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Am I Crazy or Being Led On?

Dating and the interplay of avoidant, anxious, and fearful attachment.

Key points

  • A new relationship can repeat difficult themes from one's childhood, leading a person to make up inaccurate stories to explain a date's actions.
  • To better navigate dating, it can help to learn the difference between getting gaslighted and having an emotional over-reaction.
  • Having a trusted (non-romantic) attachment figure such as a therapist or friend can make dating experiences easier.

You met a new dating partner, and they are really into you. Even so, you know from experience that you should not get too far ahead of yourself. You are still feeling happy and emotionally balanced three dates in… that is until the first failure to follow through on plans, the first failure to respond to a text/ phone call, or the first postponement or date cancellation. And then, there it is… that hint of doubt and trepidation… the slight feeling in your gut that sneaks in and says, “uh oh.”

But this isn’t your first rodeo. You know better than to let new dating partners see your true reaction. So, you go forward as if nothing happened. You have another great date and think your fears were unfounded. You are calm and excited again. And then your person starts seeming busy. They are busy with friends, their new hobby, or old commitments. They tell you how excited they are about you and want to see you… and even though they can’t make it for the planned dinner and movie, maybe they can fit you in for a one-hour coffee on Saturday morning.

Your head starts spinning. How can someone who wants you seemingly prioritize other people, not value you, and feed you crumbs… all while telling you how into you they are? So, now you have that anxious longing, that fear that keeps you up at night thinking about the person. You know what would make this okay: The person would call and validate you and express their desire, or you would be able to figure it out and fix it.

Sometimes the validation comes… but it only lasts until the next time you pick up hints of rejection. And so you are left trying to figure it out again. And this is where things go off the rails. This is where you start telling yourself stories.

Because you cannot ever know someone’s absolute truth, you resort to making up explanations for what seems like the other person’s mixed messages and unavailability. And where will you get those explanations? You will get them from your past experiences and your understanding of the world. You will get them from your attachment style and the roadmaps of the world given to you by your parents when you were young.

All children need to feel secure at home with their parents. Attachment styles are ways that your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are organized to match your parents’ pattern of availability when you are a child (be they consistently available [secure attachment], consistently shut down [dismissing/avoidant attachment], unpredictable [preoccupied attachment], or volatile/scary [fearful attachment]).

If you have a secure attachment style, you are likely to be a bit disappointed and irritated by the dating situation. But you probably would not spend much time trying to figure it out. You might even keep dating them if they were interesting enough and you didn’t have anything else to do. In short, your reaction to the initial phase of a short dating (not committed) relationship would be well-calibrated in terms of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

If you have an avoidant style, you would probably tell yourself that this person is not that interesting and you really don’t care if they come or go anyway. Next! Your reaction would probably be under-calibrated or missing. You just wouldn’t deal with it and would let the person fade into black.

If you have an anxious/preoccupied attachment style, you might have a very strong emotional reaction and potentially feel abandoned, even after just a few dates. You would keep trying to figure it out. You would likely try to have more conversations, explanations, and understanding… but it wouldn’t help. You would stay activated for a long time and your activation would be intense… but you would probably hang in there and keep trying. Your emotional reaction would be over-calibrated.

If you have a fearful attachment style, you would do everything that the anxious/preoccupied person would do but you would probably blow things up quicker. You might become confrontational and ask for an explanation. You might accuse the other person of leading you on or ask if they are seeing someone else (which they might be if you aren’t committed). Or you might start picking on other faults that they have. You also might just tell them where to go and block them on your phone and social media.

And here is the key point… you don’t even know if you really like this person or would want to be in a relationship with them. What happens in these instances is that for anxious and fearful people, the attachment exploratory system—that part of our emotional architecture that leads us to venture forward and explore new relationships when we are feeling safe and secure—quickly switches to the fear-based attachment security system. That system calls on you to re-establish your security when you are under threat by seeking closeness with trusted attachment figures.

Because anxious/preoccupied and fearfully attached people had unpredictable parents (attachment figures) in childhood, their emotional systems identify the new dating partner as an attachment figure prematurely and try to get closeness/reassurance from them. But, this other person is already showing you that they are unpredictable and willing to feed you crumbs in terms of time and emotion… and this is exactly the type of parenting you probably had in childhood that created your attachment style in the first place. We call this “recapitulating your core conflict.”

So, before you start dating:

  1. Have a trusted secure attachment figure lined up—a good friend, family member, or trusted therapist—not the person you are trying to date.
  2. Practice interacting with dating partners without becoming attached too quickly. You need enough time to figure out who they really are. Go to other people for support.
  3. Don’t blow off a dating partner too quickly… hang in there and practice the preceding two points.
  4. Overall, don’t assume that the person you are dating is avoidant. There can be many reasons for being unavailable or unreliable. Who knows, maybe the person’s therapist told them to move slowly and not turn you into an attachment figure prematurely.

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

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