Do you find yourself falling in love quickly? Do you go on a date or two with a potential partner and already start envisioning your future wedding and children? Do you feel anxious after hanging out with a future partner and can’t stop obsessing about whether or not they will text you again? Do you put potential partners/partners on a pedestal and view yourself as less than? Do you feel like you’re too needy or even worse has someone told you you’re too needy? Do you believe when you meet someone great but it doesn’t work out that they were your last shot at love because they were x,y,z? Do you attract mostly unavailable partners? Well…I think you might have anxious attachment.
What is anxious attachment? Attachment Theory was coined by psychologist John Bowlby, with help from Mary Ainsworth, when he found three styles of attachment in children and their caregivers. He found that these three attachment styles determined a child’s development as it grows. In the 80’s Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver expanded Bowlby’s original theory from children to adults and romantic partnerships. Hazan and Shaver theorized that the way a child attaches to their caregiver(s) will determine the way they attach to their romantic partners later in life.
There are three kinds of attachment; anxious, avoidant and secure. The first two, anxious and avoidant, are insecure attachments and secure, is a secure attachment. Now, you might say but my parents were great! And that can be the truth. However, our attachment style is based on how our parents attuned to us and our needs when we were babies and little kids. If our caregivers sometimes attuned to our needs but sometimes didn’t, this creates an anxious attachment because as babies we weren’t able to fully trust them for our survival. Obviously, we did in fact survive but, our tiny selves were uncertain and that uncertainty got programmed into our right hemisphere (our emotional brain) and stored as a relationship model. Meaning, when we grew up and started dating any time we encountered uncertain situations, a potential partner that was sometimes there, sometimes not (aka emotionally unavailable or avoidant attachment), our attachment will be activated and we will start acting like our survival depends on this relationship.
“…The attachment system is the mechanism in our brain responsible for tracking and monitoring the safety and availability of our attachment figures. If you have an anxious attachment style you posses a unique ability to sense when your relationship is threatened. Even a slight hint that something may be wrong will activate your attachment system, and once it’s activated, you are unable to calm down until you get clear indication from your partner that he or she is truly there for you and that the relationship is safe”. -Amir Levine and Rachel Heller from Attached
Anxious attachments are activated anytime there are mixed messages and then activating strategies will emerge. Activating strategies are behaviors the person will do when activated and they can begin obsessively thinking about their partner and how to reestablish closeness. As the above quote mentioned, those of us with anxious attachments are incredibly sensitive to a shift in the relationship. We can pick up a shift in emotion, tone and then immediately fear for the worst. However, though we have super human sensitivity, it does not mean it’s always correct. Humans with anxious attachment will often jump to the conclusion that any shift means the end of the relationship and will begin activating strategies to keep the relationship on course. The anxious attachment activation will only calm down when the other partner has given the partner with anxious attachment a sense of security. In the book Attached authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller define activating strategies as the below:
Thinking of your mate, difficulty concentrating on other things
Remember only their good qualities
Putting them on a pedestal: underestimating your talents and abilities and overestimating theirs.
An anxious feeling that foes away only when you are in contact with them
Believing this is your only chance for love.
Believing that even though you’re unhappy, you’d better not let go, as in:
if they leave me, they will turn into a better partner for someone else.
They can change.
Does this explain your dating history? It sure as hell explains mine!
I’ve been researching Attachment Theory for the last couple of weeks. I went through a dating experience with a guy at the end of January where I got “activated”. I was VERY confused because I have done a ton of spiritual work to heal my old wounds and could not understand why I was experiencing literally EVERY activating strategy above. I was activated because he was unavailable and I haven’t met an unavailable guy in a long time. I walked away after four dates but was still in significant pain. It felt ludicrous to my logical mind to be so distraught over a guy I hardly knew and so I began researching what the hell was wrong. Was all my hard work washed down the drain? Was I back to square one? No and no. My research into anxious attachment helped me realize that these feelings (I actually didn’t act out any old patterns. It was all intense feelings inside me) were coming from brain chemistry that was set up from my childhood. My relationship model from my Dad being emotionally unavailable while mostly inactive these days got activated due to meeting another unavailable guy. The pain and anguish I felt tapped me right back into being 5 years old and desperately wanting my Dad’s love and attention. The 4 dates I had with the guy peeled back another layer of my self and I was able to see with incredible clarity where I still needed healing.
I’ve also been researching what is happening in our brains as we are activated. When a human with anxious attachment gets activated their brain releases more dopamine than the average human brain ideally wants. Dopamine often gets referred to as the “happy neurotransmitter” but that is a common misconception. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that causes us to be driven, in need of something and will stop at nothing to get the desired thing. When our anxious attachment styles are activated we are flooded with dopamine and it’s no wonder we become obsessive! The other interesting thing about dopamine is it gets released any time there is an unreliable pattern where rewards are dolled out sometimes and sometimes not. When we have dopamine coursing through our brain it shuts down serotonin which is the feel food hormone! Dopamine does not create pleasure but instead makes us seek/hunt for sex/food/love/attention in a way that is addictive and as it shuts down serotonin this also explains why getting activated feels painful.
Researching my attachment style and my brain chemistry has given me such enormous amounts of relief because I see that it isn’t my truth. I am not my anxious attachment. I have anxious attachment and now that I understand it, I can heal it! And that’s where my focus has been for the last few weeks- a deeper level of healing. In the attachment world there is a term called “earned secure” and it’s where a human with either of the insecure attachment styles can heal and become a secure attachment. It requires deep spiritual healing and deep personal work but, it can be done. So, if you’ve been reading this and are getting the sinking feeling that you also have anxious attachment, DO NOT WORRY. First, I view this now as a super power and a strength. We are more sensitive and perceptive and if we use these powers wisely (we don’t jump to conclusions and or reactions) they guide us well. And, we can heal the anxious attachment and move into secure! Yeehaw.
If you’re interested in learning more about Attachment Theory and what your attachment style is I recommend reading: Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller and The Attachment Effect by Peter Lovenehim. This is a great first step to understanding yourself better and the more you understand the more you can begin to heal what needs healing.
If you feel like you might be an anxious attachment and want guidance on how to begin healing, I look forward to connecting over a session.
Photos sourced via Pintrest.