I have come to realize that dating with an anxious attachment style is much like trying to plug a hole in your soul by stuffing an entire other person into the throbbing existential gape in your chest. I’ve experienced this personally, ohhh, say one million times, give or take. And many of my clients exhibit the same behavior.
I used to think, Why do I act this way in relationships? What the hell is wrong with me?
Well, after working with enough people, the mystery has completely evaporated. Now the plight of the anxiously attached is painfully obvious to me. But before I tell you this tale of woe, let me break down attachment theory right quick in case you’ve never googled it before.
Attachment Theory In 30 Words
•Secure — I’m good. You’re good. Let’s share.
•Avoidant — I’m good. You’re bad. I don’t need you.
•Anxious — I’m bad. You’re good. I need you.
•Disorganized — I’m bad. You’re bad. WTF?!?!
There is a book called Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller that elucidates all this in exquisite detail. It is a great read and my recommendation if you would like to learn more. However, I just summarized attachment theory in ten seconds. You now have a good enough lay of the land to better understand the driving forces of all human relationships. You’re welcome. (Also, see Who’s In The Dating Pool? for more on attachment theory.)
Anxious attachment begins in childhood when kids learn that they are not worthy, good enough, or lovable. Children reach this conclusion in myriad ways — inconsistent or shitty parenting, abandonment, abuse, neglect, control, etc. Even by someone literally telling them they are bad.
There is usually some form of abandonment, whether physical or emotional, that invariably results in self-abandonment. My family is not meeting my needs; therefore, 1) something is wrong with me, and 2) I have to hustle if I ever want someone to love me.
Once it’s clear that they are a burden to humanity, the compulsive search for external validation is on! Certainly, this happens in school, family, and career, but what better way to permanently eradicate a gnawing sense of unworthiness than through romantic love?
This is what the proverbial knight in shining armor has been sent to destroy.
With the impossibly deep pain of childhood abandonment, no confidence in their inherent worth, and a chronic feeling of unmet needs, the anxiously attached person carries a void in their chest cavity capable of engulfing innocent bystanders and random passersby like the gravitational force of a black hole.
For someone with an anxious attachment style, usually their primary concern is that of urgently plugging the hole by any means necessary.
Imagine for a moment that you are suddenly butt-ass naked at a crowded street fair. You would probably grab anything to cover up your exposed privates — a pizza box, an old lady’s church hat, a stray dog. Literally anything. It just has to fulfill an immediate need.
Yeah, anxious attachment feels kind of like that.
Such people are quite adept at manufacturing love out of thin air. They can turn a first date into a honeymoon right before your eyes. These are the super-boyfriends and super-girlfriends, willing to go to any length to demonstrate how indescribably wonderful and worthwhile they are. Purveyors of fairytales and fantasies, they are too good to be true.
The problem is after they convince someone to love them, the hole has been plugged, and the mission is complete. Which is to say that anxious folks are strong starters. They’re good at getting a partner but not always remarkably skilled at the follow-through.
I just need you to plug my abandonment hole. I don’t know about all this healthy adult relationship stuff. Hadn’t really thought that far ahead.
Often, they’re just looking for someone to say “I love you” enough times to drown out the relentless voice of insecurity in their head. Unfortunately, no amount of love and adoration can uproot the negative view of self that besets the anxiously attached.
Like Dr. Vincent Felitti once said, “It is hard to get enough of something that almost works.”
Dating And Self-Abandonment
Another obviously terrible byproduct of anxious attachment is worrying so much about the approval of others that you forget that your approval has equal value. Anxious types put on the full-court press to win over a new love interest, all the while ignoring red flags and glaring incompatibilities.
They may focus with astonishing tunnel-vision on securing a permanent relationship with someone, only to find out much later that they don’t even like the person all that much. It’s kind of funny but really fucking not funny at the same time.
In short, anxious people are practically ineffective at dating — a process meant to involve sharing your authentic selves with one another and mutually deciding if ya’ll might enjoy each other’s company for a long time. Dating is completely botched when instead, one person is so desperate for connection that they try to cram themselves into a role they believe the other will approve of.
Like a moth to the flame, this phenomenon is curiously self-destructive.
How Do I Change?
Think of changing your attachment style like moving to another planet where everything you thought you knew about relationships is completely wrong. It will take persistent, intentional learning and practice over a period of time to unlearn the crap that’s been driving your bus for decades. It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight, but it will be the single-most-important factor in improving the quality of your life.
Identify all your emotionally immature behaviors and practice their opposites. Discover your limiting beliefs about self and others and rewrite them. Envision your ideal relationship in great detail, so you know if a person is right for you or not. This is what the Fix Your Picker Downloadable Guidebook is all about.
Improve your relationship with yourself. Remember, anxious attachment is characterized by a negative view of yourself and a positive view of others. You absolutely have to change this. There are innumerable ways to go about it. My article on self-love is a good place to start.
Join a healing community or support group of some sort. In the book Change or Die, Alan Deutschman notes how, left to their own devices, 90% of heart disease patients do not change their lifestyle post-heart surgery. Yet, 77% of patients enrolled in a supportive program were able to maintain lifestyle changes long-term and avoid further health complications, like death. In other words, willpower is dog shit. Get help.
Self-awareness is key. See a therapist. Hire a coach. Read books. Go to workshops and conferences. Subscribe to my blog. Learn about vulnerability, boundaries, intimacy, etc. But never forget that knowledge is not enough — you have to apply it. Nothing works if you don’t.
If you’ve got some deep-rooted trauma stored in your body and your subconscious mind, you may need to see a trauma specialist, hypnotist, or energy healer to exorcise those demons. There are some things you simply cannot heal by yourself. Please, ask for help.
There Is Hope
In closing, I want to assure you that having an anxious attachment style is not a death sentence. On the contrary, being in this camp means that you have a tremendous capacity for love, affection, and self-sacrifice. And these can all be wonderful things if used as directed by your healthcare professional.
Relationships are hard work for everyone, but your attachment style is what determines what that work will look like for you. It’s all part of the human experience, my friends.
Enjoy the ride.
*If you don’t know your attachment style, take this easy quiz.*