Changing Your Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment Style or Type

Secure Base for the Anxious-Preoccupied

Secure Base for the Anxious-Preoccupied

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

Anxious-Preoccupied: Activating Strategies

High Maintenance

High Maintenance

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.

Case of Anxious-Preoccupied Protest Behavior
Type: Anxious-Preoccupied

[The contents of this post have been added to the Type: Anxious-Preoccupied page.]

Anxious-Preoccupied: Clingy and Insecure Relationship Example

Anxious-Preoccupied: Insecure Attachment

Anxious-Preoccupied: Insecure Attachment

A good example of the problems the Anxious-Preoccupied have in finding a good long-term partner came up a few days ago.

A good friend, Person A, had gone out with Person B briefly, then decided there was no future to the relationship and told Person B they should just be friends (“friend-zoning,” as the Red Pill guys say.) Person B seemed to accept that, but continued to think of Person A as a Significant Other. Person A is a Secure, while Person B is Anxious-Preoccupied.

Months later, Person A had what amounts to a stroke and was in the hospital and rehab for months. Friends, including Person B (who normally lives hundreds of miles away), rallied around and supported Person A with visits and messages. Person A, of course, was in no shape to respond, which everyone understood.

Now Person A has returned to work, though lingering brain damage is limiting his abilities and stamina. Sometimes he responds to text messages, but usually not. He can walk only limited distances and tires easily, going to bed at 8 PM after exhausting days trying to keep up with his job. He is stubborn and independent and wants to do everything himself. He has no energy or time for socializing.

A few of his friends (including me) got him out to a small birthday dinner and posted a picture of the group on Facebook. That and a failure to respond to texts set off Person B, who had a meltdown on Facebook and defriended people involved, telling everyone that Person A was obviously recovered, doing fine, and seeing someone else and intentionally lying about it.

The moral of the story: if you’re Anxious-Preoccupied, your insecurities will build in the absence of reassurance, and you’ll do great damage to your social ties by acting clingy, possessive, and jealous. The controlling nature of the neediness shown scares away potential partners who don’t want constant drama in their relationships, and the anxious-preoccupied’s fear of abandonment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

From the page Type: Anxious-Preoccupied:

The key to happier relationships for the anxious-preoccupied is working toward an inner feeling of security and independence. This is easier when a Secure partner is present — the reliability of the partner’s signalling and response reassures, letting inner security grow. But even the single Preoccupied can take a clue from their type label — they are preoccupied with the idea of a relationship. Getting involved with absorbing activities and friendships with others can take their mind off the problem of partner relationships. And self-coaching can help — replacing inner dialog about failings and worries about what others think of you with reassuring self-talk can help prevent overly-clingy and paranoid behavior that drives away significant others. Build confidence in yourself and your value by accomplishing real tasks, and try harder to see things from others’ point of view before acting on fears and anger about how they treat you. Soothe your own worries before they trouble others, and have more faith in their goodwill before you assume the worst.

More on Attachment and Personality Types:

What Attachment Type Are You?
Type: Secure
Type: Anxious-Preoccupied
Type: Dismissive-Avoidant
Type: Fearful-Avoidant (aka Anxious-Avoidant)
Avoidant: Emotions Repressed Beneath Conscious Level
Serial Monogamy: the Fearful-Avoidant Do It Faster
Anxious-Preoccupied: Stuck on the Dismissive?
Anxious-Preoccupied / Dismissive-Avoidant Couples: the Silent Treatment
Anxious-Preoccupied: Clingy and Insecure Relationship Example
Domestic Violence: Ray and Janay Rice
Malignant Narcissists
Teaching Narcissists to Activate Empathy
Histrionic Personality: Seductive, Dramatic, Theatrical
Life Is Unfair! The Great Chain of Dysfunction Ends With You.
Love Songs of the Secure Attachment Type
On Addiction and the Urge to Rescue
“Bad Boyfriends” for Kindle, $2.99
Controlling Your Inner Critic
“Big Bang Theory” — Aspergers and Emotional/Social Intelligence
Porn Addiction and NoFAP
Introverts in Management
Dismissive-Avoidants as Parents