Even though I recently tested as securely attached, I bear all the hallmarks of someone who spent my earliest years in intimate relationships anxiously attached. In my own case, this owed to some abandonment issues.
Abandonment issues aren’t all that rare. They’re more common than a lot of people realize.
What changes is their magnitude and whether or not they’re counterbalanced by other more positive formative experiences. In my own case, the balance was unfavorable, skewing quite negative by the time I hit young adulthood.
When I got into intimate relationships, I struggled with clinging and smothering behavior. I worried incessantly that my partners would leave me. It didn’t matter how much evidence I got to the contrary. I always had a nagging feeling that they were about to beat feet and scoot away.
Never mind that I didn’t actually have this relationship pattern as an adult. And more often than not, I ended up with partners who weren’t particularly kind to me but stuck around. Sometimes their commitment actually did me more harm than good — when they were insulting or took all my money, didn’t do chores, refused to work.
True, these partners were emotionally avoidant, always seemed to stay just out of reach of intense intimacy. But they stuck around.
Maybe that was it. Maybe it was being emotionally abandoned. Financially abandoned. Logistically unsupported.
I Spent Some Years Very Anxiously Attached But Became Secure Later in Life
Anyway, I was an entirely different person in relationships starting out. I felt lonely all the time, even when I was dating someone. And I worried constantly that my partner would leave — even when I didn’t particularly like them (but was just dating someone who liked me so I’d have someone to be with).
I could very well have stayed in this pattern, but I didn’t.
I’m not sure exactly how or why, but I reached a point where it didn’t make sense anymore. Part of that, I think, was starting to have polyamorous relationships. It had originally been the idea of the person I was seeing, to open up our relationship. I considered myself staunchly monogamous and struggled with jealousy and insecurity (and abandonment issues) that made the idea of non-monogamy seem like Hell on Earth.
But after I discovered friends I respected had opened up their marriage (and seemed happier for it), and knowing how much it meant to the person I was seeing, I shocked everyone by agreeing to it.
I won’t sugarcoat it. It was difficult entering polyamory with such a monogamous mindset (I wrote a book about it, those first few years). I was wrong about everything. The things I thought would be easy were hard and vice versa.
Some of the stuff I worried would happen did happen, but it was actually for the best.
And even though it wasn’t always pretty on the way there, I became my own person. And this transition made it so I was able to be securely attached in relationships for the first time in my life — whether I was in one relationship at any given time or, oh, five (the most people I have dated at once — I was very tired and very busy).
Stage 5 Clingers Bring Out the Avoidance in Me
It was curious after all of this to start to have close friendships and even occasionally date people who were more anxiously attached than I was.
I had never had this experience, really. I was so used to being that anxiously attached person. The one who worried, clung, and smothered.
Suddenly, I was on the other side of it. I’ve had a lot of minor brushes with it — with a friendly acquaintance who decides that they want to be best friends with you (and who you really would like to hang out with only occasionally).
With the coworker who is always coming to you and unloading problems when you are trying to be pleasant and civil for the sake of office harmony but really have other things to do. (And you don’t really consider them a friend outside of work, but they seem to consider you a friend.)
But perhaps most powerfully, I experienced it when I went on dates with someone I was unsure about (they seemed nice, and our social circles overlapped in a way that made them easy to hang out with, but I didn’t know about chemistry or compatibility on my side of things), and they were pelting me with constant affection. Wanted me to know that they considered me a soulmate and would marry me that afternoon if I weren’t already legally married.
In all of these cases, I found myself defaulting to avoidant behaviors. Pulling back. Making myself scarce.
As I did, I tried to set firm boundaries and communicate about whatever distance I was imposing, knowing how damaging psychologically it could be to withdraw without explaining.
But I felt completely bizarre the entire time. Because I’d never done that to someone else, but I’d had it done to me plenty of times. And each time, I’d been the obsessive one in over my head, grumbling about someone who wouldn’t give me the closeness I craved.
I realized that suddenly was I not only securely attached, but my impulse when someone is extremely anxiously attached and starts to act erratically/invasively because of it is to pull back and start acting pseudo-avoidant.
I frankly didn’t know I had an avoidant bone in my body. But apparently I was wrong. I apparently have a bunch that respond to Stage 5 Clinging.
In some of these situations, we were able to navigate our differences in preferences. In others we weren’t, and those connections ended.
How to Manage an Anxious-Avoidant Connection
While I’m not avoidantly attached (except in the case of Stage 5 Clinging), it’s important to note that although the toughest attachment style pairing occurs when an anxious person meets up with an avoidant person, no attachment pairing is unworkable (provided everyone wants to be in the relationship).
Here’s how Jeb Kinnison recommends you do that. Both halves of it involve perspective-taking and reacting in a way that’s not your default response:
The most important behavior an avoidant type can work on to increase the happiness of their relationships is to practice positive response even when their impulse is to deny response or respond negatively; and the most important behavior an anxious-preoccupied type can work on is to curb the impulse to request attention and reassurance when their partner is busy or irritated. In both cases, one needs to understand how it feels to be the other partner, and tune your request or response to their needs as well as your own. Cultivate the habit of considering your partner’s state before responding carelessly or asking for reassurance, and the relationship is much more likely to reach a happy state of mutual trust and love.