- Attachment styles promote keeping people connected, but sometimes the system gets stuck in the "on" position.
- Those with anxious attachment struggle letting people get distance and become preoccupied with relationships.
- It helps to learn to "mentalize" or keep oneself in focus instead of being preoccupied with others' thoughts.
Attachment styles have everything to do with how much we hold on in relationships. These personality or relationship styles form as responses to what we had to do to remain connected to our parents as children. Securely attached people never had to worry much about their relationship security. They knew people would always be there for them. So, separation might hurt, but it doesn’t make them overly anxious. By extension, they don’t cling too tightly and can let others go when that is what the situation calls for.
People with dismissing attachment styles, in contrast, learn from a young age that they should never count on people being there for them emotionally. After all, the world is tough, and you need to know how to take care of yourself. So, they don’t cling to relationship partners either. If anything, they rarely get anxious in relationships, don’t cling hard enough, and have little problem letting others go.
People with anxious or preoccupied attachment styles come from the opposite end of the attachment spectrum. When they get anxious, people with preoccupied (anxious) attachment styles almost always approach and move toward the problem. If the problem is in a relationship and the other person acts indifferent, dismissing, or outright rejecting, they will usually want to talk about it and ask for reassurance or obtain some type of closure. After all, this is the strategy that they know works to lower their anxiety.
Most psychologists agree that this pattern of anxious activation and approach behaviors comes from hyperactivation of the attachment system. When the attachment system (the emotional system that keeps us connected to others) picks up a danger cue (of rejection, for instance), it triggers a strong adrenaline release that hijacks people’s thought processes and impels them to try to get close again with the offending relationship partner. Theoretically, this hyperactivation forms through “variable reinforcement” of approach behaviors in childhood.
In other words, when parents are unpredictable in how responsive they are to their children—sometimes really loving; sometimes moody and rejecting—they reward their children for coming to them for hugs and reassurance randomly. They are like the parental slot machine. Keep pulling the slot machine handle because the next pull might pay off with the love you want.
While this simple explanation might be true, there is probably more to it. Consider, for example, that even if someone becomes totally conscious of this pattern, they often feel helpless to stop it. They get fixated on romantic partners after getting rejected and keep pursuing others who are unavailable or unable to provide the intimacy they want.
One reason why might be “mentalizing.” Mentalizing is the ability to read the mental, emotional, psychological, and thought processes of another person. In other words, you can form a mental map of the other in your head. You can “mentalize” them.
People with preoccupied attachment styles were usually raised by parents with these same styles. Being preoccupied means not only being preoccupied with relationship partners but also being preoccupied with their own feelings. As parents, they may be loving and caring. But they also may temporarily lose awareness of their child mentally in the context of their consciousness being absorbed by their thoughts and feelings toward their adult romantic partners. In these moments, they may become momentarily preoccupied and unavailable to the child.
Similarly, the parents’ own strong emotions (love, anger, fear) may suck them in and absorb their focus. In these instances, the parent loses sight of the child as a distinct person with their own goals, needs, and experiences. This losing sight mentally of the child is often termed a failure of “reflective functioning” or mentalizing.
In childhood, when the parent (intimacy partner) goes away and focuses their attention elsewhere, the child’s anxiety spikes because the child does not know if they have been forgotten.
The child might think, “If I don’t exist in my parent’s mind, then I am at risk of being abandoned.” And, “If I am abandoned and not seen by my parent, I might cease to exist.” This momentary existential crisis is what makes abandonment feelings so intense (like they might die) to a person with a preoccupied style.
Moving forward into adulthood, when a close friend or relationship partner seems even temporarily unavailable, the preoccupied person might spontaneously wonder if they have been mentally forgotten. This is why a preoccupied person can start thinking that an otherwise trustworthy partner could cheat on them, or a close friend might push them to the side in favor of other “better friends.”
And so, the preoccupied person will do anything they can to be seen—to not be invisible. They may fret over a delay in texting, a night without a phone call, or time away in the company of others. If they think something is going wrong in a relationship, they will want to talk about it, to see what you are thinking and to try and ensure that you see (mentalize) them.
If you break up with them, they may need to know why and have a hard time not being seen and letting go. If you made them anxious or fearful in the relationship, then maybe they broke up with you. But even then, their anxiety will give them a strong desire to know that they still exist in your mind—a desire to be seen and to know that they have not been forgotten.
So, if you are in a relationship with someone with a preoccupied style, give them the grace to let them know that they still exist in your mind even when you are apart.
If you have a preoccupied style, realize that you can never know for sure if you are actually held in mental awareness by another adult. And no one can prove to you otherwise. So, learn to mentalize yourself and see your own vulnerable side as something you can cherish. Take that focus off of other people and put it on yourself and the beautiful person within you.
Santoro, G., Midolo, L. R., Costanzo, A., & Schimmenti, A. (2021). The vulnerability of insecure minds: The mediating role of mentalization in the relationship between attachment styles and psychopathology. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 85(4), 358–384. https://doi.org/10.1521/bumc.2021.85.4.358
Mattheß, J., Koch, G., Keil, T., Roll, S., Berghöfer, A., Ludwig-Körner, C., Schlensog-Schuster, F., Sprengeler, M. K., von Klitzing, K., & Kuchinke, L. (2023). Past attachment experiences, the potential link of mentalization and the transmission of behavior to the child by mothers with mental health problems: Cross-sectional analysis of a clinical sample. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-023-02291-9
Parada-Fernández, P., Herrero-Fernández, D., Oliva-Macías, M., & Rohwer, H. (2021). Analysis of the mediating effect of mentalization on the relationship between attachment styles and emotion dysregulation. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 62(3), 312–320. https://doi.org/10.1111/sjop.12717