Do you ever feel physically, mentally, and emotionally drained from constantly having to validate your partner? You want to be there for them, and you have been, but it feels like it’s a constant need? It feels like you can’t really catch your breath because he or she will need more attention once again, and again, and again. Do you find yourself avoiding those one-on-one close moments because you feel like your partner is sucking the energy out of you?
You may be in a relationship with a preoccupied-anxiously attached partner, preoccupied with and anxious about relationships, that is.
What the heck is that? Well, it’s not a disorder and about 30% of the people around us (potential pool of partners) have this style of functioning in a relationship. Let me explain a little.
Decades of research by many psychologists led to the fact that the relationship we have with our parents when we are very young most directly shapes who we become and how we feel, think, and behave in relation to our romantic partners when we become adults. For example, social psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver noted strong similarities between adult attachment and infant attachment:
- The need for close, bodily contact (hugs and being held).
- The feeling of safety and contentment when our loved one is nearby and paying attention to us.
- The feeling of insecurity and unease when our loved one is not available for us.
- The joy of sharing discoveries and fun times together.
- The importance of non-verbal and facial expressions in how we feel. Babies are really sensitive to facial expressions, but then again, so are adults.
- And even the need to engage in “baby talk” or give each other cute, pet names.
Our pre-verbal (before we started talking) relationships and experiences with people created specific brain pathways. They generate a road map for relationships that lets us anticipate what will happen next, and in turn how we should behave, feel, or think. These shortcuts are useful in learning and survival, and they influence our ways of seeing and acting in our world without our awareness. These models are very influential in terms of how we feel, think, behave, and connect with friends, co-workers, significant others, and in turn with our own children.
There are two broad types that go along with what we have learned so far about attachment:
- Secure models which are characterized by an overall sense of safety, comfort, trust, validation, and ease of connection. Secure individuals report favorable descriptions of their childhood relationships with their parents. They show a stronger self-esteem and have generally positive beliefs about love and committed relationships.
- Non-secure models (dismissing, preoccupied-anxious, disorganized) which are characterized by anger, fear, clinginess, or avoidance as primary ways to deal with relationships. The non-secure individuals report unfavorable descriptions of their childhood relationships with their parents and more negative experiences and beliefs about love. They report more self-doubt, less acceptability to and of others, and generally, have a history of shorter and unsuccessful relationships. In the previous post, I covered the other end of the continuum when it comes to attachment styles, the avoidant-dismissive kind, also known as the emotionally unavailable partner. You can read more about it here.
Now, when things are good in a relationship, either because the relationship is new and we live off happy neurotransmitters or because there are no particular stressors in our life, it’s difficult to see the difference between a secure and a non-secure model. Everyone is happy and in a good mood!
Individual differences become especially relevant when the safety of the relationship or of oneself in the relationship is challenged or threatened. Conflict and disagreements become times when these internal working models become activated and expressed loud and clear!
A SECURE attachment is the optimal set up for ideal behavior in a relationship. Secure adults were raised by secure parents that were able to provide them with emotional and physical protection, caring, and support. Secure parents put their children’s needs first. They are calm and in tune with their babies’ needs.
Secure babies turn into secure adults. They have a general, healthy sense of worthiness and lovability and an expectation that other people are generally accepting, responsive, and trustworthy. A secure bond is associated with a secure working model of attachment and thus, associated with good self-esteem, feelings of relationship satisfaction and competency, the ability to communicate and handle problems in a relationship, and an overall sense of trust and support from/in their spouse.
Furthermore, partners with a secure attachment are able to maintain a positive perception of the relationship despite temporary conflicts. They are less likely to display anger, contempt, and argumentativeness during distress in the relationship. They generally trust others and have more favorable expectancies about the partner’s motives. Most importantly they are more adaptable, flexible, and more stable, longer duration relationships and generally looking to resolve a conflict not start one.
SO, QUESTION FOR YOU:
If you clicked on this link, I bet that’s not the case, so keep on reading!
INSECURE attachments, such as the ones that were likely experienced by your partner, are slightly problematic and cause re-occurring difficulties in all relationships.
Here are 5 facts to help you understand them better.
- They were raised by parents who showed inconsistency and unreliability in their parenting practices, thus carrying a general sense of personal unworthiness and unlovability combined, however, with a positive evaluation of others. This pretty much means that they are looking for self-acceptance by gaining acceptance and attention from others first.
- They are usually very invested in maintaining relationships because such maintenance is a validation of the self, so they are often hypervigilant about losing people they feel strongly about. This state of mind activates conflicting thoughts and feelings regarding a history of unpredictable relationships and lead to intense hostility when distress is encountered in a relationship. Rumination and overthinking become severely distressing themes and they often lock themselves in a vicious negative spiral.
- They show an over-involvement in close relationships and have a tendency to idealize other people. They seem to have a dependence on other people’s attention and acceptance for a sense of well-being. They often disclose too much, too soon and expect the others to do the same. They feel hurt when the other party doesn’t reciprocate as they interpret that as a sign of not being liked. They could be highly emotional, with a high frequency of crying, sometimes in the presence of others, and have difficulty maintaining a logical, objective approach to a situation.
- They have an obsessive preoccupation with a romantic partner’s responsiveness and are extremely jealous most of the times. Most often they need constant proof that they are loved and valued. Interestingly, they use sex as proof of how much they are loved and sex comes as reassurance that they are valued and desired, which can be highly confusing to a partner. It is confusing because they don’t understand if the need for sex is a physical or an emotional need.
- This attachment style also comes with a lot of positives such as a general focus on their partner’s well-being, thoughtfulness and generosity with their time, emotions, and general support, and an availability for intimacy and openness to trying new things.
BUT it definitely can be very exhausting in the long run, especially if it’s coupled with another insecure style such as the avoidant-dismissive, which I described in a previous blog. As you can imagine, things can be intense when one partner needs a lot of validation, and the other partner doesn’t know how to offer it because they never had that growing up. And the danger is that opposites attract, so there is a high probability that they will end up together.
In my book, My Spouse Is Different Than Me, I go over the different attachment styles, and more importantly what to do if you find yourself in a committed relationship with someone that’s different than you. I talk about how to increase awareness of those extreme traits, how to give each other some space, how to communicate when you have different ways of expression, and how to make some accommodations if you want to make this relationship a success.
Although communication is always part of the equation, communication is not enough when one or both partners have some traits that are on the extreme ends of the continuum. Self-awareness and motivation to change and meet the other person halfway are equally important.
ABOUT: Dr. Ruxandra LeMay is a licensed psychologist with experience and interest in communication, relationships, stress and anxiety management, executive coaching and entrepreneurship. She is the author of My Spouse Wants More Sex Than Me: The 2-Minute Solution For a Happier Marriage and My Spouse is Different Than Me: How to Mediate Irreconcilable Differences and Grow in Your Marriage. For more information, join her at ruxandralemay.com, a website for people who hate therapy, but still need it!