There's a scientific reason why your relationship may be giving you anxiety
The scene is familiar. I’m sitting at the kitchen table with my girl gang, passing around a bottle of cab franc, pieces of strawberry-coconut cake, and our cell phones. On the screens are one of two things: the Instagram accounts of our latest crushes or our text message conversations with the people we’re dating. We are hungry for feedback.
“We’ve spent every weekend together since we’ve been dating,” one friend reports after finding out her guy wanted a weekend alone. “Why doesn’t he want to see me this time? Do you think he’s losing interest?”
Almost all of us have experienced this agony. For many, crushes or budding relationships ignite the same feelings as a job interview. We evaluate outfits as if they were DNA tests. We over-analyze the simplest sentences, questioning our punctuation like we once did in our college admissions essays: Am I using too many exclamation points? Does it count as a triple text if the last one was a GIF?!
These feelings can continue long after you’re coupled up, too. My boyfriend is a total gem, but I still experience waves of anxiety about our status, which is concerning because I never thought of myself as a person who needed someone else. I was the independent, cool girl who went on solo dinner dates and camped alone. So why was I now stressing about my boyfriend’s texting behavior? Apparently, I can blame attachment theory and my “attachment style.”
“Attachment theory is based on the idea that humans have a basic need to build close bonds with others,” says Rebecca Suchov, an M.A. getting her Ph.D. in clinical psychology. “The need to be near someone we care for is so important that our brain developed an attachment system. This system is dedicated to creating and managing our closest connections.”
This theory is perhaps most intimately explored in Attached, a book written by Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller. In Attached, Levine and Heller explore how various types of attachment can influence our interactions with romantic partners. They also examine how these types of attachment affect the health of a relationship. We all have a need to form close bonds, but the way we create those bonds and how we respond to those bonds being jeopardized totally differs. These varying responses are referred to as our attachment styles—and those attachment styles define how we relate to others and experience their attention and affection.
“Broadly speaking, these groups [attachment styles] represent how a person responds to intimacy and closeness,” says Suchov. There are three main types of attachment styles: anxious, avoidant, and secure. You can take a test online or in Levine and Heller’s book, but here’s a quick overview:
Anxious: Why didn’t you text me back?
If you found yourself relating to my sweaty-palmed story, pull up a chair and break out the brownie mix. You might have an anxious attachment style.
“Someone with an anxious attachment style is more likely to desire higher levels of intimacy,” says Suchov. “That may mean a desire to see and talk to your partner more regularly and have more conversations about your thoughts and feelings regarding the relationship.”
Anxious individuals are also incredibly empathetic and can pick up on emotional cues faster than others. While this makes them very loving partners, it can also make them overreact and jump to unnecessary conclusions. (Like thinking your partner hates you if they aren’t using as many emojis.) Anxious individuals are also more prone to feeling unwarranted jealousy, suppressing their own needs in order to please a partner, putting their partner on a pedestal, or thinking there is only one shot at love.
Avoidant: Why are you so obsessed with me?
Individuals with avoidant attachment styles identify as lone wolves. They prefer to fly solo and see relationships and intimacy as a loss of independence and identity. Even when avoidant individuals fall in love, they aim to keep their partners at a distance, and may even self-sabotage a rewarding relationship without entirely understanding why. Avoidant behavior also includes putting off formal commitment (or saying they’re incapable of commitment), focusing on small imperfections, sending mixed signals, or keeping unrealistically strong boundaries.
Secure: Driving in the middle of the road
Individuals with secure attachment styles are objectively awesome—they keep the romantic scale balanced. According to Levine and Heller, secures attune to their partner’s needs and respond with maturity and compassion. A secure person doesn’t freak out in the face of a threat, but they also won’t shut down at the progression of intimacy.
Secure individuals also possess what Levine and Heller call “the buffering effect,” or the ability to help anxious individuals develop a more secure attachment style. Anxious individuals may mistakenly see those with a secure attachment style as boring (especially when they are more accustomed to the conflict of an avoidant relationship), but a secure person’s easygoing and thoughtful disposition make them an ideal candidate for a healthy relationship. In other words, don’t mistake conflict for passion and ditch a secure.
When anxious and avoidant collide
I once thought I’d met the Love of My Life. I was 23, fresh out of college, and thirsty for adventure; he was a 30-year-old musician who lived in his van and resembled John Mayer on the cover of Paradise Valley. The day after we met, he flooded my inbox with romantic text messages, gushed over my “contagious energy,” and asked me to dinner. My response was the first of many text messages I would agonize over.
This delicious gypsy man (who seriously looked like a Patagonia model at Burning Man) loved to stare into my eyes and declare our soul connection, but he didn’t believe in monogamy. He wanted me, but didn’t want a girlfriend. We dated for over two years, stuck in relationship purgatory, breaking up and hooking up and rushing back to one another with no promise of a real future. The signals were as mixed as a Long Island iced tea.
But, naive and stupidly in love, I didn’t give up. I tried to become exactly the sort of partner he desired while simultaneously changing his mind about the whole “true love doesn’t exist” thing. I pretended not to give a crap when in actuality, I gave so many craps.
And so I did what so many of us swear we hate: I played games. I told myself that if I acted like the “cool girl who didn’t give care about commitment,” he would eventually fall head over heels in love with me and we’d live happily ever after in his van. I tried to make him jealous, purposely took forever with texting back, and made myself unavailable even when, in actuality, I was highly available.
This behavior is something Levine and Heller call “protest behavior.” According to attachment theory, protest behavior is any desperate action that tries to re-establish a connection with your partner. Other examples of protest behavior include excessive or extreme attempts to reconnect, keeping track of how many text messages they send versus how many you send, and threatening to break up in hopes that they stop you. The problem with protest behavior is that a) it doesn’t work, and b) if it does, you’re actually hiding your authentic needs from your partner.
Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens all the time. Avoidant and anxious pairings are so common that one is the entire plot for (500) Days of Summer. According to Suchov, anxious individuals need to be cautious about dating someone with an avoidant style because their needs and preferences might trigger one another—my need for closeness threatened Gypsy Man’s need for independence, and his need for independence threatened my need for intimacy. An anxious person needs constant reassurance, while an avoidant person is hesitant to discuss or define the relationship.
Learning to ride your emotional roller coaster
Are you getting anxious about your attachment style? Don’t worry: Suchov, Heller, and Levine all stress that no attachment style is necessarily healthy or unhealthy. Rather, attachment theory states that it’s the combination of attachment styles that might lead to unhealthy or toxic relationships. Furthermore, attachment styles can fluctuate throughout your lifetime. Our relationships with our primary caregivers are our first attachment experiences and therefore tend to shape many of our behaviors about intimacy and closeness. But other experiences, like previous relationships, life stressors, and the amount of social support you have, also influence our relationship with intimacy.
“Many, if not most, of these behaviors are learned. They can be unlearned and replaced by new ones,” says Suchov. “This can happen organically as a couple develops, or through therapy, reading books about healthy relationship skills, or doing any other sort of productive inner work.” But try not to let this promise keep you in a bad relationship. Suchov says that she wouldn’t recommend staying in a relationship that hasn’t demonstrated the potential for change.
While Gypsy Man faded into the past, I learned to work with my anxiety. I also sought to match with individuals who weren’t put off my by occasional need for reassurance. I even asked my current boyfriend to take the attachment theory test (classic anxious move) and he tested as secure. And while my anxious thoughts have not completely disappeared, I feel equipped to manage any irrational inklings that may arise. I communicate my needs in grounded, thoughtful ways and my partner listens without fear or judgement. Both of us have friendships, hobbies, and passions outside of the relationship and we enjoy each another without limiting one another.
Rule Number One: Love yourself first
Modern dating advice has made us feel bad for being anxious about our relationships—but not everyone has the same capacity for or approach to intimacy. And that’s okay. Our attachment needs are wholly legitimate. Don’t ever feel guilty for wanting your partner to be supportive, or for wanting to have your emotional needs understood. And please, let this be your wake-up call if your relationship (or situation-ship) isn’t giving you peace of mind.
There are many, many people out there who will love and uplift your truest self. Occasional anxiety and all.