On Relationships: The Anxious Style – by J. Alan Graham, Ph.D.
In my article, “On Relationships: The Basics,” I briefly reviewed the four Styles of Attachment: Secure, Anxious, Avoidant and Fearful-Avoidant. I talked about patterns couples get into and what to do about them. The Anxious, Avoidant and Fearful-Avoidant are all insecure styles but manifest that insecurity differently. This article is a brief review of what to understand about the qualities of the Anxious individual and what to do if your Anxious attachment style is interfering with dating or relationship success. As you read, keep in mind two things: First, no one is fully one style or the other. Most of us are somewhat to mostly one style or somewhat to mostly another style. Thank goodness. That gives us some wiggle room to work things out! Secondly, if we are not Secure, we all have our basic insecure style (Anxious or Avoidant). Yet, it’s possible for the other style to emerge in response to the style of the person you’ve met. In other words, an Anxious person may find themselves retreating and looking more Avoidant if the person they meet is more Anxious and pursuing than they are. This is because both styles are insecure styles and are reactive to the anxiety each face with closeness and connection. We’ll talk more about the Fearful-Avoidant style in another article.
Pitfalls of the Anxious Style
Except for situations we’ll describe below, people with an Anxious style tend to find someone they like and are quickly ready to proceed into a relationship. Their anxiety decreases when they are with their partner and increases when they are apart. This anxiety rises with even non-intentional “misses” such as calling later than promised or worse, not calling until the next day. They are often generous with their time and energy and accommodating to the needs of their partner. Having plans for the next get together is very important and they will feel anxious if their partner hasn’t proposed something. They may make sure something gets scheduled or they may feel anxious to propose the next date, fearing they are putting too much pressure on the relationship and then wait anxiously on the other person to contact them. Perhaps one of the most distressing parts of the Anxious person’s experience is preoccupation with what I call “relationship review.” Once the anxiety begins, rumination about previous conversations, assessments of how the last date(s) went, and worry that the speed at which they hope things will go may drive their partner away. Further, they may forecast catastrophic futures about the relationship, sometimes based only on sketchy evidence. This can be agony for the Anxious person. Do you remember the scene in the movie, “Flashdance,” where the dancers were working out at the gym and one of them was obsessing about whether the man she met would call or not? That’s what we’re talking about.
Remember, the dating pool is weighted with Anxious and Avoidant folks as the Secure people are likely to wade out of the dating pool together. Hence, the chances are high that an Anxious individual will meet someone with an Avoidant style. It’s important to remember that these Attachment Styles are the ways our “Attachment System” works. Briefly, the “Attachment System” is thought to be a part of our genetic heritage, a part of us that is important for the survival of our species. Specifically, it is important that mother and infant have an attachment so that the mother is looking after the child and the child is fearful to be too far away from the mother. Such a bond increases the chances the child will make it to adulthood since human infants and children can’t fend for themselves, unlike many other mammals. Out of many variables from our early attachment experiences, we develop a style that stays with us as the “way of the world.” When two adults meet for a romantic partnership, their attachment styles interact and their “Attachment System” is activated. Here’s where the Anxious person might get into trouble.
The Anxious and Avoidant Meet
When an Anxious person meets an Avoidant person, the distance the Avoidant person tends to maintain can become a gap the Anxious one feels compelled to close. In terms of the Attachment System, the switch gets turned on and they go into full speed, sometimes thinking their preoccupation with closing this gap is indication of true love. In fact, some of those same neurotransmitters are involved in “being in love.” However, this is one of the hardest things Anxious people deal with. They think that they wouldn’t spend so much psychological energy on someone who isn’t “the one” so it must be love. In fact, sometimes it’s really an overactive Attachment System, switched into high gear by the Avoidant’s distancing.
This phenomenon of anxious preoccupation can be worsened or made better depending on the behavior of the partner. Secure people can handle the anxiety of an Anxious individual in such a way that the Anxious one can feel more at ease and more trusting of the connection. However, an Avoidant partner’s need for “space,” delivery of mixed messages, and dismissal of the Anxious persons legitimate relationship needs can perpetuate or worsen the preoccupation the Anxious person feels. Not to mention, the pursuit that the Anxious person engages in can contribute to further distancing and the well-known “pursuer-distancer’ dance begins. This is the time the Avoidant person may say that the Anxious person is too needy.
Suggestions for the Anxious Individual
Here are some important suggestions if you have an Anxious style and it is interfering with your relationships. First, acknowledge and accept your true relationship needs. Denying your needs and focusing too much on your partner’s needs (i.e, “space” or “time” or going slower than is OK for you) doesn’t get your needs met and if your needs aren’t met, you cannot be happy in a relationship. For example, if you need to interact at least a bit with your partner every day, let them know. It can be very frightening to state directly what you need but the kind of response you get is very important information. Don’t fall victim to being told you’re too dependent or too needy. Assess people you date more on the compatibility of your relationship needs and less on your ability to change yourself to please and accommodate to them. If you feel you are, in fact, too needy, meaning you feel overly dependent on another person to be able to live your life, that would be an important issue to work on in your own therapy. However, that is different than being told by an Avoidant person that normal needs for connecting are “too needy.”
Second, when dating, recognize and rule out Avoidant people early on. Avoidant people tend to have some or all of the following characteristics:
- They send mixed messages. For example, they tell you they really want to get together but something is frequently preventing this from happening or, they are very interested in you and only casually seeing someone else. Be careful. If you get too many mixed messages, move on.
- They long for an ideal relationship. Remember that popular song by the Atlanta Rhythm Section, “Imaginary Lover?” Looking for the ideal person out there is a great way to discount the goodness in the person right in front of you. Not to mention, there is no “ideal” person out there. We all are less than perfect with less than perfect matches. Be careful not to think about how you might be able to become that ideal person for them, especially if they give subtle hints you won’t be able to. This is an example of adapting to them as opposed to honoring your relationship needs. The person who finds the “perfect match” is more likely a secure person who is overlooking the imperfections in another secure person.
- They want to meet “The One” but somehow always find some fault in another person or in the circumstances that make commitment impossible. “They’re perfect but ‘geographically undesirable’” is an example of something an Avoidant person might say. “I like everything about them except that they like opera, and I hate opera!” might be another example. There is no “perfect One” out there. We’re all “0.79” or “0.82” or at best probably, “0.91.” It’s in the rounding up to a “1.0” where the love happens.
- They disregard your emotional well-being and when confronted about doing that, continue to disregard it. If you reveal your relationship needs and your partner’s response is to restate why they can’t respond to your needs (as opposed to considering how they might), there’s a noticeable problem.
- They suggest you are too needy, sensitive, or overreacting (thus invalidating your feelings and making you second guess yourself). Don’t take this for too long.
- They ignore the things you say that inconvenience them. If you said, “It would mean a lot to me if you wouldn’t answer your phone during dinner” and they continue to answer or text, your needs are less important than they are saying. Also, this is how they are managing their anxiety about the connection with you. This would be one way they can set it up so you are only “so close.”
- You chronically don’t feel heard. If your messages aren’t received despite your best efforts to communicate, take a step back and consider whether enough of your needs are being met to keep working. Remember, nobody’s perfect and we all wish for a chance to amend our mistakes. But if the list of Avoidant behaviors is too great, it may be best to let the person know and move on.
Third, date in a new way. Be your authentic self and use effective communication. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re too needy and overly accommodate to your partner’s need for distance. Also, don’t avoid important conversations because you fear it will drive them away. First, you’ll be happier being your authentic self and second, you’ll know sooner (rather than later) whether this person is someone you can be in a relationship with. Probably the most “point-at-able” example is someone wishing to start a family sooner rather than later. It would be important for them to interview prospective partners early on to see if they, too, wanted children. If they say they don’t or aren’t sure, it’s best to keep looking. If having children is really important to you, don’t waste your time trying to get them to change on such an important issue. You don’t have to be harsh or judgmental, you can simply say how important it is to date someone also very interested in starting a family. In a similar situation, I remember talking with a woman who announced to her date that dogs were very, very important to her. If he didn’t like dogs, that was OK but there would be no chance of anything moving forward. That’s how she felt. Good for her for saying it. And good for him! He loved dogs too. They dated, married, and now they rescue and foster dogs all the time.
Fourth, realize there are plenty of fish in the sea. Give several people a chance without settling on one early on. Remember, Anxious people tend to think their chances are limited so they better grab the next possibility. The dating pool is disproportionately skewed toward Anxious and Avoidants but there are Secure people out there too. Keep looking until you find one.
Fifth, give Secure people a chance. Do you remember what we discussed earlier about the Attachment System? You might feel bored initially because your Attachment System hasn’t been turned on high with an Avoidant’s distancing. Thus, the familiar excitement and nervousness that puts you at risk for misinterpreting obsession for love isn’t happening. That can feel oddly boring. Remember that the Anxious person is at risk for interpreting calmness in a relationship with lack of attraction. The conclusion of the Sex and the City movies notwithstanding, Carrie’s anxiety was habitually activated by Mr. Big’s avoidance. How many times did they break up in that TV series? It’s one thing to keep after Mr. Big in a sitcom, it is yet another thing to keep after Mr. or Ms. Avoidant in real life. Keep in mind that you may meet a really great person and don’t immediately feel that “chemistry.”
If You are In a Relationship
If you are in a relationship and find yourself spinning into bouts of anxiety, feeling more insecure than makes sense, you may need to work with yourself about your Anxious attachment style. Most people in this dilemma also have some sense that their anxious behavior puts their relationship at risk. Still, the urgency inside is painfully overwhelming. Here are some suggestions for working with your anxiety.
First, consider the dance. Excessive anxiety will contribute to a pursuer/distance dance that will be hard for both. The more you pursue, the more they will want to distance. The more they distance, they more you will want to pursue. You may be inadvertently bringing insecurities from “way back then” into the “here and now.” If that’s the case, it’s not only your partner that needs to understand this pattern, you do as well. It isn’t necessarily only them causing your distress, your distress may be part of what you bring to the dance and you need some help with your distress.
Take a few minutes and review the steps in your cycle to see if you can 1) identify the secondary emotions (anger, for example) that mask the more vulnerable, primary emotions (insecurity or loneliness, for example) underneath ; 2) identify the ideas you come up with about your partner and the relationship; and, 3) identify the associated behaviors you engage in. For example, if they didn’t call when they said they would or they cancelled a date, do you get angry and judgmental (secondary emotions) and review how they are “untrustworthy” or “not committed enough” (ideas) and if so, does that lead you to challenge them about “keeping their word” or “being more serious about the relationship” (behaviors)? When a partner hears those types of challenges (as opposed to vulnerable, primary emotional expressions of your insecurity), defensiveness and explanations are often the first response. In the Anxious state of mind, it can seem like confirmation of your ideas and justification of your secondary emotions because your accusations are being responded to, not your fear and insecurity. That can drive a partner toward conflict and away from the relationship–which will cause you both more distress.
Second, get a reality check. Identify the things you tell yourself about your partner and the relationship and compare them to reality. It’s common for Anxious people to imagine the worst in a moment when their partner isn’t there for some reason. Do you best to catch this “catastrophic thinking” and find ways to reassure yourself, remembering how they were present with you when you were together. Keep a grasp on the bigger picture. Being overly dependent on your partner for reassurance burdens them with something they can’t fully do and and risks pushing them away. Keeping a journal of the good times and savoring those memories when you’re apart can be a good way to keep the inner experience of the connection alive. Also, find ways to nurture yourself outside of contact with your partner. This will help you in many ways. It can reduce the tendency to excessively pursue or ruminate and it can enable you develop neat things about yourself. Schedule dinner with friends one night a week. Or, for example, take that class you always thought about taking. These things will be beneficial to you as well as the relationship. You’ll have new experiences to talk about when you get together, you’ll strengthen your support network, and enhance your personal development.
Third, establish some structure. Rather than feeling at the beck and call of your partner’s timing for togetherness, negotiate a regular evening for a date or a regular time you can expect to call. Knowing on Sunday that you will talk to them on Wednesday and see them on Friday, for example, can help you better deal with the time between Sunday and Friday. Similarly, establishing a regular “date” night or a routine time when both partners check-in with each other more deeply can help a lot.
Fourth, use the buddy system. If your anxiety is more the issue than your partner’s avoidance, designate some close friends whom you call for reassurance. Further, when you with your partner, focus on how they are present and “with” you, as opposed to focusing on the times you were anxious, complaining to them about their not being there. It’s ultimately about sensing, developing and trusting the availability, attentiveness and responsiveness of your partner and if they offer enough of these qualities, focus more on what “is” there rather than what’s “not” there. That focus draws a partner toward you while the other risks driving them away and making them feel not good enough.
Lastly, if your Anxious Attachment Style is chronically harming a good relationship, consider talking with a therapist knowledgeable about Attachment Styles. It may not only be your partner’s avoidance causing your distress, your insecurity may play a bigger part than you realize of what you bring to the dance and it is valid to get some help. This can help you talk openly and vulnerably about your anxiety with your partner in a way that they can hear and respond to you.
These are some good tips to follow if you have an Anxious Attachment Style. Also, remember that people don’t exist in discrete all/nothing categories. Someone may be somewhat Anxious or somewhat Avoidant. If you are both mature enough to know yourselves well and be able to notice and care about the impact your style has on the other person, it’s likely it can work out. The goal is for both people to engage in behaviors of a more Secure Attachment Style. And by the way, styles do shift over time as a function of relationships and our behaviors. A troubled, painful relationship will lead a person to become more insecure in their style (either more Anxious or more Avoidant). Learning to interact with each other in a secure manner will produce more security in your relationship and in time, each of you will develop a more Secure Attachment Style. Securely attached people have three key qualities: They are available, attentive and responsive. Practicing these qualities and experiencing them from your partner is what helps security grow.