And how awareness of them can create space for change
If you have an anxious or ambivalent attachment style, I don’t have to tell you how stressful love can be. We are all worthy of love, but for those of us who are anxious, it can be hard to believe that we are lovable. Being in a relationship when you are anxious can be a far cry from the safe and secure experience we all hope for.
I remember often feeling as though I “had it all together” when I was single. I would feel confident and in control of my anxiety — positive that I was finally ready for a relationship. No matter how hard I tried, relationships had a way of disrupting the equanimity I’d established on my own. My fears would always take over.
Those with an anxious attachment style can have a hard time trusting in love. Even if we do find love, we can spend a great deal of our energy worrying that it will slip through our fingertips at any time. We learned early on that love is unpredictable and inconsistent and that no matter what we do — it’s impossible to hold on to.
Fear of abandonment
Those with an anxious attachment style learn early in life that love can be there one day and gone the next. This fear can lead us to feel as though the rug is going to be pulled out from beneath us at any moment.
“[Those with an anxious attachment style] can be hypervigilant about relational slights or any hint of abandonment, which amps up their attachment system into overdrive. Anticipating the impending inevitability of abandonment that they are convinced is coming, they often feel sad, disappointed, or angry before anything actually happens in their adult relationships.”
The fear of abandonment can be all-consuming and prevent us from ever feeling safe and secure in our relationships. This fear can lead to a tightening of our grip on the person we care about. We then resort to behaviours that are clingy, needy, or even controlling. The fear of abandonment can lead us to act in ways that push our loved one way.
The fear of abandonment can get in the way of our ability to trust in a relationship that is safe and nourishing for us. It can also lead us to stay in relationships that aren’t. Our fear of someone else abandoning us can actually lead us to abandon ourselves. We are so focused on not losing our partner that we can lose sight of what it is that we want and need in our relationship.
The fear of abandonment can lead to patterns of self-abandonment, which is when we end up rejecting parts of ourselves by neglecting or suppressing our own needs. In this case, it tends to be because we are so focused on ensuring our partner doesn’t abandon us that we don’t have the capacity to show up for ourselves.
Fear of separation
When I look back on vacations or holidays with my family, more than anything I remember who I was dating at the time and how distressing it was for me to be away from them. Instead of being present with my family, I was glued to my phone trying to stay connected to my partner. The separation caused me so much anxiety that it felt impossible to actually enjoy the time apart.
It can be common for those with an anxious attachment style to overly rely on our partners to help us regulate. It is called co-regulation, which is defined as “warm and responsive interactions that provide support and that help someone understand, express, and modulate his or her feelings, thoughts, and behaviours.”
The fear of separation means we are not only experiencing anxiety when we are with our partner, worrying about the impermanence of their love, but also when we are not. Someone with an anxious attachment style may therefore have a hard time finding opportunities to relax at all.
This can lead to a painful cycle in our relationships where we are doing everything we can to co-regulate with our partners, often at the expense of our own well-being. This is described by Diane Poole Heller in her booked The Power of Attachment:
“When we’re not able to self-soothe and aren’t connected to who we are and what’s going on with us — that is, our important needs and wants — then it’s only natural that we’ll contribute the cycle of reaching out to connect with others and behaving in ways designed to charm or please them.”
Learning how to self-soothe can be one way that we can ease the fear of separation. If we feel confident with our ability to be there for ourselves, the idea of the person we love leaving us is no longer experienced as life-threatening. It is important to remember that although as adults a partner leaving us is usually not life-threatening, as children we are dependent on our caregivers for our survival.
As adults, we may need to gently acknowledge and remind ourselves that we are safe. It might feel as though the ground is falling out from beneath us when the fear of separation arises, but we have the power to soothe ourselves and find ease in separation.
Fear of feeling like a burden
Think of the last time your partner offered to go out of their way for you. How did it feel? Did you feel loved and appreciated? Or rather, did you feel uncomfortable and immediately begin to think of how you might be able to repay them for what they did for you?
For many of us with an anxious attachment style, the act of receiving love can be far more challenging than acts of giving. At times, I even find myself worrying that my mere presence is burdensome. In an attempt to relieve our partner of their imagined burden, we may find ourselves holding back or trying to make ourselves small in the relationship.
This fear can make it difficult for someone with an anxious attachment style to have and express needs in the relationship. We tend to be well-versed in identifying and meeting other people’s needs, but our own needs can be easily lost.
Constantly worrying that we are burdening our partners can make it extremely difficult to find ease in our relationships. There is a paradox that tends to exist in the relationships of those with an anxious-attachment style: we want to be loved and know how to want it, but we don’t know how to receive it. When we don’t receive it, it can be all too easy to blame our partner for not meeting our needs and loving us in the way that we want to be loved.
Recognizing these fears can help us to a create shift in our relationships. Unfortunately, awareness itself does not equal change, but it does create space for the possibility of change. When we realize that fear is at the root of thought, behaviour, or a dynamic occurring in our relationship, we can start with a gentle acknowledgement that the fear is present. These are fears that originated early in our lives when we were helpless and dependent on our caregivers. These fears are a normal reaction to our early experiences.
If we can learn to recognize our fears and greet them with compassion, perhaps we can begin to move toward a more secure attachment style. Researchers say it is possible for someone with an insecure attachment style to move towards secure attachment. They also never said it was going to be easy. When love and fear are at odds with each other is is undoubtedly challenging. It is also possible for love to win.
Poole Heller, D. (2019). The Power of Attachment: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships. Published by Sounds True.
Tatkin, S. (2012). Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help you Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship. New Harbinger Publications.
Holmes, J. (1993). John Bowlby and Attachment Theory. Published by Routledge.
Johnson, B. (April, 2018). Are You a Chronic Self-Abandoner? Viewed February 16, 2021: link.
Newton, B. Moving From Misattunement to Coregulation. Viewed February 16, 2021: link.