Q: In your columns on attachment styles, your description of the anxious type completely describes my boyfriend. I totally love him, but he’s always so scared that something is wrong, and that I’m about to walk out on him. One time I went to bed early and turned off my phone. After I was asleep, he texted a sweet message. But by morning there were about ten more from him. When I didn’t answer the first message, he started asking what was wrong between us, had I offended him, and so on until he had himself convinced himself that we were breaking up. Then he began to wonder if I was all right, and by morning he had me in the hospital in intensive care. The poor guy was up all night. He’s never crazy like this except when he’s scared about our relationship. I’m not going to leave him, I just want to know how can I help him with this?
A: Words like “anxious” or “avoidant” can make it sound as if anyone with one of these styles must be a complete mess. But, together, the anxious and avoidant attachment styles comprise about half the population. We’re not talking about mental illness here. People with an anxious attachment style have a lot to offer in relationships. They value their intimate relationships above everything else, they can be intensely loyal, empathic, and attentive with their partners. It’s good to hear that you’re hanging in with your boyfriend and want to help him feel more secure in your relationship.
As a result of very inconsistent caregiving in their childhoods, anxious types have a deep-seated fear of abandonment and rejection. As adults, even a slight hint that something is wrong can activate their attachment system (as you have discovered), and once that happens they’re unable to calm down until they know that the relationship is okay and that they’re safe. The main thing to understand (assuming that you have a more secure attachment style) is that your boyfriend is just wired a little differently than you. He requires higher levels of closeness and reassurance. By paying attention, you can learn what triggers his anxiety, and how to respond in ways that calm his fears and help him feel loved and supported. Here are a few suggestions:
First of all, be careful not to judge his feelings. Never say or imply that his anxiety is crazy or stupid, or that he should just “get over it.” Anxious types respond from the heart, and won’t be moved by “logical” arguments. Instead, do your best to be patient, and to reassure him with empathy and kindness.
Be consistent. If you say you’re going to call, do it. If you make a promise, keep it. Anxious types are used to being let down and disappointed. Do everything you can to make sure his experience of you gives him no reason to support these expectations.
Let him know how you feel, on a regular basis. Anxious types have a hard time believing that you actually like them, partly because their early traumas have left them doubting whether they’re worthy of anyone’s love in the first place. Don’t just assume he knows how you feel. Be proactive in offering small and frequent demonstrations of affection.
When you have a fight, be sure to make it clear that you aren’t leaving him. Anxious types unconsciously expect to be abandoned, so your boyfriend will probably interpret any conflict as an indication that you’re about to end the relationship. That doesn’t mean that you should be afraid to tell him how you really feel. You don’t have to walk on eggshells. When you’re angry or disappointed, say so directly. Just make sure that you also make it clear that being in a fight doesn’t mean you no longer love him and are about to walk out.
If these suggestions sound to you like the way any good boyfriend would treat his partner, you’re right. You don’t have to be any different than you are to help your boyfriend feel safer in the relationship. The process of change is slow, but if you are consistently honest, affectionate, and kind, you’ll do much to calm his over-active alert system, and, over time, to help him move toward a more secure attachment style.