Attachment theory was developed by Psychiatrist and Psychoanalyst John Bowlby back in the 1950s.
Although this might seem like a while ago, it still offers an extremely useful framework for understanding how our attachments to early caregivers inform our ways of relating throughout life.
Although I will not be covering the basics of the theory in this article, I cannot recommend enough that you read up about it if you are not already familiar with the concepts. Personally, I find that attachment theory remains the most accurate and informative framework for understanding how we relate.
(For an easy read pertaining to romantic relationships do check out the international bestseller ‘Attached’ by Levine and Heller — full title at the bottom of the page which covers it all very well)
The Anxious-preoccupied attachment style in a nutshell:
One of three anxious attachment styles has been referred to as ‘anxious-preoccupied’.
The individuals who fall into this category operate (as the label suggests) with high levels of anxiety and fixation in relationships.
Particularly rampant is the fear of abandonment, which in this particular attachment style tends to be experienced consciously (unlike for the avoidantly attached where it subconsciously drives behaviours of distancing).
People with anxious-preoccupied attachment tend to seek out intimacy and are usually highly intuned with the needs of others.
Preoccupation with a partner at the expense of one’s own needs
The problem for this group is not about opening up or giving love. Intensity and romance come easy for this group.
Particularly when such is experienced with a partner who is a bit unavailable emotionally (as their blatant avoidance of intimacy conceals well their own underlying difficulties with vulnerability and true intimacy).
Instead, the difficulties are usually associated with low self-worth, lack of healthy boundaries, and a strong tendency towards ‘merging’ with others in the relationship. Often to an extent where personal needs get neglected or even go unnoticed.
Since I often treat this group of people (who tend to be women but can also be men) I wanted to write a few words on the many pitfalls I’ve observed. I hope you can find this list helpful and educational.
Brief symptom checklist for the anxious-preoccupied in dating:
You feel anxious in relationships and fear abandonment and rejection. As a result, you are known to get pretty ‘clingy’ and don’t trust that people might actually love you and want to stick around for you. It may be difficult for you to receive loving gestures and love in general, but very easy to give such to others.
You fixate hard on a new relationship, often at the expense of focusing on yourself and your own needs. Time, effort, and energy get poured into keeping the partner ‘on the hook’. You think that you have to work hard to earn the relationship and if you reduced your efforts, you fear it will all come crumbling down.
You crave relationships and when one presents there is a tendency of escalating intimacy (emotional & physical) very quickly. Sometimes so quickly that your counterpart gets uncomfortable and wants to ‘run’ from the relationship.
There is a tendency of developing the relationship partly in your own head — through the process of projecting, fantasizing, and daydreaming. In your own mind, the relationship may ‘outgrow’ the actual real-life relationship dramatically. This is because the process itself has little reality basis and is rather a projection of your own desires.
You overinvest emotionally and often fail to look for cues of reciprocity. There is a sense that you can get that reciprocity ‘later’ — once the partner is on the hook properly. Paradoxically, this is particularly true when relating to those that give so little that you can create in your mind the ‘perfect partner’. You feel like you are seeing someone’s potential and that feels enough. Your enormous efforts keep you busy enough to not even notice the lack of effort on their part.
Last but not least, there is a tendency towards falling for unavailable, avoidantly attached individuals. This is far from a coincidence. Securely attached individuals are unlikely to stick around during the ‘hot and cold blows’ that are stereotypical for dating avoidants. Anxiously preoccupied people, on the contrary, often try even harder when noticing that their partner is pulling away. This creates a terrible ‘dance’ of chasing and running which clinically is referred to as an ‘anxious/avoidant trap’. There are other aspects of avoidantly attached people that draw the anxious partners in and vice versa. (see book recommendation above).
How can I make sure my new date is healthy for me?
In some ways, the question is already a giveaway for some of the very basics of the anxiety experienced for anxiously attached clients. It suggests a locus of control that resides outside of the self. This flawed idea is that others must be trusted since there is no trust in their own ability to use boundaries or to walk away from something that is not fulfilling or unhealthy.
Low self-worth = low expectations = settling for less.
As a therapist, I have noticed that anxious-preoccupied clients often appear to feel as though ‘they should be so lucky’ to find someone who wants to be with them. This crushingly low self-image often translates to some terrible decision-making errors in relationships. Some of which we will cover below.
1. Allow relationships to unfold slowly and without fast-tracking.
The beginning of a relationship often poses particular problems.
This is when most people, regardless of attachment style, will be bringing forward their best assets. Avoidant clients are no exception here and many can be extremely forthcoming, communicative, and appear to be all about the long-term commitment at this early stage, while there is still a sense of ‘conquest’ waiting to happen.
First impressions count, but the continuation definitely matters too!
You might find that it is hard to restrain yourself once you have ‘fallen’ for someone. It is important to understand that intimacy and relationship-building cannot be fast-tracked through means of oversharing, loss of boundaries, spending every moment together, or pressing pause on the rest of one’s life in favour of the new relationship.
All relationships develop over time. Through time spent together, activities, and conversations (even arguments) you will gradually begin to know someone’s temperament and willingness to show up reliably in the relationship.
2. Your needs must count from the start; Recognise your power to draw the line.
Should you start dating someone that appears uncommitted, inconsistent, or that you feel unsettled with, do take the time to reflect on what is happening.
I cannot deny that I have seen many anxious-preoccupied clients in therapy who ‘act out’ in major ways, even when relating to securely attached partners (particularly in the beginning).
Yet for the most part, anxious-preoccupied clients can pride themselves in excellent gut instinct and an acute radar for signs of withdrawals in a partner.
Detect, express, and take back control through the use of boundaries.
If something happens that does not sit well with you e.g, messages with delayed responses, a date that gets called off last minute etc; you call it out. Calmly and with conviction. Express that the behaviour causes you stress and explain your needs for consistency. You will learn plenty from the response of your new date.
If he/she is apologetic or has good explanations that feel authentic — then it should be fine to move forwards gradually. If the behaviour keeps repeating despite the best of verbal reassurance that he/she is not pulling away, then trust your gut and disengage.
Patterns of emotionally neglectful behaviours will not spontaneously repair over time! If anything, they will only become more pronounced as time goes by, all while you anaesthetize to having your needs neglected.
3. Challenge your self-doubts — your thoughts and feelings matter too.
As if the self-doubt that is instilled with this attachment style was not enough, there also tend to be a history of negative relationships that have dealt further blows to self-confidence.
Often, there is a pattern of relationships that start out brilliantly with a person who is initially invested, but soon enough start making it clear through actions and/or words that a committed, intimate relationship is not on the cards.
Just because your needs have been met with scepticism or resentment in the past by other people, does not mean that you are wrong or flawed to have those needs!
It is more than likely a result of dating the wrong kind of people (basically those who are not keen on intimate committed relationships).
Nobody has to be wrong or right. You are allowed to be incompatible
When people are incompatible in terms of intimacy, intensity, or needs for commitment neither partner will appreciate the other one’s needs. A process that will feel hurtful for all parties.
4. Don’t play the relationship out in your head.
A rule of thumb is that the relationship happens when you two are together. You want to assess actual behaviours and interactions and take note of actions when/if they happen.
Be careful about attaching value to your own daydreams, projections, and felt ‘potential’ of a new partner.
Yes, distance can make the heart grow fonder, but when the bulk of the feelings are developing as a result of your own fantasy, you are no longer seeing the relationship for what it is. Something that inevitably ends up destructive.
5. Recognise that there is no pressure to show them every part of who you are before they ‘decide’ if they want you or not. It is not a casting!
Let’s for a minute recall the anxious-preoccupied partners’ greatest fear; abandonment.
The idea that someone with whom intimacy has been experienced will suddenly start drifting. From the very beginning of the relationships, there is therefore often a trend of ‘overdoing’. Sharing too much, doing too much, adjusting and editing oneself, and ‘working’ for approval.
All of this ‘doing’ amounts to nothing other than exhaustion and further contempt in case the person on the receiving end is not reciprocating.
Stop overdoing it! if a person only likes you for all that you do for them, they don’t actually like you
Additionally, the person who is doing all the work is the one who ends up feeling more. Meanwhile, you are paving the way for a very lazy partner. They might even begrudge you for all the efforts you are making.
This is not a worthy balance and it is important that you reign yourself in, instead of pulling the entire weight all by yourself in the relationship.
6. Relationships require a balance between investment and returns — don’t treat it like your own ‘startup’!
For a business to function in the long term, you need returns on your investment. The same applies to relationships. Some of the clients I’ve seen tend to approach new relationships a bit like a startup business. One where every penny, time, and droplet of energy is churned into this ‘great idea’ of a relationship that they would like to realise.
Irrespective of how little reciprocity, returns and/or realism are involved with their venture. This format will always backfire in relationships. Even the most healthy of partners will not be impressed by someone who is willing to give up their lives before even getting to know a person.
A relationship requires a mutual investment of time and energy in order to generate dividends and returns.
Think of it as a business with two owners instead. It is going to become the product of what you both put in. You also leave enough room to ensure that the business is viable before continuing to invest. The alternative scenario is to blindly be investing and hope for the best. The viability of a relationship is assessed by spending time together and getting to know them properly!
7. Be clear with yourself on what your own needs are before ‘merging’ with a partner.
Upon meeting someone you like, it can be tempting to start overriding your own needs in your eagerness to pander to theirs.
Anxious-preoccupied people are the experts at noticing the subtle emotional needs of other people. It is as though their ‘job’ is to scan other people for hints and clues of their internal world. In the midst of this preoccupation, it is easy to forget your own inner world. This becomes a form of self-abandonment.
8. Remember that your partner has to remain an adult in order for you to have a mature relationship with them.
A healthy relationship between two adult people is not based on filling emotional voids for each other. Both individuals need to remain ultimately responsible for meeting their own needs through self-care and attention to boundaries.
This does not mean that there is no room for support or help when one person struggles. There is, however, a difference between feeling ‘whole’ in yourself but having the benefit of a partner in your life vs. ‘needing’ a partner for emotional survival. The latter is not a healthy stance.
You are there to help, not to rescue.
Try to aim towards emotional interdependence by assessing how you manage your own needs. Don’t remove emotional consequences or offer a ‘rescue package’ for your new partner.
This will have the reverse outcome to what you are seeking, and you will soon enough find that you are doing emotional labour for their needs as well as your own.
If this article spoke to you, I wanted to provide a final word of encouragement. Don’t forget that you have more power than you might realise. You have your gut instinct, your intuitive sense, and your willingness to have intimate relationships all going for you.
Keep your pace slow and you will find that if you listen properly to your inner radar, trust what you are noticing and draw the lines on an unhealthy relationship early- you are not going to struggle nearly as hard when attempting to let go of a person who does not meet your needs for intimacy and connection.
Much of the suffering I see in the clinic come about from people who have ignored their gut instinct, all while continuing to drain themselves dry for an uncommitted partner. Decide that you need to find someone who shares your vision of an intimate relationship, and don’t settle for less even when you feel unworthy.
Practice makes perfect. Believe in yourself!