Is Your New Relationship Causing You Stress?

Whether you're happily coupled, clingy or a commitment-phobe, your relationship behavior traces back to the same thing: your childhood. Below, we explore how attachment theory affects your love life.

By Milena Canizares

hether you're as cool as a cucumber in the first stages of romance, ignore your date's follow-up once you realize you like this person, or sit by the phone anxiously awaiting a call no matter how interested you actually are, your attachment style is always at play. Formed as a child, it often surfaces early in relationships when expectations are high, and miscommunication shows up in abundance.

Originally developed in the 1960s by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, the attachment theory realized the impact that your first caregiver
I took a little space to make sure it was something I could deal with.
relationship — be it parent or guardian — has on your social and emotional patterns, and how it sets the tone for future relationships.

Attachment Style #1: Secure
A secure attachment style is formed when your parents are warm, responsive and consistent with their affection, and this is why you don't doubt your partner's enchantment — in fact, you see yourself, your partner and your relationship in an extremely positive light, and most often give the benefit of the doubt to your partner when any conflicts arise.

How it shows up in relationships:
  • You easily develop emotional intimacy with your partner
  • You can ask for help and are comfortable with your partner depending on you
  • You make decisions you are comfortable with, regardless of your partner's approval or vote of confidence
31-year-old Amanda D. of Toronto, Canada, started dating John, but early on, she thought there might be an issue. "In the beginning when we started dating and I was crazy about John, I thought I saw a yellow flag since he was always talking about himself and asking fewer questions than my previous boyfriends. Instead of diving into the relationship full force, I took a little space to make sure it was something I could deal with — and over time [I] realized it was his nerves that were making our interactions more one-sided. If it wasn't something that changed, I wouldn't have wasted his or my time just for the sake of having someone."

Attachment Style #2: Anxious
An anxious attachment style develops when emotional expression and affection from a parent or caregiver is inconsistent throughout childhood, often resulting in what we've come to know as a "Stage-5 Clinger" tendency, since you don't know when the love will reappear. Alternatively, your parents' flat-out rejection or neglect made your want and need for them increase, this causing anxiety.

How it shows up in relationships:
  • You may depend too much on your partner and not enough on yourself
  • You're always waiting for the other shoe to drop and keep score on what your partner has done to compare with what you've done
  • You need a lot of reassurance in intimate relationships, and are often impulsive and overly expressive
Californian Chad S., 34, felt anxious and nervous with every potential new relationship. "On early dates, I would think so much about what she was thinking, and if I was going to say something stupid. As the night went on, I would be so anxious and wonder if I should kiss her, but my gut made me so nervous, I couldn't make the move for fear of rejection — unless she gave me a lot of reassurance, which rarely happened."

Learning how to form a more secure attachment style is definitely the goal.
Attachment Style #3: Avoidant
Slightly similar to the anxious style (in which insecurity is the root of the behavior), an avoidant attachment style occurs if your parents showed love and warmth, but only occasionally. You don't try harder; instead, you feel a need to protect yourself, which often causes you to separate and isolate yourself from others… even your partner.

How it shows up in relationships:
  • You are most comfortable being alone without intimate relationships
  • Independence and self-sufficiency mask a fear of being close to others
  • You are often defensive in an attempt to suppress your actual feelings
Toronto single Carla F., 27, noticed a pattern in her relationships — or lack thereof. "I've always wanted to be in a close and loving relationship, but I find myself plagued with such huge doubts, always assuming the other person doesn't feel the same or will not give the way I will. So I end up being the one to forfeit and walk away."

How to get from anxious and avoidant to secure and happy
Learning how to form a more secure attachment style is definitely the goal, but it's more for you than your partner. Of course, you are at your most attractive when you're confident and secure. But it's more about making choices that come from a place of honesty, not fear.

Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil, Ph.D., relationship expert and author of Make Up, Don't Break Up, knows a thing or two about keeping the bonds of intimacy intact. Aside from "picking a person who is committed, gives you plenty of space and is available but not clingy or needy," Weil believes that consistent affection balanced with time apart will ease your nerves, regardless of whether your urge is to bolt or to cling to your partner. Here are her five tips to keep you feeling the love (and not the doubt):
  1. Kiss for at least 30 seconds in the morning to get the oxytocin hormone going in your body and make you feel bonded with your partner all day. That way, you won't get concerned if his call is slightly later than usual that night.
  2. Eat dinner together or go to bed at the same time instead of operating on independent schedules. Such routines give you something concrete to look forward to together.
  3. Do a "brush with death" routine regularly, where you visualize how you would feel if you lost the other person. An exercise like this will often easily put things into perspective.
  4. Spend a couple of hours or a weekend apart from each other. The mixed company and independence you enjoy will offer an opportunity to genuinely miss the other person, sans desperate need.
  5. Hug every day, and when you're not in a rush. Just 20 seconds of such physical bonding releases dopamine, the feel-good hormone, comforting you both all day.
Milena Canizares is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Marie Claire, YourTango, and The Globe and Mail. She is currently at work on her first book, and recently made the jump from an avoidant to secure attachment style. Her dating life has been thanking her ever since.
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