6 relationship tips for the anxiously attached

Asian lesbian couple comforting girlfriend when she sad with love and care in night time at home
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Last week, I discussed what an avoidantly attached person should consider when it comes to their role in the dynamic of an anxious-avoidant relationship. This week, I’ll focus on how an anxiously attached person can reflect and work on, according to psychologists and experts.

In short, attachment theory posits that individuals with avoidant attachment evade difficult conversations and vulnerable feelings, while those with anxious attachment tend to turn towards them to a degree that the avoidant partner can find overwhelming, responding with “fight” rather than “flight” as the avoidant does. At least outwardly, they seem to want more contact and connection than their partners do and feel less comfortable being alone. Avoidants, on the other hand, seem to need less of this and have a greater need for independence and autonomy. They’re more uncomfortable about being too enmeshed.

If you think you might be anxiously attached, here are some things to think about in your relationship.

Self-regulate & try to give an avoidant space when they ask for it

Medical News Today wrote that “attachment style directly influences how a person responds to emotions, and controlling these emotions, also known as self-regulation, alongside being mindful of them, is a good step to overcoming an anxious attachment. Self-regulation can help solve conflicts in relationships and overall contribute to higher confidence.” 

The thing about attempting difficult conversations when you’re activated (ie, not self-regulated) is that you’re asking an avoidant-leaning person to help regulate you, which is especially hard for them (compared to secure partners, who are less overwhelmed by this request). Self-regulating in those moments of conflict helps those who are anxiously attached still speak their truth, but in a way the avoidant can be receptive to. One that won’t ambush their autonomy.

Meditate. Feel whatever feeling their behavior brought up for you. If it’s anger, feel that too. But let it all pass through so that you’re less likely to act on it in harmful ways.

When self-regulating & giving space, bolster your self-esteem

Anxiously attached folks tend to overvalue and over-rely on their partners (at least internally) when triggered or when feeling insecure amidst conflict.

So while an anxious-avoidant relationship will benefit from the avoidant focusing more on their partner’s positive attributes when deactivating, it will also benefit from the anxious person focusing on confidence-bolstering thoughts and their own lovability when activated (as opposed to pulling up negative thoughts of their partner, which may only fuel their anger).

Reframe the situation

Oftentimes, the anxious person feels like they have to suppress their needs to cater to the avoidant. Another way to think about this though is that you and your partner may have different needs. 

The avoidant person’s need (communicated through a request for space) is for you to focus on your own internal experiences and daily activities. By doing this, you’re helping them meet their needs. It might feel counter-intuitive, but reframing it in this way can help you feel like you’re taking constructive action rather than denying yourself. 

Energy can be converted rather than tamped down or suppressed. Giving someone space is still giving; it’s not entirely passive. 

Positive affirmations and being mindful of criticisms.

The avoidant person can sometimes feel like the anxious person is offsetting all responsibility onto them, making them feel like they’re more wrong, less mature, and in greater need of healing. According to CNBC, “Contempt is more than criticism or saying something negative. It’s when one partner asserts that they are smarter, have better morals, or are simply a better human being than the other.” 

Anxious partners can be guilty of this. At times when triggered, they’re not actually communicating their feelings in a vulnerable way. Rather, they’re making demands, shaming and blaming, then feeling as if their partner can’t handle their needs. In reality, it’s not the needs themselves they couldn’t handle, but the way they were communicated.

Amir Levine and Rachel Heller,  authors of the book Attached, wrote that protest behavior “is very destructive to relationships and it is important that an anxiously attached person learns to recognize and stop these behaviors when they start to occur.” 

Anxious partners have just as much responsibility as their avoidant partners to communicate their needs with love— without projecting, accusing, blaming, assuming, or prioritizing their needs over the other’s. The stonewalling that avoidants exhibit and implement in response is equally destructive, but it also didn’t come from nowhere.

Ask yourself, How was I communicating leading up to them shutting off? In what way did I contribute to the cycle?

Granted, psychologist Carolina Pataky acknowledges, “Individuals with avoidant attachment are prone to interpret feedback as criticism,” and some people fall more on the unhealed avoidant end of the spectrum than others. They may genuinely shut you down even when you are expressing your needs in a mature and vulnerable way, perceiving contempt even when there isn’t any. It’s important to acknowledge this so that anxious people who are communicating healthily don’t doubt themselves. 

Empathize with your avoidant partner

It is important to understand their need for competence and the importance of holding onto autonomy in relationships and to validate their fear of losing that. 

As one avoidant phrased it in an interview with SELF: “Avoidants do feel intense emotions, including deep and consuming love. We just need to feel like our independence is intact before we can let our walls down and connect.”

Independence, competence, and autonomy are all valid traits to fear losing. We all have a need for them, to varying degrees. As such, it’s important not to demonize them altogether and to help our partner understand that we want those things for them, too. At the same time, we also want to satisfy our own needs (closeness and communication). The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The fear of one replacing the other is what can sometimes make them feel as if they are incompatible.

Gentleness, requests, and invitations (not demands, which will lead to shutdown) are key.

Look at overall communication

Is your partner overly sensitive to criticism, or is criticism is all they ever receive from you?  Only you can really answer that by taking an honest look at yourself and the dynamic. Do this when calm and not triggered. Really look at whether your general communication pattern is critical, or if it’s just when you’re in conflict that the criticisms escalate. How can you phrase your feelings in a way that doesn’t undercut your partner’s perspective? 

Criticisms are especially harmful without positive affirmations to balance them out. Be mindful of the way you communicate in between conflicts. As stated on CNBC, “Ideally, we want our positive statements and gestures to outweigh the negative ones — the magic ratio is at least five positive statements or feelings to one negative one. “

Next week, I’ll wrap up with things both styles can do to support one another.

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