I’ve always struggled in my romantic relationships.
All the men I’ve loved have been different. I’ve tried to learn from my mistakes, and not repeat them by dating men with similar personalities or issues. Somehow, though, I always wound up in relationships that made me feel similarly. With all the the men I’ve loved I’ve felt like my relationship expectations and desires were unreasonable. I was told I was too needy, too sensitive, and too emotional.
In each relationship I’ve had, I’ve felt unsteady and uncertain. I could never feel confident in their feelings, or their commitment to me. After the honeymoon period, my anxiety would increase and destabilize my inner peace.
I frequently wondered what happens to me when I fall in love. Why do I fall apart? Why do I become this needy creature with no self-confidence? Why do I always lose myself in relationships? The woman I am while single and while involved may look the same on the outside, but on the inside, they are two entirely different people.
At 40, after a particularly bad breakup, I decided it was time to figure this sh*t out. I found myself attending Al-Anon meetings and although I wasn’t sure what I thought of the entire program, I did find comfort in the fellowship with a group of people who had lived through the same chaos. The reading materials introduced me to my codependent tendencies, and I realized I had choices in my reactions and behaviors. But, a majority of the literature made me feel as though I was broken and needed to be fixed. As if, I was a project. I didn’t like thinking of myself as a project.
Having always had issues with believing I’m enough and seeing my worthiness of love, I started therapy and slowly stopped going to Al-Anon meetings. My first therapist, one I could see for free through a local women’s center, suggested I read the book Attached, by Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel Heller, M.A.
This book shifted my perspective and helped illuminate my unhealthy relationship patterns.
Attached is about adult attachment theory, a field of psychology that studies the science of relationships. This book uses anecdotal stories to illustrate the scientific research of adult attachment theory.
While reading the book, I realized that my desire for intimacy and connection was completely natural. I wasn’t needy or high-maintenance; I wasn’t broken and in need of repair. I was anxiously attached.
Also called anxious-ambivalent attachment, anxiously attached individuals move toward emotional intimacy and are preoccupied with their relationships. Dependency isn’t a dirty word. People need people; we are social creatures. My needs weren’t unreasonable. I had been dating people who were simply wrong for me.
I had been dating men who were avoidantly attached.
Also called anxious-avoidant attachment, individuals with avoidant attachment move away from emotional intimacy and feel suffocated in relationships. Of course I felt as if they were pushing me away! They needed to maintain emotional distance to feel safe, and I needed to establish emotional intimacy to feel safe. Our attachment styles were at odds.
The anxious-avoidant trap
This dance between anxious and avoidant attachment types is called the anxious-avoidant trap, and is a dysfunctional relationship style. This combination of attachment styles makes for an unsatisfying and toxic relationship.
This dance activates the attachment styles of both people in the relationship, which creates a roller-coaster of emotional highs and lows that are addictive and destabilizing. It feels like love, but usually isn’t. The simple solution to the anxious-avoidant trap is for people with either anxious or avoidant attachment styles to date someone who is securely attached.
Securely attached individuals are comfortable with intimacy and have no problem either expressing their needs in a relationship, or responding to the needs of their partner.
Research suggests that our attachment styles are not set, and we can all move toward secure attachment. One way to do this is by engaging in a relationship with a securely attached individual. The behavior of those with secure attachment styles will not activate the reactive behaviors of either anxious or insecure attachment types. A securely attached individual can read their partner’s emotions and respond accordingly.
Anxious & Secure pairings
If we are anxiously attached, when we attempt to establish intimacy because we are feeling insecure, a secure partner will mirror this and ease your anxiety. They will not pull away and activate your attachment system.
Avoidant & Secure pairings
If we have an avoidant attachment style, a secure partner will not be concerned about our need for space; they enjoy time by themselves as well, and won’t read into it. Over time, people with avoidant attachment will learn that it is safe to establish intimacy and be close to their partner.
Dating a securely attached individual seems like an easy solution, right? I can tell you from my own personal experience that it isn’t quite that easy.
Even after reading this book, I managed to date not one, but two men with avoidant attachment styles. Why? The two types are drawn to each other like magnets. The old saying opposites attract applies here.
When I look back on the men I’ve dated, it is clear that the ones I wasn’t too hot on and ended things quickly with were probably securely attached individuals who would have been attentive and caring partners. The guys who really got under my skin—the men I longed for—were avoidantly attached. I am drawn to them like a moth to the flame. This is common, and this is precisely why the anxious-avoidant trap is so insidious.
I’ve read this book three times, and I still glean new insights. I’m still learning how to choose better partners for myself by creating a screening system that includes evaluating a potential partner’s attachment style. I’m still drawn to men with avoidant attachment, but now I choose not to date them. I know there are plenty avoidantly attached men who are wonderful and deserve to be loved; I’ve dated some of them. But, at this point I leave them for the secure types.
I haven’t found a lasting and satisfying relationship yet, but at least now I know there isn’t anything wrong with what I want and need in a relationship.
So, to the others out there who have had similar experiences: you are not a project. You don’t need to be fixed. Everyone deserves to find a loving, satisfying, and lasting relationship.
This book really helped me see that.