DEAR DR. JENN,
When my boyfriend goes away on business trips or bachelor parties, I tend to freak out and become overly needy and clingy. He has never cheated or given me reason to worry, I just feel so insecure that he will leave and not want to come back. This has definitely been a pattern in my dating life — I find it hard to trust anyone who will stick around. I always assume I’m going to be ghosted or unceremoniously dumped. I’m sure it’s no shocker, but it’s really hurting my relationship. What is wrong with me and where did this come from? —Nervous Nelly
DEAR NERVOUS NELLY,
First of all, there’s nothing wrong with you It’s normal to seek reassurance in relationships, but when the fear of abandonment becomes too strong, it can signal an anxious attachment style. Anxious attachment styles are very common, and navigating dating and relationships with this attachment style has become a big conversation on TikTok, where the hashtag #anxiousattachmentstyle has over 125 million views! So clearly, you’re far from alone.
As for where it comes from — yes, it all goes back to your childhood. Here, a bit more about how we form an anxious attachment style, and what you can do to work towards a secure attachment style in your relationships.
What Are Attachment Styles and How Do They Form?
You may have heard about the four attachment styles: disorganized attachment, avoidant attachment, anxious attachment, and secure attachment. Understanding the root of your attachment style will help you better understand how you deal with stress in your relationship and why you react the way you do.
We form our ability to attach very early on in our development. When children come into this world, they are constantly learning if the world is a safe place to be. Will their needs be met? Will they be cared for? Will they be safe? Much of this learning takes place with a child’s primary caregiver. When cries are met with attention and a parent who is looking to respond to those needs — hunger, a diaper change, relief from discomfort — we learn that the world is a safe place, where we can count on our needs being met. We learn that we can count on people and those who love us will look after our needs.
John Bowlby, a celebrated British psychologist and child development theorist who laid much of the groundwork back in the 1950s for today’s attachment theory, said that the quality of the connection and the experience of emotional deprivation in our early childhood create our personality and attachment style. These patterns and experiences form our habitual ways of connecting with others and create a template we apply to our future relationships.
A child who feels loved and secure can trust that feeling and, therefore, have faith in romantic relationships in adulthood. They anticipate that their needs will be met and are able to believe in their partners. A child who grows up in a home with unpredictable parents — who are volatile, violent, abusive, neglectful, or struggle with substance abuse or mental illness — is likely to experience tremendous ambivalence or fear about attachment, connection, and intimacy.
What Is An Anxious Attachment Style In Dating?
Anxious attachment is one of the three ‘insecure’ attachment styles (you can guess the others!). Those with anxious attachment specifically experience a lot of anxiety about potentially losing or being separated from their partner. If you have an anxious attachment style, you are probably very dependent on your partner for your own identity and self-worth. You have a tendency to be overly needy, demanding, or critical in your relationship.
Other signs of an anxious attachment style while dating may include overly obsessing or fixating on when they’ll text back, fearing they’ve lost interest if you don’t receive constant reassurance, and an inability to trust (like when they go on a business trip!) which can lead to jealousy and suspicion.
Luckily, there are ways that you can heal an insecure attachment style and work towards a secure attachment style. This means you generally anticipate that your partner will be there for you when you need them. You are able to feel emotionally close with your partner without getting scared. You are able to find a balance between closeness and independence. When conflict comes up, you’re able to remain calm and tolerate conflict. Sounds nice, right?
What You Can Do to Overcome an Anxious Attachment Style
Again, having an insecure attachment style is very common and while it’s not a mental health condition or disorder, if it’s harming your relationships and causing you stress, it’s worth working on. Because while you can’t change the way you were raised, it doesn’t mean you have no control moving forward. Attachment issues are very deeply ingrained and take time and awareness to change — but it can be done.
Here are some things that you can do to heal and work towards a secure attachment style.
1. Go to therapy.
Getting into therapy is the single most important thing you can do to address your attachment issues on a deep and profound level that will make a difference in all of your relationships. Attachment issues tend to be best addressed over long periods of time with an experienced licensed therapist. If cost is a concern, make sure to utilize mental health clinics in your area or virtual therapy with a low-fee therapist.
2. Know your attachment triggers.
It’s important to know which situations in our lives trigger attachment fears — and when they are most likely to arise. Many people, especially those with shaky attachments, have trouble with launchings and landings, like going to work or school. Trips that cause a separation between partners often prompt separation anxiety or even mornings and bedtimes, because they are mini separations. Awareness of the causes of our own separation anxiety, and being sensitive to the causes of our partner’s separation anxiety, can help.
3. Create rituals.
Having a plan around high anxiety times can be effective and promote bonding. Planning a regular morning routine that includes holding hands and sharing goals for the day or a nightly phone call before bed, if your partner is traveling, may reduce anxiety. It’s also helpful to create rituals outside of your partner for self-soothing when you’re feeling anxious, like journaling or going on a walk.
4. Pick well.
I know, easier said than done, but it’s worth emphasizing. Pay attention to the true red flags (not imaginary ones you’re inventing out of fear!) and pick a healthy person that can work with your attachment struggles. A good partner can also help create a reparative experience for you with relationships — but a bad partner might only exacerbate your trust issues and anxiety.
5. Be less reactive.
The brain specializes in threat perception and response and is always looking for signs — real or imagined — that might indicate a break in attachment. When we feel threatened (which in dating can look like insecurity) we constantly assess facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and words. We look for problems. When attachment fears surface, we go to a very primitive place where we can no longer accurately assess what is really going on, because our perceptions become fact in our own minds. An alarm goes off in the amygdala, the part of our brain that controls fear, and before we know it we are swept up in emotion and saying or doing things without thinking clearly.
When we’re in this state, we often spend an inordinate amount of time debating the details and reconstructing what happened when what is needed instead are connection and reassurance. It is easy to do a lot of damage to a relationship when this happens. Being aware of this vulnerability is the first step in preventing a slide into that destructive mindset.
6. Get anger management.
This may seem completely unrelated to attachment but there is a link. In a study by researcher Mario Mikulincer he found that people with secure attachments handle anger significantly better than those who do not. Securely attached people are less prone to anger, are more constructive in dealing with their anger, and have more adaptive responses. In other words, they are able to calm themselves down, roll with the punches, and use the conflict to communicate their needs in the relationship. If your attachment issues are impacting how you handle anger, make sure to get help.
What Your Partner Can Do to Help
Trust is very complex. It can only be built up over time with good, consistent behavior. While no one is perfect, patterns of behavior speak volumes. If you have a partner that struggles with attachment issues, here are a few things you can do.
1. Don’t be judgmental.
Seek to understand your partner and be open to their thoughts, fantasies, and opinions, even if you don’t understand or agree. Create an anticipation of acceptance. When you have shown yourself to be a consistently open-minded partner who does not judge, your partner will grow to expect the best from you and believe that you are likely to accept them, warts and all.
2. Create a “couple bubble.”
In a couple bubble, you come first for each other. Your partner is the first person with whom you share information; you don’t share private details about your life together with others; you protect your relationship from others who might try to harm it in any way; and you make each other a priority.
3. Don’t disappear, stonewall, or make threats.
Abandonment creates anxiety and mistrust. Blocking out your partner prevents you from working through conflict as a couple, a crucial connection-building skill.
4. Don’t make threats.
Do not threaten to leave, hook up with other people, “take a break,” get back with an ex, withhold sex, or abandon your partner. This is never OK in any relationship, but for someone with an anxious attachment style, it can be impossible to overcome.