Are you anxious or avoidant? Secure or preoccupied? Here’s how to tell – and why it matters.
The other day, a friend described me to a mutual acquaintance of ours as being “crazy about love” and “a hopeless romantic.” I felt my face get hot and swallowed back a rush of hurt feelings, pretending I didn’t care. I knew she hadn’t meant it in an unkind way – she thought she was simply stating the obvious – but somehow it still stung.
Later, I wondered why it bothered me so much. After all, I write about relationships for a living. It’s my job to be “crazy about love.” And while I don’t think I’m hopeless, if believing in love means I’m a romantic, then I definitely am one. Why should I feel bad about it?
I guess I’ve always been afraid that I have a little bit of a “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” streak in me. Anyone who knows me will tell you I require absolute loyalty from my friends and lovers, and I can be jealous and vindictive. I thought it was just because I’m a Scorpio – the most notorious sign in the Zodiac – but maybe there’s more to it than that.
According to the results of a personality quiz I recently took, I’m “anxiously attached” and “preoccupied,” meaning I’m constantly worried that the people I love won’t be there for me when I need them. I have no problem opening up to people, depending on them, and having them depend on me – but I’m always wary of giving too much, afraid my feelings won’t be reciprocated with the same intensity as mine. Not surprisingly, this has caused problems in my relationships over the years. (To figure out what your attachment style is, you can take this quiz designed by researcher R. Chris Fraley, PhD.)
Relationship expert and therapist Darlene Lancer estimates that about 20 percent of people share my anxious attachment style, while 25 percent are “avoidant” and 50 percent are “securely attached.” The remaining five percent, she says, are some combination of styles. But what does that mean, and why does it matter?
Let’s get one thing straight: we’re all needy. Humans need each other; we’re meant to live in community. It’s just that the way we go about getting our needs met varies, as well as whether we choose to acknowledge our neediness. If our caregivers didn’t dependably meet our needs when we were babies, we learned coping strategies and alternate ways of getting our needs met. Our methods may or may not have worked, but the patterns become so ingrained that they often last the rest of our lives – or at least until we get some good therapy.
People with an anxious attachment style (like me!) have no problem getting close to people, opening up, and being intimate. In fact, they often get too close, and neglect their own needs in service of making their partners happy. Eventually, they become deeply unhappy and preoccupied with their relationship, worrying that their partner doesn’t really love them and is going to leave them. This is the origin of the “overly attached girlfriend” meme we all know and love – and hope to avoid turning into.
Anxiously attached people tend to have a lot of drama in their relationships. They play games and manipulate their partners, alternately withdrawing, acting out, threatening to leave, getting clingy, and becoming irrationally jealous. All they really want is to be able to depend on their partner and know without a doubt that they are loved and safe – but their insecure and unpredictable behavior often ends up driving partners away. A person with an anxious attachment style can absolutely find love and have a healthy relationship, as long as they choose a partner who can match their intensity and make them feel secure. Unfortunately, they often partner up with the exact wrong type for them…
The Avoidant Partner
You know the type. Or maybe you are the type. When someone gets too close, you freeze up. You’re terrified of depending on another person; you don’t need anyone to take care of you. Too much closeness makes your skin crawl. Not too many people are privy to your innermost thoughts; you prefer to keep your emotions under wraps, even with your partner and your closest friends. You don’t think of yourself as commitment-phobic – you prefer to call yourself fiercely independent, and proud of it.
The thing is, underneath that hard exterior, you’re just as needy as any “overly attached girlfriend” meme – and maybe more so, because you’ve been pretending not to need anyone for so long. And once you do get into a relationship, you’re no picnic. You focus on your partner’s flaws in order to put distance between the two of you, and reminisce about how great it was to be single (even if it wasn’t).
While the anxiously attached person is on high alert for signs that her partner doesn’t really love her, avoidant types are hypervigilant for signs that their freedom is being curtailed, or that their partner is trying to control them, or is asking for too much. Avoidant partners get secretive and don’t share their feelings with their partners. They pretend not to care, but deep down, they’re terrified. They learned long ago that they couldn’t count on others to meet their needs, so they learned to repress and deny those needs. The stronger their feelings, the more they stuff them down.
A Secure Attachment
Good news. According to Lancer, about 50 percent of us are, in fact, securely attached. So what does that mean – half the population is perfect? Of course not. All relationships are hard. But people with a secure attachment style are able to open up and be intimate with their partners without undue distress. They’re able to shrug off small misunderstandings; they’re not constantly wondering whether their partner is about to run out the door, or afraid of being smothered by their SO’s neediness. They accept their partner’s shortcomings and are aware of their own, and they treat others with respect. When they screw up, they say they’re sorry – and they really mean it. They’re good at listening, sharing, and having difficult conversations. They have healthy self-esteem, and thus are able to avoid taking things personally and becoming defensive in a conflict.
When it comes right down to it, what adults need in a romantic relationship is the same thing babies need from their parents. They need to feel safe, and to know that their partner is close by, and will respond to their needs. They need to be held and touched in a loving way, every single day. Just as parents gaze lovingly into their child’s eyes and delight in playing and making discoveries together, adults need this from their partners as well. We need to let down our guard and be vulnerable; we need to let ourselves cry in front of each other, and we need to be silly with each other and share plenty of belly laughs, too.
Becoming aware of your attachment style is a good first step toward achieving this kind of connection – a connection that, no matter what we might say, all of us crave. It’s never too late to change those old patterns; but first, you have to know what they are.
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Join the discussion: What’s your attachment style, and how has it affected your relationships?