If you’re in a romantic relationship where one partner exhibits demanding behavior while the other partner withdraws and avoids, you may be experiencing attachment panic.
Do you feel a sense of panic when you argue with your partner or can’t reach them on the phone? Attachment panic may be the reason.
From infancy, we are hardwired to attach to a loving and responsive caregiver.
Later on in life, this primal instinct drives us to seek a partner who can be a safe haven in this world. When our chosen partner becomes emotionally unresponsive, we feel isolated, insecure, and fearful.
This causes a “fear alarm” to go off in our brain. This is what psychologists refer to as attachment panic.
Attachment panic can be a symptom of panic disorder or attachment anxiety.
In her book “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love,” psychologist Sue Johnson says attachment panic is at the core of all conflicts in romantic relationships.
So what is attachment panic, exactly? It’s not an official disorder. It’s a nervous system reaction that happens when you suspect that your partner is no longer a safe haven.
Attachment panic is a primal response. It’s the sense that you’re in grave danger when you don’t have the safety of a loved one that you can count on.
When people feel this fear, they often have one of two responses:
- They may try to force their partner to act in a way that makes them feel safe.
- They might shut down and withdraw emotionally.
Both of these behaviors can send a signal of rejection to the partner and further intensify relationship distress.
Attachment panic can be a symptom of panic disorder.
If you have panic disorder, you likely experience panic attacks. These overwhelming feelings of fear and stress can come on suddenly and may happen frequently.
Panic attacks usually last a few minutes and may have physical and psychological symptoms, including:
- pounding heart
- feeling out of breath
- tingling or numb hands
- feeling frightened or out of control
If you’re experiencing attachment anxiety, you may feel like someone you care about will abandon you, according to experts.
For example, you might fear that someone you love will reject you, not respond to you, or be unavailable for you when you need them.
Attachment panic tends to manifest in one of two behaviors.
You may either become argumentative and make demands of your partner, like requesting they pay attention to you or stay in your presence. On the other hand, you might completely withdraw to protect yourself — similar to the fight-or-flight reflex you feel during imminent danger.
Often, one partner exhibits demanding behavior while the other partner is avoidant. This relational pattern is called “demand-withdrawal.”
Research from 2017 shows that the demand-withdrawal pattern is one of the most destructive types of communication in relationships.
In this dynamic, the more one person withdraws, the more the other person goes into attack mode in an effort to get a different response from their partner. This can turn into a cycle of resentment, hypervigilance, and detachment.
Couples caught in this pattern may find themselves starving for emotional connection and yearning to get it back. Yet, at the same time, they continue to relate in ways that put them further away from their real goal of closeness.
Characteristics of people with demanding behavior may include:
- being argumentative or demanding
- obsessing and overanalyzing
- feeling like they need to stay in close proximity to their partner
- having rapid mood changes
- believing that relationship turbulence equals passion
Characteristics of people who tend to withdraw may include:
- pulling away
- stopping communication
- leaving the house for hours or even days
- blocking their partner on social media
- accusing their partner of being overly emotional or clingy
- feeling discomfort with physical closeness
While anyone can experience attachment panic, people with avoidant or anxious attachment styles tend to be more vulnerable.
Your attachment style formed during infancy with your primary caregiver. These early interactions shape how we understand and behave in relationships. The effects of these bonding experiences — later influenced by other important relationships in our life — carry forward into adulthood.
Our attachment system “activates” when we experience fear, anxiety, or related forms of distress.
There are three basic attachment styles for adults:
- Secure attachment. A person with secure attachment has a positive self-image and a positive view of others. They believe that other people are generally accepting and responsive.
- Dismissive-avoidant attachment. A person with dismissive-avoidant attachment has a positive self-image but a negative view of others. They tend to avoid intimate relationships in order to stay independent and avoid being vulnerable. They may downplay the importance of relationships and view others as untrustworthy.
- Anxious-preoccupied attachment. A person with preoccupied attachment is “preoccupied” with whether their relationship is secure. They tend to have a negative self-image but a positive opinion of others. A person with preoccupied attachment may attempt to gain self-acceptance by seeking approval from others.
In general, these adult attachment styles correspond with three romantic attachment styles:
- Secure lover. Tends to have longer romantic relationships and describes the bond as happy and trusting.
- Avoidant lover. Tends to have a fear of intimacy, gets jealous easily, and has frequent emotional highs and lows. They’re often unsure of their feelings toward their partner. They may have difficulty falling in love and believe romantic relationships don’t last long.
- Ambivalent lover. Believes their most important romantic relationship is the one characterized by obsession, emotional highs and lows, and extreme sexual attraction. They may find it easy to fall in love but believe that lasting love is hard to find.
If you have anxious attachment behaviors and you’re with a person who withdraws, consider trying these tips:
- Recognize that your partner’s quiet behavior doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t love you.
- Remember that pulling away may simply be your partner’s way of coping. They may have been doing this since childhood.
- Recognize that your aggressive stance may be triggering your partner’s withdrawing behaviors.
- Try not to demand closeness too fast, too soon.
On the other hand, if you’re someone who tends to withdraw, and your partner is anxiously attached, these tips may help:
- Notice how you become emotionally distant during a heated communication with your partner, especially when they are trying to offer closeness.
- Observe how you may be bringing childhood coping mechanisms into the present.
- Recognize that your partner wants to be with you — that’s why they may be so upset. Understand that your partner is trying to gain closeness through these behaviors.
- Try to look beyond what you perceive as nagging behaviors and see their underlying goodwill.
- Give loving reassurance and gently explain why you pull away.
If you recognize some of these behaviors in yourself or your partner, that’s a good first step.
The good news is that attachment styles are not set in stone. With some work, you can change behaviors that are hurting your relationship. The next time you and your partner experience attachment panic, try to recognize what’s going on in the moment and try not to be as reactive with one another.
When it does happen, you can come back to this article for a refresher or watch one of the many videos on attachment styles online, including this one.