The Tragic Dilemma of Anxious Attachers

Woman, fully clothed, floating face-up in water with a blank stare.

Anxious attachment is a pattern of human relating rooted in childhood abandonment. This abandonment — whether physical or emotional and no matter how subtle — interferes with the maturation process, causes numerous unhealthy dependencies, and invariably leads to self-abandonment. Today, I’d like to point out an often overlooked but particularly insidious relational dynamic common to anxious attachers.

But first, a little background info…

What We Didn’t Get From Our Parents

Parents of the anxiously attached (whether super-loving or total shit-heels) tend to be ill-equipped for emotional attunement and skillful parenting. Maybe they pay the bills, make dinner, and send their kids to a decent school, but they always fail to meet their children’s fundamental attachment needs.

In The Emotionally Absent Mother, Jasmin Lee Cori lists the most important caretaker behaviors associated with secure attachment:

  • Responding to the child’s physical and emotional needs promptly, consistently, and in an attuned way.
  • Responding to the child’s attempts at closeness in a welcoming way (not turning away or providing only a cool reception), showing a mutual desire for closeness.
  • Tuning in to the child’s emotional states and demonstrating empathy.
  • Looking at the child with love.

She also shares ten critical messages we need to receive from our caregivers to build a foundation of secure attachment and develop a healthy self:

  • I’m glad that you’re here.
  • I see you.
  • You are special to me.
  • I respect you.
  • I love you.
  • Your needs are important to me. You can turn to me for help.
  • I am here for you. I’ll make time for you.
  • I’ll keep you safe.
  • You can rest in me.
  • I enjoy you. You brighten my heart.

Many people think their childhood was “pretty good.” But if any of the above doesn’t align with your experiences, it’s possible your childhood actually wasn’t all that nurturing after all. The fact that you didn’t die before making it to adulthood doesn’t really say much about the quality of your upbringing.

How We Adapt To Unmet Needs

Most insecurely attached folks already know at a young age that one or both of their caregivers are emotionally incompetent. I’ve heard many clients say they didn’t expect too much from this or that parent because they were never around, they were alcoholic, nothing was ever good enough for them, they were always angry, or whatever.

As kids, they learned to “turn off wanting” (to borrow another phrase from Jasmin). But obviously, you can’t not have needs. You can only ignore, disguise, suppress, and hide them from those who will punish you for having needs, then try to get them satisfied in other ways while concealing the telltale shame, urgency, and distress of the chronically under-nurtured.

Thus, anxious attachers learn to not overtly want or need anything from anyone, although they desperately do. When you always feel like a burden to your family for having needs (or for merely existing), you learn to shrink and be compulsively self-reliant. And yet, these are people who never really learned what their needs are, how to get them satisfied in appropriate ways, or what healthy interdependence even looks like.

This often produces an individual who just gives, gives, gives to everyone in hopes that somebody will reciprocate (i.e., codependency). This is a covert strategy for getting your needs met by meeting others’ needs because you have a visceral terror (rooted in childhood trauma) of even acknowledging your needs.

And whether this developmental trauma manifests as codependency or not, the result is typically someone who suffers from both chronically unmet needs and a fear of getting them met.

Not an ideal combination.

How This Undermines Romantic Partnerships

Arriving at my point, I’ve noticed that many anxious attachers strive for self-sufficiency and needlessness in so many areas of their life that they end up bringing ALL their unmet needs and desperate expectations into romantic partnerships. This would be impossible to navigate for even the healthiest of partners, so it really doesn’t help that anxious attachers tend to shack up with avoidant and unavailable people — literally the least likely to meet their needs.

And maybe that’s just it — I’m terrified of addressing my deepest needs, so I’ll date someone who doesn’t even know they exist.

However, in addition to the profound self-sabotage of dating unavailable partners, there’s an equally tragic desire for those partners to fill an impossible void. Compulsive self-reliance and widespread under-dependency on others (natural consequences of trauma) inevitably lead to a single-pointed over-dependency in romance. I’m not sure we do this because we want our partner to do the job our parents failed at. But that’s certainly how it shakes out.

In How to Be an Adult in Relationships, David Richo states, “A relationship cannot be expected to fulfill all our needs. It only shows them to us and makes a modest contribution to their fulfillment.” And more poetically, “The perfect partner is the mirage we see after crossing the desert of insufficient love.”

Furthermore, if we’re hoping for this one ass person to meet the majority of our needs, we’re inadvertently making them the most important, powerful, and influential human in our lives. More important than our own self! The obvious consequence of which is a dreadful inability to leave them — even when they’re abusive, neglectful, emotionally incompetent, or wholly unavailable to us.

We become trapped.

How To Escape

As you can see, these people aren’t trapped in a bad relationship, per se. They’re unsuspecting prisoners of a distant childhood that never taught them it’s safe to have needs and totally appropriate to express them.

That’s the fucking problem here.

So when our friends urge us to “just leave” our terrible partner, their good intentions cannot make up for a gross understanding of the depth and scope of this dilemma. Leaving must necessarily be the last step in a healing process to prevent the unavoidable backslide of the still wounded, unsupported, and ill-equipped (unless, of course, you’re in a life-threatening situation, leave immediately).

Now, this article isn’t gonna heal your childhood trauma (wouldn’t that be nice), but I can give you a couple pointers:

  1. Never again make another human being the majority shareholder in your life.
  2. Read last week’s article on the fundamentals of change.
  3. Rid yourself of unhelpful or harmful associations using this method.
  4. Discover what your needs are and how you can satisfy them in healthy ways.
  5. Read up on self-abandonment, boundaries, and healthy interdependence.
  6. Join groups, communities, and healing tribes where you can practice secure attachment and healthy relating with safe, mature adults. The reparenting process requires both inner and outer work. Meaning you’ll have to become the parent you never had AND surround yourself with nurturing people.
  7. Practice being vulnerable, asking for help, and relying on various trustworthy people to meet some of your needs with the goal of diversifying your portfolio, so to speak. Not being overly dependent on any of them, but also not being compulsively self-reliant and needless.
  8. Follow my friend Rikki on Instagram and pick up her book, The Anxious Hearts Guide.
  9. Find a trauma-informed coach or therapist to walk you through this process. It’s virtually impossible to do in isolation. Relational trauma must necessarily be healed relationally (duh).
  10. After making significant strides on your healing journey, maybe then reevaluate your desire and ability to get in or out of a relationship.

And if this sounds like a lot of hard work, that’s because it is. But you know what’s even harder? Living with unresolved trauma and chronically unmet needs for your entire life and then dying that way.

You have other options.


Do you understand anxious attachment better now?

Do you understand anxious attachment better now?

Do you understand anxious attachment better now?

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*This article contains Amazon affiliate links to the books mentioned

Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

2 thoughts on “The Tragic Dilemma of Anxious Attachers

  1. I love the 10 critical messages we need to receive from our caregivers… BUT
    If it was something not said to us as children, young adults, old adults… How are we supposed to “ask” for these messages now?
    I have one parent who did(and still does!) double duty… Constantly present, always saying things from the both of them. The one never even said I love you to the other. That one just knew the other did.
    I know that parent is 90 and we had a scary summer of close to death experiences… And, “I love you” was not uttered once. I grew to accept a pat on the back as every word I wanted desperately to hear… Yet, never will

    1. You might try saying something like, “[Mom/Dad], I know that you do love me, but I would really love to hear you say those words out loud some time. Is that something you could do for me?” In other words, you can literally just ask. But also know that for some people who don’t verbalize well, there may be some old trauma, pain, fear, insecurity, or whatever behind that wall. And it’s not that they DON’T love you, but that perhaps they are challenged to express it verbally because of something that has nothing to do with you. So be patient with whatever response you get. 🙏🏼❤️

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