Coachfinder article: Attachment Styles

The question

I am 32 and have never been in a relationship for more than 4 months. Do I have commitment anxiety?

I am 32 and have never been in a relationship longer than 4 months. In the beginning it is always great, but after about 3 months it usually goes wrong. The first weeks I enjoy all the attention I get, but after a while I notice that the other person loses interest in me. The more attention I ask for, the more the other person withdraws. I then feel rejected, which causes me to get angry and eventually distance myself. Why do I tend to push people away the moment things get serious. Do I have commitment anxiety?

The opinion

Xandra van Merriënboer

Perfectionism, stress & HSP coach

Do you find yourself entering into relationships while pushing your partner away? Or doubted in a previous relationship whether the feelings were genuine? This may be a sign of commitment anxiety. It is by no means easy for everyone to build a lasting love relationship. Nearly 50 percent of people have difficulty establishing such an intimate connection. This can have several causes, such as that someone simply does not suit you, but commitment anxiety and separation anxiety are also common.

If you learned in early childhood that love is unaccountable and means rejection, distrust or pain, you may later unconsciously choose partners who confirm that pattern. After all, that's what you already know and - as crazy as that sounds - it's familiar.

Not only such a difficult childhood, but also bad experiences from a previous relationship can make future relationships seem doomed to fail. You are then, as we call it, insecurely attached. This could be the reason why your relationship keeps breaking down.

What happens when there is unsafe attachment?

When we feel vulnerable, threatened or unsafe in our relationship, we often unconsciously slip into a fight, flight or freeze mode in such a stressful situation.

When that happens, your primary brain takes over. That sends a signal to your body that great danger is imminent, just like when we had to act fast in the prehistoric times when we were face to face with a tiger. It feels like survival! In response to danger, some people shut down completely, become cold and distant and pretend not to care. The other becomes very angry, yells, makes accusations or becomes aggressive. Anything to get a reaction.

These two reactions are forms of insecure attachment: avoidant and (abandonment) fearful. There is also the combination of the two. And there is the secure attachment style.

An example in practice

When my partner would be home at noon and is still not there at two o'clock, I get very upset and get angry. So we get into more and more arguments and that leads to me being dumped and not having a steady relationship again. That makes me very insecure.

The attachment theory of Bowlby

After the discovery of attachment theory in the 1960s, much more research has been done on it. Now we recognize the following characteristics of the 4 different attachment styles:

  1. Secure attachment, where people are comfortable with intimacy in love relationships. They are warm and loving. A securely attached partner is reliable, available, opens up emotionally and is committed.
  2. Hannah Cuppen wrote the book "Love Fear" about overcoming separation anxiety. People with separation anxiety have an inordinate need for attention and intimacy. But when upset, they are poor at being comforted or soothed. They are more likely to attack their partner, scream, demand attention, insist on making their point or threaten.
  3. Attachment anxiety symptoms manifest themselves in different ways. You can recognize commitment anxiety by the characteristics listed below:
    • If your partner has commitment anxiety, she/he is afraid that her/his freedom will disappear;
    • they have difficulty expressing intimate feelings and showing warmth in the relationship itself;
    • close themselves off and withdraw when problems arise;
    • Soothe the partner so that the partner cannot express himself;
    • shoot into solution mode;
    • downplay the partner's concerns;
    • simply refuse to discuss anything and become defensive.
  4. In addition, then, there is a disoriented attachment style. In this, bonding anxiety and separation anxiety, attraction and repulsion, alternate.

Recognizing commitment anxiety

Underneath insecure attachment is a deeper underlying fear, which these reactions only confirm and reinforce. Whereas securely attached couples seek connection with each other when they feel insecure, confused or depressed, insecurely attached people have difficulty trusting; they are more likely to attack or withdraw.

From the outside, it seems as if the person with commitment anxiety leaves it all cold, but this person also wants nothing more than to experience connection.

It is difficult to recognize commitment anxiety in your partner. From the outside, it seems like the person with separation anxiety leaves it all cold, but this person also wants nothing more than to experience connection. Like the person with separation anxiety, he or she just does not know the way back to the other person very well.

Attraction and divestment

People with commitment and separation anxiety often seek each other out in relationships. This keeps this diabolical dance going. Of course, it also happens that someone with separation anxiety or separation anxiety enters into a relationship with a securely attached person. The bad news is that this partner may suffer from bonding anxiety or separation anxiety in a relationship with an insecurely attached person; the good news is that secure attachment is contagious the other way around and the insecurely attached person can learn from this what a healthy relationship looks like.

As long as we don't work on our insecure attachment, this pattern will repeat itself with each new love. How do you break this vicious cycle of attraction and repulsion?

In 6 steps to a loving relationship

1. Learn to look honestly at the causes of your relationship problems.

Become aware of what your attachment style is. Do you tend to withdraw, are you more likely to attack and be very critical, or is it actually very easy for you to trust other people? Also look at what attracts you so much in people who have difficulty bonding.

2. Recognize the cycle you get into with your partner(s) when you are upset

What fear is underneath your reaction? What are your needs, what are the other person's needs, and to what extent do those needs correspond? You might even name your cycle so you can look at it with more distance when it resurfaces.

3. Learn to talk better about your feelings

Most people seem to be able to name only three emotions: happy, sad and angry. A shame, because there are many dozens of words for emotions (shame researcher Brené Brown mentions as many as 87 in her book Atlas of the Heart). It is precisely by attaching words to emotions that you discover their stratification. Thus you find new ways to better know and understand yourself and the other person in a new relationship.

4. Discover the power of vulnerability

Without daring to be vulnerable, there is no room for trust and deep connection. Relationships need connection to survive.

5. Learn to accept the other person as he or she is

You can never change the other person. However, you can change the way you handle this yourself. As a result, you will experience less stress and more satisfaction in your relationship. One relationship is not the other.

6. Actively seek connection

Practice connection by responding when the other person reaches out, no matter how small that reaching out may seem. Be sure to stay connected to each other, even throughout the day. Do so in a way that makes the other person feel not obligated but valued.

Talking about your feelings and fears

Using the example of the partner coming home late, you may get so stressed out that you actually start texting or calling a lot about where the person is staying (maybe even capitalizing) and when you get home you actually get and stay very angry, or you just say hello, then walk away and deny that anything is bothering you.

Safe connection means that you would send one app to ask if everything is okay, can express when you get home that you were very concerned (because you care a lot about the person), can give space for the other person's explanation, maybe make arrangements for next time, and can be reassured by your partner's presence and understanding.

This way you communicate the vulnerable emotions underneath, your partner can also draw closer and there is room for even more connection.

Working together

Do you recognize attachment anxiety symptoms? Or do you recognize characteristics of the different attachment styles? Would you like to explore further what causes your fear of commitment or separation and, above all, do you have the desire to have a loving committed relationship? Perhaps a coach can help you further. You are welcome for a free and non-committal introductory conversation with me