Why Can’t You Move on From Your Relationship?

moving on from a relationshipRelationships often end after a pile-up of issues become too messy to unravel. We can’t always make sense of the dynamics that brought us to a tipping point, but we recognize on some level that the bad has outweighed the good. When a relationship starts to hurt our mental health on a consistent basis, there is a part of us that understands it’s time to walk away. So, we do. Then, comes the hard part.

I’ve written a lot about overcoming breakups. I’ve talked about the internal forces we face that cause some of us to struggle more than others. When it comes to moving on, there are a lot of powerful tools we can employ to aid in our own recovery. However, there is one force that may be driving us to not only suffer more than others but to cling desperately to a relationship, and, in some cases, to boomerang right back into the throws of a troubled union.

Many of us have found ourselves getting stuck or repeatedly going back to the same partner. If this pattern resonates with you, one possible explanation may be that you’re experiencing an anxious attachment. In two cross-sectional studies published in 2020, it was discovered that “attachment anxiety predicted relationship rekindling,” both “retrospectively” and “concurrently.” This finding may fit with a previous Pace University study, which showed that”individuals measuring high in rejection sensitivity and anxious attachment style experienced the most adverse effects to romantic break-up and rejection.”

Anxious Attachment

A person who forms an anxious preoccupied attachment is often more likely to feel insecure and to have fears of being alone, abandoned, or rejected. Based on their own attachment history, they have a tendency to attach their self-worth and security to their partner. Losing that partner taps into a deep well of insecurity and triggers instincts to hold on for dear life. Because these patterns are so strongly rooted in the past, it’s hard for people to make sense of them. Still, they feel compelled to try to win back their partner or remain in the relationship for fear of further stirring these old emotions.

When a person experiences an anxious attachment pattern, they tend to connect their own identity and sense of worth to their partner. They may feel desperate for their partner’s love and approval. Often, this person experienced an ambivalent attachment pattern as a child with a parent or primary caregiver. In that relationship, their parent was likely intermittently available, meaning they sometimes met the child’s needs, but, other times, they may have been emotionally hungry, acting out of their own need, and therefore misattuned. As a result, the child learned to turn up the volume on their needs. They may have clinged to the parent when seeking comfort in an attempt to get those needs met. They felt insecure and did not internalize a sense of peace and inner security. Instead, they grew up internalizing a sense of uncertainty and confusion as well as a desperation for reassurance.

In an adult relationship, an anxiously attached person is preoccupied with their partner and focused on ascertaining, “Are they going to be there for me?” “Was that a sign they don’t love me?” “How can I make sure they are there for me?” They may cling to their partner, insisting on reassurance. They may command their partners attention, feeling threatened if it is anywhere else. They may become jealous, possessive, anxious, and demanding, which can lead to behavior that pushes their partner away rather than drawing them closer. A breakup can feel devastating to this person, because it feels like they’re losing a chance at ever getting what they needed as a child.

The separation from their partner can drive them into a state of panic and desperation, in which they feel like getting the person back is the ONLY WAY to fix it and feel better. This feeling is often magnified by the “critical inner voices” that they experience. They may have thoughts like “You are nothing without your partner.” “Now you will never be loved.” “You can’t stand this.” “You better get them back, no matter what you have to do.”

In the cross-sectional study mentioned above it was found that “anxiously attached individuals may attempt to resolve the substantial self-concept impairment posed by dissolution by reestablishing the relationship with the ex-partner.” A blow to their self-concept can feel fragmenting. Again, it’s sending them back emotionally to that same powerless feeling they had as an infant where a limitation in their parent was experienced as something being wrong with them.

Anxious Insecure Attachment

Anxious insecure attachment leads to a fear of not being loved, accompanied by insistence on being reassured, a combination which drives a partner away, thereby recreating the person’s past. Unfortunately, these old, familiar patterns of relating often make people feel unlovable. Staying with a partner who doesn’t consistently see or value them in some way is a painful recreation of the past, but it is also a model of relating that they’re used to and that they seek out, usually unconsciously.

In addition to a certain relationship feeling familiar, people with an anxious attachment pattern may be inclined to uphold a fantasy about their partner or the relationship. A “fantasy bond” is a concept developed by my father, author of Challenging the Fantasy Bond, Dr. Robert Firestone. He describes it as an illusion of connection between a couple where the form of being united replaces the substance of treating each other with love and kindness. In a fantasy bond, a lot of healthy relating is sacrificed for an illusion of security, an idea that the couple is fused in some way that can make them lose a sense of their individual identity. Anxiously attached people who are in a fantasy bond with their partner often build up their partner or the relationship and feel like they can’t live without it. However, the actual relationship may be hurting them and limiting their lives.

Breakups aren’t easy for anyone, but for people who have experienced an anxious attachment pattern, understanding this pattern can be a crucial step toward recovering from rather than staying stuck in their pain. They may come to understand that the strong bond they feel with their partner has more to do with old emotional needs and fears they hold around how relationship partners will treat them. Their desire to stay or reunite with their partner may in fact be a drive to maintain an unfavorable but familiar sense of identity that undermines who they truly are and what they deserve when it comes to love.

Finally, they may be upholding a fantasy that once felt like a life support but is actually an outdated defense system that hurts them in their life today and keeps them reliving a painful relationship pattern. For anyone who feels especially stuck in a relationship that they intellectually understand to be hurting them, exploring their attachment pattern can be a transformative step in letting go of the past and choosing better relationships in the future.

Understanding Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment 
Length: 60 Minutes
Price: $15
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In this Webinar:  Individuals with Anxious-Preoccupied attachment tend to struggle with insecurity in dating and relationships, because they have learned that you can’t rely on…

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About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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2 Comments

Cheryl Muller

I have been in this and many more in my past. The most recent one started in June 2020. If you ask him he will tell you that I am a Narcissist. When in fact he is. From June of 2020 until a few days before Thanksgiving 2020 we broke up on average 2 to 5 times a month. Most times was for a day, but we had many breakups that lasted up to two weeks. He went to a long term rehab in Virginia that was supposed to last for 10 months to a year. I found out later he left around April. I then found out he was living in our town again. We hadn’t had any contact up until June 2021. I found out he was in the hospital, I will leave out the details, but it was a psyc hold. I knew that nobody, even his family would be there for him, so I called. He blessed me out terribly, I told him I wouldn’t bother him again. He called a few days later and told me how much he loved me and he missed me. Then asked if he could come see me. I believed him again and he convinced me that we had a bond between us and he can’t get over me. I let him come back and it was worse than you can imagine. I once again sunk into a deep depression, sometimes going weeks without bathing or leaving the house. He had always controlled my car keys, my bank and credit cards, and Phone. I was not allowed to drive my car ever, go out to the front yard any smoke cigarettes, because there men out there (there were double the amount of young single moms out there), but he was allowed to do whatever he wanted. He slept with his wallet, phone and car keys in his pocket. This lasted until the middle of August, when he was taking my car for hours or overnight, he would turn his phone off so I couldn’t reach him. I warned him that I would call the police and I did after he was gone for 16 hours. They served him and removed him. Didn’t hear a word until 4 days before court and then all of a sudden he contacted me and once again I believed every word. I was planning on dropping charges because I found out from the district attorney that this could drag on for months, which I told him. He shows up that night and asks if he could stay with me until after court. You already know what my answer was. He stayed with me until almost one whole month later. He of course called and sent me songsand then nothing. I usually don’t miss him right away, I guess I thought he would come back. He didn’t, when I tried to call he would scream at me to leave him alone and he hated me, he knew every insecurity I had, so he would use that to mentally destroy me. I have had three mental breaks because of him thinking I would never love anyone that much again. In February 2022 he called and asked if he could come and hang out. Again I said okay but he had to be gone by morning. He was on drugs really bad this time. I fell asleep around 1 am on the last night he was here. He woke me up from banging doors, talking to people, talking with a really bad British accent, ( I don’t believe he even knows anyone from the United Kingdom). He did this for two days and I hadn’t got any sleep. I jumped up and he was in the parking lot carrying on with known drug users. I told to come back in and then told him to leave. I knew he had only been there for a couple days to get away from whatever druggie girl he was with. He called and texted me for a month, he went to rehab(again), I was under the impression that he understood it was over. Then two weeks go by and he had quit calling or messaging as much, then I finally got a hold of him and he proceeded to cuss me out and tell me everything bad about myself. Then finally the truth came out, he met someone and didn’t ever want to speak with me again, and to go live my own life. Kinda threw me for a loop because everytime my Psychiatrist gets me in a better place, he comes back and I sink to the bottom again. So when I read your article it was like a light bulb turned on. I am not cured from just reading, but I am going to start therapy in a couple weeks and I don’t know how long it will take to get over this. I supported him every time he stayed here and he stole so much money from me, especially when he would leave or afterwards. He is smart when it comes to stealing information. I have been financially ruined by him. I can’t even get a loan for a ice cream cone. But I wanted to thank you for writing this article, now it opened up my eyes and believe me I seriously thought you were talking about me. So much trauma in my life starting before I was two and continued all my life, not feeling loved by anyone my entire life, I suppose has done unfixable damage, I may never feel loved in my life. To anyone who reads this I want you to know I am not a stupid person, I am not ugly, I am a empath and help everyone I can. When someone cries I cry and don’t wait to be asked to help,I just want to help myself do it. I had never been with anyone who was diagnosed with a personality disorder. Maybe it’s the Narcissist personality or something much worse. Please don’t judge me to harshly, I am ashamed of myself for being so blind to the truth. Haven’t found a therapist yet that can deal with my many different issues. I will try out one at a time and find one that can deal with multiple issues. If I ever get on my feet again I hope to see about buying you and your father’s boo. I will try and work out what I can. I got some self-help work books and they have helped a little in the past. So I guess I will continue working at home. Again thank you so very much for the article. Stay blessed

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Christine

This article really hit home for me. I have been in a 30yr relationship that’s not healthy by any means. We’ve broken up few times but always end up back together? Now, by reading your article and some others, I’m seeing that my attachment style definitely is playing apart. Now, I just need to learn how to stop letting affect my life, truly. Thank you for sharing this article, definitely helped open my eyes some and I will continue to learn more, so can hopefully change the pattern now and stop living this chaotic cycle.

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