I just published a book on the Avoidants (both Dismissive and Fearful)–Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) a Dismissive Partner.
I haven’t thought about a similar effort for the opposite extreme, the insecure Anxious-Preoccupied, partly because there’s a decent book out on the topic: Insecure in Love: How Anxious Attachment Can Make You Feel Jealous, Needy, and Worried and What You Can Do About It.
But of course I do have some thoughts. At the simplest level, one might view the anxious as opposites of the avoidant: avoidants appear to care too little about attachment, while the anxious care too much. But it’s not that simple — avoidants clearly do care a lot about their attachments, subconsciously–it is masked by defensive repression of attachment-related emotions, both positive and negative. Meanwhile, the anxious-preoccupied have an unfulfilled security need they strive to fill with someone, anyone, as quickly as possible — they almost lose sight of their romantic partner’s actual needs and feelings in an effort to get closer to reduce their own anxieties:
In particular, avoidance is thought to predispose a person to, or to accompany, overt narcissism or grandiosity, which includes both self-praise and denial of weaknesses (Gabbard, 1998; Wink, 1991). Attachment anxiety, in contrast, seems to predispose a person to, or to accompany, covert narcissism, which is characterized by self-focused attention, hypersensitivity to other people’s attention to or evaluation of oneself, and appraisal of oneself in terms of inherently unrealistic expectations and a sense of entitlement…. –Shaver and Mikulincer, Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics, and Change, loc. 4272.
Looking back to the infant studies which first demonstrated the attachment styles:
The C, or anxious, infant is marked by high vigilance concerning the mother’s presence and her availability or unavailability , frequent verbal or physical contact with her, noticeable wariness with respect to the stranger, intense distress when the mother leaves the room and, in many cases, anger and resistance when she returns. This seeming inconsistency between wanting mother close, then showing anger and resistance following separation from her, is the reason for the terms “ambivalent” and “resistant” in some of the labels for this attachment pattern. We think it is preferable to consider this reaction a sign of protest and retributive anger rather than ambivalence. –Shaver and Mikulincer, Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics, and Change, loc. 2287.
This points at a significant factor that shows up in many of the relationships Anxious-Preoccupieds have: anger. This helpless anger is often directed toward both parents and partners:
Adult attachment research also provides consistent evidence that self-reports of attachment anxiety are associated with one of Main and colleagues’ (1985) defining characteristics of the preoccupied state of mind: experience and expression of dysfunctional anger toward attachment figures (e.g., Mikulincer, 1998b; Rholes, Simpson, & Orina, 1999; Woike, Osier, & Candela; 1996…). –Shaver and Mikulincer, Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics, and Change, loc. 3045.
This anger is expressed toward romantic partners in a variety of protest behaviors (“pay attention to me or else!”) and sometimes turned inward — against the anxious-preoccupied’s own self-image:
Anxiously attached individuals’ intensification of negative emotions and rumination on threats and slights may fuel intense and prolonged bouts of anger. However, their fear of separation and desperate desire for others’ love may hold their resentment and anger in check, and redirect it toward themselves. As a result, anxious people’s anger can include a complex mixture of resentment, hostility, self-criticism, fear, sadness, and depression. Mikulincer (1998b) provided evidence for this characterization of anxiously attached people’s anger. Their recollections of anger-provoking experiences included an uncontrollable flood of angry feelings, persistent rumination on these feelings, and sadness and despair following conflicts. Mikulincer also found that anxious people held more negative expectations about others’ responses during anger episodes and tended to make more undifferentiated, negatively biased appraisals of relationship partners’ intentions. They attributed hostility to their partner and reacted in kind, even when there were only ambiguous cues concerning hostile intent. There is also evidence, cited earlier, that attachment anxiety is associated with anger, aggression, and hostility. –Shaver and Mikulincer, Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics, and Change, loc. 5466.
The lack of a secure sense of self-worth that can be drawn on when alone or when encountering negative signals from others creates a variety of problems for the anxious-preoccupied, including tolerating a less supportive partner by accepting a lowered sense of their own value and competence, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the anxious turn to others instead of learning to accomplish tasks for themselves:
It is common for an attachment-anxious person, who hopes to gain a partner’s love, esteem, and protection, to take some of the blame for a partner’s unreliable care (“ Something is wrong with me; I don’t have what it takes to gain my partner’s reliable attention and regard”). It is also common for such a person to ruminate about why he or she is so worthless that others do not want to provide the love and approval that is so strongly desired. These thought processes heighten and reinforce the cognitive accessibility of negative self-representations and doubts about one’s social value. Moreover, anxious overdependence on attachment figures interferes with the development of self-efficacy. Anxiously attached people generally prefer to rely on their partner rather than engage in challenging activities alone, thereby preventing them from exploring and learning new information and skills. In addition, deliberate but awkward or desperate attempts to gain proximity to an attachment figure reinforce a negative self-image, because anxious people often present themselves in degrading, incompetent, childish, or excessively needy ways in an effort to elicit compassion and support. –Shaver and Mikulincer, Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics, and Change, loc. 4104.
This lack of a secure, self-sufficient base for the anxious-preoccupied is the cause of a lot of desperate effort to attract a partner who will provide it, then anger when that partner turns out not to be the perfectly supportive figure they imagined. The Preoccupied settle too soon on someone they don’t know well and try to force them to be a good partner who will make them feel constantly secure; naturally many partners thrust into this role don’t appreciate it or desire to be someone else’s fantasy partner. The Preoccupied will use sex (and accept sex that might not be safe or good for them) to attract a partner they want to love them, rather than seeing sex as a natural outgrowth of feelings.
So what can be done to move the anxious-preoccupied to a more secure style in relationships?
Security allows a person to be less self-centered, and it’s probably good therapy for the anxious-preoccupied to think and act in a less self-concerned way to increase the strength of their compassion and empathy muscles. Instead of ruminating on your lack of supportive relationships and how inadequate you must be to have either bad or nonexistent partners, try thinking of the good things about yourself and your life, and spend some time listening to others with problems and trying to help them see that their problems can be overcome. Your subconscious is listening to everything you say, so remind yourself and others that you did in fact grow up to be a good and competent person and have a lot to be grateful for.
Try to identify supportive figures from your past who nurtured and cared for you in a way that made you feel safer and stronger — if neither parent fit that role, consider uncles and aunts, grandparents, and good friends. Imagine that person standing by your side and telling you that you can accomplish what you need to, and that you are a worthy person to be loved. Let that feeling of security wash through you, and cultivate the habit of thinking of those reassuring figures as being with you in the present when things seem to be going badly.
Focus on the good relationships you have had, spend less time thinking about the bad. Think enough of yourself to avoid getting caught up in every new relationship as if it might be The One. The time you spend obsessing over someone you barely know (projecting onto them qualities they probably don’t have) could be better spent getting to know lots of other people, one of whom might be much better suited to you.
And for those with religious faith, use it for reassurance — that’s one of the positive roles of faith:
The Golden Rule, for example, which enjoins people to treat others as they would like to be treated, is easier to follow if one knows what it is like to be treated well, accurately empathizes with other people, and provides what others need, without feeling cheated or entitled to effusive praise. Interestingly, religious “models” (Oman & Thoresen, 2003) are generally portrayed in scriptures and religious stories as security-providing attachment figures for their followers, who in turn are enjoined to treat others as the model treats them. Jesus, for example, is described by John (13: 35) as saying, “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Luke (6 :30–36) describes Jesus as giving the following specific instructions: “Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them. … Love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return.” In Buddhism , a common form of compassion meditation involves remembering vividly how one feels when someone provides unconditional love (one’s mother is often suggested, but someone else can be substituted if she was not a supportive attachment figure), then turn that process, in one’s mind (and eventually in one’s behavior as well), toward other targets. Chödrön (2003) describes this process as follows: To begin, we start just where we are. We connect with the place where we currently feel loving-kindness, compassion, joy, or equanimity, however limited they may be. … We aspire that we and our loved ones can enjoy the quality we are practicing. Then we gradually extend that aspiration to a widening circle of relationships. … “May I be free from suffering and the root of suffering. May you be free from suffering and the root of suffering. May all beings be free of suffering and the root of suffering.” (pp. 66– 67) –Shaver and Mikulincer, Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics, and Change, loc. 12024.
Other posts of interest:
Why We Are Attracted to Bad Partners (Who Resemble a Parent)
Anxious-Preoccupied / Dismissive-Avoidant Couples: the Silent Treatment
Anxious-Preoccupied: Stuck on the Dismissive?
Limerence vs. Love
Anxious-Preoccupied: Clingy and Insecure Relationship Example
“Bad Boyfriends” – Useful for Improving Current Relationships
Controlling Your Inner Critic
Stable is Boring? “Psychology Today” Article on Bad Boyfriends
Do the Anxious-Preoccupied Dream (More) of Love?
Attachment Type Combinations in Relationships
I don’t know if I might actually have something closer to a fearful style overall, but I’m dealing with attachment anxiety at the moment. I suffer from an anxiety disorder anyway but this is truly horrible – probably my most feared type of anxiety because it REALLY takes over!
If I might add to what you’ve written, I’ve found pretty much the most effective way for me to control it (outside of mindfulness and recruiting close friends to help me reframe negative assumptions I make about myself) is to be more assertive. You need to act like you deserve to have your needs met if you want to feel less anxious. I find that if I prime myself beforehand (for instance, I notice I wasn’t assertive in a particular circumstance and later feel extremely anxious so make a mental note to be assertive next time) then it’s a lot easier, though. My immediate response to unexpected threat/minor rejections is to ‘smooth it over’ – pretending it didn’t happen in order to “make nice”. Sometimes – in some situations – this is a good tactic: you have to pick your battles. But if you do this a lot, it reduces your self esteem and I inevitably find that that’s when I feel at my most anxious in a relationship – when something didn’t go well and I didn’t speak up for myself: I guess because I absorb the “negative feedback” instead and feel ‘knocked down a peg’.
I actually disagree with the whole “assertive but not aggressive” thing people tend to say as well – to a certain point, at least. I err far too much towards being apologetic anyway (and meekness can actually trigger people just like aggressiveness can, so it’s not a great strategy), but I think sometimes when putting your foot down you need to show (controlled) anger. I understand some people with an anxious strategy express anger easily and not in a very helpful way, but I think many (like myself) have difficulty expressing it at all, and it’s a very important emotion to express. Anger (so long as it’s not just a chaotic explosion!) increases your self esteem. It’s the emotion that says you deserve better. So I think it’s an important thing to feel comfortable with expressing – particularly if you can react quickly (which I find very difficult!)
Thank you for writing this post. I saw my beliefs, feelings, and thoughts in these words. Especially, the paragraph starting with “This lack of a secure, self-sufficient base…” That paragraph was essentially a mirror. I’m in therapy now and have been for a number of years working on my attachment style as well as other things and it always seems like I get worse before I’m better. Bookmarking this page yo use as reference in the future. Thank you once again.