Attachment is the emotional connection formed in the relationship between the mother (or primary caregiver) and her child. The attachment pattern is of several types. There are anxious, avoidant, disorganized, and secure attachment styles.
Each of these patterns determines the unique way we create and maintain relationships, whether we are talking about the couple, work or friends relationships.
Next we will talk about the anxious attachment style and its pitfalls for the couple.
I will refer to the primary caregiver with whom the child develops attachment as “mother”. Usually the mother is the one who takes intensive care of the baby’s needs, nourishes and soothes the baby, being the primary attachment figure. The attachment figure may be another person who responds to the child’s needs when the child is separated from the mother. For example the father, grandmother, uncle, aunt and so on.
How children develop an anxious attachment style
Anxious attachment style develops in children whose mothers are unpredictable, inconsistent and untrustworthy. For example, the mother can be difficult to understand by the child when:
she gives love to the child, and other times she rejects him for no particular reason;
when she is unavailable – although she is physically present – to give the child affection, attention or help him when he needs it;
when she threatens to abandon the child: “I’ll leave you here / I will not take you with me / I leave you alone”.
For the child with anxious attachment the mother is unpredictable. Sometimes she can be intrusive, insensitive and emotionally unavailable. Other times she may be available and can adequately respond to the child’s needs. However, swinging between these two types of behavior does not give the child the safety and predictability he needs.
The mother’s inconsistency causes the child to feel anxiety because he does not know what to expect. This anxiety reinforces the child’s need for attachment, becoming dependent on the mother. Therefore the child learns to assess the condition of the mother, to be suspicious, and at the same time to cling on her in order to have his needs fulfilled.
Why is this happening?
Because the need for attachment is related to the survival mechanisms in the brain. Children depend on their parents to survive. Because the child clings onto the parent, the abandonment, separation or disappearance of the parent is a desperate situation for the child. This situation is beyond the child’s ability to manage it in any way.
In order to adapt to his situation and the uncertain relationship with the mother, the child is focused to determine her state of mind. The child tryes to read the mother’s behavior and make sense of her behavior. Depending on the signs received from the mother, the child adapts his own behavior.
This means that the child can eliminate his wishes and needs and putting first and foremost the love of his mother. The strategies used by the child are taking care of his mother’s needs and the adaptating his behavior accordingly. Therefore, the child believes that if he is a good child he can make his mother fulfill his need to be loved.
The profile of an adult with anxious attachment style
The pattern of attachment that the adult will manifest in his future relationships, including the couple’s relationship, is formed early and manifests itself throughout life. The attachment style is usually completed by the age of 3 years old.
People who have an anxious attachment are people who do not trust themselves or their partner or the stability of their relationships. They depend on the validations received from others, although they will not be enough to make them feel loved.
Not being self-confident and not trusting in a partner or relationship, they assiduously seek confirmation from the partner, security, appreciation, and even proof of love. They tend to give meaning to the behavior of the partner seeking to make sense of their relationship.
Fear of being abandoned
Their behavior is influenced by the fear of being alone or abandoned. Because of this fear deep ingrained within them, sometimes they can get very attached to their partner. They can become overwhelming by wanting constant (or continuous) contact with their partner.
Adults with anxious attachment can be jealous and possessive with their partner. The partner’s desire for independence can be interpreted as a separation, or worse, as abandonment or lack of love.
They give a lot for the relationship
Because they have been rejected many times in childhood by the important people in their lives, they are afraid that others will do the same and they will eventually be abandoned. Therefore, adults with anxious attachment style are sensitive to rejection and don’t afford to be 100% authentic in the relationship. They will deny their own needs and desires to meet the needs of others.
Adults with anxious attahment style are people who offer a lot of affection and need to receive as much as they give. They are willing to sacrifice their needs to keep the relationship or make it work.
This means that, just as they did in childhood, in a relationship they put their needs on the last place, their top priority is to satisfy the needs of the partner. They can even attempt to manipulate (consciously or unconsciously) their partner to keep the relationship working and to avoid the pain of separation.
They may have a tendency to control their partner in order to feel safe. Control can take the form of a good intention to wake the partner in the morning to go to work, otherwise he can never wake up on time, always know what’s good for the partner, or even check his phone or Facebook account.
Anxious attachment style and its pitfalls
Anxious attachment style can bring a few pitfalls into the couple’s relationship. The ones I encountered in my experience are detailed below:
Responsibility of the couple relationship
People who have this style of attachment are fully involved in the couple relationship and take on their shoulders the responsibility of creating and maintaining the relationship “alive”.
This trap has double effects.
On the one hand, taking this responsibility is exhausting because building a couple relationship is a work done by two people, not one. This type of work alone in the couple is an overload of the resources that are invested in the relationship.
On the other hand, when one of the partners gives much in the relationship, the other person no longer has the opportunity to offer back. This situation can create tension between the two and frustration of the one who offers too much, because he feels that he does not receive the affection he needs. And that can fuel many of the couple’s conflicts.
Fear of abandonment
Another pitfall I have frequently encountered in people with anxious attachment is the unconditional love they want to offer to their partner. It is wonderful to be able to offer unconditionally and accept the other with their goods and bads, especially when you are not doing it out of fear of abandonment. I met people who were ready to accept anything for their partner only to not break up, under the mask of unconditional love.
Another trap is clinging of a partner for fear of being abandoned. This can be overwhelming for the partner, ultimately having the undesirable effect of putting distance between the two. It is very good for each partner to have time for themselves and friends, their own hobbies or independent couple activities.
Manipulation of the couple can be used when the people who have the anxious attachment style do not get what they want or when the relationship is in danger. This is a common strategy to get, beyond anything else, the partner’s attention. This is a trap that can hurt both partners, but also the relationship itself. Manipulationcan cause a great deal of pain.
Reading and interpreting the behavior of the partner
The adult who learned in childhood to read his mother’s behavior will do the same in couple relationships. With this sixth sense of danger he will control his behavior so as not to provoke rejection in the partner.
This is a big trap because interpretations can often be wrong. And the uncertainty from daily interpretations can be tiresome for both partners.
Communication is particularly important to clarify the messages received from the partner. It is also good to avoid the pain that misinterpretations can cause both partners.
Attachment styles determine our way of being and acting in a relationship. These patterns are neither good nor bad, they are.
We cannot label a person according to the attachment pattern because this is the natural way, and perhaps the only way a person knows how to relate. This does not mean that a person with anxious attachment is better or less good than a person with avoidant or secure attachment.
The good news is that relationships can be improved if we take care of our behavior in relationships. And psychotherapy can help people who have an anxious attachment style to feel secure, to have self-confidence and to heal the painful wound of rejection and abandonment.
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- Adult Attachment Theory and Research http://labs.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm
- Bowlby, J. (1969/1982) Attachment, Vol. 1 of Attachment and loss. London: Hogarth Press. New York: Basic Books (1982).
- Bowlby, J. (1973). Separation: Anxiety & Anger, Volume 2 of Attachment and loss London. Hogarth Press; New York: Basic Books; Harmondsworth: Penguin (1975).
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- Levine, A. and Heller, R. (2010). Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—And Keep—Love
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Last updated november 2019