If you’re in a relationship with an anxiously attached partner, you’re probably overwhelmed by them. You love them, but at times, you feel confused by their behaviors.
Someone with an anxious attachment, also called the Anxious Preoccupied (AP) attachment style, strongly needs love and connection. All humans need love and connection, but for APs, this need trumps every other personality need.
AP core wounds
To understand why and how they behave and to deal with it, you first need to understand the root causes of their behaviors.
APs likely experienced inconsistent care from their primary caregivers in childhood. When their parents were present, they were responsive and caring. But they couldn’t be present consistently. They were absent for significant periods.
But they were not absent enough to let the child detach entirely and become a hyper-independent dismissive avoidant.
When they were absent, the child craved being close to them. The continuous cycle of attachment and detachment resulted in intermittent reinforcement, causing the child to hold on tightly to the parent whenever they could get a hold of them.
Ever seen those kids who cling to their parent and can’t be alone? They’re anxiously attached and are likely to behave similarly in their adult romantic relationships.
Due to their attachment trauma, the core wounds that APs tend to carry are:
- “I will be abandoned.”
- “I’m not good enough.”
- “I’m unworthy of love.”
- “If I’m imperfect, people will leave me.”
AP words and behaviors
Stemming from the above core wounds, APs may say things like:
- “Do you love me?” (A million times)
- “Do you really love me?”
- “You don’t love me as much as I do.”
- “You don’t care about me as much as I do.”
- “I don’t deserve you.”
- “I’m not good enough for you.”
They might ask:
“How did someone like me end up with someone like you?”
They might say it in a self-derogatory manner or, albeit rarely, to put you down to compensate for their low self-esteem.
- Being good at connecting with others
- Afraid of being alone
- Being needy and clingy in relationships
- Being overly dependent on others
- Having trust issues1
- Having a low self-esteem
Dealing with an anxious attachment partner
Dealing with an AP partner is all about understanding why they think and behave the way they do. If you have a different attachment style, it’ll feel like they’re living in an entirely different world.
They have different needs, values, and expectations.
Start by looking at where you two differ from each other in thoughts, ideas, feelings, expectations, and behaviors. These points of difference that often create conflict usually stem from having different attachment styles.
Having the awareness that what triggers them is entirely different from what triggers you is a giant leap forward.
Next, trace their triggers back to their core wounds.
When dealing with an AP, always keep their core wounds in mind. They are the root causes or vulnerabilities2 that you need to manage and help them heal.
You disconnect from them because you want some time for yourself.
How they see it:
“I’ve been abandoned.”
You forget to respond to their text.
How they see it:
“I’m not worthy of love and care.”
Note the times when they falsely interpret reality to confirm their core beliefs. Listen to them and validate their concerns. Then, slowly and patiently, tell them why they’re wrong in their interpretations.
Over time, they’ll cease to believe their core wounds so much and reprogram them.
Emotion works better than logic in reprogramming the subconscious mind.
For instance, when they say:
“You didn’t message me back because you don’t love me.”
If you say:
“I was busy at work.”
They probably won’t believe you. Core wounds aren’t easily overridden. They might only believe you if you give them additional proof.
If you say:
“I was busy at work. I do love you.”
In the second reply, you’re addressing their core wound on an emotional level. You’re not just addressing the superficial complaint.
Additional things you can do
1. Teach them boundaries
Teaching an AP partner boundaries is the most important thing you can do for yourself and the relationship. APs always want to connect, but they need to be taught that such a high need for connection is unhealthy.
Be prepared to remind them of your boundaries and space needs repeatedly. Eventually, they’ll understand that disconnection doesn’t mean you don’t love them. They’ll stop personalizing it.
You can say things like:
“When I give time to myself, I can be more present with you later.”
“I need space from time to time to feel good.”
APs want you to feel good because they’re so emotionally attuned to you that they feel bad when you feel bad.
2. Avoid breaking promises
APs overreact to broken promises because they have trust issues. You’ll find them complaining along the lines of:
“You said you’d do X. Why didn’t you do X?”
They’re more upset than angry when they say that.
X here is anything that’ll make them feel more connected to you. Eating out together, shopping together, watching a movie together, etc.
In response, you might say:
“It’s not a big deal.”
Them: “It IS a big deal.”
You: “It’s not.”
Them: “It IS.”
X may not be a big deal to you, but to them, it really is.
Instead of arguing about whether or not it’s a big deal, try saying:
“It’s okay. We’ll do it tomorrow/next week/next month.”
3. Reassure them
APs want reassurance. Give it to them, and they’ll be happy.
If you’ve paid attention to the times when their demands for attention and reassurance have increased, you may have noticed that it happened because you were slightly distant for some reason.
You have to make up for that distance with closeness.
Appreciate them and say you love them every once in a while to keep their tank full. Showing care with words and actions can positively impact APs.
4. Give physical affection
Physical affection is a great way to connect, and since APs have higher connection needs, they naturally have higher physical affection needs. They’ll often want to hug, kiss, cuddle, and hold hands.
5. Handle their criticism
When an AP’s needs aren’t met, they can resort to criticism to get your attention. You can take it less personally when you understand that their criticism is just a bid for attention.
However, this doesn’t mean you should allow them to put you down constantly. Instead, set boundaries by saying something like:
“I don’t like it when you talk to me that way.”
Instead of putting them down in return and touching their low self-esteem wound, you can disconnect for a while, giving them time to reflect.
6. Encourage self-reflection and growth
APs rarely self-reflect because they’re so busy connecting all the time. They over-focus on others at the cost of focusing on themselves. And it’s impossible to heal and improve without focusing on yourself.
Encourage them to focus more on themselves and help them develop a sense of self.
- Rodriguez, L. M., DiBello, A. M., Øverup, C. S., & Neighbors, C. (2015). The price of distrust: Trust, anxious attachment, jealousy, and partner abuse. Partner abuse, 6(3), 298-319.
- Simpson, J. A., & Rholes, W. S. (2017). Adult attachment, stress, and romantic relationships. Current opinion in psychology, 13, 19-24.