Your attachment style can significantly influence the way that you relate to other people, including your comfort with emotional intimacy, how you connect (or don’t) and communicate (or don’t), with romantic partners.
A key to changing the quality and security of your romantic relationships is first learning how your attachment system becomes activated and becoming mindful of your unconscious attachment strategies (healthy or not so healthy) to regain security in your intimate bond.
While there are varying types of attachment styles, Nate Bagley and I focused solely on insecure attachment systems, mainly anxious attachment styles, during our interview. You can watch the interview here.
The Adaptability of Attachment Styles in Close Relationships
The attachment system is a complex behavioral system that is interwoven into our body’s nervous system and brain’s survival mechanisms. Essentially, when our attachment system is activated by something in our life today, it organizes what we do, how we feel, and how we think in ways the system (programing) believes will increase our survival.
This programming is developed from our earliest relational experiences and is shaped based on what appears most effective for survival. (Note: Survival does not mean thriving for some of these adaptations.)
It’s a lot like Google Maps. I use it to get me to where I need to go, but I am clueless to the coding that makes it operate in the way it does. Our attachment systems adapt by developing a relational map of others and ourselves that it uses to determine which path of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings would help us.
Put another way, after repeatedly living in a relational context such as a family, our attachment system tailors our behavior to specific relationship partners. As a child, we learn to adjust our behavior based on reliable expectations about possible routes to connection and roadblocks to security. These expectations are partly conscious and intentional but eventually become coded into our attachment systems programming, which is the source of our unique individual differences and interpersonal approaches for connection and safety.
Sometimes this programming is outdated and can run our current relationships off the road of happy and healthy love.
There is a lot of variability to attachment styles, but to make things simple, researchers often classify attachment styles as secure or insecure.
The Secure Attachment Style
Someone with a secure attachment style is able to communicate in soft, direct, and honest ways. They ask for what they need in relationships and handle conflict effectively most of the time. They are not perfect and sometimes yell or have heated discussions, but they are able to repair the bond rather quickly.
As children, secure people experienced a dependable and reliable relationship with their caregiver(s). They had a felt sense that their parents were available, responsive, and would help get their needs met.
Because their parents responded well to direct communication, these people developed self-worth, interpreting their parents’ availability as validation that they were valuable and worthy of connection, comfort, and care.
So when something isn’t going well in a relationship or they feel insecure, they express their feelings and needs, or they put up a healthy boundary.
For example, in a marriage, a secure spouse may go to their spouse and say “I’m feeling lonely. I miss us. Can we spend some time this weekend doing x.” An insecure spouse might say, “You never make time for us. You’re just selfish and don’t care.” Same longing, different strategies.
In dating, a secure person who starts dating someone who doesn’t honor their word will express their hurt, and if it continues, they will move on to someone who is trustworthy. An insecure person may tolerate the ambiguity of mixed messages in hopes they will have a relationship.
Both long for a secure relationship; the secure person has more internalized self-worth due to past experiences and, therefore, has more faith they will find someone who treats them better. The anxiously insecure person often believes this is the best they can get, and they have to make it work. They both want a loving relationship, the approach to creating this love is different due to the attachment systems operating program (aka internalized beliefs).
Insecure Attachment Styles: The Anxious Approach to Being Loved
Someone with an anxious attachment style was never sure, as a child, whether their parents were going to be available or responsive. It was a toss-up on how they were going to be responded to if they tried to communicate and ask for their needs to be met.
Since it was unclear what kept a caregiver nearby, the attachment system adapted to cause the anxious style to focus on others and devalue oneself in hopes to increase survival. Here are some of the ways the attachment system adapts one’s communication styles for someone who has an anxious style:
- Passive aggressiveness
- Attempts to control another person’s behavior or choices
This is because the attachment programming is convinced that more direct expressions of needs or feelings are inadequate and will not work, so one must adapt to survive.
From a survival perspective, this makes perfect sense that someone may apply these strategies, even if it makes it difficult for the anxiously attached person and their partner.
Anxious Attachment Style Strategies That Block Secure Love
Unfortunately, these adaptations are unhealthy and not sustainable in long-term romantic relationships.
Anxious Attachment Style Strategy #1: Self-Neglect
Self-neglect is a survival strategy to keep love.
I can recall when my attachment system was hyperactivated; I neglected key friendships, dropped hobbies that brought me joy, and even canceled important job interviews at the off chance I could spend time with my partner. I felt extremely insecure in my relationship. Note: She did have a role as did I in maintaining that insecurity. The big problem was that, if an issue came up that bothered me, I would minimize my feelings and needs.
The programming goes something like this: If I don’t have needs, then I’m not a burden and it’s easier for you to stay with me. But as Attachment Therapist Stan Tatkin highlights, people who pretend they don’t have needs are often the neediest of all.
The problem is when we neglect our own needs and pretend that we don’t have any, we become a volcano filled with lava of resentment and feelings of not being cared for. So we go about our day keeping the lava dormant—telling our partner that we don’t need anything, that everything’s fine.
Then on a random day when something small happens and they forget to put on a new roll of toilet paper, we erupt at our partner for never being there for us or taking care of us. Our partner, shocked and confused on how a toilet paper roll could do this, then blames you for being “emotional” or “dramatic.” Sound familiar?
This communication style is deeply rooted in past attachment experiences.
The old programming: Since closeness and healthy dependence on another person was unpredictable, the attachment system didn’t feel safe to focus on autonomy and self-exploration. This is why anxiously attached people tend to be very relational-focused and often feel they lose themselves or hide in their intimate relationship.
To show our needs and feelings is vulnerable and extremely intimate, which can feel risky when we fear that the people we love don’t love us as much and will leave us for picking our nose.
This often leads to clinginess and neglecting personal hobbies or other important relationships, with the fantasy of increasing the possibility of the relationship being successful. Paradoxically, the opposite is often true.
The secure antidote: Slow down and connect with your fears. Then express them using I statements and your longing or need. Give your partner space to show up and choose you. Then breathe in that new experience of connection and love. This is a way to heal that attachment injury. Rinse and repeat.
Anxious Attachment Style Strategy #2: Passive Aggressive
People with an anxious attachment style tend to be passive aggressive. They are not very direct with what they need or want. This is because, to them, this is a huge risk. Somewhere in our life experiences we learned the lesson that being direct about your feelings or needs doesn’t work. In fact, it’s painful.
The story my attachment system operates on is: If I am direct with what I want, there is a possibility that my partner will reject me and choose to neglect that need.
In order to prevent this uncertain response, the anxious attachment strategy convinces me to be passive aggressive and put the onus on my partner to try and guess what I need. (P.S. This doesn’t end well because none of us are mind-readers.)
Terri: (feeling insecure) I know you think that Kate Middleton is pretty. (This is also a projection—telling our partner what we know they think. Again, not healthy.)
Deandre: (confused) What?
Terri: I know that you like skinny blondes; I know you think they’re attractive.
Deandre: (still confused) I mean, yeah, I guess so.
Terri: Yeah, figures … (passive aggressive)
Deandre: What’s wrong? Why did you ask that?
Terri: (disgusted tone) It’s nothing. (passive aggressive and then goes silent)
Terri was being passive aggressive because she was feeling insecure and needed reassurance that Deandre was attracted to her. However, she didn’t express that to Deandre, who was confused by the conversation and didn’t know why Terri had brought this up. He is in the dark while she feels she is being “obvious” about what’s wrong.
Secure Antidote: Share insecurity in a vulnerable way. “I’m having that fearful thought again that you might not find me attractive. Can you help me with that fear?”
Note: Someone who is insecure when trying this would likely respond to their partner’s reassurance with “You don’t actually mean that. You only said it because I asked.” Even though their partner is doing EXACTLY what they want and need, they (unconsciously) block it because they fear their partner doesn’t actually love them.
When working with couples, I have the couple slow down and have the partner sharing hold the other partner’s hands and look into their eyes. They say something loving. The partner tries to breathe it in. We do this again three times.
Anxious Attachment Style Strategy #3: Controlling
The anxiety that people with anxious attachments experience can cause them to become smothering, overwhelming, and controlling as a strategy to feel more secure.
“Where’s your phone?” “Where were you?” “Who are you talking to?” “Where are you going?” “Who are you spending time with?” “You’re not allowed to do …”
All of these questions are asked and demanded in order to assuage the anxiety that the person is feeling—anxiety that is rooted in insecurity caused by past painful relational experiences.
Let’s look at an example of this:
Brook and Casey have been in a relationship for 6 months. During her last relationship, Brook was cheated on. Since then, she has been hyperaware and hypersensitive to this happening to her again. Dr. John Gottman talks about how emotional and/or sexual affairs cause PTSD for the betrayed partner.
Casey: I’m going to go fill up the car with gas before we head out for our vacation tomorrow.
Brook: (attachment alarm goes off, anxiety increases) Do you want me to go with you?
Casey: No, that’s alright, you keep packing. I’m going to just go to the gas station across town. Shouldn’t take longer than 10 minutes.
Brook: (anxiety still going strong) Okay …
15 minutes pass …
Brook: (texts Casey several different times to ask him where he is. The anxiety increases, she’s imagining him cheating on her. She’s calling him, he doesn’t answer, and she panics, calling again and again.)
Casey: (answers after the 4th call) Hey baby, what’s wrong? Sorry I missed your calls, I was—
Brook: (freaking out now) Where were you? Who are you with? What’re you doing?
Casey: What? I’m not with anyone. I told you I was going to get gas!
Brook: It’s been longer than 15 minutes. What’s taking you so long?
Unfortunately, these questions leave no space for trust in the relationship because they start with accusations. Sadly, Casey had actually stopped by a local fruit stand to grab peaches, Brook’s favorite. Casey isn’t a perfect partner, but he is a trustworthy one that hasn’t violated any emotional or sexual boundaries of the relationship.
When the insecurity hijacks us, it does not allow our partner a whole lot of space to help us. Our partner often gets blamed and feels vilified. (Note: This is different than staying with a partner who has cheated in some way and not repaired for that relational rupture. See my article on trust.)
Because of Brook’s fear of betrayal and abandonment, she becomes controlling and overbearing as an attempt to make certain that she won’t get cheated on again. However, doing this makes her partner feel like he’s backed into a corner and isn’t able to do anything to help her trust him. Sometimes a partner like Casey gets burnout trying to prove their loyalty and they leave the relationship.
Secure Antidote: Acknowledge the trigger and, if your partner is trustworthy and reliable, ask them for support. Personal example, “My raw spot is being cheated on three times in three consecutive relationships and what helps me not touch that painful spot is when it’s clear to me what you’re up to, reminders that you love me, and if you can, be responsive if I text or call.” “I will also work on giving you the benefit of the doubt and soothe myself if my PTSD gets activated so when I reach out, it’s softer.”
This is actually what I have said to my spouse. I’m not denying my insecurities. I’m owning them and being vulnerable in a way my partner can connect with and help me with, thus leading to healing for me and trust for our relationship.
Anxious Attachment Style Strategy #4: Guilt-Tripping
Guilt-tripping shows up in a variety of approaches. The first is guilting a partner into doing something we want them to do. The second is “exaggerated expressions of hurt to create more guilt”
The first approach can look like this:
Tommy and Blake had just gotten back from work for the evening …
Blake: Hey hon, I’m going to go out with a couple of friends for some drinks this evening.
Tommy: Oh, you are? (attachment alarm goes off, anxiety increases)
Blake: Yeah, it’s been awhile, and we just all want to get together to hang out for a few hours.
Tommy: So you’re just going to leave me here alone then? I guess I don’t matter that much to you. (guilt-tripping begins)
Blake: No, that’s not true at all. I love you and I just want to see my friends.
Tommy: Well, clearly it is, or you would be staying here with me instead. (guilt-tripping continues)
Blake: … I mean … I guess I could go out a different time with my friends …
While Tommy won via guilt-tripping, and Blake would be staying home with Tommy, it wasn’t the reassurance or connection that Tommy was looking for in the long run. This is because Blake was staying due to feeling guilt. This blocks Tommy from gaining the reassurance that Blake does love him while also having the ability to have friends.
What Tommy is trying to push for is a felt sense of security (I matter to you), but unfortunately, the more that Tommy pushes this by using guilt, the more that Tommy is met with the doubt and sense that the love that they’re getting is not real. It is not voluntary love at this point; it is obligatory.
“When the other person hears a demand from us, they see two options: to submit or to rebel.” – Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D.
In the second approach, the exaggeration of hurt often creates enough drama to get our partner to stop what they are doing and care for us, rather than allow them space to soothe us genuinely.
The strategy is: The more helpless we act the more likely we will get attention.
Here is an example of this situation:
Paul has an anxious attachment style and usually utilizes the anxious strategy or
exaggerating his emotions in order to get his needs met. One night, Paul notices
that he and his partner Cody hadn’t had sex in several weeks. Cody had been
working overtime and had come home exhausted at night, and he didn’t have the
emotional, mental, or physical capacity to be intimate with Paul that night. Not to
mention he felt sweaty and not sexy.
Paul attempts to initiate sex by kissing Cody in the way that signals Paul wants sex
within a few minutes of Cody walking in the door.
Cody: “I’m exhausted and need to shower and go to bed. It’s been a long day.”
(Walks towards bedroom.)
Paul: (having noticed the lack of sex and emotional closeness between the two of them, begins crying)
Cody: (is about to go take a shower, but then notices that Paul is crying) What’s
wrong? Are you okay?
Paul: (desperate for his anxiety to be soothed, begins sobbing) You don’t love me
Cody: (thoroughly confused about what caused this, but feeling sad that his partner
feels this way) Why are you saying that? Of course I love you.
Paul: (needs closeness with Cody to calm his anxiety, but is unable to voice this;
begins crying louder) Just break up with me; you never have time for me, work always comes first, and I’m left here abandoned.
Cody: (although desperately needing rest from work, begins feeling guilty that he
has made his partner feel this way. Unable to watch Paul break down, Cody turns
away from the bathroom where he was going to take a shower and begins to
comfort Paul by holding him as he’s crying and telling him that he loves him.)
When Paul recognized that he and Cody hadn’t been intimate with one another in
several weeks, his attachment system alarm bells began to go off. He started
getting anxious that he was losing his partner and that their emotional connection
and attraction for one another was fading. He needed reassurance that this wasn’t
the case, and in order to get this need met, he needed emotional closeness and
connection with Cody.
need Z.) and instead used emotional exaggeration to guilt Paul into emotional
Although Cody needed to take care of himself in the moment (i.e., a shower to help soothe his sore and sweaty body), he felt guilty for the difficult emotions that Paul was going through and expressing (albeit using an anxious strategy).
Even though these strategies may work in the short term, in the long-run the partner who is guilted into doing something becomes less and less satisfied in the relationship. This is very different than Paul saying “I miss you and I’m worried we are growing distant.” This secure approach gives Cody the space to show up because it’s clear to him what the problem is.
When partners use guilt-tripping on their partners, they do experience initial satisfaction. However, research validates that the partner who is guilted becomes deeply unsatisfied, and the more that this cycle continues and happens again, the more the non-anxious attachment partner withdraws and doesn’t express what they need in the relationship to be happy.
Because of this, the anxious attachment partner’s concern is reinforced that their partner isn’t invested and doesn’t care about them. It’s a vicious cycle.
To learn more about what to do about these four sabotaging strategies, watch the video here.