Hi, Anxiety!

Amy Alkon

Amy Alkon
I’m a 29-year-old woman. My boyfriend of a year is a wonderful guy. I’ve always been a jealous person -- very insecure about whether a guy really cares and is being faithful. I ruined my last relationship (with a nice, decent guy) by snooping in his email -- finding nothing. I’ve started seeing a therapist who tells me I am “anxiously attached.” She’s helping me work on this. My boyfriend suggested I also write you to see whether he could do anything to help. -- Panicky
Many people find it comforting to believe there’s some benevolent force watching over those they love. You, on the other hand, favor a private detective with a fleet of drones who will also supply you with the video.
Your therapist’s assessment that you’re “anxiously attached” comes out of research on our “attachment behavioral system,” our emotional framework that guides how secure or insecure we feel about our bonds with others. According to the late British psychiatrist John Bowlby, we each have internalized working models -- basically, expectations from childhood experience (with genes also playing a role) -- for how much we can count on others to stick by us and respond to our needs.
Being “anxiously attached” seems to result from your mom or other early caregiver being intermittently cold or otherwise inconsistently comforting. It typically leads to needy, clingy, hyper-vigilant behavior, driven by fears of rejection and abandonment.
Though the clingaramousness and Nancy Drew tactics of the anxiously attached can seem like ways of acting out, they’re actually attempts to get a romantic partner to ramp up their level of commitment -- or at least offer reassurance about their commitment.
Interestingly, it seems that the reassurance doesn’t have to come in spoken-word form. Psychologist Brooke C. Feeney found that (in the context of a close relationship) “affectionate touch ... was an effective buffer against jealous feelings” for relationship partners at times when they were experiencing high levels of anxious attachment.
In Feeney’s study, the “affectionate touch” just involved one partner putting his or her arm around the other’s shoulder. But presumably, hugs, hair-petting, face-caressing and other forms of affectionate touch from your boyfriend would also help with the jealousy -- shrinking the green monster to something more gecko-sized.
Sending the message physically like this takes advantage of how, according to research in “embodied cognition,” our body and actions -- independent of conscious thought -- are surprisingly powerful and efficient tools for changing our habitual emotional reactions. (See my “science-help” book, Unf*ckology, for more on this.)

Best of all, being regularly cuddly-wuddly with one’s partner isn’t exactly an odious chore. It’s surely preferable to the alternative -- a relationship that feels like one long interrogation, though with better lighting and decorative accents from Bed, Bath & I’d Better Not Catch Your Eyeballs Crawling up My Sister.

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