Early in my relationship with my now-husband Philippe, we would go to many parties together. A pattern started to unfold rather quickly. He was a self-professed social butterfly and would flit from person to person, flirting, laughing, having a good time. While I wanted to enjoy the party, I would spend much of it wondering where he was, who he was talking to, and why the hell had he brought me to a party when he didn’t want to spend time with me? Internally and externally he just needed space, so much space. In contrast to his space, as I’ve written in “Loving the Man Who Needs Space,” I needed more connection, more reassurance, more love, so much more than he could ever give.
Philippe would reassure me over and over that he enjoyed my company and loved me. In fact, I would say he is the first partner I’d ever had who truly loved me unconditionally. Even in the moments where I felt totally unloveable, he was there. It was a total mindfuck. We’d spend weekends together enjoying one another’s company, then when we parted, the doubt set in. I would wonder why he was with me, whether he could find someone more compatible, more like him. It took me–us–years to unravel it, so it was a beacon of light when we finally discovered attachment theory.
As described in Your Attachment Style Influences the Success of Your Relationship by the Gottman Institute:
If your caregiver was unresponsive, you form an insecure attachment pattern. An insecure attachment style manifests in three main ways.
Anxious Attachment – develops when a caregiver has been inconsistent in their responsiveness and availability, confusing the child about what to expect. As an adult, this person acts clingy at times and finds it difficult to trust their partner.
Avoidant Attachment – develops when a caregiver is neglectful. These are the children that play by themselves and develop the belief that no one is there to meet their needs. As adults, they typically label themselves as very independent
Disorganized Attachment – develops from abuse, trauma, or chaos in the home. A child learns to fear the caregiver and has no real “secure base.”
For some, attachment styles can also be considered states, which change depending on the relationship you’re in. You might generally be anxious in one relationship, but then you partner with someone who is really anxious, and you become the avoidant or better yet, the secure partner.
Before Philippe, I had marked myself as independent, world traveler, mostly out of relationship. Certainly not needy. Never that. With Philippe, anxiety surfaced. Neediness reared its head.
Characteristics of an Anxious-Attacher
You might be anxious if some of the following apply to you. Seen from an avoidant perspective, anxiously attached partners can seem clingy or overly dependent. They seem to need constant approval. From my experience, I found that Philippe would tell me he loved me, but the words somehow seemed to evaporate into thin air. Over time, this changed, but I realized, if your partner needs reassurance, find ways to bring it, but also find ways for your partner to remember it. This could mean writing a love letter or sending a video or text that your partner can refer back to.
Your anxious partner might also be self-critical or insecure. Again, reassurance is key, but your anxious partner must also do his or her own inner work. No amount of reassurance can continually fill a void chiseled out by insecurity. An anxious person will often need more than you can give. For me, I came to realize quickly that Philippe loved me unconditionally. His love was actually a wonderful teacher for me. When I initially felt unlovable and insecure, I was floored by the amount of love he shone my way. Over time, I took his cues and began to develop my own, realizing that I, too, could love myself that deeply.
An anxious partner might have a difficult time asking for what they need. For me, it was trying to figure out I needed. From there, asking for that was terrifying. I was incredibly scared of rejection or judgment. Over time, I would tiptoe into the conversation and bravely venture a need. I found that it seemed to work best when I framed it as: I have something I want to ask you, and I’m scared. This placed my fear front and center as well as out of my brain, so it could no longer run on the hamster wheel in my head. It also let Philippe know I was taking a risk, and he could care well for me.
The Intoxicating Anxious-Avoidant Dance
Before looking at how to be with an anxious partner, I would suggest that you look into why you are with someone who is anxious. The infamous push-pull of the anxious-avoidant dance can be intoxicating. The avoidant needs space, but the anxious partner needs connection. The anxious partner is devoted and doting while the avoidant maintains distance. The avoidant partner moves back in; the anxious partner feels an enormous rush of relief and security. The avoidant feels overwhelmed and moves away; the anxious person gets triggered and rushes to fill the gap.
Both partners ultimately want connection though this manifests in different ways. If you are finding that you are constantly connecting with someone who is desperately clingy and needy, then you need to consider what kind of chemistry you are drawn to. If you decide that you are all in and absolutely willing to work with this person, then keep reading.
Many of the suggestions I’ve read about or learned over time about working with someone who is anxious have to do with actually becoming secure. You could try and be accepting of your partner’s feelings, but if you are not right with your own feelings, this will be a huge challenge. You might want to be okay with your partner’s needs, but if you are avoidant, your own needs are scary. How can you accept someone else’s needs if you’ve already coded your needs as neediness? As I wrote in “Loving the Man Who Needs Space,” once my husband realized he was coding everyone’s needs as neediness, he had a major revelation. If you are coding your partner’s needs in the same way, it’s going to be an uphill battle to get to some sense of equanimity.
That in mind, here are some things both avoidant and anxiously attached people can do to move towards a more secure attachment style.
The Hard Work of Un-wiring the Anxious Mind and Habits
Debra Campbell, Ph.D., suggests you take calculated risks in “Our Attachment Styles Are Blueprinted In Childhood — Here’s How To Rewire Yours“. What is one way the anxious partner can step into more independence? What is one way she or he can learn to love their own company? Calculated risks are key. This means taking time apart in a way that doesn’t feel overly scary. Plan on spending time apart at a party or during a weekend. Limit the number of texts you will send with a game plan on when you will send the next text. Small steps can mean big successes. If someone is very anxious, these small steps can actually seem really big, so it’s important the more secure/more avoidant partner recognize this.
Along with that is learning how to enjoy your own company. One anxiously attached man I spoke to said he really didn’t enjoy his own company. When we dug more deeply, we discovered that he loved music and had been wanting to play more music. In this way, he began to cultivate a more loving relationship to himself. He could put energy into writing and creating music, enjoy the result, and be alone during the process. Success!
Throughout the times I felt the most anxious, I also felt the most judgment. Not only was I miserable and disconnected, I judged myself for feeling that way. It was an enormous revelation! I began to do more work with the negativity I felt around hard feelings, and over time, the judgment softened. This meant the anxiety also began to lessen its hold on me. Combined with enjoying my own company, I was no longer wallowing in self-pity and anxiety.
This is a slow process. What was knocked down or never built takes time to build. Nathaniel Branden wrote the definitive book The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, which I highly recommend. In the article “What Self-Esteem Is and Is Not,” Branden writes:
Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness. It is confidence in the efficacy of our mind, in our ability to think. By extension, it is confidence in our ability to learn, make appropriate choices and decisions, and respond effectively to change. It is also the experience that success, achievement, fulfillment—happiness—are right and natural for us. The survival-value of such confidence is obvious; so is the danger when it is missing.
As you can imagine, when an anxious attachment style undercuts self-esteem, it can become exponentially more difficult to think, learn, make choices, etc. Changing the foundations of one’s self-esteem has the possibility of impacting every aspect of one’s life, including relationships.
The Five Love Languages
In “How to Date Someone with An Anxious Attachment Style,” the author lays out a number of different things you can do if you’re dating someone with this style. For a securely-attached person, these things will likely come easily. Being consistent, not leaving during a fight, etc. If you’re not secure, then I would suggest focusing on one thing—which has also been very helpful for me and my husband—find out your partner’s love language(s).
The five love languages are:
- words of affirmation—for example, “I love you.”
- quality time—for example, giving someone your undivided attention
- acts of service—for example, lending a helping hand
- physical touch—for example, holding hands, massage, etc.
- giving gifts—for example, flowers, trinkets, etc.
Here is an online quiz to help you figure out your love language. For me, the surprising part about love languages was finding that my love languages are totally different from my husband’s, so every time he would fix something around the house, he would code it as loving me (an act of service); I would code it as being helpful. When I would hug and kiss him (physical touch), I was loving him, but getting him a cup of coffee (an act of service) touched him more deeply. His love languages are acts of service and words of affirmation; mine are physical touch and quality time. We have learned to “translate” each other’s actions and also stretch to “speak” one another’s love language. This creates more connection for both of us, more consistency, and has helped to alleviate any anxiety I’ve had.
Some have asked me how I have become more secure. Personal work on self-esteem and radical self-acceptance have helped. Having a partner who has been willing to work on his stuff while I work on mine. Making requests. And finally, becoming a mother. I didn’t have a child to become more secure, and I didn’t know I would become more secure through having a child, but I have. (I certainly would not recommend having a child in the hopes that it impacts your self-esteem positively! Parenting is infinitely more complex than that.) Over time, I’ve found a wellspring of stability running deep within myself. I trust my feelings, notice when emotions are at high tide or low tide and let them flow over and through me. Together with a family whose core values include deep listening, love, and respect, I have moments when I feel like I can take on the world–or at least a day, one clock strike at a time.
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