Have you ever been in a relationship and always felt like you were doing something wrong or something bad was about to happen? Do you have the tendency to blame yourself when things weren’t going as smoothly as you had hoped? Did you find yourself making up stories to explain your partner’s behavior without confirmation from him or her about what was occurring?
As relationship therapists, we often see individuals in our Denver office who tend to blame themselves, make up stories, or lose a sense of objectivity when trying to determine why a relationship isn’t progressing in the way they want it to. This tendency is particularly strong if the partner has an anxious attachment style. Let us share with you some common scenarios as well as help you understand why this might happen for you and how to overcome it.
The Common Scenario
Let’s take an example. Let’s say you text your love interest and don’t hear back for an hour. Maybe you are trying to make plans with him or her, so you try and call next. Still, no answer. What is your next thought?
If your mind started wandering off to what you said or did wrong, or how your partner might have lost interest (or worse, you question their commitment altogether), you probably suffer from some level of relationship anxiety and/or self-blame.
If you do have this tendency to identify a red – or maybe even a green or orange – flag and then quickly turn the situation into a story about something you did wrong or something you could do differently, more, or better, it’s time to examine the roots of this dynamic and work to overcome it.
The Impact of Your Attachment System
Anxiously attached individuals are more likely to interpret relationship flags (of all colors) as personal, and this tends to stem for their earliest experiences of relationships. Oftentimes, these individuals had unpredictable or inconsistent parental behavior, and they started the patterns of self blame and personalization from an early age. When a child does not have their needs met consistently, responsively, and with warmth, it can lead a child to have thoughts like:
“I am not worthy [of my parent’s love and/or attention]”
“If I try to do or be something different, maybe then they will [attend to and love me]”
You see, children do not have the developmental capacity to interpret their parent’s behavior as stemming from a parent suffering from depression or anxiety, feeling stressed about their job, coping with loss or heartache, addiction, or being unable to meet others’ needs due to their own needs not being met. They simply fill in the blank with their understanding – it must be me.
Later in life, this shows up as a tendency to turn signals of inconsistency, withdrawal, and sometimes even healthy, consistent behavior into a sign of “I must have done something wrong” Overcoming this tendency of turning relationship red flags in relationships today into self-judgement about worth and value is a constant challenge for anxiously attached individuals. It’s essential to stay objective, especially in the early infatuation stages when emotions run high.
The Role of Storytelling
Along with the tendency to self-blame, anxiously attached individuals tend to fabricate stories to explain their partner’s behavior. In this particular situation, the anxiously attached individual may believe that their partner doesn’t want to talk to them, and feel that there is something wrong such as being too needy, contacting their partner too often, or suggesting boring date ideas – as examples – and believes that their own shortcomings are causing the person to react in the way that they are.
Once again, objectively examining the situation, without applying personal meaning to the dynamics is essential. Ask yourself “What else could this be?” or “Is it really me?” Consider alternative stories. Be firmly rooted in your own value to avoid spinning up a story and recognize that your partner not calling back might have nothing to do with you. These stories are almost always influenced by your own personal narrative. Therefore, if you have a tendency to ignore texts and calls following a few dates because you aren’t interested, you might automatically assume that everyone behaves the same way, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Let’s return to our previous example for a minute to reevaluate the situation objectively...Perhaps if you texted and called your partner within an hour, trying to make plans without an answer, he or she might have simply been taking a nap, ran out without his or her phone, or went out for a walk in the neighborhood and got talking to someone.
On the other hand, the lack of responsiveness could mean something about how he/she is feeling about the relationship - separate from what you have said or done or who you are. Commonly one partner stops communicating with the depth or frequency that might have previously occurred. Or, one partner wants the relationship to progress into deeper connection, and the other party might not show up with an equally strong desire to take things to the next level. While these possibilities can hurt if you are the one left interested in progressing in the relationship, it is not about you or your worth, as your story would lead you to believe.
Take a moment to look at the situation objectively and imagine all the possible reasons he or she has not responded to you – not just the story you are formulating because your default response is to feel like there is something wrong with you, your relationship, or your behaviors.
Identify Your Needs
Allow these reactions to inform your relationship needs. If your partner chronically takes an hour or two to return your calls and texts, and that sends you into an anxious pattern, don’t be afraid to assert your needs. Perhaps his or her behavior helps you understand that you need a relationship in which your partner responds promptly and more attentively, as that creates less anxiety and drama in your own life.
Also notice whether this pattern forms in response to specific personalities. Recognize when you are dating an “avoidant” and how that might manifest itself from a communication perspective, and contribute to this same story line. Recognize these unmet needs earlier each time to identify the long-term potential of a relationship. Finding partners who exhibit more secure attachment behaviors and physical and emotional availability would be good for you to look for.
The team at Center for Shared Insight specializes in attachment based therapy and helps individuals overcome such patterns. By identifying your attachment system, and the reactions that stem from your default attachment style, you can develop strategies to overcome the related relationship challenges.