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Anxious Attachment Style and Relationship Anxiety? Acceptance Is the Key

Anxious attachment style makes you extra sensitive to emotional danger. If you're among the one in five anxiously attached adults, here's what you can do to have a wonderful relationship even if it scares you.

By
Stephen Snyder, MD
6-minute read
Episode #21
relationship anxiety
The Quick And Dirty

One in five people has an anxious attachment style. If you're one of them, you have a greater need for security in a relationship. Here are four things you can do to match your relationship to your emotional needs.

1.  Accept that you have greater security needs than most people
2.  Look for a partner who values your sensitivity and isn't threatened by it
3.  Be open with your partner about your security needs
4.  Let your partner know, calmly and clearly, when you're feeling anxious about the relationship

A patient of mine, let’s call her Amy, has an anxiety problem. But you won't find it on any formal list of anxiety disorders.

Amy feels absolutely fine ... as long as she’s not dating anyone seriously. But within a week or two of getting seriously involved with someone, she finds herself preoccupied with the fear that they’re going to leave her.

She knows her anxiety is irrational, but she can’t seem to get control of it. And as a result, her relationships always seem to end badly.

Amy can’t figure out what’s wrong with her. She wasn’t abused or neglected as a child. And she doesn’t have any more anxiety than anyone else, as long as she’s not in a relationship.

What is anxious attachment style?

The fact is, there’s nothing wrong with Amy at all. She simply has what we mental health folks call an anxious attachment style.

Attunement to emotional danger is actually kind of a gift. But it’s a paradoxical gift. If you don’t manage it well, it can make your life pretty miserable.

That means she’s just more attuned than most people to cues that might signal possible danger in a relationship. Things other people might not even notice—like how many times the other person’s phone rings before going to voicemail.

That kind of attunement to emotional danger is actually kind of a gift. But it’s a paradoxical gift. If you don’t manage it well, it can make your life pretty miserable.

How your anxious attachment style makes you vulnerable to relationship anxiety

As you and I discussed in Episode 15, we humans are wired to need secure connections to the people around us. Which makes sense, since we’re a highly social species. In the state of nature 200,000 years ago on the plains of Africa, it was extremely dangerous to be out in the wilderness alone.

But people are very diverse. Some of us happen to be much more sensitive than others to perceived threats to a relationship.

In the 1960s, we made a big discovery—young children vary in how sensitive they are to abandonment. If you separate a young child from their mother for three minutes, then reunite them again, the most common result is that the child will get briefly upset, then quickly settle down and forget about the whole thing. But there’s a smaller population of kids who stay agitated for a much longer time, during which they hold on very tight to Mom and won’t let her out of their sight.

About 20 percent of adults—or one in five—have an anxious attachment style. They spend a lot of time in adult relationships worrying that they’re going to be abandoned.

You see the same kind of thing in adults. A little over half the adult population has what researchers call a secure attachment style. They’re like the kids in the experiments. They may get upset for a moment when their loved one suddenly drops off their radar, but it doesn’t end up fazing them much. Adults with a secure attachment style tend to keep their cool in relationships.

But about 20 percent of adults—or one in five—have an anxious attachment style. They’re like the anxiously attached kids in the psychology experiment who took a long time to settle down after they’d been separated from their mothers. Adults with anxious attachment style spend a lot of time in adult relationships worrying that they’re going to be abandoned.

If you’re wondering how to tell what attachment style you have, there’s a fabulous book on the subject—Attached, by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller—that has detailed questions to guide you. You can also find attachment style questionnaires online to point you in the right direction.

Relationship anxiety can make you do self-destructive things

Let’s say you’re someone like Amy who has an anxious attachment style. You tend to get very anxious in a relationship, and you’re very prone to worrying that your partner is going to leave you.

Unfortunately, when your anxiety gets triggered in a relationship, this can prompt you to do things that Levine and Heller call “protest behaviors.” They’re the adult equivalent of how small children with anxious attachment behave after being separated from their mothers.

It takes a very empathic partner to understand that these behaviors are all driven by anxiety.

Some protest behaviors—things like calling, texting, and emailing someone over and over again—seem immediately understandable. They’re similar to what a child might do if they miss their mother very much and need reassurance.

Other protest behaviors, though, are more paradoxical. They could be things like:

  • Shunning your partner
  • Ignoring their texts or phone calls
  • Lying and telling your partner you have other plans
  • Picking a fight with your partner
  • Telling them they’d be better off without you

It takes a very empathic partner to understand that these behaviors are all driven by anxiety. Think of how a small child can’t or won’t stop being incorrigible. Their behavior is driven partly by honest feelings of insecurity, but it’s also partly a test to see whether mom still loves them.

How to have a wonderful relationship even if you're anxiously attached

The good news is that there’s enormous potential for people with anxious attachment style to have great relationships. But you need to be smart about how to manage your particular gift for sensing emotional danger.

Here's what I recommend to patients in my office whose anxious attachment style makes them vulnerable to relationship anxiety:

1. Accept that you need more security than most people, and this is perfectly okay

Most advice for people with relationship anxiety has traditionally focused on helping you change yourself in some way—to be more independent and less needy or to have better self-esteem. But in the long run, it’s a better bet if you can simply accept that you’re someone who’s extra sensitive and needs lots of reassurance.

Acceptance is vitamin A in any relationship. We all need lots of it every day. And the thing you most need acceptance for is your intense need for security.

2. Look for a partner who knows how to give you the extra security you need

As you and I discussed in episode 12, we all need partners who can supply what I call the 3 Rs—they’re reliable, reassuring, and real. As someone with a tendency to relationship anxiety, you’ll need to be even more careful to look for these qualities in a potential partner.

Acceptance is vitamin A in any relationship. We all need lots of it every day. And the thing you most need acceptance for is your intense need for security.

One great way to do this is to look for someone who has a secure attachment style. As we discussed earlier today, people who are securely attached tend to be low-stress about relationships. That’s going to be a definite plus for someone like you. A partner who’s securely attached will also be most able to give you the extra vitamin A—acceptance—that you need.

One more thing: Stay away from people who are ambivalent about being in relationships. Many such people have what attachment theorists call avoidant attachment style. They can be superficially intriguing. But as time goes on, they tend to do things to ensure you don’t get too close, like sending mixed messages, finding fault with you, or accusing you of being too needy or sensitive.

This kind of behavior will tend to bring out the worst in someone like you. So instead, look for someone who really does want to be in a relationship. Someone who values your sensitivity, and isn’t threatened by it.

3. Be open with your partner about your security needs

This step is absolutely crucial. Once you’ve found a partner who really wants to be in a relationship with you, tell them in advance that you’ll probably need more reassurance than the average person. And warn them that if you start to feel nervous about the relationship, you might freak out a little bit. But if they just hold steady and tell you everything’s going to be all right, you’ll be fine.

Tell your parnter in advance that you’ll probably need more reassurance than the average person.

4. Every once in a while, let your partner help you with your anxiety

There’s a balance between dependence and independence in every relationship. We happen to live in a world that prizes independence, so most of the advice you’ll see emphasizes things you can do to manage your anxiety all by yourself. You’ll find plenty of advice to help you identify automatic negative thoughts and practice mindfulness techniques. But that's only half the puzzle.

It's also okay, every once in a while, to let your partner help you feel less anxious. Maybe just tell them you’re feeling scared and let them comfort you. After all, that means you care enough about them to be afraid of losing them—quite a compliment, when you think about it.

It also means you trust them to be there for you when you need reassurance. Sometimes that's the biggest compliment of all.

Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Stephen Snyder, MD

Dr. Stephen Snyder is a sex and relationship therapist in New York City and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine. He's also the author of Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship

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