Dear Neil: I have recently realized that after a number of failed relationships with men that I have what’s called “avoidant attachment style.” It’s been a year since I was seeing a lovely and kind man. We had mutual attraction and good chemistry. However, as we got closer, I would feel overwhelmed and smothered, with increased anxiety and panic attacks. He was so effusive in telling me how good he felt about me and how precious I was, that I became terrified that if he really got to know me, he would reject me and eventually leave.
As a child, I was sexually abused by 2 different men, and I recognize that those incidents impacted how safe and trusting I feel around males, and that it contributes to me wanting to keep men at arm’s length. So either I have panic attacks when a man attempts to be close to me, or I get rejected by men who are reluctant about having a close relationship with me.
Alone and Floundering
Dear Alone: It does indeed sound like you you have an avoidant attachment style in your romantic relationships. That means you are resistant to a close relationship, you find it difficult to trust others, you are concerned with getting hurt or rejected if you get close to someone else, and that it’s very important for you to feel independent and self-reliant. It is likely that you also create physical or emotional boundaries in a romantic relationship, and that you would find it challenging to make a long-term commitment to someone.
If you were interested in changing this, here’s what you could do: First, be aware that you tend toward mistrust. As a result, consciously deciding to offer a potential romantic partner the benefit of doubt could be very helpful.
Second, create a list of everything a relationship offers you; everything you’re grateful for. This is a list you will want to look at often. It describes the valuable benefits and emotions a relationship offers. This will help you look at the positives instead of the negatives.
Third, carefully look at your boundaries. Some boundaries you need in order to feel safe, but some may simply be holdovers from your past. Perhaps you might challenge some of these, because boundaries turn into walls. Fourth, I wonder if you might try medication for your panic attacks. It might help you feel more emotionally stable when you’re in a relationship.
Fifth, the biggest impediment of you feeling close to someone is how worthy of love you feel. Do some self-esteem building, either on your own or with a psychotherapist. Finally, there’s a great book on this subject. It’s called Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller.