Dealing with Adult Anxious Preoccupied Attachment Style

6 min read
fizkes / Shutterstock

Source: fizkes / Shutterstock

“Tell me, how do I save myself from my longings and sorrows? What should I do with you? I am in a state of addiction. Tell me, what is the solution? My longings have reached the limits of delirium” —Nizar Qabbani

Anxious preoccupied attachment style in adults is commonly assumed to be parallel to anxious-resistant attachment in infant-mother attachment styles first proposed by Ainsworth et al. (1993). In the original strange situation experiment, Ainsworth observed that what she dubbed as anxiously-resistant attached toddlers, once reunited with their mother after a brief leaving of the room, tended to seek the comfort of their mother while simultaneously showing signs of distress, frustration, and inability to be soothed—despite the mother’s attempts—as if they could not regulate their anger over the perceived abandonment. Similarly, anxious preoccupied adults tend to express frequent frustrations of unmet needs of intimacy and would typically be described by a partner as clingy, yet unsatisfiable even when attention is given.

What are the signs of anxious preoccupied attachment in adults?

Anxious preoccupied adults tend to be more controlling in relationships (Mahalik et al., 2015) and more jealous (Marazziti et al., 2010), and they seem to have a higher sex drive (libido) than secure and avoidant counterparts (Ciocca et al., 2021). Since it is a high anxiety attachment style, people with this attachment style are more sensitive to any signs of rejection and remain vigilant for cues of abandonment intentions. The abandonment anxiety seems to be at least partially caused by both components of Bartholomew’s conception of the core beliefs of the anxious preoccupied: negative evaluations of the self and positive evaluations of others.

Preoccupied adults tend to quickly develop a high idealization of their partner, extending to both their physical attraction and character while emphasizing the irreplaceability of their attachment figure. Hence, they usually exert great effort to preserve a relationship once they feel it is threatened. They might go to great lengths in promising that they will change. They might travel long distances to “accidentally” meet their attachment figure or even sacrifice their job, family, friends, and education in desperate efforts to “save” or reconcile the relationship. Unfortunately, these efforts rarely pay off but instead creep their partner out and undermine even more their evaluation of the preoccupied as too invested in the relationship. This is especially true if their partner is avoidantly-attached (either fearful-avoidant or dismissive-avoidant), as they may scoff at neediness, value independence, and remain wary of signs of negative emotionality.

For the preoccupied, although the idealization provides a great deal of pleasure when the partner is present and loving, it puts them at higher risk for catastrophizing the implications of the end of the relationship and fosters relentless efforts to avoid a breakup, even as such efforts only serve to suffocate their partner even more.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approaches posit that most anxiety conditions are usually triggered and maintained by duo core beliefs: “The world is dangerous and I do not have enough resources to cope.” Adults with anxious preoccupied attachment often go to great lengths to avoid being alone and they may resort to “escape behaviors” by rushing to enter a new relationship once their current relationship is over, or they might reduce distances, go back to the partial “comfort” of their homes, and seek rapprochement from their own family. The problem with escape behaviors is that although, in the short run, they bring about immediate relief for anxiety, in the long run, they usually reinforce the notion that “anxiety is dangerous and I cannot cope.”

How can I treat my preoccupied attachment and be more securely attached in relationships?

As Bowlby proposed, at the basis of each attachment lies an internal working model encompassing the expectations, beliefs, and assumptions about oneself and others in relationships. Thus, fostering a stronger sense of self-sufficiency can lower attachment needs and help the preoccupied navigate toward a more balanced state between neediness and independence.

Concurrently, the preoccupied is encouraged within therapy to practice their own mentalizing capacities and become less centered on their own needs. Mentalizing in this sense refers to one’s ability to reflect on one’s own and others’ mental states, understanding behavior in terms of underlying thoughts and emotions (i.e., reflective functioning) and understanding that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives different from our own (i.e., theory of mind). These capacities are linked to higher empathetic abilities, fewer conflicts within the relationship, and better emotional regulation. Continuous practice can bring about more healthy interactions and foster a greater sense of security within a relationship.

Yet, an interrelational, insight-oriented approach should not be the only way to bring about change in internal working models. Behavioral and cognitive adaptations, if proceeded with favorable outcomes, would also edge you closer to a more secure base. Some preoccupied adults seem to engage in self-destructive habit-forming tendencies such as repeatedly checking a partner’s account, which would only, in the best case, provide a temporary relief for their suspicions and/or cravings and, in the worst case, spike their anxieties if certain ambiguous signs are noticed and misinterpreted. Others may invest a great deal of mental effort (e.g., analyzing and studying the relationship and sharing their analysis with their partner) and even materialistic efforts (e.g., repeatedly buying gifts) to try to improve the quality or the depth of the relationship. Unfortunately, these efforts usually only serve to suffocate the partner, especially if they are avoidantly attached.

Any concrete advice?

One step that could help is cultivating a hobby, ideally one that you do alone. It could be hiking in nature, walking by the sea, fishing, reading (even in a public library), or even traveling solo. Practice stopping by a local café or dining out in a restaurant by yourself. This can be an important exposure exercise that can help you realize that discomfort is actually tolerable, subsides with time, and can even turn out to be enjoyable.

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I was surprised to learn within therapy that a great number of preoccupied adults refrained from going to restaurants alone, fearfully appraising that others would perceive them as lonely and pitiful. They can have rigid, unfounded beliefs that “no one goes out to dine out by themselves” and think that they wouldn’t enjoy it, without giving it a chance.

You should consult with your own therapist on how you can develop a stronger sense of self-sufficiency, avoid self-destructive habits, and adopt healthier relational behaviors. It is crucial to keep exercising your own capacities for mentalization for better and healthier interactions. Moving toward a secure base involves working on your own internal working model, which took time to develop and will take time to be altered. Be patient and never give up.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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