I used to suffer from severe anxiety when it comes to romantic relationships. The early stage of dating was practically hell for me. I was constantly worried about being ignored, plans getting cancelled; undefined situations with sporadic communication pained me. It was a very distinct type of anxiety which later I learned was part of my anxious attachment style.
What is an attachment style?
Attachment styles were originally theorised by John Bowlby, a British psychologist, to assess an infant’s behaviours when separated from the attachment figure, the mother.
Based on the infant-mother interactions, this theory characterised an infant into four groups: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganised. In this article, I will focus primarily on the secure and anxious attachment style.
What do these attachment types mean for adults?
In the context of romantic relationships, an adult with a secure attachment style is comfortable expressing their needs and confident getting these needs met. They trust that their partner loves them and doesn’t abandon them, so they feel relaxed when spending time away from their partner. As the relationship progresses, they’re open to intimacy and respond positively to their partner’s need for closeness.
Meanwhile, an anxiously-attached person doesn’t trust that love is safe. They fear that their partner will leave them at any minute and their needs for intimacy won’t be met. As a result, they’re hyper sensitive to any cues of distance — emotional and physical — and constantly seek security and reassurance.
The tragedy is that these attempts to feel safe are often acted out in an insecure, demanding, or possessive way that pushes their partner away, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Especially in a new relationship, as the uncertainty is high and the connection is fragile, the anxiously attached individual stands a higher risk of getting triggered and self-sabotaging themselves, hence suffering great emotional pain.
If you have an anxious attachment style and are wondering how you can manage your anxiety in a new relationship, there are three elements to this:
How to become securely attached in general
How to avoid getting triggered
How to handle yourself when getting triggered
Here are 13 tips that will help you achieve the three goals above:
1. Attend therapy and educate yourself
If you haven’t already attended therapy and reading books about anxiety and the anxious attachment style, I’d recommend you doing so as soon as you can. If you’re in the UK, you can get free therapy through the NHS or private therapy through your company’s insurance.
Having a therapist is beneficial in many ways.
The first one is obvious — you have an expert who understands your issues and can teach you practical skills to cope with your anxiety.
Secondly, you have a scheduled slot to safely unload all your overwhelmingly anxious feelings and thoughts so during the week you can avoid panicking or taking it out on your partner.
Thirdly, your relationship with your therapist can act as an anchor for you to regulate your emotional responses over time. You will learn that you can rely on someone and voicing your needs will be met with respect and understanding, not dismissal or withdrawal.
Over time, by modelling after the patient-therapist relationship, you can slowly learn to think and act from a securely attached perspective in your romantic relationships. Even when you’re triggered, you will be able to tell yourself it’s okay as you know you’re actively working on your issues.
If you can’t get a therapist, try to find free resources online and local support groups. Talk to a trusted friend and/or start a daily journal. These activities will help you process your thoughts and strengthen your relationship with yourself.
2. Find a securely attached partner to date and avoid avoidant or emotionally unavailable partners
Dating a securely attached partner won’t magically make your anxiety go away because no matter how attentive your partner is to you, there will still be circumstantial factors that can activate your anxious attachment style.
But it will be much worse if you date an avoidant or emotionally unavailable partner who pushes and pulls, confuses you with mixed signals, and forever keeps you at arm’s length while you desperately crave closeness. It’ll be nothing short of a high-speed rollercoaster that will guarantee to make you nauseous.
So, if you’re still browsing through dating apps and going on the first few dates, make an effort to filter out avoidant and emotionally unavailable partners. If you’ve been dating for a while and you recognise your partner’s avoidant attachment style, it’ll be up to you whether you want to pursue a relationship with them but, in my humble opinion, they’re not a good match for you — at least not right now.
Here are 7 common signs someone likely has an avoidant attachment or emotional unavailability:
They say they’re not looking for anything serious. Or any variations of that, such as “I’m just going with the flow”, “I don’t know, let’s see how it goes”, “I’m in a bad place right now.”
They’ve recently gotten out of a long-term relationship, or they’re newly divorced.
They can’t stop talking about their ex.
They blow hot and cold. One day, they’re all over you; the next, they’re missing in action.
Their communication is sporadic.
They respond negatively, e.g. pull away or ignore you, when you express your desire to get closer — either directly or subtly — or when you’ve spent some intimate time together, e.g. weekend trip away.
3. Have a daily schedule and stick to it
Regardless of whether your partner is securely attached or not, having a set schedule or some sort of routine will help introduce stability and self-trust to your daily life.
Especially if you make time for exercises or the hobbies you absolutely love, they will boost your energy level and keep you positive when anxiety is looming.
Your commitment to a schedule will signal to your brain that everything’s still fine, there’s no immediate danger, so you will be less likely to act impulsively out of acute fear and, since you’ll be occupied with your favourite activities anyway, the situation will have time to unfold and settle.
4. Have a consistent communication style
If a romantic partner’s inconsistency gives you anxiety, you can establish the type of communication you want right from the start so they can mirror you. When they act inconsistently, you will know it’s not caused by you (or your anxiety) and it’s likely just them.
Having a consistent communication style means you don’t ignore text messages and phone calls randomly, you don’t change your chat tone or style out of nowhere, you don’t suddenly remove your profile picture as a way of sulking, you don’t unfollow people on social media every time you’re upset; you’re genuine, you’re honest, you’re sincere, you say what you mean and you mean what you say.
In a nutshell, you communicate like you would with a close friend — no agenda, no neediness, no game. If they can’t match you on this, you know they’re not right for you in the long run anyway.
5. Avoid sending paragraphs via texts
When you’re away from your new partner and feel anxious, you’ll be inclined to send long messages to explain yourself or seek reassurance from them. But don’t do this. It will create many opportunities for your partner to act in a way that raises your anxiety exponentially.
For example: They might sense a tension in your interactions with each other and withdraw. They might interpret your long paragraphs as confrontational and needy so they leave you on read or even straight up ghost you. You will feel like you’ve done something that can’t be reversed and you will regret it. It’s painful.
What you could do is write down all your feelings in a word document, save them for your therapy session if you have a therapist, or share them with your best friend. Let them all out. But do not text them to your romantic partner. They won’t appreciate it. And relationship issues are best to be discussed face to face anyway. Texting is for brief communication only.
6. Avoid being confrontational on texts or during phone calls
Calling someone out on their bullshit would work well if you didn’t happen to have an anxious attachment style that causes you to be extremely reactive to signs of conflict. Being confrontational when you can’t see your partner face to face makes it worse.
In your fantasy world, when you tell them you’re unhappy about something, they will shower you with attention by texting and calling you repeatedly, they will come up with a solution and bridge the distance between you and them immediately. Your anxiety will be eased and you will be closer than ever.
In real life? They’ll likely get defensive or withdraw. The problem is when they can’t see you and gather your body language to understand that, in fact, your confrontation is more about your need for security than finding fault with your partner, they won’t be able to extend you any empathy and give you the closeness you need.
You don’t want to express your anxious feelings to them while they have the options to leave you on read, hang up the phone, tell you they will get back to you and never do.
Your anxiety will become paralysing when there’s a conflict hanging over your head and you don’t know when you can see them next. Release your anxious feelings elsewhere and communicate them to your partner intelligently only when you meet them in person and both of you are in a reasonably good mood.
7. Avoid deleting your partner’s phone number or chat thread when feeling upset
Technology can be a real pain for the anxiously attached. There’s so much room for overthinking and getting triggered. So you should try to minimise this risk for yourself as much as possible by acting as if from a place of security.
When you have a fight with your partner, don’t delete your partner’s phone number or chat thread. Why? Removing the trace of your partner’s existence, though temporarily, will signal to your brain that there is a loss (or a break-up) and your brain will go into a panic mode. You need to keep things low-key and approach an issue like there’s no issue. Even if a break-up feels imminent, you can put your partner digitally out of sight while your emotions run high and do all the deleting when it’s a rational decision.
See, what seems serious in your head because it’s exacerbated by your anxious attachment style might be nothing to your clueless partner. So don’t do anything drastic that could leave a permanent consequence.
8. Pay close attention to when your anxiety arises
One of the biggest pitfalls of the anxious attachment style in romantic relationships is that your fear of separation is usually bigger than your rational assessment of the health of your relationship. So you will try to ease your anxiety first and forget that you also have a choice to choose a suitable partner for you.
When your anxiety acts up, it’s an opportunity to learn about yourself and about your compatibility with a partner. If a partner doesn’t respond positively to your needs, instead of shaming your anxiety, you should think that this partner isn’t capable of meeting your emotional needs and, therefore, the relationship doesn’t work for you.
Your anxious attachment style won’t go anywhere soon so you need someone who can accommodate you and grow with you. So next time you feel anxious, write down your analysis. Observe yourself and your partner. Make it part of your list of criteria: Someone who has enough emotional maturity and depth to handle your anxiety.
9. Sit with your feelings
In order to not lash out during non-face-to-face communication and act as though everything is normal, you need to learn to sit with your feelings. You need to understand that your feelings are not you and they will pass.
Every time your anxious feelings and thoughts come to the surface, you let yourself experience them, observe them, understand them, give them the space they need to breathe and gradually go away.
Feeling something doesn’t mean you have to act on it. It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a problem to solve. Sometimes it’s just a feeling and you just need to tend to it like you’re your own best friend.
Your anxiety is a private conversation between you and yourself. When you feel calm again, that’s when you should think about what to do regarding the outside world and this doesn’t need to be anxiety-ridden.
10. Resist your instincts
When you have an anxious attachment style, I’m sorry but your instincts are crap. Your instincts are the instincts from the stone age when having anxiety means you’re literally being hunted down. So what those instincts do is to make you do something urgently to keep yourself safe as soon as possible.
But it’s the modern time and you’re dating, not literally fighting for survival. There’s no actual danger to your livelihood. You’re safe and have more power to protect yourself than you can ever imagine. So don’t listen to your outdated instincts which would most likely backfire.
This leads to the next point…
11. Delay making judgments or decisions
Make it a rule to always leave yourself some time before making judgments or decisions. You could set the delay arbitrarily to a day or only after you’ve done some exercises or a favourite hobby of yours. This will help you clear your head first and bring your mental state back to a calm level. You’ll have a more positive outlook and see things from a wider perspective.
Let the anxiety come and go; separate it from the decision-making process. Practise responding but not reacting in all aspects of your life. Ask yourself: “What would a securely attached person do?”
12. Find the courage to move on.
When it comes to your love life, it’s important that you remember you have the power to choose whom to date and whom to get attached to. If you know you have an anxious attachment style, handling your anxiety should be an essential part of your criteria for a suitable partner.
An obvious sign that a partner isn’t compatible with you is that your anxiety rises all the time — the cause is irrelevant. Whether it is because of their own attachment style, their emotional unavailability, lifestyle choices, or your miscommunication with each other, if being with them damages your well-being, they’re not right for you.
You must prioritise your well-being and make decisions for your long-term interest. You must find the courage to tell yourself that it is not wrong to have anxiety but a partner would be wrong for you if they can’t support you emotionally. You must move on ruthlessly from the wrong partners because you deserve to live an anxiety-free life and there are people out there who are compatible with you and can help you become more secure.
13. Forgive yourself.
Having an anxious attachment style is not easy. It can be really, really hard. I know you will blame yourself, you will act out of your instincts, you will do whatever it takes to quiet your anxious mind and body, you will sabotage your relationships one after another because you don’t know how to handle your magical too-much-of-a-person and the pain of not being seen can feel unbearable, and it’s okay. I understand. I’ve been there too.
Now forgive yourself. Accept yourself for who you are right now. It’s not your fault.
This is your journey. You’re here now, you’re at this stage of your journey — honour that because you won’t be here forever. There are people who will leave you, no matter how hard you try to keep them, and those who will stay with you, even when you think you’re at your worst. Focus on the latter. As long as you don’t give up on yourself, you can pat yourself on the shoulder and keep marching forward. One day, things will be different and they will make sense, believe that.
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