Why Can’t You Move on From Your Relationship?
Relationships 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.”
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.
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…