My book, Bad Boyfriends: Using Attachment Theory to Avoid Mr. (or Ms.) Wrong and Make You a Better Partner, is more of an overview of attachment theory and its application to finding a good partner. The older popular book on the topic, Levine and Heller’s Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love, is an excellent self-help guide focused more on case studies, and especially on the problems of the anxious-preoccupied who are more likely than the other types to seek out self-help books.
One of the topics they discuss in detail is hypervigilance — the anxious-preoccupied are intensely focused on keeping track of the emotional state of desired partners:
[A study found that people] with an anxious attachment style are indeed more vigilant to changes in others’ emotional expression and can have a higher degree of accuracy and sensitivity to other people’s cues. However, this finding comes with a caveat. The study showed that people with an anxious attachment style tend to jump to conclusions very quickly, and when they do, they tend to misinterpret people’s emotional state. Only when the experiment was designed in such a way that anxious participants had to wait a little longer— they couldn’t react immediately when they spotted a change, but had to wait a little longer— and get more information before making a judgment did they have an advantage over other participants.
Hair-trigger misjudgments and mistakes are more likely with this group and can get them into trouble. The anxious-preoccupied should work toward taking the time to consider all the evidence before reacting negatively, so their fine sensitivity to others’ emotional states will serve them better.
The anxious-preoccupied will sometimes explain that they feel very strongly and so can’t help themselves when overreacting to perceived threats to their relationships. The real explanation for their paranoia is not so much the intensity of feeling, however, as it is their insecurity and lack of understanding and trust in others’ good intentions. Because they are so wrapped up in the fear of losing attention or affection, they don’t take the time to see matters from the point of view of their significant other and so blunder into misunderstandings and attempts to control their partner through protest behavior.
Levine and Heller describe this behavior well:
Once activated, they are often consumed with thoughts that have a single purpose: to reestablish closeness with their partner. These thoughts are called activating strategies. Activating strategies are any thoughts or feelings that compel you to get close, physically or emotionally, to your partner. Once he or she responds to you in a way that reestablishes security, you can revert back to your calm, normal self. Activating Strategies:
• 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 overestimating 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?,” or “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 partner—for someone else,, or “He can change,” or “All couples have problems—we’re not special in that regard.”
Protest behavior is a term originally coined to describe children’s screams and cries when separated from their caregiver, now applied by analogy to adult attempts to display unhappiness with a lack of attention or responsiveness from partners. Some protest behavior is part of every relationship — “Hey! You said you’d text me when you got home.” But the clingy, insecure anxious-preoccupied protest so frequently they run the risk of turning off and driving away their partners. When someone is said to be “high maintenance,” that means they are excessively needy and need more communication and reassurance than is reasonable. Protest behaviors are intended to force a reassuring response from the partner — and resorting to them frequently is bad for any relationship.
Levine and Heller have a good list of Protest Behaviors:
• Calling, texting, or e-mailing many times, waiting for a phone call, loitering by your partner’s workplace in hopes of running into him/ her.
• Withdrawing: Sitting silently “engrossed” in the paper, literally turning your back on your partner, not speaking, talking with other people on the phone and ignoring him/her.
• Keeping score: Paying attention to how long it took them to return your phone call and waiting just as long to return theirs; waiting for them to make the first “make-up” move and acting distant until such time.
• Acting hostile: Rolling your eyes when they speak, looking away, getting up and leaving the room while they’re talking (acting hostile can transgress to outright violence at times).
• Threatening to leave: Making threats—“ We’re not getting along, I don’t think I can do this anymore,” “I knew we weren’t really right for each other,” “I’ll be better off without you”—all the while hoping [partner] will stop you from leaving.
• Manipulations: Acting busy or unapproachable. Ignoring phone calls, saying you have plans when you don’t.
• Making him/ her feel jealous: Making plans to get together with an ex for lunch, going out with friends to a singles bar, telling your partner about someone who hit on you today.
[The contents of this post have been added to the Type: Anxious-Preoccupied page.]