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Survival Strategies for Those Who Are Anxious in Relationships

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I'm sure you've heard all the guidance popularized by 'Find Your Ideal Partner" self-help books--perhaps most famously promoted in a bestseller called 'The Rules'--even if you've been wise enough to avoid such publications. The so called words of wisdom have become cultural memes, passed from one anxious person to the next, a set of 'rules' or 'shoulds' meant to optimize the chances of locating the perfect match:

• Don't accept a weekend night date after Wednesday
• Don't call too soon after the first date, but don't wait too long
• Don't talk about being exclusive too soon
• Don't use the "L" word until they use it first
• Yadda yadda yadda.

The idea behind all these shoulds is to help you appear independent, and anything but vulnerable or...gasp...in search of true, intimate human connection. The gist of such advice is you shouldn't appear human. Huh? You see, human beings are entirely social animals who naturally seek intimate companionship with others to cultivate well being. As psychologists from John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth to Matthew Lieberman, Allan Schore and beyond have repeatedly shown, human beings cannot regulate either emotions or limbic stress activations in isolation: our unvarnished, honest, vulnerable interactions are what keep us functioning and sane. So it is entirely appropriate to seek an intimate relationship and to be open about such a goal.

Alas, all the rules promoting self-sufficiency and independence will certainly make you seem more attractive, but only to the people who have no interest in meeting your needs: those who evade intimacy and commitment. Such people--known as avoidants or dismissives in attachment theory--will enjoy the fun of being with someone who appears to have few if any needs; avoidants crave the commitment and intimacy free partner.

Sadly, if you are naturally anxious, or preoccupied by relationships--if you've come to expect abandonment or rejection, and so keep track of how long its been since you've received that phone call, if you keep track of who's putting in more effort, if you find yourself believing only one individual can make you happy (even though they're not returning your calls), if you ruminate about a new relationship rather than attending to your other friends or obligations--eventually your attempts to appear 'need free' will fail, and the avoidant, will head for the hills.

The simple fact is that relationships rarely succeed unless one partner is secure; the anxious-avoidant match rarely, if ever, endures ((note the numerous research studies of Phil Shaver). Such pairings lead to roller coaster rides, each person enacting the other's worst fears: the anxious person recreates the engulfing attachment the dismissive experienced in childhood; the avoidant becomes a modern day example of the unreliable parent of the anxious person's early years.

It's essential, if your anxious, to seek someone whose been in long term relationships, who can listen to their date speak about dark or vulnerable emotions without changing the subject or getting fidgety, has shown a willingness to compromise and work on partnering, has shown capabilities of forgiveness and so forth. Without the role model of a secure partner, those of us who are apprehensive in relationships will find our worst tendencies activated: desperation breeds anxiety.

So if we are to follow any rule in dating that's meant to lead to a full fledged relationship, the first would be to make sure our partner is secure. Here are a few other other ways you can spot the avoidant, so that you can save a lot of wasted energy:

• Sidestep people who say their exes were too needy or overreacted.

• Circumvent those who denigrate feelings and emotions, and invariably point to what they believe to be 'facts.'

• Fend off assertive types who try to push against your boundaries (for example, if you want to take it slowly when it comes to sex, and they try to persuade you to move faster.)

• Dodge those who present an eager-to-please personality before sex while becoming suddenly distant afterwards.

And, while we're on the topic, here are a few other tips (not rules) you might consider:

• Be open about what you've found to be needs, without embarrassment, or believing your needs are universal. Your needs--such as how often to connect or how fast to proceed sexually--will not be known by others; everyone's needs are slightly different.

• Note that any thoughts that inform you "this person is the only one for me" that there's no one else as wonderful out there, are, frankly, simply anxious attachment activations that should be kept at a great distance from our beliefs. Falling into the delusion that there's a lack of abundance -- remember, there are now over 7 billion people on the planet--is your worst enemy.

• Learn about attachment styles--you wont regret it--are and practice figuring out your date's attachment style.