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5 Ways to Recognize an Anxious Attachment Style in Relationships

How to Spot an Anxious Attachment Style in Relationships

[Trigger warning: anxiety, abandonment, rejection, trauma, Complex PTSD, non-monogamy, polyamory]

Attachment theory is fast-growing as one of the most important developments in the relationship world. A powerful framework exploring and explaining the dynamics of human relationships, attachment is on a meteoric rise reshaping the landscape of modern psychology and therapy. 

Originating from the groundbreaking work of British psychologist John Bowlby in the mid-20th century, attachment theory delves into the intricate bonds formed between individuals, particularly exploring the profound impact of early childhood experiences on adult relationships. 

As modern relationships take center stage in contemporary discourse, attachment theory’s rise signifies an increasing recognition of its potential in helping us understand ourselves, heal our wounds, and enhance the fabric of our human connection.

The framework described four distinct “attachment styles” that are formed in childhood and then repeated in adult relationships, most strongly in romantic relationships.

Every human falls on a spectrum of having a secure attachment style to an insecure attachment style, and how it expresses itself is dependent upon their internal emotional landscape and the external relationship environment.

This post will take you on the journey through five ways you can recognize anxious attachment style in relationships and begin the healing process for you and/or your partner.

Discovering my Anxious Attachment Style

[skip the story]

I’ll never forget the day I discovered attachment theory and the anxious attachment style. It was kind of like discovering a Rosetta Stone for my emotional relationship experience, which before felt panicked, scrambled, and even malevolent.

Attachment theory found me at a moment where I was considering walking away from an amazing partnership because I was maxed out trying to manage my emotions around the fact that my partner S. was very polyamorous.

Despite being desperately in love with us, our blended family and children, our home, our pets, and even my partner’s partner who was my best friend, I was truthfully never remotely comfortable with being one of two equal primary partners and navigating his new love interests at a rapid clip.

My “poly-anxiety” came to a head when we hauled the kids to the burnished red rocks of Sedona with S. and our children for an unforgettable family adventure. It was my spiritual mommy dream: feeling the rich energetic portals of the vortices, helicopter rides through the spectacular arches, and a private shamanic drum circle at sunset.

Anxious Attachment as a Silent Struggle

And, this beautiful experience was marred with one of the deepest bouts of anxiety I’d had since meeting him. We were already living with his other primary partner, whom I dearly loved but was extremely challenged by the importance and proximity to their relationship. 

I also struggled with finding my own second partner, which I realized is due in part to my relationship orientation. (I now know that I identify as “monogamish, which was highly incompatible with co-habitating with primary partners of primary partners).

This anxiety boosted into Beast Mode when S. met another woman and wished to add a third domestic partnership. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the language to articulate this or express what I needed to feel safe anymore.

And so on our trip, I silently and heavily processed his increasing phone calls and deepening connections with her. To distract myself when alone, I cracked open a book I’d just downloaded; I had no idea it would change the trajectory of my relational life.

The Hard Choice of Anxious Attachment

The book was Attached by Amir Levine, and it was the first time I felt like I truly saw myself in its pages. Everything he explained about anxious attachment felt spot on, from the anxiety spiral when my attachment system was “activated to close the gap” between me and my partner, to the limiting belief that I was just too needy and should learn to be a “big girl” already.

I’ll never forget the tears of relief that rolled down my face; I was finally finding myself in the pages, and learning that I wasn’t broken, I certainly wasn’t alone, my needs were valid, and they were not getting met by this style of relationship.

Of course, I also felt a fresh wave of anxiety wash over me – this revelation begged the question of whether my newfound “anxious attachment style” could weather our relationship conditions. Ultimately, the answer was going to be a “no”, but attachment theory did gift us with a new start in understanding each other and deepening our relationship.

And while the polyamorous path was ultimately not for me, I now bring wide-open eyes to every one of my potential romantic relationships with the ability to read my own and my partner’s behavioral patterns with a powerful lens of understanding and compassion.

The Anxious Attachment Style: A Closer Look

At the heart of this exploration lies the concept of anxious attachment—a paradigm that intricately shapes how individuals perceive and navigate romantic relationships. 

Anxious attachment style in relationships often manifests as a heightened sensitivity to the ebb and flow of emotional cues from a partner that is rooted in a visceral, deep-seated fear of rejection and abandonment. This fear becomes a silent orchestrator, controlling thoughts, manipulating evidence, dictating responses, and steering the ship of relational interactions.

As we delve into the depths of anxious attachment, imagine it as a lens through which individuals view love and connection. This lens, tinted and etched by past experiences and early relational imprints, influences not only how one interprets their partner’s actions, but also how one responds to the dance of human intimacy.

The Perilous Partner Dance of Anxious Attachment

Picture a dance where every step is a delicate balance between desire and fear, where the longing for connection is accompanied by a persistent whisper of insecurity.

People with an anxious attachment style find themselves entangled in this intricate choreography, their steps marked by a constant need for reassurance, an ever-present fear of abandonment, and the subtle undertones of a struggle to set boundaries to prevent it.

I and my coaching clients have often described anxious attachment as feeling like a sentinel that can never rest or shut its eyes for fear of the rug being pulled out from under us. This can feel incredibly draining to an already overtaxed nervous system from a lifetime of insecurity.

And the struggle is not limited to the anxious partner; if they’re fortunate enough to be partnered with someone with a secure attachment style, that partner often cannot relate to the distress the anxious partner is constantly experiencing and can become overwhelmed with navigating their ups and downs.

So how does someone who’s anxiously attached know when they’re in the vice grip of insecurity, and wriggle their way out of it? There are many roads that lead to Rome, but for me, there was one that definitely put me on the path to earning secure attachment:

Internal Family Systems (IFS).

Anxious Attachment Style and Internal Family Systems (IFS)

Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy delves into the complexities of the human psyche and dispenses with psychiatric diagnoses. Developed by Dick Schwartz, IFS proposes that within every human exists a multiplicity of distinct parts, each with its own unique consciousness; its own emotions, beliefs, fears, and desires. 

We’ll use some of the basic IFS “lingo” to describe the different entities I encounter when doing parts work with anxious attachment clients:

  • Self Energy: our pristine essence that is not wounded or programmed
  • Exile: A wounded, fragment of Self energy 
  • Protector: A guardian that is born at the moment of the exile’s birth

The central premise of IFS is that we are all born with a pure-of-heart-essence called “Self Energy” that embodies these 8 8 C’s or characteristics (calm, clear, curious, compassionate, connected, confident, creative, and courageous).

8 C's of Self - Internal Family Systems Therapy - Lea Dawn Attachment Coach

Pieces of our psyche that are “split off” from our self by adverse events are called “Exiles”, like soul fragments that our inner system casts away in order to survive the situation. 

“Protectors” are parts born along with exiles that work to ensure the person avoids any situation. They are charged with keeping the exile hidden and asleep and entraining the self to avoid similar situations that emulate the original wound and could potentially re-trigger the exile. 

There are proactive protectors called “Managers”, who attempt to prevent situations that appear similar to what created the exile in the first time, and reactive protectors called “Firefighters”, who are the last line of defense to prevent a system meltdown with more extreme reactions.

Throughout my coaching work, I saw how IFS can act as a powerful tool for people with attachment injuries. First, attachment theory illustrates how early experiences shape our attachment styles in broad, generalized strokes, that can act as a starting point. 

Then, IFS provides a compass for specific triangulation of where the original injuries are stored in the client’s body and psyche for laser-targeted exploration and healing.

Where IFS Intersects with an Anxious Attachment Style

Rather than using anxious attachment style as a label or “bucket” that can lead to pathologizing or shame, I use parts work to view attachment styles as:

  1. Certain groups or “coalitions” of protective and wounded exile parts who team up to prevent a specific kind of experience from happening (again).
  2. These parts and coalitions were born from certain types of adverse childhood and relationship experiences…
  3. These experiences lead to predictable patterns of behavior that can be healed. 

After accumulating enough exiles and protectors in certain configurations, it can result in what’s called an anxious/preoccupied or fearful-avoidant attachment that makes maintaining peaceful relationships challenging.

While the origin stories of these anxious parts vary wildly and are unique to each person, there are certain common “characters” that show up in the anxious attachment “parts map”. This enables me to equip my clients with certain scripts for approaching and healing those parts. 

While there are many behaviors that show up as anxious attachment in relationships, there are typically five distinct patterns that are a clear indicator.

The 5 Key Signs of Anxious Attachment in Relationships

To illustrate these five patterns, we’ll look into the inner landscape of Sarah, a fictional composite of my anxious attachment coaching clients. 

Sarah is a 41-year-old cisgender woman who identifies as lesbian. She lives with Erin, her domestic partner of six years, her longest-running relationship.

Erin has a more secure attachment style, but like many others, is unaware of attachment styles and how theirs are always interacting.

We’ll look at how her anxious attachment style manifests as unproductive behavioral patterns, how it affects her relationship, and the IFS perspective on what parts may be healed and reclaimed to earn back her security.

1. Hyperawareness / Hypervigilance of Partner

Sarah often finds herself intensely focused on every action, tone, facial expression, and physical gesture of her partner, which is a key manifestation of her anxious attachment style in relationships. 

This heightened awareness stems from a deep-seated fear of abandonment, a common trait in individuals with an anxious attachment style. Unhealed abandonment trauma is by far one of the most pervasive and heavy pieces of baggage brought into relationships today, creating a sort of silent epidemic of volatile dynamics across the board.

Sarah grew up in a home where her father was emotionally inconsistent and sometimes critical. She became hypervigilant of his moods to predict when he’d get upset and criticize her, which acted as a rejection.

In her first relationship, her male partner would stonewall her if she said something that upset him, and broke up with her suddenly and without any warning signs. This left her on high alert in all of her subsequent relationships.

Sarah’s mother developed a complex of vigilant hovering and overprotecting as a result of her father’s unpredictable mood. She would monitor and worry over Sarah’s every step, often preventing her from doing normal kid activities that she deemed too risky and warning her of terrible consequences.

Impact on Relationship

This hyperawareness leads to frequent misunderstandings and ruptures with her partner, as Sarah may misinterpret innocent actions or innocuous facial expressions as signs of pending criticism (rejection) or abandonment. Erin sometimes feels overwhelmed by Sarah’s constant inquiries into her feelings and need for reassurance that everything is okay.

IFS Perspective

The Internal Family Systems 6F approach can help Sarah identify the specific protective and wounded parts within her that drive this hypervigilance.

Her protector parts believe they are preventing Sarah from blindly walking into a criticism or abandonment trap, which they believe is mirroring a threat that wounded an obscured exile part that Sarah’s system has hidden from her, but still carries.

Typical parts involved in an anxious hypervigilance pattern could be:

  • Protector part that monitors physical signals to protect Sarah from sudden rejection or abandonment by warning her that she’s going to be dumped
  • A young Exile who had a distant, detached parent who was inconsistent with affection and critical
  • A school-age Exile who was bullied as a child by classmates or had trouble making/keeping friends
  • A teenage or college-aged Exile who was suddenly broken up with by their first love without warning

By using IFS to listen to, understand, unburden, and update these parts, Sarah can gradually shift towards a more secure attachment. This would help her feel more relaxed and trusting that all is generally well with the relationship and fostering healthier communication with Erin.

2. Angry Outbursts or A Need for Constant Reassurance

Angry outbursts are a form of adult “protest behavior” or reactions that protest the separation, and are a hallmark of Sarah’s anxious attachment style. As are urgent and ever-present bids for reassurance where she is continually seeking external validation to quell the storm of anxiety she suffers from. 

This stems from her deep-seated fear of rejection and is a bid to “close the gap” between her and her attachment figure (Erin) when her physical and emotional availability feels threatened by separation.

Sarah’s parents rarely acknowledged her for her character and rather only showed love and approval if she met their expectations for accomplishment and success.

Unfortunately, Sarah also adopted her father’s outwardly critical communication style when her insecurity alarm goes off.

Impact on Relationship:

This constant need for reassurance can become exhausting for Erin, as Sarah may express doubt in or distrust of her partner’s love and commitment. This can lead to misunderstandings and arguments where Sarah loses her temper, exacerbating the very fear she seeks to alleviate and promoting the distance she’s desperately attempting to prevent.

Erin’s avoidance often kicks in when she feels like Sarah is depending on her for more than she’s resourced to give, and doesn’t know what to do when Sarah lashes out except walk away.

IFS Perspective:

Using the 6F and unburdening methods, Sarah can delve into the internal landscape of her emotions and release the weight that her past experiences are creating in the present.

Typical parts involved in a need for reassurance pattern could be:

  • Protector part that keeps score of external reassurance because it doesn’t know how to self-source its worth
  • Protector part that became addicted or dependent on outside validation
  • Protector part that lashes out in a tantrum like an “Outer Child” when her young exile is triggered into insecurity
  • A young Exile who picked up criticism patterns from her father
  • A tween Exile who had hypercritical parents and only validated her worth through her accomplishments and achievements

With professional guidance through the IFS 6F process, Sarah can work to gain the trust of her protectors to help her Exiles release the burden they are carrying, step into the present time, and learn new approaches to communication. This would lead Sarah to become able to trust herself and Erin, and resourcing inner attachment security.

3. Catastrophizing and Eternity Thinking

A deep-seated fear of being left haunts Sarah, often manifesting in overthinking different scenarios. Abandonment trauma and attachment injuries contribute to a narrative where she projects past hurts onto her current relationship. 

This can lead Sarah to exhibit two behaviors that are a distinct signal of anxious attachment in relationships:

  • Catastrophizing: Otherwise minor events like a frowny face from Erin or her not returning calls or texts right away are blown wildly out of proportion with panic and dread. Sarah gets caught in a spiral of imagining one of several dire possibilities: Erin is cheating on her, is about to break up with her, or is physically in grave danger (or worse).
  1. Eternity thinking: Once Sarah is in the grip of an anxious attachment spiral, she tends to believe she’ll never get out of it. Because her ancient wounding story of rejection relapsed many times as a kid and teens, Sarah’s anxious attachment tends to dilate her perception of time and make her forget that every difficult moment eventually passes.

If the intensity of these patterns gets too high, Sarah begins to dissociate or “check out” and withdraw into addictive patterns of social media “doomscrolling” or overindulging in dessert foods, triggering a “shame hangover”.

Impact on Relationship:

This fear significantly impacts Sarah’s decision-making and self-regulation processes. She may find herself repeatedly texting Erin to make sure she’s not in a ditch, or shrieking in protest behavior if she thinks Erin is upset or angry with her. 

This can not only put Sarah in a dysregulated nervous system state, but overwhelm Erin and make her feel helpless in trying to right Sarah’s ship.

IFS Perspective:

Using IFS, Sarah can explore and heal the parts of her internal system that translate her fear of abandonment to endless spirals and overdramatizing events.

Typical parts involved in catastrophizing and eternity thinking could be:

  • Child exile who felt unloveable and not enough
  • Teen exile who suffered repeated bullying by peers
  • Protector (manager) trying to warn her of imminent abandonment, from acting out and from overwhelming her partner
  • Protector (manager) who adopted her mother’s hypervigilance and overprotecting
  • Inner Critic manager internally shaming her for “being too much”
  • Protector (firefighter) going into histrionics to prevent child exile from taking over
  • Protector (firefighter) turning her to addictive soothing behaviors of overeating and social media consumption
  • Inner Critic manager internally shaming her for going into addiction patterns and not being able to “get out of it like an adult”

As you can see, these two behaviors are triggered by and involve a more complex network of parts that would require a layered, multi-session approach to using IFS to unblend, hold space for, and “update” the parts for a more harmonious experience of secure attachment.

4. Difficulty with Setting Boundaries

Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries proves challenging for Sarah; her anxiety makes her prone to sacrificing her own needs and suppressing her feelings, desires, and needs in favor of keeping the peace with her partner, her work colleagues, and family of origin.

Impact on Relationship

Having mushy boundaries takes a toll on Sarah’s personal well-being. Burnout becomes a recurring theme for her, where she often goes into a pleasing or fawning response to Erin when she’s visibly upset by Sarah’s protest behavior, a common dynamic when different attachment styles conflict.

Erin also gets upset when Sarah holds poor boundaries with her parents, and allows her resentful frustration to spill over onto Erin.

IFS Perspective:

Using IFS, Sarah can identify and work with the internal parts that resist setting boundaries. She learns the protective mechanisms these parts employ, that a protector 

Typical parts involved with poor boundary setting:

  • Young child exile who learned that standing up for herself would trigger her parents’ wrath
  • Teenage exile with parents with intrusive boundaries who constantly invaded her privacy and personal space
  • Protector (manager) who learned to appease others and avoid confrontation
  • Protector (manager) in conflict with the above protector because of how it continually suppresses her needs

5. Tendency to Self-Sacrifice

The inclination to prioritize her partner’s needs over her own is a common manifestation of Sarah’s anxious attachment style and is related to her inability to set and hold adequate boundaries. 

This self-sacrificial tendency arises from a deep-seated desire to maintain connection and prevent abandonment, embodying the struggles present in anxious attachment in relationships.

This tendency takes a toll on Sarah’s self-esteem, as she struggles to balance her own needs with those of her partner. The internal conflict between the desire for connection and the need for individuality creates a challenging dynamic reflective of the complexities of anxious attachment style in relationships.

Impact on Relationship

Because she unconsciously doesn’t trust that a partner will receive, acknowledge, and collaborate with her on her needs, she hides them in order to ensure she doesn’t risk the relationship. 

However, this backfires because when Sarah self-sacrifices with Erin, she develops a deep-seated and misplaced resentment towards her. Erin then becomes confused and frustrated when Sarah lashes out or stonewalls her out of this resentment, which is one of Gottman’s four horsemen that can predict the end of a relationship.

IFS Perspective:

Parts caught in self-sacrifice pattern are often engaged in a conflict between the heart and the solar plexus chakras; the centers of love vs. power. Her love parts yearn to maintain love and connection, while her power center wants her to not lose her autonomy, identity, and sovereignty in relationships. 

By engaging with and healing these conflicted parts, she can develop a healthier balance between giving and receiving in the relationship, fostering a sense of empowerment and self-worth.

Typical parts involved in a self-sacrifice pattern could be:

  • Child exile who minimized self and needs to stay in her father’s good graces
  • College-age exile who was dumped by her first boyfriend because “she was too needy” for him (when he actually had avoidant attachment style)
  • Protector (manager) who diminishes her needs and does whatever Erin asks
  • Protector (firefighter) who lashes out in passive-aggressive resentment at Erin

You’re probably beginning to see that there are repeating themes throughout these five patterns of anxious attachment in relationships. The harsh reality of Complex PTSD and developmental (childhood) trauma is that all it takes is one single adverse event or repeated less-than-desirable events to create behavioral patterns and conflicts that endure for decades.

The encouraging news is that with the right kind of experienced and compassionate attachment and trauma-informed counseling, it is possible to heal and resolve an anxious attachment style for greater relationship ease, empowerment, and satisfaction.

Take the Next Step to Heal Anxious Attachment

As we’ve journeyed through the intricate landscape of anxious attachment in relationships, it’s clear that compassion and healing go hand in hand. 

If you resonate with Sarah’s struggles, if the echoes of anxious attachment reverberate in your own relationships, it’s time to take a courageous step toward your emotional freedom.

Consider the profound benefits of embarking on a coaching journey that integrates Internal Family Systems (IFS). This gentle, body-based therapeutic modality provides a concrete path to self-awareness and a nuanced understanding of the internal “conversations and conflicts” driving anxious attachment. 

Working with an experienced coach versed in IFS can illuminate the path toward healing, self-discovery, and the establishment of secure attachments.

In the gentle words of Arielle Schwartz in The Complex PTSD Workbook, “You are not broken, in need of fixing. You are hurt, and in need of care.” This mantra should guide your healing journey; it’s an acknowledgment that your attachment struggles are valid and rooted in experiences that shaped your attachment style and emotional landscape. 

Final Thoughts on Anxious Attachment Styles in Relationships

Anxious attachment does not have to feel like a prison of your own making, and you are most certainly not alone in this journey. I am here to guide, support, and empower you. 

The compulsion to understand yourself and the desire for secure connections – these are noble pursuits. Through attachment-informed coaching with IFS integration, we unlock the potential for lasting change.

And if you wish to begin healing your anxious attachment style and create the secure, empowered, and healthy relationships of your dreams, book a free consultation. I’d be honored to be of service to you on your journey to earning a secure attachment style.

 

To your healing ❤️‍🩹,

Lea 💋 


Lea Dawn is an Anxious Attachment Style + Relationship Coach, speaker, writer, and workshop facilitator. She works with all relationship types, with a specialty in helping the “poly-anxious” navigate CNM and open relationships.

Get in touch about her coaching, facilitation, and speaking services here.

 

This post may contain affiliate links, and I may earn a small commission when you purchase through the links at no additional cost to you. You may read my full disclaimer here

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