A question I’ve heard frequently in my work over the last four decades is “Why can’t I find a partner?” Last time I explored some of the psychological roadblocks to developing satisfying relationships from the perspective of Attachment Theory, which proposes that human beings have three distinct styles for bonding to other people – secure, anxious, and avoidant. The latter two styles are the ones most likely to make it difficult to form stable relationships. This time I’ll focus on what those with an anxious attachment style can do to be more successful in connecting with others.
To recapitulate briefly, people with anxious attachment styles typically live with a constant sense of emotional hunger. Their deepest fear is that they’re unlovable, and they often long for the perfect romantic relationship that will disconfirm that belief. In their relationships, deep-seated expectations that they are going to be rejected drive them to cling and feel overly dependent on their partners.
Anxious types tend to assume the role of the “pursuer” in their relationships. They do most of the heavy lifting. They call, initiate, invite, seduce, help, rescue, confront, negotiate, forgive. Unfortunately, the people they pursue are usually the kind of people with which they’re most familiar from their childhood traumas and deprivations – avoidant attachment types. The result is that they desperately grasp at what is unavailable, which only increases their anxiety, despair and sense of worthlessness. If you recognize yourself in this description, the most important thing you can do to both take care of yourself and improve your chances for finding satisfying relationships, is to end the habit of pursuing.
This is much easier said than done, because the intensity of these love dramas – the thrill of the pursuit, the ecstasy of overcoming resistance, the agony of withdrawal and rejection, the renewed hope in reconciliations – has an addictive quality about it that is intense and compelling. That’s why some anxious types identify themselves as love addicts and find twelve step programs such as Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous helpful. In any case, there can be no improvement in the quality of life for anxious types until they catch on to the self-defeating quality of the pattern of chasing what always runs away, and begin to understand that they don’t have to fight, grasp, cling or beg for love.
Some people with anxious styles benefit from psychotherapy. Ideally, the therapy experience is a reparative relationship in which an atmosphere of safety and trust facilitates honesty, disclosure and self-exploration, and creates the kind of secure attachment that was missing in the anxious person’s formative years. Therapy can help dislodge the conviction of being unworthy of love or respect. It can help the anxious person learn to behave in a more self-loving manner – to self-regulate, self-soothe, and to treat himself or herself with the kind of care and compassion that we all want from our partners.
It may seem strange, but many anxious attachment types actually need to work to let themselves receive love when it’s offered freely. In the presence of a securely attached person, the overly-stimulated nervous system of an anxious type calms and relaxes. But if you’ve learned to see love as a thrill ride of agony and ecstasy, someone who offers you the possibility of a secure attachment can initially seem boring. When someone returns your calls, shows up when they say they will, and is direct and honest about their feelings for you – where is the challenge in any of that?
If you’re caught in this pattern, it’s important to understand that emerging from it requires a conscious re-conditioning of your entire attachment system. You can’t just “go with your feelings” and “trust your heart” to provide reliable guidance in choosing a partner. People with anxious attachment styles have learned to re-create early destructive relationships, forever searching for a security that wasn’t available to them then. When you feel instant passion for a new love, that very intensity may mean that this is exactly the wrong person for you. But with patience and work, it is possible to live in a relaxed nervous system, to find relationships which enhance your sense of security, and to see partners with honesty, integrity, and reliability as desirable – even hot.
Next Time: Emerging from an Avoidant Attachment Style