Anxiety strangles relationships, but the way this is accomplished can look very different, in what is known as relational isolation and relational attachment. Both scenarios take a two-sided relationship and crush it into a self-centered, one-sided reality.
For some people living with anxiety, isolation is the only way to cope. Just as migraine sufferers must remove themselves from all outside stimuli, anxiety sufferers must remove themselves from all relational stimuli.
These people draw into self whenever stressed. These people demand that the other person be ready and available to support them without any thought of reciprocity. These people are irritable and moody. These people have multiple reasons and rationales for their behavior, each one emphasizing their need and minimizing their responsibility. These people expect everyone else to make accommodation for them; they live in the altered state of anxiety crisis.
All of their being is focused on what they need to weather the storm, to make it through, to put an end to the panic and pain. On red alert, they promote themselves to captain of the relationship and demote the other person to deckhand, relegated to mopping up after them.
It becomes a lopsided, one-way relationship that breeds resentment and disillusionment.
With relational attachment, the overwhelming feeling for the other person is one of being suffocated by the anxious person.
The anxious person needs to know where the other person is, what they’re doing, who they’re with. The anxious person bleeds that worry into the relationship, becoming suspicious about the other person, concerned about their fidelity, their commitment to the relationship. The anxious person needs ongoing reassurance that everything is okay. It is crucial for everything to be okay, for the relationship is everything.
The relationship has become a coping mechanism for the anxiety and panic. The relationship allows the anxious person to be diverted from their worries, concerns and panic. This diversion requires fuel. At some point, it is not enough for the relationship to simply be “okay.” Okay only goes so far. Stability is required; you want to know the ride is safe. However, a safe ride doesn’t produce the thrill, the outlet, you’re looking for. It doesn’t provide a diversion from the anxiety.
The stressed person is on guard and alert, watching for any signs of shift in the relationship, which has become so necessary to provide an outlet for anxiety. The other person feels imprisoned in the bonds of the relationship, chafing at the constant scrutiny and irritated by the repeated demands to prove himself or herself.
These two types of anxious people are opposites in many ways. So what happens when these two opposites attract? It is often called codependency. The avoidant, isolated person will often be drawn to the attachment person, and vice versa.
The attachment person will be drawn to an avoidant person, recognizing the high potential for crisis, for diversion.
The avoidant person will be drawn to an attachment person, recognizing the willingness to subjugate self for the sake of the relationship.
Codependency in anxiety relationships is further complicated by the presence of other self-medicating behaviors. I say other self-medicating behaviors because the attachment person is already using the relationship as a form of self-medicating, of numbing, or diversion. The avoidant person, as a way of isolating, may turn to self-medicating too. The avoidant person doesn’t need the attachment person to self-soothe. Instead, the avoidant person needs the attachment person to facilitate and support the self-soothing, self-medicating behaviors.
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Read our guide on What Anxiety Is to learn more information.