What Is Insecure Attachment Style? + How It Manifests In Relationships
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 with fear or uncertainty.
"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.
Types of insecure attachment:
- 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.
- 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.
- Fearful-avoidant attachment: Also called disorganized attachment style1, 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.)
- 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
- 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 a partner
- Constantly seeking reassurance in a relationship
- Jealous and threatened by a partner's independence
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the most common signs of insecure attachment?
As an adult, someone struggling with insecure attachment may oftentimes push others away, suffer from low self-esteem, be overly dependent on others, and constantly seek reassurance from people.
How do you love someone who struggles with insecure attachment?
If your partner struggles with insecure attachment, the best thing you can do is be patient and let them know how you feel. Try to exert positive behaviors even in times of difficulty and provide them with as much emotional support as possible. Therapy can also be helpful in dealing with insecure attachment issues.
What causes insecure attachment?
Insecure attachment oftentimes stems from childhood and is formed from caregiver-child relationships. Adults who deal with insecure attachment often lacked consistency, support, and reliability during childhood.
If you find yourself approaching relationships with fear or anxiety, you may be dealing with insecure attachment, a form of attachment that stems from an unstable childhood.
In order to develop more secure relationships, you need to understand your own attachment style.
The tips above, like therapy, are great ways to help unpack some of these underlying issues and learn to practice secure attachment.
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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.