Managing anxious attachment style while dating
May 22, 2019 6:03 PM   Subscribe

I'm working on changing my attachment style from anxious to secure. In the meantime, what are some strategy or techniques I could use to manage my anxious attachment? Those who are anxiously attached, please share your stories, advice, or tips! Special snowflake details inside.

I've read similar threads, but I'm specifically looking for strategies or techniques I could use in the ambiguous intermediate stages of the dating process, where you're past casual dates but still exploring long-term potential, or navigating long distances when you only have access to the person online. (For example, I really like this advice from cocoagirl, but it seems best applied in a serious relationship.)

Things I'm tried successfully or will be trying:
* Recognizing unhealthy patterns of behavior ahead of time and not acting on them: The book Attached was very helpful in this regard, especially in terms of putting an end to protest behaviors, though it still doesn't completely quell the inner feelings of anxiety
* Mindfulness meditation: Helps a lot with reducing anxiety so far, but I'm hoping the benefits will be more permanent as I get better at incorporating this daily
* Emotional regulation therapy, which, unfortunately, I won't be able to start until the fall at the clinic I've been going to but I'm also looking into alternative affordable treatment providers
* Observing and modeling secure attachment style via movies & TV since, like Auden, I don't have "a lot of good memories to riff off of"

Things I've tried, but with mixed results:
* Direct communication: Again, Attached has been helpful, as well as previous threads on Ask MeFi. This is the one area I'm fairly confident I've improved on, which my intake therapist affirmed. However, it seems there are are limitations to defining your needs especially when it's considered "too much" in the aforementioned ambiguous stages. (See next bullet point for elaboration.) Some feedback I've gotten from friends is the act itself can come off as "intense." I've also tried softening or "casual"-izing the phrasing, but I tend to get the same feedback nonetheless.

* Defining clear boundaries (to avoid getting invested until we're on the same page): I think this falls into Asker vs Guesser Culture articulated by tangerine. I've become an Asker, though I've always made for a terrible Guesser growing up (either by being too oblivious to subtle cues or being hypersensitive to negative ones). At the same time, however, I want to learn to work with the "polite indirection of 'Guess Culture'," which blogger Julian Sanchez explains is a deliberate attempt to "preserve the ambiguity...precisely because those intermediate relationships are ambiguous". According to him, it buys Guessers time to "[negotiate] just where on the gradient we fall" since "to ask too directly at that stage can seem rude because it effectively demands a binary verdict on a work in progress."

I respect this take, but I find it difficult to distinguish between people who are seriously interested in me but need time to process vs putting in minimal or intermittent effort to keep me on as a backup in case their first choices don't work out. I'd like to learn how to read the lines better to distinguish these types of "interest," so I'm open to suggestions on "flagging" correctly when asking directly isn't always the best course of action.

Things I've tried but didn't really work for me:
* Abundance philosophy, a.k.a. simultaneously dating multiple people: a strategy recommended byAttached, but it didn't do much to alleviate my anxiety when I had strong feelings for one person but felt lukewarm or nothing towards the others.
* Being "busy": like procrastination, which turns out to be an emotional regulation problem, this strategy utilizes avoidance via distraction. Similarly, while it provides relief in the immediate present, the effects are worsened afterwards.

Apologies for the novel, and thanks for reading!
posted by postmortemsalmon to Human Relations (10 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Such a great question! I’m wondering if Attached resonated when it said that sometimes what feels like strong emotions are really the pull of an avoidant person, while a secure person might feel boring or not as exciting at first. Might it be worth giving those lukewarm connections a bit more time? Or could you at least stay on dating apps (if that’s what you’re doing) for a bit longer and still go on dates with new folks?

I’d also say my advice would be to avoid long distance. I have a pretty secure attachment style, but leaning towards anxious on the spectrum, and was involved in a long distance relationship last year that brought out so many of my anxieties. I think the distance made it harder for me to recognize that the person I was involved with was quite avoidant; the distance itself made him more comfortable in a way he couldn’t be when he moved to my town. It was wretched, really. Heart-wrenching.

Are you certain your anxieties aren’t coming out because the person is avoidant?
posted by bluedaisy at 7:44 PM on May 22, 2019 [5 favorites]

I've read a decent amount up on this,
and I have an alternate theory on attachment theory.
I would technically follow under anxious attachment for the majority of my relationships, but I don't know how sound this theory is at all because those were all with people I really liked or was really attracted to... and them not as much to me. Or they were abusive.
On the other hand though, when dating people who persued me and I wasn't all that interested in but they seemed ok enough to give a chance to, I'd definitely fall under avoidant.
And then again, I also dated one person where the like, attraction, respect, and communication was fucking on point mutual and I must say I then was absolutely fully securely attached.

I'm thinking attachment theory is valid for sure, I can fully relate to all of them at certain points in my relationship life... but... I'm thinking it's also possible that your attachment style is more an indication of the health and compatibility the relationship. I've heard from so many people who are happily long term partnered, that when it's a good thing, on some deeper level you just know, and so you both feel secure, and I'm still fully willing to believe that's possible too.
posted by OnefortheLast at 7:56 PM on May 22, 2019 [15 favorites]

Have you tried medication for anxiety? Zoloft and other SSRIs can do this safely long-term. Benzodiazepines might give a clue about if medication would work, but are of dubious safety, especially longer term use.

Alcohol as well can tame anxiety, but that’s probably worse than benzos for long term anxiolytic use.
posted by u2604ab at 10:01 PM on May 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

To elaborate a bit on that, I think the attachment theory model appeals to people because they like to have a set of personal identifying labels, and I think they like to have a way to explain their relationship failures.

In reality, i believe people are just more likely to repeat their mistakes, or pick a certain type of personality or relationship over and over again, not necessarily that they have developed their own personal style. I do think attachment theory has some excellent information about how to identify healthy and unhealthy attachments though.

Since you specifically mentioned anxious attachment, I'm going to mention that it wasn't long ago in history that anxiety was referred to as hysteria and was considered a women's only issue. I think we've all heard about women's intuition being particularly a strong point. If you ask people what feeling they experienced when their intuition was telling them something was wrong, they will usually say anxiety. That's not to say that it can't be caused by other things, like having too much caffeine or worrying about a loved one in the hospital, but anxiety is a very good indication that there is something off that needs your attention. Also if you are experiencing a pattern of anxious attachment, and presumably those relationships haven't worked out, then it is equally possible that your anxiety was indicating the issue, not causing it. Think about other healthy relationships you have in your life with friends and family; are you anxiously attached to them as well, or secure. Usually a secure attachment will develop naturally when it is safe to do so.
posted by OnefortheLast at 11:32 PM on May 22, 2019 [15 favorites]

It is ok to have a mini-talk with the other person several dates in: just so you know, I’m not one to date around simultaneously and eventually I’m looking for a serious relationship. What about you? And then listen. You will get your answers in a few minutes’ conversation - not whether you two particular individuals will work out of course, but whether you’re at least pointed in the same direction.

How to have that conversation without it being “intense”? Don’t feel intense! If it’ll work out between you two crazy kids it’ll be despite yourselves and your flaws. Like, you’d have to try really hard to fuck it up. There’s no perfect balance that you individually have to be to make it work.

The goal is not: get This person to be in a relationship with me. The goal is: a healthy relationship. Keep framing it that way. You don’t want to be locked down with the wrong person no matter how juicy the feels, trust me.

Next, and I can’t stress enough, in the early days take everything as it comes and don’t get ahead of yourself. One step at a time. Your anxiety will want certainty (we will be together forever!) but pretend you’re watching a movie of yourself and ask whether the plot is moving at the right pace. There’s so much to know about a person (been w my hubby 7 years and I’m still learning!) so even though your feelings are strong, be evidence-based in your approach. Does it make sense for these two characters to get exclusive based on what I’ve seen? That kind of thinking.

Lastly, and this helped me soo much, imagine a future where you live with this person and it’s no longer novel. You won’t make a big deal whether they texted you back right away because you see them all. The. Time. That’s what my best gf said to me. Enjoy this early dating time because if it’s headed for marriage (and it was) then trust me there’ll be a future where you’re actually wanting some space instead of closeness. (2 kids and many years later She was totally right ha ha.)

I know it can be tough. Big hugs!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:16 AM on May 23, 2019 [12 favorites]

I want to address this part where you say you ask for what you need and it’s “too much”. I think it’s hard to sort out what’s the anxiety and what’s a legitimate incompatibility, especially at the beginning. Take it slow (with yourself) and sit with your anxiety. It’s terrible, I know. There’s a difference between someone treating you with respect as an independent person and is independent themselves and someone who’s enabling your anxiety, in terms of a good partner for you. And sometimes the first can feel kind of bad, to an anxious person (hello!).

I tend to be really direct and have practiced mindfulness and practiced saying how I’m feeling and sorting out these feelings for many years. And my partner was kind of freaked out in the beginning! And I remember them saying that I was very “intense.” I was like... you know what, I AM intense. I’m never going to be “chill.” I have no chill. So you have to put up with it. However, I really do my best to not put my intensity on others. Just because you feel a certain way doesn’t mean anyone is obligated to react in any way. You need to find a way to live with your feelings.

I can say my partner and I struggle with the anxious/avoidant dynamic a bit (less so now, but it’s still there) and it’s worked because we’ve both had enough therapy and done enough work on ourselves to be able to talk about it. We know this isn’t a new relationship dynamic for either of us, so we just have to deal and be kind to each other.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 8:08 AM on May 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

You mention finding it "difficult to distinguish between people who are seriously interested in me but need time to process vs putting in minimal or intermittent effort to keep me on as a backup in case their first choices don't work out."

I wonder if it might help to consider the possibility that many or most people who get to an intermediate stage of dating with you are actually not in either of the two categories you propose, but truly are in a third, ambiguous place in between:

* "seriously interested in me but need time to process" - Just as you yourself are trying to avoid getting invested until you're both on the same page, it could be that people do see glimmers of potential for something serious with you, and need time to see if that potential grows. In other words, they may not be "seriously interested" just yet, but are sincerely interested in learning whether "serious interest" could develop.

* "putting in minimal or intermittent effort to keep me on as a backup in case their first choices don't work out" - If someone happens to be evaluating multiple people, it could be they do lean more strongly toward a particular person, just as you yourself have done when you tried the "abundance philosophy" of dating multiple people. But it might be that (most of the time, anyway) they truly do not intend to string you along as a back-up option, but are truly keeping the door open to something serious possibly developing with you, because they know that early glimmers of interest with other people can fade, and also that people can grow on us as we get to see more of who they are.

So again, maybe people are most often neither "seriously interested" quite yet, nor just stringing you along, but instead are seriously interested in learning if "serious interest" could develop. And maybe it would help to try and keep yourself in this middle place as well, which could truly help with your anxiety. (Since it's only natural that if you become quickly attached to someone, you would feel anxiety about losing them!) And I think it could also help to shore up your platonic friendships and other relationships, so that you have other places to get at least some of the companionship and comfort and mutual understanding that most of us so desperately hope to find in a dating partner. Good luck!
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 9:11 AM on May 23, 2019 [6 favorites]

One thing that can be helpful and I think is a reasonable request when you are in a newish relationship: when you are together, before you say goodbye, knowing when you might see each other or talk again. So, if you go out on Saturday, having a sense before the end of the evening when you might meet up again. I dated a man once who did this proactively almost all of the time, likely because he had a really busy schedule, but it was great to be able to chat about our schedules rather than doing it by text. It also gave me the security of knowing he wanted to see me again soon, even if we both had so much going on that it might be a week until our schedules aligned. I think you can frame this as a direct request, "Hey, so it's really helpful for me to know before the end of our dates when I might see you again." If someone is really interested, this seems like an easy thing to accommodate. It could be a red flag if they resist.

Also, I don't know if you feel like you are at the point where you can express an interest in this, or if you would find it helpful, but in my former long distance relationship, and in the relationship I'm in now, I let both folks know that I really appreciate a good morning text. It doesn't have to come every single day, and sometimes I text my partner first in the mornings, and sometimes he doesn't text me until a bit later, but having my partner initiate contact each day has been something that helps me feel quite secure. This is another one I learned about because I dated a guy who did this proactively. He had a later work schedule, but I would get a good morning text from him soon after he woke up every day, when I was a few hours into my work day. It wasn't a lengthy exchange, but it was great. I think it sort of proactively presented some anxiety. I didn't wonder if he was thinking about me because he had already indicated he was.

It was so awkward when I asked my long distance boyfriend for this. And he immediately said yes and did it consistently and we both found it to be one of the easiest good things for our long distance relationship. (He was a couple time zones ahead, if that matters.)

Those are little things that require you to be a bit vulnerable, because you have to express some wants and needs and the fact that you might be interested in some reassurance. But maybe also they are a good indication of your partner's willingness to meet you where you are?
posted by bluedaisy at 3:02 PM on May 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

Hello, I just wanted to thank everyone for their incredibly thoughtful responses. I'll keep them in mind for future reference, especially the strategies and tips for managing my anxiety. I also appreciate the different perspectives provided by OnefortheLast (alternate theory on attachment style) and Dixon Ticonderoga ("third, ambiguous place in between").

For the particular problem that provoked this question, it turns out bluedaisy and OnefortheLast were spot-on: my anxiety was triggered by something that was off and acting as an alert. The person was avoidantly attached, which wouldn't have worked out anyway since I'm not secure (yet), but the bigger issue was independent of his attachment style. After being "alerted," it was a matter of sorting through the "movie" using an evidence-based approach (useful analogy, thanks St. Peepsburg!), while taking it slow with myself to sit with my anxiety, as jeweled accumulation suggested. The accurate conclusion eventually came to me after I let the inner feelings of anxiety (which could identify symptoms or overlaps, but not the full picture) run its course, which, luckily in this case, I was able to confirm.

Have you tried medication for anxiety?
No. I've been diagnosed with moderate dysthymia with anxious distress, but my intake therapist seemed to think medication wouldn't be necessary in my case. I'll keep that option in mind, though, if the prescribed therapies don't end up working out.
posted by postmortemsalmon at 4:46 AM on May 24, 2019

In addition to the wonderful advice above, I just wanted to say that you're working so hard and are so mindful and open! You're doing great: no one is perfect so I think it's mostly about being self-aware and honest with ourselves and others. There are people with whom you can communicate perfectly, set easy boundaries, etc. but they just aren't good matches. There are people who struggle with that but have the best hearts and a good connection. I absolutely agree with OnefortheLast on listening to your gut, being aware of past patterns, and basically also treating yourself with love and respect. Like u2604ab suggested, I have found a low-dose of Zoloft to do wonders: I may go off of it or stay on it forever BUT, either way, I learned what it feels like to not be constantly anxious and also to listen to my gut in shitty situations. Three years of weekly therapy and some really difficult life situations have finally gotten me to a point where I'm happy with who I am and chilled out about dating. It's a process and one I'm still working on. Again, you sound so mindful and kind, and I hope you are treating yourself with the same love and respect you are treating others!
posted by smorgasbord at 8:36 AM on May 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

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