What Is Insecure Attachment Style? + How It Manifests In Relationships

mbg Editorial Assistant By Abby Moore
mbg Editorial Assistant
Abby Moore is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Expert review by Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP
Board-certified Clinical Psychologist
Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP is a board-certified clinical psychologist, Director of Clinical Training at Bay Path University, and an associate professor in Graduate Psychology. She has a private practice in Suffield, Connecticut.
Woman alone

Image by Alex Tan / Death to the Stock Photo

Having a fear of abandonment and struggling to ask for help might seem like two isolated character traits, but they actually share one common thread. Most people who identify with these behaviors have the same attachment style, characterized by insecurity, called insecure attachment style.

What is insecure attachment?

An insecure attachment style is a way of approaching relationships that's characterized by fear or uncertainty. One of several attachment styles, this attachment style can make it difficult for people to make deep emotional and intimate connections with a partner, Chamin Ajjan, M.S., LCSW, A-CBT, tells mbg.

"An individual who has an insecure attachment to another typically feels anxious about the relationship and whether or not their own needs or desires can be met by the other person," holistic psychologist Nicole Lippman-Barile, Ph.D., says. "They may expect the person to abandon them or hurt them in some way."

Insecure attachment is an umbrella term to describe all attachment styles that are not secure attachment style. The three types of insecure attachment are anxious, avoidant, and fearful-avoidant, which are also known in children as ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized.

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Types of insecure attachment:

  1. Anxious attachment: Also called anxious-ambivalent attachment style, this is characterized by anxiety and insecurity in relationships. "These people can be preoccupied with worries and are clingy and in need of validation and reassurance," Ajjan says.
  2. Avoidant attachment: Also called anxious-avoidant attachment style, it is characterized by dismissive behaviors. These people avoid emotional closeness and intimacy and often struggle to ask for help. 
  3. Fearful-avoidant attachment: Also called disorganized attachment style, this one is characterized by unpredictable and volatile behaviors. According to Ajjan, these people don't have strong coping strategies and struggle dealing with relationship problems. 

What causes insecure attachment?

Attachment styles are developed in childhood and formed by caregiver-child relationships. "It's essentially how we were emotionally cared for—or not cared for—as children growing up," Lippman-Barile explains. People with insecure attachment styles generally lacked consistency, reliability, support, and safety during childhood, Ajjan says.

(Here's our full guide to attachment theory and how each attachment style is formed.)

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Example behaviors:

In childhood

  • Clingy to caregiver
  • Actively avoiding caregiver
  • Frequently crying inconsolably
  • Hiding or repressing emotions
  • Becoming upset or panicked when a parent leaves them
  • Appearing independent while secretly wanting attention
  • Fear of exploration, especially in a new situation
  • Poor emotional regulation

In adulthood

  • Low sense of self-worth and self-esteem
  • Struggles asking for help
  • Pushes others away
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Overly dependent or clingy toward a partner
  • Overly independent or resistant to intimacy with partner
  • Constantly seeking reassurance in a relationship
  • Jealous and threatened by a partner's independence
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How insecure attachment affects adulthood. 

"Typically, these attachment styles (if unresolved) play out in adulthood," Lippman-Barile says. "Being insecure as a child looks similar to being insecure as an adult in the sense that the anxiety and fear of being abandoned is still present." For example, a child who is clingy toward their caregiver will generally be clingy toward a romantic partner later in life. Likewise, a child who learns they can't rely on their caregiver may end up never willing to rely on a partner as an adult.

Regardless of the partner's behavior, a person with insecure attachment may never feel secure in the relationship, she explains. Along with interfering with romantic relationships, Ajjan says an insecure attachment can also lead to poor emotional regulation, depression, anxiety, and low self-worth.

How to fix insecure attachment. 

In order to heal, it's important to understand your own attachment style. It may be helpful to take a test to determine what type of insecure attachment style you have, whether anxious, avoidant, or fearful-avoidant.

"Knowing why it may have developed, and how, is helpful so you can start to work on these feelings and behaviors in your relationship," Lippman-Barile says. Ajjan adds that therapy can help people unpack these underlying factors, learn new coping skills, become more mindful of their thoughts, feelings, and needs.

Investing in healthy and supportive relationships is also important, whether it's with friends, loved ones, mentors, or a partner. "Working with your partner and communicating this is helpful as well so that you both are mindful of these patterns and have a strategy to work on them," Lippman-Barile says. To develop a secure relationship, she says both partners will need to trust each other and feel secure as independent individuals.

Though people can't change the way they were raised, it's possible to develop healthy coping strategies in adulthood. Being aware of a person's attachment styles may be the first step in that process.

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