“Our past history with loved ones shapes our present relationships.
In moments of disconnection when we cannot safely engage with our lover, we naturally turn to the way of coping that we adopted as a child, the way of coping that allowed us to hold on to our parent,
at least in some minimal way.”
- Sue Johnson
Do you find yourself consumed with worry and feelings of insecurity when dating? Do you feel pulled to cling to your partner or seek reassurance of their commitment to you? Do you feel filled with anxiety, frustration, or despair when you perceive distance or inattentiveness from your partner?
If you experience an ongoing sense of uncertainty and fear of abandonment in your relationships, this may be an indication of an anxious attachment style*. While this mindset may be causing you distress in your romantic life as an adult, it may have been your best attempt at adapting to your caregiving environment in childhood.
If you grew up with a caregiver who was inconsistent in their response to you -- perhaps sometimes warm, present, and attuned to your needs, and other times disconnected, rejecting, or misattuned -- you may have developed strategies to adapt to this reality.
As a child, you may have learned to:
Be hyper-aware of your caregiver(s)’ mood
Become dysregulated when needing attention and care
Not trust the availability of your caregiver(s)
Associate having differences, distance, or conflict with abandonment
If these behaviors and beliefs resonate with you, take a moment to thank your younger self for doing the best they could to cope with their caregiving environment. There is no shame to be had for these responses. In fact, they reflect your resourcefulness and wisdom. And, at the same time, these responses are likely no longer necessary now that you are no longer dependent on your caregiver(s) to meet your needs. As an adult, you are responsible for your own wellbeing, and now have the opportunity to choose more effective ways of responding and getting your needs met.
Coping with Anxiety and the Pull to Protest
Changing behavior starts with awareness. Next time you feel upset in your relationship, pause and ask yourself: What’s happening right now? What am I telling myself about this situation? What do I feel pulled to do? What do I feel in my body?
Before reacting to your experience, take some time to regulate and self-soothe to ensure that you are responding from a calm, thoughtful state. Some strategies include:
Doing a scan of your body and relaxing any tensed muscles
Listening to a meditation
Connecting with an animal
Going for a walk
Calling a friend
Imagining a place (real or imagined) where you feel calm, safe, or neutral
Noticing where you are in the present moment using your 5 senses
Engaging your senses with pleasant textures, smells, sounds, sights, and tastes
Practicing comforting or rational self-talk such as:
I am safe in this moment.
I am worthy of love.
I am a whole person outside of this relationship.
I can tolerate this discomfort.
I don’t need to get rid of these feelings.
These feelings are temporary and will pass if I let them be here.
I am here for the part of me that is feeling scared, worried, or lonely.
Conflict is okay.
Differences are okay.
Conflict is an opportunity to grow together.
Conflict or distance does not mean a relationship is over.
Once you are in a calmer state, consider evaluating the story you are telling yourself about the situation. Some questions you can ask yourself include:
What is the concrete evidence that this person is less interested in me, upset with me, or doesn’t care about me? Have they directly told me that’s the case?
What is the evidence that this person is interested in me and does care about me?
What assumptions am I making about this situation? Does it serve me to make these assumptions?
Have I previously had this interpretation in a similar situation? What was the outcome of the situation?
What is an alternative way I can look at this situation? What else could be happening here?
What would I tell a friend if they were in my situation?
Responding Once Regulated
If you still feel compelled to assert your feelings, needs, or boundaries after self-regulating and reflecting on your thoughts, go for it! Just remember, protest behaviors (demanding frequent communication, criticizing, picking fights, threatening to leave, ignoring, score-keeping, etc.) create further distance and disconnection.
If closeness and reassurance is what you’re seeking, this is best done from a direct, non-accusatory, and respectful stance. Be clear on what it is you’re needing from your partner while taking ownership for your feelings and interpretations. For tips on asserting yourself, check out my blog post, “Signs You May Want to Set A Boundary (And How).”
*Note: Attachment styles are complex, and people can engage in different behaviors in relationships that are categorized as “anxious” or “avoidant,” regardless of their attachment style. This blog post is not intended to be used as a diagnostic tool for one’s attachment style.
Want support with your relationship patterns, anxiety, or feelings of insecurity? Call or email me to set up an initial consultation.
This blog post draws from concepts from the book, "Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find--and Keep--Love" by Amir Levine and Rachel S. F. Heller, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT).
Katie Virga, Associate Marriage & Family Therapist #113323
Supervised & Employed by Alexis Donato, LMFT #44732