Best relationship hacks for an anxious-preoccupied attachment style?
March 27, 2016 4:00 PM   Subscribe

I am in a relationship that I very much enjoy, with a partner who is supportive and giving but also has external limits on how much attention he can give to the relationship. What are some ideas that have worked for people who have an anxious/preoccupied attachment style, to avoid triggering insecurity?

Snowflake details - my partner and I have been dating for over a year. We feel very comfortable with each other and talk openly. We've started speaking very presumptively about our futures - both of us comfortably refer to how we will take care of 'our kids,' how we will set up 'our house,' and we consult each other when making long-term career decisions.

Due to our jobs and obligations, which are very stressful, there are limits to how much time we can spend together. In general, we spend Friday and Saturday together, along with one other day during the week. The rest of the days he spends with his family, who are somewhat emotionally dependent on him. This is partly to support his family, and partly because it is easier for him to focus on his work at their house.

The problem is that I find myself having episodes of insecurity. If he makes a plan to stay over with me, and then changes his mind and decides to go back to his family, my emotional reaction is way out of proportion. If he is only able to offer one or two days that he could meet me during the week, I get disappointed, jealous, and pouty. As much as possible, I name these behaviors when I catch myself doing them so that he does not feel hurt or manipulated.

He is a very giving person and would happily agree to any request or routine I want to do. He does not blame me at all for my emotions. He has cared for his family for a long time and feels that he needs to detach himself gradually. I agree that is probably best for our future.

Regardless of family, I would like to have better strategies for dealing with my anxiety for whatever subject may capture his attention in the future. What kinds of things can I:

a) ask my partner to do, long-term, to help prevent these problems
b) ask my partner to do when I am feeling anxious or jealous
c) do for myself to refocus on the rest of my life when I am in the thick of an anxious/jealous episode


Thank you!
posted by thelastpolarbear to Human Relations (18 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm going to jump straight to C, as I'm sure plenty of people will have good answers for A and B. Now, I know this might seem a strange thing to ask, but what happens in your body when you feel anxious and preoccupied? Do you feel adrenaline anywhere, or do you feel sick at all, or, put another way, where do you feel the anxiety – in your stomach, your chest, everywhere? Where do you feel the jealousy? Does your stomach feel tight? Can you feel it in your body at all?

I'm just wondering if it's possible that if you can locate those feelings in your body, you can stay with them and just accept them and let them be until they pass. I'm not sure if it *is* possible, and I know it sounds pretty damn out there, but I'm wondering if part of the refocusing has something to do with locating what's going on with your body when you have these feelings, and then just staying with that until they pass through and your body settles again, even if that's hard.

I'm not sure if that makes any sense! It's something I'm working on myself, after it was recommended to me – and I realised my stomach goes crazy with nerves whenever I get anxious, so I've started to just focus on those nerves in the pit of my belly and accept that *there they are* and *there they still are*, etc, until eventually, they subside, and the anxiety does too. I think it might be a useful practice, especially because it helps out those of us who over-think – but as I said, it's definitely an experimental one – at least for some of us. Just thought I'd add it to the pile!

Good luck!
posted by considerthelilies at 4:11 PM on March 27, 2016 [9 favorites]


He has cared for his family for a long time and feels that he needs to detach himself gradually.

OK. If this is the case then the two of you should talk about ground rules about how that will take place and you should be able to see actual movement in that direction.

My partner is a guy who was in a complex relationship with his son's mom when we met. That is, they had not been a couple for over a decade but she was still dependent on him for a number of things. When we started seriously dating, everyone knew that had to change. I am an anxious person. The big deal, to me, was that I could trust him in word and deed and that I understood where I was in the priorities list of his life. That is I expected to not have as high priority as his son but I did expect to have higher priority over his long ago ex. The deal was, of course, that she would argue that a lot of the things she wanted him to do for her were really for his son. We had to untangle that with a lot of conversation.

So the big thing to me was him keeping the agreements that we'd made and showing me in word and deed that I was a priority. And if I said that I felt like he wasn't making me a priority for whatever reason (there was always holiday drama for example because it was easier for him to do "family" holiday stuff than stand up to his ex) that he would work on it, not just tell me it was in my head.

So "I want to move slow" can mean exactly that, or it can mean "I don't really want to do this but I know how to talk as if I do" Over the next little while the two of you should have some conversations about what it would take to make sure that he's dealing with #1 and not #2 to BOTH of your satisfactions.

Also, you should consider having some interactions with his family. It might not be "couple time" but it's you sharing in a part of his life and maybe having some more understanding about why he feels the way he does about them.

But put in a stronger way: he needs to have an exit strategy for his emotionally dependent family, or he needs to make a choice to continue to be intermingled with them, and how much. He can't just wish that it will happen by him talking about it and him wanting it, it may require hard work and boundary setting on his part and some feedback from you about whether he is or is not actually doing it.

It worked for my guy but it took much longer than I would have thought it would.
posted by jessamyn at 4:11 PM on March 27, 2016 [21 favorites]


Dpn't avoid these episodes.You have the resources to cope. The more you avoid them, the more they will chase you around. Try Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:37 PM on March 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


...What kinds of things can I:

a) ask my partner to do, long-term, to help prevent these problems
b) ask my partner to do when I am feeling anxious or jealous


I'm sure you know this. It's really not your partner's place to solve these issues for you. If you ask him to try to solve these problems for you, you are putting the onus on him and in essence you will be controlling his behavior and making him responsible for your reactions.
posted by Samarium at 5:02 PM on March 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


While what Samarium says is true, it's also not at all selfish to decide that the constraints your partner has placed on the relationship are not ones you're willing to continue with. Wanting to spend more than three days a week with someone you've been dating for a year is so normal that it would be more unusual for you to be ok with this setup. (I'm not trying to rag on anyone's relationship that works for them. I'm just saying that most of us enter relationships because we want to spend a lot of time with our partners. And less than 50% of a potential spouse's time is... not much.) I just wanted to throw this in there because often people think they have an anxious attachment style when what they really have is a relationship where they're not being treated like an equal partner. If you have the patience for it AND he wants to make changes, Jessamyn has great advice. But don't discount the possibility that if the relationship continues like this without him taking clear steps to integrate you more thoroughly into his life (you coming with him to his family's, him spending more weeknights with you) it might be because he likes it this way.
posted by MsMolly at 5:31 PM on March 27, 2016 [15 favorites]


If he makes a plan to stay over with me, and then changes his mind and decides to go back to his family, my emotional reaction is way out of proportion.

I want to suggest that maybe your reactions aren't totally out of proportion--assuming you aren't yelling, name-calling, making false accusations, etc. Ditching your partner for your parents (?) isn't really cool, especially if the reason is "I changed my mind," and I hope you know you have every right to be upset about that, especially if it's continual. I hear you negatively labeling yourself while being really gentle with him, bending over backward to compromise, physchologizing, using self-help jargon, but maybe you just..feel pissed off and have the right to?

As to what you can ask of him: you can decide whether this arrangement works for you, and if it doesn't, ask for what you need to make it work. He doesn't have to do it but you certainly have the right to ask.
posted by kapers at 5:38 PM on March 27, 2016 [14 favorites]


Your priorities seem incompatible. What does it mean that he cares for his family? Is someone disabled? I would have thought you would have mentioned that.

Sometimes anxiety is a cover-up for an internal conflict between feeling obligated to be okay with this situation, and your true feeling that this is not ultimately what you want. Listen to that feeling. Don't tell yourself you're being unreasonable. You want what you want. He does not want that - or he would do it.

You have given him all the power here because he is doing what he wants while you are (im)patiently waiting for things to change. What is the timeline for the change? If he promises that in 3 months, he will spend two more nights per week with you, does that ease your anxiety, knowing that this is temporary? Or do you not trust him to do that?
posted by desjardins at 6:10 PM on March 27, 2016 [5 favorites]


I am also very anxious and insecure about relationships, and was in a similar situation as you are. Here are some things that helped me . Perhaps you can pick something out that might work for you, too:

1) I don't have to be the cool girlfriend. I am not cool. I am me. I am anxious, nervous, and I need reassurance. My SO knew all of this about me and he liked me - the whole me. I wasn't going to be abusive or mean, but I also wasn't going to pretend that I didn't need to spend time with my SO.

2) Routine reassures me and helps me feel calm and cared for. I had established, routine contact with my SO that I knew he would stick to, unless there was a big emergency. So, in your situation for example, we'd decide that on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday we are each other's #1 priority and he'd make sure his family knew that.

3) Lots of non-blaming communication. My SO and I cared about each other and it was important for us to talk about things so we could best look after each other's needs. He didn't want me to feel uncared for, and I didn't want him to feel guilty for looking after his other obligations.
posted by Stonkle at 8:03 PM on March 27, 2016 [14 favorites]


Why are you so eager to change yourself and pretend you're the problem to accommodate him? He does stuff that makes you unhappy and anxious. That's not a small inconvenience or quirk or a relationship hack.

When You stop listening to yourself and start blaming yourself for normal human feelings, you're practicing denying your needs and yourself. You're putting in effort to change/delay healthy bonding attachment like you're desperate for this to work. Meanwhile, you could be meeting a more suitable partner instead of doing all this work, wasting all this energy. Maybe you think the high outweighs the lows, but that's how being addicted to drugs feels too.

I'm assuming you are both over 21. Maybe tell him to give you a call when he's done "detaching" from his family.
posted by discopolo at 9:44 PM on March 27, 2016 [6 favorites]


How disproportionate? "Oh my God, he doesn't love me anymore and he's planning to break up with me" is one thing; "I'm really disappointed and glum and lonely now that he's cancelled" is something else.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:16 PM on March 27, 2016


Either you accept this situation as it is, or you don't.

The fact is that your SO is balancing you, work and family. And in many cases, he prioritized the other two over you. Does he ever prioritize you over them? Ever?

As for how you feel about all of this, could it be not that you're insecure and jealous of your SO's time, but rightfully annoyed and disappointed when he chooses either work of family over you? Especially if he's cancelling plans he's made with you to do so.

Sometimes we're jealous loons and need to be shaken by the shoulders, and sometimes our bodies are trying to tell us something that our brain recognizes, but that we're actively suppressing, that's why the emotion is so intense.

I suspect that you've reached the point where the rubber meets the road in this. You want more from this person than they can give. You have to decide if you want to be a supporting player in his life, or if you want to be the star of someone else's.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:46 AM on March 28, 2016


Thanks everyone for the responses!

In terms of the specific family issue, we took jessamyn and Stonkie's advice. We sat down last night and I stated what I wanted to see - namely, a path to him no longer spending the night at his family's place, and integrating me into his time with them. We set up goals and timelines for when that would happen over the next month or so, and when we'd have our first phone calls to introduce me, up to me having dinner, etc. We also set schedules and routines around what days were untouchable (Sunday is an important day for me because my job causes a lot of stress and anxiety).


When I said disproportionate, I really did mean disproportionate. He says, "My sister's car broke down and I need to help her get it towed," and I get jealous, become unable to focus or function, and will be sobbing for hours. It is an issue I have with insecurity and anxious attachment. Granted, this is usually only a problem when I am really stressed out by my job, but it still is something I want to come up with routines to help me feel more secure and less explosive. Stonkie's suggestion of routines is right on the money - I am only triggered when I perceive a rejection of an expectation - so we set some up that I think will be very helpful.


And just a little constructive criticism for Metafilter - a lot of people are very quick to suggest DTMFA, calling other people's behavior unreasonable or non-negotiable in a way that is VERY Anglo-normative. Some of the suggestions on here indicated that if I enter a relationship where others show up with different cultural dating norms, I should simply reject them outright. That seems like a block to my own growth, and a practice that would make intercultural families, where both sides' cultures are accepted and valued, nearly impossible.

Dating practices and norms around family are things that show tremendous cultural differences, and it is pretty retrograde to denounce a cultural norm as 'unreasonable' because it does not match your values or expectations for life. We all live in a segregated city, and my partner's mother does not ever interact with people of my culture (and I don't interact with people of hers). We don't speak the same language and have extremely different religious backgrounds.

I think it would be pretty colonial of me to just dismiss the norms and expectations of another culture, just as it would be cruel for my partner to dismiss my desires for more detachment from family. We are going slowly so that all people feel comfortable and no one feels afraid of something that is a huge unknown and new territory for all parties.
posted by thelastpolarbear at 9:01 AM on March 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


We all live in a segregated city, and my partner's mother does not ever interact with people of my culture (and I don't interact with people of hers). We don't speak the same language and have extremely different religious backgrounds.

This would have been useful information for the question to have included initially. I'm glad you two had a good conversation.
posted by jessamyn at 9:09 AM on March 28, 2016


Dating practices and norms around family are things that show tremendous cultural differences, and it is pretty retrograde to denounce a cultural norm as 'unreasonable' because it does not match your values or expectations for life.

If you re-read, that was 100% not what anyone was saying. They were saying that if you find a requirement of the relationship to be unreasonable you're allowed to. Ignoring ones own needs leads to bonsai humans.
posted by MsMolly at 10:08 AM on March 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


Some of the suggestions on here indicated that if I enter a relationship where others show up with different cultural dating norms, I should simply reject them outright. That seems like a block to my own growth, and a practice that would make intercultural families, where both sides' cultures are accepted and valued, nearly impossible.


First, you never mentioned that your boyfriend was from a different culture. If it was pertinent to the question it should have been stated. I would not have answered because I probably don't know enough about [ethnic group]'s culture.

Second, some people are just fine with their SO's cultural practices, and that's how intercultural relationships can exist. Some people would be fine with your boyfriend's prioritizing of family above them, but you are not fine with it, and you are trying to force yourself to be. This is not good for either of you. He is placing family above you in his priority list. You are placing him above your own desires. This is not compatibility.

As far as sobbing for hours, that is indeed an overreaction and therapy would probably help with that, but therapy is not going to make you fundamentally compatible with this guy when you have different core values.
posted by desjardins at 12:45 PM on March 28, 2016 [6 favorites]


Dating practices and norms around family are things that show tremendous cultural differences, and it is pretty retrograde to denounce a cultural norm as 'unreasonable' because it does not match your values or expectations for life.

I'm not white. I'm Indian. My parents are from India, I grew up steeped in Indian culture. I've dated and been in a relationship with another Indian guy who not only had a pretty demanding job but traditional Indian parents (one parent with a serious illness) who lived nearby and they needed him around to do stuff, which he did. But he also had his own place and made time for me. He was not overly attached to his parents. And while a lot of Indian guys are attached to their parents and claim it is cultural, I know plenty who spend time with their family but aren't going to bail on their girlfriend to do so unless the parents really need help.

So I stand by my comment. It wasn't based on Anglo norms.
posted by discopolo at 2:58 AM on March 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Does his family know about you, btw?
posted by discopolo at 3:02 AM on March 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Your update is encouraging and enlightening. While I am familiar with cultures where the family of origin is one's primary relationship, I know of no culture where continually breaking established plans is an acceptable norm, so that's interesting if that's the case here.

Adjusting my response to accommodate the knowledge that you have a plan in place to work across cultures, and that your reaction involves sobbing for hours, I still want to say I hope you know you don't have to stay in a dynamic that doesn't suit you. Your current plan sounds good, and overreacting sounds bad, but it still doesn't make ditching your partner cool in my book. But "my book" is of course from my cultural POV and I'm not sure you'll find that useful.
posted by kapers at 11:03 AM on March 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


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