Breakup Phobia: Why We Stay in Toxic Relationships
High attachment anxiety can lead to fear of letting go.
Posted Aug 11, 2020
If you were in a dysfunctional or unsatisfying relationship, would you leave? If you are like most people, you probably think you would. Getting out of an unhealthy and unhappy relationship would clearly be the rational thing to do. But most of us don’t act rationally in matters of love. While some are fearful of making commitments, others are fearful of pulling the plug.
How difficult it is for you to let go of a dysfunctional relationship depends on your attachment style (Joel et al., 2011; George et al., 2020; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2016). Attachment is measured along two dimensions: attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance. Attachment anxiety reflects the degree to which you are inclined to think that your partner cares about you and is prepared to support you and respond to your needs, whereas attachment avoidance reflects the degree to which you depend on spending time interacting with your partner to feel good about yourself.
As high levels of attachment anxiety can combine with a high, low or moderate level of attachment avoidance, there are a myriad of ways in which you can be anxiously attached. The two most extreme forms of anxious attachment are fearful avoidance, which is high anxiety combined with high avoidance, and anxious preoccupation, which is high anxiety coupled with low avoidance (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991).
People with a fearful avoidant attachment style are highly commitment phobic. The very idea of an intimate relationship terrifies them, because their past has taught them that intimacy and closeness inevitably lead to rejection and emotional suffering. They do occasionally succeed in overcoming their fear but only by taking teeny-tiny baby steps. Once they have finally taken the plunge, their commitment phobia may turn into “breakup phobia,” to coin a term. They may settle for an unsatisfying or dysfunctional relationship, if doing so can save them from heartbreak and rejection. But they are far more likely to run before it ever gets to that point.
Anxious-preoccupied individuals are significantly more prone to “breakup phobia” than their avoidant counterpart. The very thought of breaking up triggers unbearable discomfort. But unlike the fearfully avoidant person, they don’t fear relationship changes as long as those changes entail a greater level of commitment or intimacy.
Anxiously preoccupied and fearfully avoidant people differ in this respect because when it comes to avoidance, they are polar opposites. Whereas the very thought of entering a committed relationship can elicit a traumatic response in fearfully avoidant individuals, people with an anxiously preoccupied attachment style ache and yearn for the affection, approval, and attention they missed out on in their childhood or previous friendships and relationships.
Anxiously preoccupied individuals can be so desperate for validation that if their partner tosses a few crumbs of affection in their direction, they may experience a euphoric high. Deep down, however, their desperate cry-outs for affection and approval are painful reenactments of the unhealthy ways they used to interact with people in their past.
Because anxiously preoccupied individuals are highly dependent on the relationship they are in and even define themselves in terms of it, they are often willing to endure great levels of emotional suffering to prevent its demise.
Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). "Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 226-244.
George, T., Hart, J., & Rholes, W. S. (2020). "Remaining in unhappy relationships: The roles of attachment anxiety and fear of change." Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(5), 1626–1633. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407520904156
Joel, S., MacDonald, G., Shimotomai, A. (2011). "Conflicting pressures on romantic relationship commitment for anxiously attached individuals." Journal of Personality, 79, 51–74.
Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R. (2016). Attachment in adulthood (2nd ed.). Guilford.