Our first relationship gives us ideas about relationships that follow. This is at the heart of the behavioral model known as “attachment theory”: our bond with our caregiver affects our adult connections.
- Have you have ever feared that your romantic partner would abandon you?
- Have you ever become very clingy?
- Cold and distant?
If so, attachment theory could be something to explore, to help you heal and find the relationships you deserve.
Even though early experiences can be powerful, you can absolutely can heal, grow, and fully learn just how lovable you are.
Types of Insecure Attachment
When we come into this world, our parents are everything. We learn early on to read them–their emotions and expressions, whether they are close to us or far away. If our relationship is secure, we’ll start to feel confident about separating, crawling around, and exploring on our own. If our relationship is insecure, then we’ll react in one of two ways: either crying and acting out trying to get our needs met, or ignoring the parent as a way to punish him or her. Then as an adult, the first manifests as anxious/preoccupied attachment and the second as avoidant.
Both are defense mechanisms based on the same core fear. Here are some major characteristics of each challenge and how it might play out in romantic relationships:
Anxious/Preoccupied Attachment in Romantic Relationships
- Craves intimacy
- Overlooks red flags
- Avoids conflict and doesn’t voice needs
- Insecure and clingy
- Hypervigilant of partner’s behaviors
- Uncomfortable with intimacy; feels engulfed or smothered and needs space
- Believes people are unreliable, and will hurt or abandon them
- Critical of weakness or vulnerability
- Disregards other people’s needs
- May prefer casual sex only
Now here’s the really crazy part.
Can you identify with one of these? And might the other one bring to mind past partners?
In his book “Attached,” Amir Levine explains that when it comes to insecure attachment, opposites tend to attract.
Why? The answer is because we may be recreating the parental relationship and reinforcing our beliefs and fears, mostly that of being unlovable.
At first, the love interest seems to meet our deepest needs. Sparks fly and perhaps things move quickly, providing an immediate security both people crave. The anxious person has someone who seems interested, perhaps calm, and acting very romantic and loving. The avoidant person has someone who needs them very much, but whom they can keep at a distance, since the anxious person is not assertive. Maybe these two people are stuck in a hurtful situation because they both need something from each other they just can’t get but keep seeking.
Some research even suggests that our attachment style hardwires our ability to choose healthy partners. Insecure people may be completely blind to whether or not people can meet their needs in a relationship. Secure adults, on the other hand, can find someone like mom or dad, who is also secure.
So why am I writing about this today? Because I’m still recovering from anxious/preoccupied attachment.
I’ve had a string of upsetting relationships where I would have done anything not to be abandoned.
Two years ago, I dated a woman with a combination anxious and avoidant attachment. The perfect connection and abrupt end was extremely painful. However, I learned a lot about myself, and I started to understand how I was sabotaging myself in relationships
My therapist helped me look back at my ties with my mom. She was a kind woman who did so much to take care of me, but she also had rage problems. I clung to her because her emotional availability was inconsistent. When she was depressed, I worried about her. I developed a negative sense of myself and hid my feelings. I took a lot of responsibility for her emotions. Here I was doing the same thing with a girlfriend. I was idolizing someone who, though she had many fine qualities and I do care for her, was not treating me well. And when she started to back away, my desperation was triggered.
The Road to Recovery
But things are getting better. I can honestly say I don't crave love anymore, though I guess entering another romantic relationship will really be the test. At least now I know. So much of growing is simply recognizing patterns. Even if you continue engaging in a habit, just pausing a moment to notice what’s going on is a huge step. It gives some space. As Elaine Aron, the expert on highly sensitive people, observes: “By separating out the effects of personal history from temperament, we can attend to both issues better, making each less overwhelming”.
It also helps to understand your goal…
So what is a securely attached person like?
In short, it boils down to one balanced pair: being comfortable with intimacy, yet not relying too heavily on someone else to meet your needs. It also means being OK with walking away.
And really listen to yourself. I think one challenge is, as Dr. Aron spoke to, separating the past from the present. Sometimes, you may be fearful because of old baggage, but in other cases, you may actually be picking up on the fact that the other person cannot meet your needs. Perhaps our fears can become exaggerated, but that does not necessarily mean they aren't rooted in reality.
Finally, we have to remember that we’re all on a journey, and none of us have all the answers. So even if you’re someone who does have attachment issues, never beat yourself up about it.
Being “insecure” doesn’t mean you’re bad or broken—it’s just something you were taught as an infant. Today, that infant deserves your love.
I’m 34, living in Chicago with my cat Jojo. I am a freelance writer, and I also teach creative writing and guitar to children. I’m currently working on my first novel, a sci-fi story about OCD.