Anxious attachment is a common pattern or style of relating that often drives people to seek out treatment. Terms such as preoccupied attachment, fear of abandonment, limerence, the lost or missing object, and object permanence are often used interchangeably to describe or depict aspects of anxious attachment. You will see researchers names such as Donald Winnicott, Jon Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Mary Main, and Patrician Crittenden commonly referred to in the attachment literature.

Anxious attachment is traditionally characterised by anxiety and distress associated with being alone or being separated from a caregiver or partner. Furthermore, a person with an anxious attachment might experience low self-worth or self-worth that is highly dependent on acknowledgement from another, difficulties with emotion-regulation (e.g. anger and helplessness), preoccupation with being rejected or abandoned, and a high need for reassurance. There is a hunger to merge with the close other and to minimize distance which symbolizes the threat of abandonment.

Anxious attachment often stems from developmental experiences between the child and parent or caregiver. This style of attachment is thought to arise from inconsistencies and absences in parenting. Biologically, at our depth we are wired for connection with others and most importantly our caregivers. There is a system of brain cells and pathways that are geared to adapt and adjust to attachment and connection experiences. Perhaps mirror neurons are the most well known regions of the brain that help to coordinate these social interactions. The default nuances of each parent-child interaction shape implicit internal maps for attachment.

Early Development and Consistency

We have a fundamental need in early development to know that another is present and available. This helps our tiny minds to feel secure, safe, and stable. Over time the brain develops a context or map of relationships or what is know as a working model of attachment. This system is implicitly infused with associations, expectations, and computations of how a relationship work and how a significant other is likely to respond or not respond.

With consistent available parenting the child knows that the other parent is available and will come back. The primary needs of the child are consistently, reliably met with a physically and emotionally present parent. The child and we as adults have emotional needs for protection and safety, attunement and recognition, reassurance and emotion regulation, and encouragement of exploration. For example, when a child experiences anxiety, distress, and frustration the caregiver is able to consistently assist them to soothe and make sense of their emotions.

The child is met at the developmental level they are at – hence the cooing and big facial expressions used with new-borns that really switch on the mirror neurons. With secure attachment the hormone oxytocin gets increased signalling safety and space for bonding. Over time the child begins to internalize this presence (or absence). Some psychotherapists denote this object permanence. Object permanence is the internalized capacity to recognise that the parent that has gone to the next room is likely to come back over time. They develop an internal map and internal sense (working model of attachment) that mum or dad will be back soon.

Anxious Attachment, Separation, and Distress

Over time greater degree’s of separation can be experienced without anxiety. However, there is joy and comfort in reunion. Distress potentially amplifies the longer the child is left alone. In the strange situation (Mary Ainsworth) experiment a child is left in a room with an experimenter. When the mum, dad, or caregiver leaves children show a range of responses depending on how they are attached to a caregiver. With secure attachment when the parent leaves there might be some initial trepidation. However, the child is usually able to settle in to interacting with the experimenter. When the caregiver returns the child reunites with acknowledgement or by hugging the parent.

However, rarely do we grow up in an entirely secure incubator. Most of us have nuances in how we are raised based on culture, context, developmental epoch, family stressors, and parental unresolved trauma and attachment style. Depending on stressors and parents attachment styles we are raised a particular way. When the parent is anxious-preoccupied they might be loving and caring, but also absent when they are dealing with there own traumas or loss. The care tends to be inconsistent. Likewise, it might be overly intrusive or based on the parents need for connection. This can set up an emotional paradigm of excitation, hyperarousal, and hypervigilance. There are probably a myriad of ways that an anxious-style of attachment or relating can get set up.

In contrast to secure attachment, with anxious-preoccupied attachment the child often becomes fixated (hyper-vigilant) on the caregiver’s departure. They might protest, cling, and become highly distressed at this separation. The distress doesn’t abate quickly and it is more difficult for the child to settle in to play with the experimenter. When the parent returns the child wants connection but they also might angrily resist this closeness. So we have a model characterised by high distress that doesn’t really go down. This is probably for very good reason knowing the parent is not able to soothe or might leave again.

Anxious Attachment Strategy

The child develops an attachment strategy and response to secure the distracted parent. Often in these cases feelings of helplessness, anger and rage, or tearfulness switch on. These signals of distress bring about care and attention from the parent. These signals all get amplified in order to gain care from a parent.

Researcher Ed Tronick completed studies in the 1970s observing parents and their children interacting. As part of the experiment the parent goes in to a still face and stops interacting with the child. Essentially mimicking a depressed or absent parent. The child goes through phases and attempts to secure the parents attention. Hey look at me, play again, looking around the room for another person or object to help facilitate connection, sadness and distress, anger, and then postural collapse or defeat.

When the mum comes back online the dyad or connection is repaired, secured, and play is resumed. This experiment highlights the emotional energy that is expended in trying to resume connection with a non-responsive other. These emotional signals become the barometer for what a connection or attachment is about. Unless these signals are occurring there is no actual attachment.

Adulthood and Preoccupied Attachment

The assumption of attachment theory is that earlier relational experiences shape the features of our relationships in adulthood. If we encounter and exhibit patterns of anxious-preoccupied attachment in childhood there is a higher likelihood of their occurrence in our adult relationships.

To translate relationship dynamics based on intensity, unavailability, and inconsistency tend to prevail. The mental model is often in conflict with another, clinging to the other, or in search of the other. The other might be encased in an idealistic halo never to be reached or devalued and scorned. As noted before, terms such as the missing or absent object (object relations), fear of abandonment, and Limerence are often used to describe such patterns in adult relationships.

So in adulthood this can often set up complex relational patterns. A person with anxious attachment might connect with another that is loosely available or incapable of meeting their emotional needs. There is a hope for connection or a fulfilling merger with this person that never quite manifests.

The other might have a somewhat luminous glow that we are captivated by. We cannot believe in any other person as giving love or connection. This becomes a very fixated dichotomy. The other is put in the position of being our saviour (the person that will meet our deepest longings for connection) or destroyer (the person that will abandon or reject us). Our life, as it might have been in childhood, seems entirely dependent on the actions of the other. Attention gets externalised or we become hyper-vigilant to the source of the other. This is often at the defensive exclusion and to the detriment of the self, autonomy, and a person’s actual emotional needs being met.

Object Relations and Anxious Attachment

The psycho-analytic school of object relations describes how we connect and re-enact such relationships. The idea behind object relations is that our early attachments shape how our personality forms. Unconsciously we go about repeating relational patterns that have a familiarity or particular quality to them. For example, if a child is abused in a relationship they might internally conclude that they are “bad” or unworthy of love (the self is devalued). In addition, a defence or denial forms around the idea that the parent or other is bad. The other is conceived in an imaginal form as being good (the other is idealized). The parent or other becomes saturated with hope, desire, and possibility to the defensive exclusion of negative attributes. The child needs to hold on to an attachment figure or strategy that is best geared towards their safety and maintaining connection.

These defences can stop us from seeing harmful or negative qualities in a relationship. When we re-enact these relationships it is difficult to recognise or see alternatives. We are stuck in a constricted or narrow paradigm for relating. It is difficult to recognise at the emotional level that we might be more than capable to self-regulate, distracting, or relating in a different way. For example, we might feel ourselves in the position of a needy-helpless child while the other (or our partner) is in the position of unavailable or neglectful parent. This sets up a state of tension/excitement/anxiety that feels familiar.

Conversely, the person with anxious attachment might find themselves in the role of anxious care-taker. Here they find themselves in the position of having to rescue, accommodate, care for, and look after a helpless/hopeless, enraged, anxious, or disorganised caregiver or partner. This position reflects the lengths that a person with anxious attachment might go to maintain a connection when someone else is emotionally struggling. In sum. there are many possible dyads that can form in relationships that reflect qualities of an anxious attachment. A defensive process known as projective identification also occurs. This is where we unconsciously behave in a way (e.g. being demanding or needy) that gradually evokes a particular response from another (e.g. a person distances and eventually abandons the relationship). This then reaffirms the underlying expectation and belief that they will be abandoned.

Limerence, Fantasy, and Preoccupation

Limerence is a mental state of profound mental infatuation, fixation, obsession, and longing. The experience can often have a euphoric feel but also a sense of despair. Eliza Boguin first termed the phrase in the 1970s. It typically refers to that cascade of feelings we might first feel when we meet someone. It refers to that attraction, desire, and craving for connection with that person. Over time, in romantic relationships these feelings are backed up with connection, shared interests, actual love, mutuality, stabilization, and sustenance. Experiences are shared there is a sense of togetherness and a substantial solid connection is formed. The fantasy of the other person becomes a place holder or substitute for actual connection. We all have emotional fantasies from time to time. However, normal life resumes.

However, with limerence these feelings don’t abate. Furthermore, the main object of focus is on the imagined idealistic qualities of the other. An emotional depth charge of possible or alluded to connection gets set-up. The flaws and negative features often get minimized or ignored as does the absence of actual solid connection and sustenance.  These object-relations are compromised, partial depictions of another person. Defences are at play to shape a certain picture of the other.

There might be an all-consuming day-dreaming or obsessional fantasy about life with this person. The psyche becomes preoccupied by certain features of the other other. It might rove over a mental landscape of imagined meetings, ultimate validation and recognition, and blissful union. Remember the list of emotional needs from earlier. Often the basis for limerence is a set of unmet emotional needs, desires or longings. To live with the hope of union is often better than resting in the realisation of aloneness, abandonment, separation, or emptiness.

Healthy amounts of passion and excitement help to foster growth and real connection in a relationship. However, excessive amounts of such emotions lead us to ruminate, feel burnt out, and generally be preoccupied by the relationship. The preoccupation disrupts functioning in other relationships, work, and recreation. This is how a person implicitly understands a relationship. Unless there is a high degree of feeling and excitation the relationship doesn’t feel right. It can be difficult to settle for security or to feel secure in that space. When we are too embedded in these relational dynamics we have less capacity to mentalize or reflect on what we are doing or replaying.

Aversion to Secure Attachment

Often signs of secure attachment evoke a strong sense of disgust, repulsion, tension, or anger. The body reacts with the counter-part to secure attachment. Traditional object relations might describe this as anti-libidinal energy. The anti-attractive force that shapes who we do and don’t connect to. In healthier systems there is integration around both attraction to and aversion to a person. There is less polarity in reactions. There is less emotional glue for what a secure attachment might look like. Often, there can be a general discomfort with actual interest, presence, and engagement from another. Those positive relational experiences can’t be received. What Diana Fosha refers to as receptive affective capacity is diminished or defended against. Such experience are disallowed as they don’t fit the internal map of rejection or abandonment.

Fear of Abandonment: Enraged and Helpless Strategies

With non present or attuned others we might either fall in to rage or slump in to Helplessness. Opposite sides of the coin. Anger or coercion act to constrain another’s awareness to our threats. Helplessness invites in the other to rescue. These emotional signals often seen in the strange situation experiment act to signal distress to the caregiver – effectively acting to control the interaction. The fear of abandonment which is at the core of anxious attachment causes these signals to be amplified. Partners can end up being coerced, seduced, or guilted in to care when anxious attachment is at play. In adult relationships, the over-arching drive is to merge with the other person.

Another key feature of anxious attachment is to do with language. A hallmark of anxious attachment is often over-elaborated or ruminative language. Language around relationship becomes amplified, highly detailed, over-elaborate, and convoluted. Furthermore, there might be strong components of inner criticism, all or nothing thinking, and self-judgement.

Summary and Building Secure Attachment

Anxious attachment is a relational strategy that we internalize at a young age. It serves as a bumpy/wobbly roadmap for relationship and connection. Anxious attachment is made up of a range of working models and signals that amplify separation or abandonment. In particular, the nervous system and psyche becomes primarily orientated around relationality and often seeking out proximity or resolution with an unavailable other. This is often at the expense and exclusion of the self and exploration.

We can build and repair anxious attachment in a number of ways. Often secure attachment can be fostered by creating new and corrective emotional experiences with secure others. Often having a relationship with a secure other can bank up new memories for what security, stability, and open communication look like. Next, therapy is often an effective method to build greater security. A therapy relationship often has hallmarks of secure attachment (e.g. empathy and stability). Over time, these experiences can become internalised, thus new memories and associations for connection form.

Furthermore, therapy helps to process and make sense of old attachment styles, working memories, and experiences. By dis-embedding these emotional experiences we can start to observe and reflect on the self and other with greater capacity and clarity. Here the capacity for mentalization is fostered. With this in mind, therapy helps us to form a clearer narrative on who we are. This can help to dis-entangle old muddled representation of self from the other. A large facet of fostering secure attachment also involves building comfort with autonomy, internal safety, aloneness, and exploration. Thus aspects of emotion regulation are often at the centre of building secure attachment. Furthermore, by disarming our inner critic, building inner confidence, and communicating needs clearly secure attachment can be realised.

Dr Damon Mitchell

Dr Damon Mitchell is a clinical psychologist and owner of Core Life Psychology. As a psychologist he is passionate about assisting people to transform their inner world. Damon connects and works actively with people to find pathways to hope, healing, and inner well-being. He recognises that life can be challenging and complex and takes a non-pathologizing approach to understand each persons experience.

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