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Is My Partner Pulling Away, or Do I Just Have Anxious Attachment?

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.

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