According to the principles of attachment theory, the way we behave in our relationships—called an attachment style—is a direct reflection of the way we were cared for as babies. If you're someone who tends to be very insecure in your relationships or who tends to need a lot of validation from your partners, you may have an anxious attachment style.
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What is an anxious attachment style?
Anxious attachment is a type of insecure attachment style rooted in a fear of abandonment and an insecurity of being underappreciated. People with an anxious attachment style, also called preoccupied attachment disorder, often feel nervous about being separated from their partner. About 19% of people have an anxious attachment style, according to research.
"When people have this attachment style, their inner world and the world with the people closest to them feel uncertain," clinical psychologist. Bobbi Wegner, Psy.D., writes in her upcoming book Raising Feminist Boys, "so there is little room to be empathic and extend out in their circle of concern."
Anxious attachment is one of the four main attachment styles: secure attachment (characterized by the ability to form secure relationships with ease), avoidant attachment (characterized by emotional unavailability), anxious attachment, and fearful-avoidant attachment (a combination of anxious and avoidant attachment styles).
How anxious attachment develops.
Anxious attachment is formed in children with an unpredictable or emotionally insensitive parent. One moment the parent will be loving and available. In the next moment, they're not meeting basic needs for love, security, or attention, Wegner explains. "This leaves a child not knowing what to expect and hungry for attention and connection."
Because love was not always extended as a kid, people with anxious attachment have a hard time depending on others. "For some, childhood relationships may have taught them to deeply distrust closeness to others—that those you love and depend upon can be emotionally unpredictable, even abusive," psychologist Debra Campbell, Ph.D., explains.
Signs of an anxious attachment style:
- Insecure in relationships
- Clingy or possessive
- Scared of rejection
- Distrusting of others
- Overwhelmed by intimacy but long for it
- Low or negative view of self
Dating with an anxious attachment style.
Because their parent-child relationships weren't conducive to vulnerability or closeness, people with anxious attachment long for deep connection and love. However, these same childhood experiences have made them find it difficult to trust people close to them, including their partners, and creates overwhelming insecurity about their relationships.
This insecurity may cause them to become possessive, overly dependent, and clingy toward their partner, holistic psychologist Nicole Lippman-Barile, Ph.D., says. In an attempt to hold onto their partner, they may end up pushing them away. "People who are anxiously attached often come off as emotionally needy," Wegner says.
Rather than communicating their needs, though, they tend to act on them. This often leads to a relational pattern of acting out, followed by requiring soothing. For example, the anxious partner has a panic attack when their significant other goes out with friends. To accommodate the anxious partner's needs, they stay home next time around. "Unfortunately, this dynamic happens all the time, and the partner ends up resentful and frustrated," Wegner says.
To achieve a healthy relationship, the anxiously attached person should seek someone with a secure attachment style (or someone who works with them to have a secure attachment together). Unfortunately, their actions tend to attract avoidant styles—which confirms their fears of abandonment and rejection, Lippman-Barile says.
Anxious attachment triggers.
Because of their general insecurities, there are many incidences that may intentionally or unintentionally trigger someone with anxious attachment, including:
"One trigger for an anxiously attached person is their partner not responding to text or calls for a prolonged period of time," Lippman-Barile says. Not knowing why their partner isn't answering can cause them to worry about what may have happened or what they may have done to push their partner away. Anxiety at the start of a relationship is common for many people, but people with an anxious attachment style carry this anxiety throughout the entirety of the relationship.
Perceived threat or loss of a relationship.
For many, certain levels of conflict can be healthy. But for people with anxiety attachment, talking about issues in an authentic way may trigger fears of abandonment, Wegner explains. If they hear their partner communicate doubts or fears about the relationship, they may catastrophize and automatically assume the relationship is falling apart—sometimes self-sabotaging their own relationship.
Partner starts acting more independent.
If an anxiously attached person's partner starts making new friends or picking up new hobbies, this can trigger fears of abandonment and feelings of not being interesting enough. For example, Lippman-Barile says, joining a book club or attending a sports game alone may be viewed by the anxious person as their S.O. wanting to leave them.
"When an anxious person does not know what to expect in terms of your relationship, this creates a lot of insecurity for the person and is very much tied to their early attachment with their caregiver," Wegner says. "This can be a partner who says all the right things but then disappears unexpectedly."
People with anxious attachment style need constant validation, Wegner says, so distance—even if it's perceived—can be triggering. "This can come in the form of a partner going out with friends, connecting with others, or being unavailable because of work or family commitments," she says.
How to fix an anxious attachment style:
Become aware of your attachment style.
"An awareness of attachment styles helps to explain our potential blocks to trust, close connection, and intimacy in adulthood," Campbell says. Understanding why you tend to behave a certain way in relationships is the first step in breaking those patterns. "Every change starts with self-reflection and self-awareness," Wegner says.
Adjust your behavior.
After being mindful of how this attachment leads to problems in your relationships, you can start making more informed decisions. The anxious behaviors you habitually engage in don't result in what you truly want, Lippman-Barile says. Choosing differently—even when it is scary or uncomfortable—can help you start to make changes that will lead to a secure relationship.
Reach out to someone you trust.
Overcoming an anxious attachment style will usually take help. Reaching out to family and friends you trust may be a start. Since people with anxious attachment find it difficult to trust people close to them, Wegner also recommends seeking out therapy. "Having an anxious attachment style is really common and something most therapists can help with," she says. "Doing a little work now can save a lot of heartache and headache down the line."
Because attachment styles are developed in response to our infantile understanding of connection, it can be difficult to overcome these instinctual patterns. But it's definitely possible to heal attachment wounds. With self-awareness and work, these unhealthy behaviors can be overcome.
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Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.