Anxiety has permeated many of my relationships throughout my life, whether it be my familial relationships or friendships. But this anxiety takes its worst toll on my romantic relationships. All my life I’ve wanted love; to feel loved and to love. But of course, my anxiety monster has come along with me in all my relationships, destroying my sense of security, my ability to feel loved, and my self esteem. Over the past couple of weeks my anxieties have crippled me, and I thought I was alone in this, which made things even harder.
So, as I usually do whenever I feel any kind of emotion, I turned to Google for answers and stumbled across a plethora of articles about how the pandemic has propelled its own epidemic of numerous anxieties within relationships. The main cause of such relationship anxieties appears to stem from our individual attachment styles as described within attachment theory. Overcoming anxiety, however it may form, is not easy, but the key to overcoming your anxieties within relationships is by working out your own attachment style and then learning how to change it.
Attachment theory was coined by British psychologist John Bowlby in 1958. It proposes that our initial attachments with our primary caregivers have an effect on our adult relationships. Having had a less-than-close relationship with both my parents, and a father who’s lived abroad since I was a young teen, I acknowledged through my research that I have an anxious attachment style, and it is clear that this has affected my relationships throughout my life. Such an attachment style has caused me an inability to feel secure in relationships, to overthink every action or word made by another, and to frequently seek reassurance due to an ever-lingering fear of being abandoned.
Writing for Refinery29, Sian Bradley revealed that she experiences similar anxieties in her romantic relationships, saying: “When I’m supposed to enjoy falling for someone, my brain goes into panic mode. I start over-analyzing their behaviour: why did they take so long to reply? Is it because they don't like me? I wouldn't blame them. Can't be too keen, or they will reject me. Why does my coldness not bother them as theirs bothers me? It's because they are too good for me. I mean, look at me. I'm a nervous mess. Who could love me? “
The anxious attachment style not only affects those in relationships but can prevent some from entering romantic relationships. “You want to be happy and relaxed in a relationship but your anxiety is whispering ‘leave,’” says James McConnachie. “That solution can’t possibly work because if you’re not in a relationship then you have zero chance of being happy and relaxed in one.”
Thoughts like these are overly common, particularly in those who have the anxious attachment style. An article for Greatist explains that the anxious attachment style falls under a larger title; there are two main attachment styles, being the secure attachment style, and the insecure attachment style. The differences between the two attachments are self-explanatory within the names, and anxious attachment comes from an insecure attachment style.
Insecure attachment style comes in various forms under two main categories; anxious (low confidence in self but high trust in others) and avoidant (high confidence in self but low trust in others). According to the Greatist article, most people adopt a combination of the two.
Cinzia Roccaforte from Anxiety.org explains that men scored higher on tests indicating anxious romantic attachment as compared to women. This news came as a surprise to me, especially as I’m always the anxious one in my relationships.
Healthline explains that adults “who developed anxious attachment may need constant reassurance and affection from their partner. They may also have trouble being alone or single.”
Since beginning my research, I’ve not been able to stop wondering whether I can and how I might change my attachment style. What I found is that nobody can completely change their attachment style, just as we can’t change our pasts. However, Dr. Akua K. Boateng, a licensed psychotherapist in Philadelphia believes that we can, in time, experience less anxiety and learn to ignore the fear we have when entering romantic relationships.
Speaking to Refinery 29, Dr. Boateng says, “Avoidants run from the distress, while anxious people run towards it.”
“Ironically, if they then receive that connection," Boateng continues, "it's still hard to settle the fear that this is unstable. This can present in so-called clingy behaviour.”
This “so-called clingy behaviour” has long existed within misogynistic discourses whereby men are taught to not need anybody and thus stereotypically view women as “needy” when they seek attention. It is this stereotype that appears to cause severe anxieties within romantic relationships. But as Dr. Boateng says, you can learn to navigate through these anxieties within your relationship; all you need to know is how.
“Anxiety will be motivating you to look for guarantees but there are few when it comes to relationships,” says Dr Angharad Rudkin. “So the first step is to acknowledge that anxiety is going to be an inevitable travel partner on your journey into this new one.”
What Dr Rudkin means is that you’ll need to begin seeking safety within and start reassuring yourself, rather than seeking reassurance from your partner. It’s like the classic saying, “you have to love yourself before anyone else can.”
Next you should “understand and forgive yourself for how you learned to attach,” as Dr. Boateng says, "This will give you the psychological steadiness to not be threatened all the time, and to trust your intuition.”
“Women especially stop trusting their feelings when they've repeatedly heard 'you're doing too much, you're hysterical.' Trusting your gut will help you to recognize what healthy relationships are, so they stop feeling so unfamiliar,” she continues.
Then you need to develop coping strategies; learn to hear your fears and anxieties, but be able to push them to the side and ignore them.
You should also practice communicating your needs in a clear, direct way by letting people in relationships with you know what you need.
All of these strategies will be part of a longer process and may be difficult to approach alone. So speaking to a therapist or relationship counsellor could help.
Overcoming your relationship anxiety and changing your attachment style can’t be done overnight but make sure to keep in good communication with your partner, without overwhelming them as they may also have their own personal issues. Balance between sharing but not oversharing is key. Choose your words wisely and explain your needs. Anxiety is only one part of you and the more you seek reassurance within yourself, the more secure you’ll feel in your relationships.
Top photo courtesy of Joice Kelly on Unsplash.
Tilly O'Brien is an English Literature Graduate, starting an Ma in International Journalism at the University of Leeds, UK. Tilly writes for various British blogs including the Leeds Tab and has her own travel blog which you can follow here: https://tillytravels.live-website.com/