She Said, He Said: Are you an ‘anxious attacher’ in your relationship? How you can tell
Dear Lori and Jeff,
About a year ago, I was set up with the perfect guy—he was attractive, successful and kind. We immediately had a strong connection. Then, after a few passionate months, I started worrying the spark was fading. He said he was falling for me, and couldn’t understand where I was coming from when I told him my concerns. I kept trying to find ways to bring the energy back, but he said it felt like I was trying to pick fights with him. I was wanting reassurance that he cared as much as I did, but instead he broke up with me. My friends say I have a pattern of sabotaging relationships with great guys. I think they may be right. What am I doing wrong?
Single and Confused.
Dear Single and Confused,
Lori and Jeff: To answer your question, we need to introduce the CliffsNotes version of Attachment Theory. Basically, there are three main styles by which people emotionally attach to others—Secure, Anxious and Avoidant.
Securely attached people tend to feel more comfortable navigating through the ups and downs of relationship, can express their emotions more freely and are able to self-soothe when the going gets tough. Within relationships, they operate from a place of Interdependence.
Anxiously attached people tend to fear they don’t matter. Not being able to rely on another person to be there for them, they often worry about abandonment and constantly reach out for reassurance. It often feels safer to have a partner close at all times. Within relationships, they operate from a place of Codependence.
Avoidantly attached people suppress their emotions to protect themselves from being vulnerable or dependent. They avoid real connection and see others as source of danger—not safety or comfort—so it’s better to not bother trying to connect deeply. Within relationships, they operate from a place of Independence.
These definitions are a simplified overview of the extreme presentation for each style. It’s important to understand that we all operate on a spectrum of these patterns in different situations but are more likely to have tendencies toward either anxious or avoidant. Your adult attachment style is often influenced by how you learned to attach to your primary caregiver during childhood. However, it’s important to note that your adult style is malleable and can be shifted towards a more positive, secure and interdependent pattern with a little awareness and effort.
From your question, we’re curious about whether you may be tending towards an anxious style. Many healthy, mature adults exhibit patterns of secure attachment when the bond is strong, but allow vulnerability and insecurity to push them towards anxious or avoidant patterns when disconnect occurs.
Many adults who tend towards anxious patterns confuse cycles of tension and resolution with what you are calling the “spark” in a relationship. A true spark occurs when joy, connection and healthy excitement create deeper bonding. But your pattern may involve seeking a deeper connection with your partner by creating tension and testing his commitment. In other words, you may be poking at your partner with the hope he will respond with reassurance. For many anxious attachers, the experience of tension and resolution can feel thrilling and exciting, and is often misperceived as spark. However, from a partner’s perspective, this type of pattern can feel like you’re “picking fights”.
When resolution of this tension doesn’t happen quickly enough, feelings of vulnerability often intensify. The reaction of the anxious attacher is to pursue the resolution and closeness even more actively. If you imagine a relationship to be like a tennis match, each partner is responsible for respecting the boundaries of the court. Securely attached partners move freely throughout their respective sides—coming toward the net for more closeness and moving back to the baseline for healthy independence. Anxious attachers, in periods of high uncertainty will, at times, jump the net for more connection and inadvertently chase their partner off of the court. Leaping the net is a result of being overly dependent on your partner for soothing and reassurance, and possibly even for confidence or a sense of mattering.
Before stepping back on the court, you may benefit from exploring your vulnerabilities—your beliefs, stories and perceptions—that emerge when you and a significant other aren’t fully in sync. Also, taking a little time now to deepen your skills for self-soothing and staying on your side of the court.
Email us for a free, short assessment you can take to learn more about your attachment tendencies in relationships.