into each other, responding in conflicting ways that end up triggering both of their long-held beliefs and insecurities.
Having felt so abandoned in the past, the anxious person will actually feel enlivened by the familiarity of a relationship in which they endlessly need to play the chaser. On the other hand, the overwhelming emotional intensity expressed by the anxious confirms the avoidant partner’s own fear of intimacy and long-held beliefs about emotions being “too much”.
The anxious person will constantly try to edge closer to their avoidant partner. With low self-worth, they might have a tendency to over-compromise or people-please their partner - maybe even losing their sense of identity in the process. The more the avoidant person pulls away feeling overwhelmed, the more their anxious partner will be triggered and seek their validation and reassurance.
Underneath it all, relentless reenactments of childhood disappointments will confirm to both of them what they already understand love to be.
If any of the above resonates with you, the good news is that attachment styles can be changed. This is not a pattern you need to keep living. In fact, simply being here and learning more about why you might be feeling this way in your relationships is a great first step. As soon as we become aware of unhealthy patterns (and uncover where they stem from), we have the chance to put steps in place to change them, and build healthier ways of relating.
For the anxious amongst us, it’s about coming to terms with our past, and learning that our partners (and the world) are not out to “get us”. We need to express ourselves clearly, build strong boundaries and work on our own self-worth so we welcome partners not to fill a vacuum inside of us but rather to complement our own wholeness.
To get the wheels in motion, here are the few steps to take:
When we’ve been living out patterns for a long period of time, it’s easy to get ourselves into a jumble and it can be difficult to make sense of everything on our own. A therapist can help you look back to your childhood and understand why you have a tendency to feel anxious in your relationships, and how earlier life experiences might have shaped your perception of love.
One you’ve uncovered the root of what’s causing you to respond this way, working with a therapist can support you to break out of these old negative patterns so you can form healthier attachments and build stronger relationships.