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BY: T. Franklin Murphy | December 7, 2018 (modified January 19, 2023)
Attachment anxiety is self-perpetuating, repeatedly spoiling relationships and increasing attachment anxieties.
The internet is a buzz with articles on anxiety and attachment. Okay, well, perhaps it is my highly biased news feed giving me exactly what I want. I was raised in a puritan environment. Parents that never separated, seldom argued, and always, at least appeared to always, act in unison. I was initial exposed to attachment anxiety, so I thought, reading Bowlby’s attachment theory in my first college psychology class. I vaguely knew abuse and neglect existed from stories that somehow penetrated my protected childhood. I cognitively knew that the world was not always kind, relationships weren’t always perfect, and love sometimes hurts.
The college text book theories eventually jumped to life. A long difficult marriage, divorce, and late return to dating was a shocking exposure to reality. I discovered my own insecurities and the powerful influence they played in the unfolding of my life story. Twenty-five years in law-enforcement, with several years dedicated to family crimes, also broadened my knowledge, piqued curiosity, and washed away childhood ignorance.
The world is full of imperfect relationships. Many people blindly land in commitments that hurt rather than heal, finding themselves trapped between fear of abandonment, emotional abuse, and glorious hopes of change. The anxious lover stays in relationships they should leave, runs from opportunities they should pursue, and commit to people they marginally know. Their romantic anxieties not only disrupt love, but also self-perpetuate, creating more fear and less security.
Relationships and Wellness
We rely on relationships throughout our lives. Connections create, more than anything else, the experience of living. Our dependence on primary relationships (parents, lovers and children) create strong emotions. John Bowlby, one of the early contributors to attachment theories, wrote “In high degree indeed, a person's whole emotional life - the underlying tone of how he feels - is determined by the state of these long-term, committed relationships.” (1988, location 990).
As long as these primary relationships are running smoothly, we are content; when connection is threatened, we are jealous, anxious and even angry; when we act in ways that are destructive to the connection, we feel shame and guilt; and when the connection is broken, we feel sorrow and despair. (1988).
Many studies have shown that insecure attachment styles are associated with depression and anxiety. In a 2012 study, insecure attachment styles were discovered to have a broad connection to psychopathology beyond depression and anxiety. (Jinyao, Y., Xiongzhao, Z., Auerbach, R., Gardiner, C., Lin, C., Yuping, W., & Shuqiao, Y. 2012). The anxious lover has a variety of challenges arising from the foundations of their turbulent attachment style.
Daniel Goleman describes the link between relationships and well-being as “a double-edged sword.” He continues, “nourishing relationships have a beneficial impact on our health, while toxic ones can act like slow poison in our bodies.” (2007 ,page 10).
The feeling affects of interaction resonate loudly within our being from infancy to the grave. The stings and joys that accompany early primary interactions form a working model that we employ on all future relationships.
We adapt early to the given environment of childhood to extract as much joy and minimal pain from the situation. These patterns engrained deep in our psyche are both self-perpetuating and stubborn. Typically, without major interventions, a secure child grows into a secure adult; an anxiously ambivalent child grows into an anxious ambivalent adult; and an anxious avoidant child grows into an anxious avoidant adult.
Childhood Impact on Attachment
Our adaptation to the healthy or chaotic environments of childhood internalizes perceptions of relationships, creating a foundation that will be used to understand our adult connections. For some their childhood relationships are chaotic and inconsistent. They learn to extract as much nourishment as possible from these impoverished environments. They place protective boundaries to limit hurt and engage in active tactics to fulfill emotional and physical needs.
While more formable in childhood, “attachment injuries” can occur in any relationship. When injuries are severe enough, they can disrupt our sense of self, initiating deployment of defensive strategies for protection. The injury occurs when we intensely need the other for comfort and the other isn’t emotionally available or responsive. (Gottman, 2011, location 6383).
For those anxiously attached, their emotional needs are many, demanding constant presence of the lover to calmly cuddle the emotions and reassure the frightened child living inside. The frequency of these demands, unfortunately, create constant opportunity for more attachment injuries—a harrowing and self-perpetuating cycle.
The anxiously attached must struggle with the diverging paths between healthy behaviors and misguided feelings pushing for protection. The leaned model guiding action posits that emotional needs must be bitterly fought for with war like tactics. These models must be updated when in a relationship with loving and secure partners where love is freely given.
It’s impossible not to feel anxiety when each moment is a battle to gain approval and avoid disapproval. The world of relationships is confusing, exciting the angst of this nightmare burden. The mind constantly swirling with fear of rejection while the heart yearns for connection. The overburdened mind quickly turns to disconnection, clinginess, anger and jealousy. A quiver of arrows determined to force love but the flawed design only creates destruction.
The dramatic swings from elation to biting fear characterize anxious love. The extremities of emotions motivate unhealthy reactions—abstaining from love, fleeing from connection, manipulating attention, or finding non-threatening and unfulfilling partners.
Carl Hindy Ph.D., J. Conrad Schwartz Ph.D. and Archie Brodsky conducted extensive research on anxious and obsessive attachments. Their book, If This is Love, Why do I Feel So Insecure?, is an enlightening and extensive examination of the topic. They describe the emotional roller-coaster ride of romantic insecurity as a “tempestuous experience.” Involving both “excitement, joy and sexual arousal” and “distress, fear, shame, anger, contempt, and disgust.” (1990, Location 248).
Behaviors necessary to build love (see Building Love) seem counterintuitive to anxious lovers. Giving attention, affection, and acceptance while opening up to vulnerability would have been disastrous in their chaotic past. Feeding the relationship with necessary trust and individual freedoms is nightmarish when we are starving, akin to the widow that fed the prophet Elijah the last portion of meal from her barrel. (1 Kings 17:9-16, The King James Version). Only through the painful march through vulnerability, with a healthy partner, can we build an emotionally rewarding relationship.
Taking care of our own needs first makes much more sense from the narrow view of fear where the threat of abandonment looms. The anxious lover lives in a lonely unfulfilling cocoon of protections, gnawing through the fortifications and feeding the relationship when we desperately ache for nourishment is the only escape.
John Cacioppo and William Patrick wrote:
The anxious lover often misconstrues the cause of their anxiety, blaming a partner (see Blaming the Partner) for triggering the emotions. Certainly, it’s possible. Some lovers provoke anxiety. Their lack of consistency, purposely withholding of love, and non-committed connection is worthy of worry. The inconsistent lover has mastered the art of periodic rewards, driving maddening fluctuations between hopeful feelings of love and desperation of abandonment.
The broken love maps of the anxiously in love make navigating these differences impossible without help. Healthy relationships effectively mesh consistency with flexibility (see Flexibility), allowing for unsuspected deviations, while keeping them within manageable boundaries. Trust falls within these continuums of consistency and flexibility.
Strengthening Relationship Bonds
To strengthen bonds, a couple must work through the deviations. Many years ago, I intervened in a heated exchange between an anxious lover and his girlfriend. She returned home from work an hour late (deviation). He was livid (a response to his anxiety). She explained that work was busy, and she had to work overtime. Fear that she was cheating, he screamed, “I have to know.” His fear of abandonment overwhelmed his system, leaving no room for trust. There is no way to always “know.” If knowing is the only path to relieve the anxiety, then all current and future relationships are doomed to fail.
A mourning young man, recently left by a potential lover after a short relationship, wrote to Psychology Today’s relationship expert. He explained that he is insecure in relationships and this insecurity tends to create the failure he desperately seeks to avoid. He needed help. Her response was blunt but on point. Sometimes we try so hard to be politically correct that we miss golden opportunities to provide glimpses into reality. Hara Estroff Marano honestly replied, “Insecurity is an unattractive trait” (Marano, 2013, p. 38).
When early interactions with a new potential partner are marred with insecurity, a healthy person, seeking a mutually fulfilling relationship, typically pulls back. The overwhelming demands to quell the seemingly never-ending storms leaves the less anxious lover’s needs unheard. Displays of confidence and self-sufficiency broadcast a more hopeful possibility of a mutually benefitting connection, where trust and vulnerability can eventually be integrated.
"The overwhelming demands to quell the seemingly never-ending storms leaves the less anxious lover’s needs unheard." ~T. Franklin Murphy
Relationship Anxiety and Abusive Partners
The anxious lover’s style of loving limits partner choices, often attracting other anxiety ridden lovers and narcissistic predators (see Leaving the Narcissist). These romantic choices have power to further spoil development, creating environments that are not well-enough to support growth, eventually leading to another anxiety filled ending that further mars security. The abandoned lover is left to recruit a new level of ego protecting defenses just to survive.
Predators have a knack for coming on strong. Handsome or beautiful and full of romance. They are full of adoration and non-stop contact. This is exactly what the anxious lover feeds on. They feel rescued from a life-long battle of not being good enough. According to Noelle Nelson in her book, Dangerous Relationships, this is a warning sign of a narcissistic predator—a dangerous lover (1997). Once in the predator’s snares, the whirlwind lover transforms, insensitive to needs, pushing against boundaries, and manipulating with emotional abuse and often violence.
When two anxious lovers embark on a relationship their initial mutual obsession relieves much of the anxiety. They also move quickly, proclaiming the discovery of a soul mate and forever Love. They rush into commitment, perhaps to secure a relationship before their shame is exposed. The total immersion in love appears to be the cure to their attachment ailments. It feels good. It feels like they finally acquired what they always wanted.
However, these instant relationships are ripe for nasty surprises. When conflict arises, which inevitably happens in all relationships, the noxious anxiety returns, creating a difficult (but not unsurmountable) challenge for those easily taxed with relationship fears. The emotionally laden responses bounce back and forth triggering each partners sensitivity to abandonment. High anxiety is often expressed through anger and quickly can progress to contempt and disgust. Partners often defend against these growing divides through distancing and attack.
A better approach is to filter perspective partners, limiting the probability of a hurtful mismatch. By fighting the urge to quickly commit, slow down and learn. Let’s return to my earlier story of the anxious lover that reached to Psychology Today for advice. Following Morano’s initial bluntness, she provides a treasure of helpful direction to this struggling young man. She follows with this astute wisdom:
Relationships are powerful forces for forming a healthy psyche. They strengthen wellness or bolster pathologies. If our past has complicated this defining force, we need help to bring us back, clearing our vision of ourselves, others and the involved emotions, so we can find people that lift rather than destruct.
As for me and my anxieties with attachment, I slowed down. I painfully backed out of ill-matched relationships until I found someone who could provide love necessary for development; and I could provide the love necessary for her development. The process was slow and sometimes painful, confronting and separating demons from the past from emotions in the present. However, under the right conditions, we update our love maps, integrating a healthier model of love where we can find trust, not being hurt in vulnerability and able to enjoy the blessings of security.
Bowlby, J. (1988) A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Basic Books. Kindle Edition
Cacioppo, J.T.; Patrick, W. (2009) Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. W.W. Norton & Company; Kindle edition
Hindy, C.; Schwartz, J. C.; & Brodsky, A (1990). If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? Learn How to Deal With Anxiety, Jealousy, and Depression in Romance--and Get the Love You Deserve! Fawcett; 1st Ballantine Books. Kindle edition
Goleman, D. (2007) Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. Bantam; Kindle edition
Gottman, J. (2011) The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. W.W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition
Jinyao, Y., Xiongzhao, Z., Auerbach, R., Gardiner, C., Lin, C., Yuping, W., & Shuqiao, Y. (2012). INSECURE ATTACHMENT AS A PREDICTOR OF DEPRESSIVE AND ANXIOUS SYMPTOMOLOGY. Depression and Anxiety, 29(9), 789-796. Retrieved from Deep Dyve
Marano, H. E. (2013, July/August). Undone by Insecurity. Psychology Today, 46(4), 38.
Nelson, N. (1997) Dangerous Relationships: How to Identify and Respond to the Seven Warning Signs of a Troubled Relationship. Da Capo Press.