How I Conquered My Relationship Insecurity

By Tracy Chabala 06/06/18

I didn’t engage in behaviors like calling or texting multiple times—if anything, I did the opposite, out of fear of being perceived as needy—but the thoughts alone, their irrationality and all-consuming anxiety, caused me a lot of pain.

Couple, each with cell phone. Woman looking over suspiciously onto man's phone.
Even after he said “I love you,” I was still fixated on the fear that he would leave.

Fear of abandonment, jealousy, and general insecurity in romantic relationships leads many in the dating scene to be labeled the dreaded “needy.” It’s a pejorative that’s especially used to describe women, an insult that dismisses someone as being “crazy” for simply needing reassurance and consistent contact. Of course, men can suffer from the “needy” label too, but they often fall into the “unavailable” camp—aloof, distant, indifferent, and detached, which can quickly earn them the title “asshole.” Sadly, most folks don’t know the roots of these behaviors, so we’re left throwing insults at fellow daters rather than understanding that these traits date back to childhood.

For years I thought I didn’t fall into the “needy” camp. Many of my past relationships were with men who bordered on needy themselves, so I never needed to feel insecure—if anything, they were the insecure ones, always vying for my time and attention. There was little reason to fear abandonment. It wasn’t until this past year that I discovered that if I’m invested in someone who is a bit more independent, my anxiety and fear of rejection can become nearly intolerable.

Enter the man who is now my partner, Matthew*. The day after our first date, he sent me a very sweet text complimenting both my personality and appearance while adding that he would love to see me again, and soon. Just a few days later, we had our second date, and a few days after that, our third, and by that time I realized I could really fall for him.

After our fourth date, I was officially hooked, and that’s when the anxiety hit. Now I was invested, and that meant that if a few days passed and I didn’t hear from him, I assumed he was over it. And I was so terrified of seeming needy that I rarely initiated a text. When I did, it would sometimes take hours for him to respond; that’s just his nature, being a very busy person, but when he didn’t respond right away, I’d once again assume he was over it. Despite all the fear, I’d always hear from him, often with a “Sorry, hun, wish I could have gotten back to you sooner!” text.

At the time, I thought I was going slightly crazy. Part of me knew I was just being paranoid, and part of me kept buying into the irrational thoughts telling me that he was going to drop me. I knew that ghosters—people who vanish from seemingly stable dating scenarios for no reason whatsoever—were everywhere. But Matthew hadn’t given me any reason to think he might leave; all of his words and actions displayed evidence that he wasn’t going anywhere. Still, I worried and worried—every day waiting for the other shoe to drop—for Matthew to show some sign of disinterest.

I comforted myself with thoughts like “Once we’re exclusive, this anxiety will go away.” Well, we became exclusive, and the anxiety did not go away. Even after he said “I love you,” I was still fixated on the fear that he would leave. No, I didn’t engage in “crazy” behaviors like calling or texting multiple times—if anything, I did the opposite, out of fear of being perceived as needy—but the thoughts alone, their irrationality and all-consuming anxiety, caused me a lot of pain.

The pain prompted me to do some research on relationship insecurity—I had to know what the hell was wrong with me. That’s when I learned about attachment styles and the important role they play in romantic relationships. My fear of abandonment is a classic sign of an anxious attachment.

British psychologist John Bowlby began exploring what he termed attachment theory in the 1960's, and he conducted further research alongside psychologist Mary Ainsworth throughout the second half of the 20th century. According to Bowlby, the ways in which primary caregivers relate to infants and children greatly influence how they relate to others in their adult lives. Contemporary psychologists have expanded on Bowlby’s theory, many writing about the huge impact our attachment styles have on our romantic relationships and even how we perform at work. There’s also a study underway to determine what role, if any, attachment styles play in opioid addiction.

Attachment theory posits that adults with secure attachment styles—around 50 percent of the population—had parents who were attentive, nurturing, calm, and, most importantly, consistent in this behavior. Those with anxious attachment styles usually had caregivers who were inconsistent, sometimes attentive, loving, and nurturing, and at other times distracted, distant, cold, or unresponsive to the child’s needs. Anxious attachments can also result from having overly-anxious or intrusive caregivers (this is probably how I wound up with an anxious attachment, as my mother often became too worried that something bad might happen to me.) Children who grew up with mostly aloof and detached parents typically wind up with an avoidant attachment style, those who crave intimacy but push it away out of fear.

Unfortunately, people with anxious attachment styles often gravitate to those with avoidant attachment styles, and vice versa, and this causes all sorts of heartache. Those who have secure attachment patterns are often already paired up—they’re the folks who are content in long-term relationships and forging lasting intimate bonds. This explains why spending lots of time on dating apps can sometimes lead to crushed hopes over and over again. If all the healthy folks are already in relationships, what’s left are a lot of people who may have some emotional baggage that begs sorting through.

If you’ve ever attended a SLAA meeting, you’ve probably heard of the “love addict” and the “love avoidant.” In many ways, the love addict mirrors someone with an anxious attachment style—the deep need for connection and intimacy is a quality inherent in both personality types. Naturally, the “love avoidant” described in SLAA mirrors the avoidant attachment style.

According to SLAA philosophy, the antidote to love addiction or love avoidance is the 12 steps, steps that require faith in a power greater than oneself, the admitting of character defects, and turning over one’s will to God as we understand Him. Though I’m not anti-SLAA per se, I do find it interesting that the terms “love addict” and “love avoidant” actually have roots in psychological theory, so the cause of the insecurity may have less to do with character defects and more to do with the way we were parented.

Though an insecure attachment style may sound like a curse for anyone who’s looking for long-term love, there’s good news: anyone can change their insecure attachment style to a secure one through psychodynamic therapy, being in a healthy relationship with a securely-attached partner, and also by becoming a parent.

It took a combo of consistent psychodynamic therapy and my relationship with Matthew, who has a secure attachment style, to help ease all of my anxieties. They haven’t gone away completely, but I have seen demonstrable improvement since I started working on them. I realized how far I’d come when he took a second business trip for a few days. The first time this happened, I grew anxious when I didn’t hear from him; this time when he went out of town, I didn’t fret once during his entire week away. Sure, I missed him, especially since we’re now living together, but I wasn’t ruminating on the idea that he would never return, and I actually ended up having a great week just hanging out with my friends.

For someone with an anxious attachment style, behavior like calling or texting the object of their affection repeatedly throughout the day, or prying into their personal business, can emerge. Not surprisingly, all these attempts at reassurance turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy—they push the other person away. If the partner is avoidant, he or she can get angry, dismissing the anxious person’s needs. If the partner is securely attached, they are more likely to be reassuring, but not if the behavior is continually hostile, accusatory, or pathological. In the event that this behavior surfaces, odds are the securely-attached partner will withdraw.

Though I didn’t engage in destructive behaviors with Matthew, my anxiety did reach a point where I had to share this struggle with him. There was no way around it—if I didn’t open up about my insecurities, which were causing me so much psychological pain, then I feared a wedge would stand between us, creating distance. What’s the point of being in a relationship if you can’t unload all your fears on your partner?

I felt humiliated voicing my insecurity to him for the first time, which happened right as I started therapy, about six months into our relationship. Admitting to him that I was often preoccupied with the status of our relationship rather than prancing around Los Angeles “doing me” with a big fulfilled smile across my face, loving life and living big, which, apparently, is what single people are supposed to do at all times in order to be happy and to find a partner, terrified me. I figured fessing up would scare him and push him away.

But Matthew was very reassuring. He told me: “Your needs are your needs, and there’s nothing wrong with them.” He did explicitly state that it’s up to me to find emotional balance when I get anxious, but he’ll meet me halfway as best he can if I need a little extra reassurance. On my end, I’ve had to learn to tolerate my anxiety, to sit with it and surrender my need for control. Since Matthew’s an introvert, he tends to withdraw when overwhelmed, which can come across as distant. This can certainly make me anxious, but I have had to learn to surrender my fears of being rejected and abandoned. At this stage, when I do get anxious, I have to resort to a kind of Buddhist mentality—nothing is permanent, I have no control over Matthew or over the longevity of our relationship, and everything will be okay even if things do end.

It’s remarkable progress that I doubt I would have made without facing my insecure attachment head-on.

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Tracy Chabala is a personal essayist and freelance journalist covering food, technology, and addiction for multiple outlets. Her work has appeared in the LA Times, LA Weekly, Salon, and VICE. She is working on a novel. Follow her on Twitter @tracyachabala.