What Being "Clingy" Really Means In Relationships & How To Handle It
Love can inspire transcendence and a yearning to melt with your partner profoundly. However, that longing can quickly slip into overwhelming neediness if you begin to prioritize the relationship above all else. "Merging" in relationships generates physical and emotional closeness, but taken to its extreme, it can veer into what people sometimes refer to as being "clingy" or "clinginess."
What does it mean to be clingy?
Clinginess is an act of resisting separation by holding tight or grasping onto something. In romantic relationships, the term is often used to describe someone who needs reassurance from their partners in a heavy-handed, frenzied, or even compulsive manner. It often looks like someone who asks for repeated promises in the relationship, yet even after their partner goes out of their way to demonstrate their love and commitment, the "clingy" person remains skeptical of how the other person is really feeling.
"Clingy behavior comes from a person's desire to fulfill their unmet needs, whether it be emotional, physical, spiritual, or mental," couples' therapist Beverley Andre, LMFT, tells mbg. "The person is experiencing fear and anxiety that is attached to a belief they won't get their needs met, so they cling even harder to a person or situation to prevent the risk of this happening."
Notably, the word "clingy" tends to have a strong negative connotation, according to couples' therapist Aparna Sagaram, LMFT. "It's more helpful to use the term 'anxious attachment.' This means you worry about the other person losing interest or leaving you, so you need constant reassurance." The anxious attachment style is one of four attachment styles a person can have, according to the psychology framework known as attachment theory.
Clinginess often gets a bad rap, but oftentimes, people who are exhibiting clingy behavior may not be aware of how they're coming off. The terror of abandonment overrides their ability to stay cool since they are more focused on soothing their insecurities. Patterns will commonly manifest in behaviors such as incessantly texting your S.O. throughout the day to check in, excessively monitoring their social media accounts to see what they're up to, and making early effusive professions of love (which may ring hollow in certain moments) to secure a closer connection.
Where the behavior comes from.
Clinging actually serves as a unique tell that a person likely has a dysregulated relationship to their attachment system. In other words, as both Sagaram and Andre explain, attachment issues are the underlying reason behind their relational anxiety.
"Attachment develops in infancy between parent and child. How a parent responds to their child impacts attachment style," Sagaram adds. "If a child is unsure how a parent will react or the parent is inconsistent with responses, the child is likely going to develop an anxious attachment. Your attachment style to caregivers is most likely the same attachment style you will develop with a romantic partner."
If there wasn't an early opportunity for you to fortify trust with a caregiver, it becomes harder, later on, to nurture emotionally safe relationships and feel like your needs can be expressed and attended to. As an adult, you may then externalize that internal angst toward your partner and what they can do to remedy your insecurities.
"Attachment styles are a factor when understanding why some people are clingier than others," Andre explains. "Someone with a secure attachment style will have healthier boundaries and most likely not see their partner's independence threateningly, as compared to someone with an anxious attachment style who leans more toward clingy behavior when it comes to separation. The need for independence would most likely be perceived as a lack of investment in the relationship, or [a belief] this is an indicator the relationship is ending."
Common examples of clingy behavior:
1. Demanding reassurance again and again
Clingy partners ask for reassurance constantly and yet still feel persistent doubt. That might sound like:
- "I don't believe you love me. How do you know that you do?"
- "Do you think I'm attractive?"
- "Are you sure?"
- "Will you ever leave me?"
- "I don't deserve you."
- "I love you so much, I would do anything for you. Would you do anything for me?"
- "Can you tell me again?"
Your partner can say and do all the right things, but it won't calm your fears in a meaningful, long-term way since you don't totally believe them. You might pose the same questions again a few weeks later or when you're feeling particularly apprehensive about your S.O. and their affections. To solidify the relationship, you may accelerate I-love-yous and want to forcibly take big, tangible steps in the relationship (maybe even before the relationship is ready for it) so you can feel confident about their feelings and your future together.
2. Expecting constant communication and interaction
"There is a driving need to know what their partner is up to constantly," Andre says. You may bombard your partner with texts, emails, GChats, and Facetimes throughout the day when you're not together, and you panic if they don't respond quickly enough.
Your passions and hobbies take a back seat as you make yourself available for your partner in case they want to hang out. You expect a plus one if they're going out with their friends, or you may secretly hope they'll cancel their plans to spend more devoted one-on-one time with you.
Any attempts for them to live their life outside of the relationship could be misinterpreted as abandonment or them pulling away from you. In response, you try to close the gap to gain more intimacy. While you feel panicked if they're not around you physically, your partner can feel exhausted and resentful you're using them as a crutch for your emotional welfare.
3. Hypervigilance and surveillance
Overbearing behaviors may also show up in the form of checking your partner's social media, asking to share phone passwords because you don't trust them, and at its worst, snooping through their phone without their permission. You might also ask them to share locations but then never want to turn it off to ensure they're doing what they say they're doing.
Since you've likely emptied your life of most things besides your relationship, you might also use your extra free time to stalk their exes online or forensically go through their comments, likes, and followers. (There's also a tendency to bring past baggage into the present relationship.)
4. Indirect communication of needs
Relationships with clinginess don't always have the cleanest boundaries since you might always want to move closer to your partner to the point of total immersion. As a result, Sagaram notes, clingy people may struggle to ask for what they need in a relationship. For example, instead of a straightforward request, you might beat around the bush first to gauge if they think it's a problem and if they would be interested in having that conversation with you before pushing it forward.
Making such requests can make you feel deeply vulnerable because you're scared that if you bring up your needs, which feel unwieldy and big, they will back away and leave you. So you may resort to mixed signals, indirect methods, or strategic manipulation to get what you're hoping for without having to say it.
5. Complete awareness of your partner's moods at the cost of your own
Sagaram says a person exhibiting clingy behavior will be "very attentive to [their] partner's mood and behavior and will adjust accordingly to ease any tension." There's a chameleon effect in play as you adjust and discard certain parts of yourself to elicit a specific reaction and reestablish security in the relationship. You want to be more loved, so you may change your identity to fit what you think they want because inherently, you don't believe you are good enough as you are.
You could drop whatever's going on in your life and your real thoughts to do anything you can to seek reassurance from them. The problem is that your sense of self locks up in a holding pattern and remains in flux as you shape your values and personality around your partner's momentary preferences. While their emotions provide valuable information, feelings are transient and aren't meant to operate as static truth since it's always shifting.
6. Reluctance to give space
When you're together, you want to literally "cling" and be super close through cuddles and lots of kisses. It sounds wonderful in theory and is often idealized in pop culture and movies, but in practice, it can feel suffocating to be on the receiving end. According to Andre, there's little to no regard for boundaries and physical space even if your partner expresses their discomfort.
7. Insecurity about the people in their life
Sagaram points out that a clingy person may also feel easily threatened by their partners' friends or acquaintances. You may be insecure around the people in their life and believe your S.O. is attracted to, like their attractive co-worker, their childhood best friend, or the new cashier at the salad bar you both frequent. No matter who it is, there's a real feeling of threat by the people they surround themselves with.
8. Controlling mannerisms
Clinginess can take a turn toward controlling behavior if power and wanting to gain the upper hand enters the picture. You may want your partner to fulfill specific expectations, and if they don't, it can intensify thoughts that they aren't doing what you need because they don't love you enough. "The [clingy] person believes they have all rights and authority to dictate many aspects in their partner's life," Andre says.
9. A partner's withdrawal
You can also look to your partner for signs that you're behaving in a way that's being interpreted as clingy. "One way to recognize if you're being clingy is if your partner starts to withdraw emotionally and physically. This is called the pursue-and-withdraw cycle—the more attempts you make to connect with your partner, instead of the connection being reciprocated, your partner withdraws," Andre explains.
How to stop being clingy in a relationship.
"You can be in a healthy relationship with an anxious attachment," Sagaram says. "It's about learning how to manage the anxiety." The goal is to work toward having a more secure attachment style, she adds.
Here are a few places to start:
1. Learn to manage your anxiety on your own.
The first step is awareness and admitting you might be perpetuating these patterns. It can be uncomfortable to examine your insecurities, but it is an important step so you can start to nourish your relationship with yourself to achieve proper balance and manage your anxiety on your own.
For strategies to work through the anxiety, Sagaram recommends surrounding yourself with people who are securely attached. "Get comfortable asking for what you need in relationships. Believe your partner when they reassure you. It's OK to need reassurance from others, but learn to give yourself reassurance too," she says.
2. Include your partner in the process.
It could also be helpful to include your partner into your processing so you can get their perspective and work on recreating the relationship together. "Ask them how they are understanding and experiencing your behavior. Partners are able to provide invaluable observations to a problem that you may not be able to see," Andre says.
3. Take small risks to build trust.
"Healing looks like getting clear on your needs. It also looks like allowing people in and taking small risks to trust they will show up for you," Sagaram advises. "Start with low-risk situations, and build from there. It also helps to state to your partner that you are worried about the reaction if you express a need. Vulnerability goes a long way in relationships and has the potential to heal anxious attachments. The right person will want to make you feel emotionally safe in a relationship."
4. Work with a therapist.
If a partner's reassurances are still falling flat for you, she recommends getting professional help. "This might be a sign that the attachment wound may be deeper than what a partner can soothe." Therapy can help interrogate the root of your fears, rebuild trust, and lead to healthier relationships as you learn to communicate honestly with yourself and others.
How to respond if your partner is being clingy.
If you've ever experienced a clinging partner, it's likely that despite your best efforts, you weren't able to address their fears without losing yourself. When the relationship is going through rocky extremes, it's essential to recalibrate and work on containing yourself.
Having a talk with your partner and naming specific boundaries will help develop interdependence in the relationship. It's good to remember to be empathetic to your partner during these conversations. Their clinginess doesn't sum up the entirety of who they are—they just need some help anchoring back to their own sense of self.
"I suggest lovingly bringing it to their attention. I stress lovingly because tone can easily turn this conversation into an accusatory one," Andre recommends. "Convey to your partner the behaviors you have been noticing, and from a place of curiosity ask if they have noticed it as well, and if so, what is the behavior connected to. Once those answers are known, both of you can address any unresolved issues that may have come up and then transition to creating healthier boundaries within the relationship."
The bottom line.
Sweaty palms and a racing heart are typically associated with love, but real love inspires calm, not anxiety. Your partner can do their best to offer certainty, but one person isn't meant to give that level of encompassing security to anyone. Your relationship with yourself is the most important relationship you can have.
As you move toward secure attachment and healthy regulation, you will cultivate a growth-oriented mindset that calls for your partner to embrace life and its myriad changes with you.
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