Many people come to therapy concerned about the bonds they form and how they behave in relationships. They ask questions like:
- “Why do I feel like I am going to lose myself when I get intimate and vulnerable with someone?”
- “I have always kept my partners at arm’s length. Why does the tiniest bit of closeness freak me out?”
- “Am I going to end up alone because of the way I behave in relationships?”
If you find yourself asking questions like these, you might be struggling with an insecure attachment style, such as an "anxious" attachment or an "avoidant" attachment. While the former demands constant reassurance from their partner, the latter tends to dismiss relationships altogether due to a fear of intimacy.
Having an unhealthy attachment style does not mean you do not love your partner; it simply means that you bond with people in complicated and often unhealthy ways.
However, it is important to know that having attachment issues is not a death sentence for your relationship. In fact, there are many actions you can take to effectively manage the negative consequences of attachment issues. Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that certain life events, such as embarking on a new romantic relationship, changed people's attachment style for the better. Even difficult events, such as experiencing a breakup or a divorce, sometimes paved the way for a healthier attachment style in the long run.
To start, here are a couple of things you can work on.
1. Raise your self-esteem.
Unhealthy attachment styles can trick us into believing that our partner is the problem. However, the antidote to your relationship woes can often be found inside of you. Negative self-views are especially detrimental to an anxiously attached individual as it causes them to crave constant reassurance from their partner.
Working on your self-esteem entails, first and foremost, accepting yourself and treating yourself with kindness. Here are two steps you can follow, according to psychologist Christina Chwyl of the University of Pennsylvania, to be more compassionate to yourself:
- Know your beliefs. Trying to identify the roots of your maladaptive behavior in relationships through self-observation and introspection can help you catch yourself in crucial moments. For instance, realizing that you sometimes indulge in manipulative behavior and "mind games" because, deep down, you don’t believe that your partner loves you can open the door to compassion-based healing.
- Keep practicing. Compassion has to be developed over time through constant effort. Hoping that you will switch your attachment tendencies overnight is setting yourself up for failure that might further fuel your attachment issues.
2. Keep it real.
Authenticity has emerged as a powerful healer for a number of mental health issues, including insecure attachment styles. Trying to become somebody else or pretending to be a "low-maintenance" or "chill" partner can work against you in the long run.
Being authentic about who you are and what you feel is an act of self-love. This can be especially effective for an "avoider" as they tend to break relationships when things get real. Being authentic sets realistic relationship expectations for both you and your partner.
Psychologist Petra Kipfelsberger advises focusing on "could" thinking over "should" thinking to develop an authentic way of life. Instead of prioritizing normative behavior and putting effort into how things ought to be (for example, thinking, “I should not want so much space from my partner”), you can instead channel your energy toward possibilities (e.g., “I could have a conversation about boundaries with my partner”).
Trying to hide your flaws or brush them under the rug can villainize them and fuel self-loathing. Accepting and working on your attachment style is the most efficient route to a healthy and adaptive relationship. As always, working with a mental health professional can expedite this process and help you keep your relationship in the place you want it to be. To find a therapist near you, visit Psychology Today's therapist directory.