Understanding the Needs of the Anxious/Preoccupied Attachment Style

I recently read Attached by Amir Levine and it has really opened my eyes to the importance of understanding attachment dynamics in our relationships. This article is based on content from the book and I highly recommend you read it if these attachment style articles resonate with you. Last week we covered how to decode your partner’s attachment style and today we are going through the needs of the anxious attachment style.

When working to understand either our partner’s or our own attachment style, it is essential to know the core needs that drive the attachment thoughts and behaviours. For the anxious attachment style, intimacy and closeness are the core needs. These needs results in wanting reassurance that things are okay, and that their partner is readily accessible to them emotionally and maybe even physically depending on the situation. These needs are neither good nor bad, they are simply needs.

The anxious style has a “spidey sense” for very small shifts in the relationship. In fact, science has shown us that they pick up on changes in emotions and facial cues faster than any other attachment style. While this style is very perceptive, they also have a tendency to jump to conclusions or catastrophize situations if they do not have their spidey sense under control. For example, they may take a situation where their partner isn’t returning their text messages, which is an uncharacteristic behaviour, and jump to conclusions that there is something wrong, their partner is mad, is with someone else…etc.

When the anxious attachment style feels that something is not right in their relationship their attachment system activates. The attachment system is a mechanism in the brain that is responsible for monitoring and tracking the safety and availability of our attachment figures.  Even the slightest hint that something is wrong will trigger the anxious person’s attachment system. This triggering highjacks the brain and reestablishing connection to their partner becomes the main priority. Once their attachment system is activated, they cannot calm down until they have clear indication from their partner that s/he is truly there and the relationship is safe. Once their partner responds in a way that reestablishes security, they revert back to their calm, normal self.

When the attachment system is activated, the anxious attachment style is consumed with thoughts that attempt to reestablish closeness with their partner. These thoughts are called activating strategies and they include:

  • Thinking about your mate, difficulty concentrating on other things.
  • Remembering only their good qualities.
  • Putting them on a pedestal: underestimating your talents and abilities and over estimating theirs.
  • An anxious feeling that goes away only when you are in contact with them
  • Believing this is your only chance for love, as in
    • “I’m only compatible with very few people—what are the chances i’ll find another person like him/her? “
    • “It takes years to meet someone new; i’ll end up alone.”
  • Believing that even though you’re unhappy, you’d better not let go, as in:
    • “If she leaves me, she’ll turn into a great person—for someone else.”
    • “He can change.”
    • “All couples have problems—we’re not special in that regard.”

When an attachment system is triggered and activating strategies are met with reassurance from the partner, everything calms back down and things continue on as normal. When attachment needs go unmet, the behaviour escalates and the anxious person may resort to protest behaviour. A protest behaviour is any action that tries to reestablish connection with the partner and get their attention. If we can reassure our partner’s needs before they engage in protest behaviour, then they can be calmed very quickly. If things continue to escalate and needs continue to go unmet, protest behaviour ensues and can harm the relationship. Protest behaviour includes:

  • Excessive attempts to reestablish contact: Excessive texting, calling, messaging etc.
  • Withdrawing: Ignoring, not taking calls, etc.
  • Keeping score: Waiting to see how long it takes for them to call you back and waiting the same amount of time before returning their call, waiting for them to apologize, etc.
  • Acting hostile: Eye rolling, walking away, leaving room
  • Threatening to leave: Making comments that you can’t do this anymore and that your better off without the person in hopes that they will convince you to stay
  • Manipulations: Saying you have plans when you don’t, not answering calls, playing games
  • Making him/her feel jealous: Making plans with an ex, talking about your attractive coworker, texting friends of the opposite sex, etc.

If you are reading this and feel that you can relate, understanding your attachment needs is the first step towards building a secure attachment. Being aware of our needs and having a partner that understands and supports them, helps to insure that our needs get met. Learn to recognize when your attachment system is activated and effectively communicate your needs rather than engaging in protest behaviour. People are only as needy as their unmet needs and you are the only one who can insure that your needs get met. Be authentic and communicate with your partner.

If you are anxiously attached and have discovered that you are paired with an avoidant partner, stay tuned over the next couple of weeks because this can be a tricky pairing. Your needs in the relationship are essentially opposite and both should to be aware and be able to communicate their needs effectively. Stay tuned or subscribe to the blog for more on this pairing in the next couple of weeks.

Wishing you love and connection,

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References

Levine, A. & Heller, R. (2010). Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—And Keep—Love. Penguin Group, NY: New York.