Most of us know our attachment styles by now — it can be a huge relief to understand whether you’re anxious, avoidant, or something else so that you can have some context for why you have the preferences and behaviors you do in relationships. However, self-awareness is always only the first step. Once we know what our predisposed patterns are in a relationship, we have to figure out what to do with that information.
One of the tougher things about applying this knowledge is figuring out how to act on your feelings and reactions. If you know you have an anxious attachment, you may wonder whether your relationship insecurities or concerns about your connection with your partner are reasonable, or a feeling that’s coming from your attachment patterns and would be coming up even if everything is perfect. It’s hard to tell sometimes which feelings to take action on and which to validate and accept without necessarily taking at face value! Here are the questions I recommend people with anxious attachment ask themselves when they’re trying to figure out how to handle relationship concerns.
What’s the story you’re telling yourself?
When our thoughts are racing — or percolating in the backs of our minds all day while we go about our business — we may not necessarily notice their exact content and tone, but just absorb their overall feeling. An exercise to help you get some clarity on what’s going on for you personally and how to relate to it: set a timer for five minutes and freewrite, either by hand or in a digital document, about what you’re feeling and thinking when it comes to this situation with your partner. (Freewriting, here, means writing nonstop as much as possible: no pausing, editing, or changing what you wrote.) If you want to keep going after five minutes, feel free!
After five minutes is up, read your thoughts back to yourself. Is there anything you notice about the overall trend of your thoughts? Are they mostly concrete concerns about the specific situation at hand (“I’m really hurt my partner doesn’t want to come to dinner with my parents while they’re in town”) or are they more broad, overarching feelings about yourself/your partner/your relationship in general (“I don’t understand why my partner doesn’t love me as much as I love them”)? Are they of a magnitude relative to the situation, even if the feelings are intense — “They didn’t call when they said they would again, I’m so mad at them, I don’t want to go over to their place to hang out tonight.” Or are they more absolute or extreme, edging into always/never language? “I never want to see them again, I don’t know what I was thinking getting into this relationship.”
However you feel is completely okay, and you don’t have to monitor for the “wrong” thoughts or feelings, but it’s helpful to practice some self-awareness around it. Being upset with or about your relationship is completely within your rights, and if you aren’t feeling secure or prioritized in your relationship, that’s a feeling worth listening to: but if you notice your feelings are based in a lot of absolutes or that a reaction to a specific, isolated situation has ballooned into feeling like a verdict on your entire relationship, anxious attachment may be influencing your thought and behavior patterns.
What are you imagining your partner is thinking?
Similarly, it could be a useful exercise to ask yourself to put yourself in your partner’s shoes — what are you imagining is going on with them? If it helps to write it out, you can do that here as well — what are 5-10 stances or beliefs you imagine they might have relative to this situation? Try to find a range, from the more generous to the less so.
Again, notice any trends, especially those towards absolute or extreme views that you know may not be as nuanced as your partner’s actual personality, think about where those thoughts and feelings came from. If you’re upset with your partner, it’s totally reasonable and normal to imagine them as thinking something careless like “I have more important things to do than meet my date’s parents,” or of not thinking of us at all. But if your imagination of your partner’s inner monologue has them saying things like “My partner’s feelings don’t matter at all, they’re an afterthought to me and I could care less if they live or die,” it may be a sign that you’re filling in your partner’s lines with your own critical, anxious attachment voice that tells you your connections are fraught with risk and could be lost at any moment.
What could change as a result of communication in this situation?
It’s often said that communication is the key to relationships, and that’s true; it’s also true that unfortunately, it isn’t a magic bullet. As an example, those of us with anxious attachment often feel that we need our partners to communicate to us that we’re wanted, loved, and valued; we may tell them that we need reassurance.
It’s not inherently bad to want reassurance from a partner, especially in particularly acute times of stress or difficulty in the relationship, but the problem with anxious attachment is that reassurance doesn’t “stick.” Our partner may tell us that we’re the love of their life and they never want to be with anyone else again at 5 pm; by 6 pm, we may once again feel totally adrift in the relationship and like our partner is about to leave us at any moment. Reassurance feels good in the moment, but it can’t grant secure attachment; only we can do that.
To apply this knowledge, think about how communication with your partner about the issue you’re currently experiencing would look. Would it be sharing your experiences, thoughts or feelings and asking for their feedback, apology, solutions, or information? Or would the communication you’re looking for be reassurance?
To use an example: in the scenario where your partner isn’t coming to meet your parents, an example of communication about conflict that might be difficult, but effective, would be to say “Can you tell me more about why you don’t want to come to dinner with my parents? It’s your decision, but I’m feeling like you don’t see this relationship as serious as a result.” This is an attempt to resolve a concrete issue in your relationship; they’re invited to give a real response. That response may or may not be helpful or satisfactory, but the conversation it’s a part of is concrete.
On the other hand, an example of an attempt at communication that speaks more to a recurring cycle of anxious attachment would be something like “You know how much it bothers me when you don’t answer my texts, but I didn’t hear from you all afternoon – do you even love me?” There’s no realistic response that your partner can give to this other than reassurance – which, as we’ve discussed, is only a band-aid solution.
A better way to approach this would be to ask “We’ve talked before about how much it bothers me when I can’t get an answer to texts, but it feels clear that this is something that’s still coming up for us — I don’t want me to feel ignored or for you to feel nagged or like I’m an obligation. Can we come up with some ideas for how to make this work better?” This is solution-oriented; even if it’s linked to anxious attachment, this offers a potential path forward that could improve your dynamic. The key is to be genuinely open to ideas and brainstorming, including ideas that involve you working on shifting your own expectations or behavior. Or even, more broadly: “You know I have an anxious attachment style; lately I’ve been feeling insecure in our relationship, and I’d love to have a check-in to talk about what that means for our relationship so you aren’t blindsided.” This can manage expectations for both you and your partner so they know what’s going on with you and your anxiety doesn’t feed into an unwanted fight or crisis.