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Do You Have an Anxious Attachment Disorder?

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Are you one of those moms who checks her phone 80 times a day, wondering if your man is going to call? Watch out -- you might be more than just "clingy." Dr. Wendy Walsh gives us the skinny on a disorder that could be affecting your relationships.

woman yelling at cell phone Anxious Attachment Disorder

Dr. Wendy Walsh: There has been much in the media about a psychological injury called an "attachment disorder" as it pertains to babies and parents, but there is an adult version that relates to romantic attachments. There are adults walking among us, stumbling through the world of dating, mating, and relating, while reliving their own preverbal, infantile emotional injuries. Some have a style of attachment that brings as many feelings of anxiety as comfort, and they are called "anxious" attachers. To understand this, let's take a look at what attachment theory is.

History of Attachment Theory
In his book, Becoming Attached, author Dr. Robert Karen sums up the work of the pioneers of attachment theory well. From the birth of attachment theory, with such thinkers as John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, and Mary Main, came the notion that a trusted person -- an attachment figure -- offers an infant a secure base. A child whose needs are met with appropriate attention, affection, and empathic words will grow to trust the world and to trust relationships, and will translate that feeling of trust to a romantic partner in adult life. John Bowlby, an English psychotherapist from the first part of the last century, is often called the father of attachment theory. He believed that the ties to the parent gradually weaken as the child gets older, and that the secure base function is slowly shifted to other figures, eventually resting on one's mate.

This tendency of the child to attach in the ways he or she was attached to his/her parents happens because the functions of attachment become an internal property of the child. In other words, we are often unaware of our own attachment style. Attachment theory involves a way of relating to others based on communications and behaviors of both parents in the first years of life. These "messages" about how to love are then combined with a child's own interactions with each parent, and become an influential cognitive structure -- a hard-wired piece of our personality.

Three Principal Patterns of Attachment

Attachment researchers have categorized people based on three principal patterns of attachment. The first is a pattern of secure attachment, in which the person is confident that a parent (usually Mom, and eventually a lover) will be available, responsive, and helpful.

The second is that of anxious resistant attachment, in which the individual is uncertain if a parent will be available and because of that uncertainty, is prone to separation anxiety and is anxious about exploring the world.

The third pattern is an anxious avoidant attachment, in which the individual has no confidence that when he or she seeks care, they will be responded to, and on the contrary, expects rejection.

Adult Romantic Attachment
These three kinds of patterns play out in adult romantic life as well. It is estimated that only about 20 percent of the American population has secure attachment behaviors -- the ability to give and receive care with comfort, and a degree of self-esteem that is not dependent on their lover's reinforcement. What's left in most of us? We either have a tendency to avoid feelings and closeness, or a confusing pattern of craving and mistrusting love -- in various degrees, of course.

People with anxious attachment disorder are vigilant clock-watchers. Since they are dependent on contact and affirmation from their partner, they have an uncanny ability to sense if contact is waning. They tend to be chronic voice mail and e-mail checkers, and have a need for constant texting. They can also be easily prone to feelings of jealousy. They love and respect their partner, but are also wary that that love may disappear. And, while people with anxious attachment disorder crave closeness, they can also be surprisingly terrified when they actually get what they crave. We've all met or dated someone who sent us contradictory messages and led us to believe they were interested, only to disappear or behave badly and send us running. People with anxious attachment disorder don't trust that love is real or reliable, and so they often behave badly when things feel too good.

The good news is that attachment disorders can be healed. An empathetic, ethical therapist can foster a healthy therapist/patient relationship that rebuilds adult attachment style. Patients learn how to depend on relationships, to trust love, and to tolerate criticism and consistent contact. If you feel you are suffering from an attachment disorder, try to find a therapist who specializes in attachment theory.

Attachment theory holds so many keys to adult romantic pair bonding. The unique mating dance of couples is choreographed by the internal world of both partners, creating, in the end, a performance that runs the gamut from an embracing waltz to one in which the dancers continually step on each others' feet. It is a reflection of the secret world of an infant and parent, played out again with a grown-up body and a new kind of mother -- a lover.

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