Having a strong attachment to someone might sound like a bad thing. This term has become synonymous with “codependency” or “dependence” in popular literature. Yet, attachment theory is still widely misunderstood.
However, attachment is actually a normal and necessary element of human bonding between family members, friends, and intimate partners.
When people have trouble with such bonds, particularly with their significant other, it may be because they have anxious attachment.
What is Anxious Attachment?
Anxious attachment can cause someone to have difficulty trusting in a relationship, particularly with an intimate partner. They may have doubts that the other person loves them or wants to spend time with them. Or, they may frequently fear being abandoned.
This type of anxiety can occur even when there is clear evidence to the contrary. These fears may be triggered more often depending on the dynamics of a particular relationship, or they may occur across multiple relationships.
Attachment patterns begin in our early childhood, especially in the years up to around age 4 or 5. During this vulnerable time, children are particularly dependent on their parental figures.
They depend on them to survive, and to help them understand how to function in the world with their various needs and emotions.
When a parental figure is loving and emotionally available (at least most of the time) the child forms a secure attachment.
Primary caretakers ideally help the child feel confident in themselves, so they can begin to function somewhat independently in the world.
Causes of Insecurity
An emotionally available parent offers a security that’s always there for the child to return to when they need it. For various reasons, parents may not be able to provide a secure relationship, despite their love for their child. Parents may be dealing with any of the following, which could affect their own ability to attach securely:
- Past trauma of their own
- Insecure attachments with their own parents
- Physical or mental health issues
- Financial or socioeconomic influences
- Cultural traditions that discourage or encourage certain parenting styles
- Lack of education about child development and appropriate milestones
- Various stressors relating to money, work, or parenting
- Responsibilities for the child’s siblings or other infants
- Marital stressors and conflict
Attachment may also be influenced in other ways during developmental years. For example, if a child loses a parent, even at an older age, this has obvious implications. A child may then fear other loved ones will die or leave them.
Elements of trauma may also affect attachment styles. For example, if a teenager experiences an abusive relationship, this may affect how they relate to partners in the future.
Other traumas such as bullying, abuse, sexual assault, or abandonment may also influence attachment.
Start Your Mental Health Education.
Get instant access to free videos, and be the first to know about live classes and events.
Attachment at any age also has a biological basis. Certain chemicals are released during bonding, particularly the hormone oxytocin. This is present between mothers and babies, as well as in committed and sexual relationships.
One study demonstrated that women who had more secure relationships had the most oxytocin in response to certain stimulants, like massage and thinking of a loving partner. These women reported an easier time in general with setting boundaries and feeling comfortable with alone time. Alternatively, those who had lower oxytocin levels in the study reported having increased anxiety and difficulties in relationships.
When children grow into adults, they continue to respond to the world with their original attachment style, at least at first. As babies and young children, we depend on our caretakers for that close bond. As we grow older, we naturally transfer our needs for connection onto friends and love interests.
Most people tend to depend on others for social, mental, and physical needs. This is perfectly normal and healthy, and is a part of being human.
There is nothing wrong with needing others, or acting on this need. Ideally, we will be able to do so in a productive way that fills us with comfort and joy. Someone with a history of secure attachment would be more likely to experience the following:
- Stronger attraction to healthy people
- Recognition of toxic relationships
- More confidence in oneself and in one’s worth in a relationship
- Healthy boundaries and expectations of how one should be treated
- More trust in those who love and care for them
- Appreciation of positive relationship traits in others, rather than superficial traits
When a child grows up without a secure attachment, they tend to struggle with these areas, and form other ways of attaching as an adult. Although nomenclature may vary, most experts group attachment styles into four categories:
- Secure attachment
- Anxious attachment
- Avoidant attachment
- Disorganized attachment
To fully understand anxious attachment styles, it helps to know the basics about other common attachment patterns. We’ve already discussed secure attachment. Here’s a brief look at the others.
As noted, an anxious way of attaching may leave someone feeling clingy, desperate, or frequently frustrated. Their mood and happiness may depend on how their partner is feeling, or on finding a partner. They may be attracted to unavailable partners, or unable to recognize security in a positive relationship.
Avoidant attachment sounds like the opposite of anxious attachment, but there are many similarities. Those who are avoidant tend to feel overwhelmed or smothered when loved ones get too close. They may push others away, or claim that they are happier alone. However, in many cases they do want a close relationship, but don’t know how to get or keep one. Therefore they respond in a defensive way, all while feeling anxious on a deeper level.
This style is a mix of attachments, and may alternate between anxious or avoidant tendencies. Someone may feel anxious at one point, then become overwhelmed and withdraw emotionally from the relationship. They may also respond to the partner’s behavior. When the partner becomes very close they may pull away, while drawing closer when the partner seems distant. This pattern may originate from inconsistent relationships with caregivers throughout childhood.
Dealing with Anxious Traits
Having an anxious pattern of attachment can bring its own kind of pain in relationships. Those with such anxiety may be attracted to unavailable partners, because this is what they were familiar with as a child, or what seems safer on some level. However, this often brings constant confusion, frustration, and hurt.
If the anxious person is with a more available partner, they may still feel frequent doubts.
Even with reassurance and no negative experiences, they may be uncertain, jealous, or struggle with boundaries, such as unnecessarily checking on the partner frequently throughout the day. They may obsessively check their phone or try to monitor the other’s behavior.
To counter this, first try to notice your own patterns. Here are some of the signs that someone may be experiencing anxious attachment traits when they’re in a relationship:
- Frequent uncertainty in the relationship, despite positive experiences
- Doubting a partner’s love or commitment
- Feeling jealous of or threatened by others in the partner’s life, without reason
- Feeling as if they themselves are too clingy
- Feeling highly anxious or hypervigilant about the other’s behaviors
- Jumping to conclusions following misunderstandings
- Finding oneself in a somewhat toxic relationship, with wild swings of “honeymoon periods” followed by intense fighting
- Having difficulty leaving the relationship, despite believing it would be best
It should be noted that sometimes these traits are present for a reason in a relationship. If one partner is abusing the other, emotionally or physically, it may lead to such reactions.
Or, someone may be responding in this way because there is a legitimate concern, such as actual signs the partner is having an affair.
However, when someone has an anxious style, there would likely be a pattern of this across multiple relationships. They may experience these feelings and behaviors even with a secure, available partner.
There may be constant reassurances that the other person is committed, along with no red flags, but the anxiety will endure.
Overcoming Relationship Anxiety
Over time, if both partners work at the relationship and stay committed, these traits may fade somewhat, if not significantly, over time.
However, it can be very confusing to know the difference between the two–is the relationship problematic, or is it simply anxiety flaring up without reason?
Expert authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller wrote about these relationship styles in a well-known book called Attached. (This is an affiliate link in which MedCircle may earn a commission at no additional cost to you. Thank you for your support!)
These researchers recommend using clear communication to test out a new relationship. Rather than playing games or trying not to come across as too clingy, simply be direct.
For example, if you’re unsure about the other person’s intentions, ask. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, share this with your partner.
You can even let them know you tend to have anxiety in new relationships. An available partner won’t be easily scared off by this, and instead would work on it with you.
Look for Availability
Levine and Heller suggest you consider these areas to help you identify traits common to emotionally available partners:
- If you express a concern, do they try to understand it better?
- Do they dodge issues you bring up, or deal with them directly?
- Do they take you seriously when you communicate concerns, or belittle or mock you?
- Do they find ways to solve the issue and comfort you, or are they mostly defensive?
- Are they somewhat cold in responding, or are they open and aware of your emotions?
Generally, consider if the other person is willing to work on problems together. Do they blame you or say that your issues are your own? Ongoing committed relationships take some amount of work and communication, especially in the first year or two. While there should be a level of fun and enjoyment of each other, there will also be areas of normal conflict to work out. Are both partners open to this process?
Healing Anxious Attachment
These tips based on attachment theory may help if you believe you’re struggling with these issues of anxiety due to your history.
Avoid relationship games
Should you text more or less? Should you wait for them to ask you out again? Should you play a little harder to get? In a meaningful relationship, none of these things will matter.
Someone who’s in it for the long run won’t be focused on these superficial issues. If there is a problem, they will gently let you know. You should do the same. Simply be yourself, and let them do the same.
Pursue your own interests
Whether you’re single or in a relationship, you have your own identity and interests. It’s perfectly appropriate to be attached, or looking for a mate, but you can also have meaningful experiences on your own.
Explore hobbies, take a class, or pursue new career goals.
Allow your partner to have their interests
Likewise, understand that your partner will have experiences all on their own. They may have an entire other world at school or work.
These differences are okay, and will allow you to support each other while having a healthy, well-rounded life.
Socialize outside the relationship
In a healthy partnership, your significant other becomes your base and place of safety in the world. This security can allow you to then explore other parts of life.
This doesn’t mean that your other relationships become more important than your partnership, but that they enrich your experiences.
If you’re dating or in a relationship and feeling anxious, let your partner know. Don’t frame it as a problem with your partner, but rather as something you’re working on about yourself.
As the relationship progresses, you may share some of your childhood experiences that affect you now. An open partner may ask for ways they can help you with these struggles. If that feels appropriate, then let them.
Look for healthy relationship signs
Remember that a partner open to a deep relationship will be flexible and willing to work on triggers together. They may occasionally react defensively, as anyone would, but in most cases they will be willing to help.
They’ll also express their own needs and challenges openly. There will not be a pattern of ridicule, abuse, gaslighting, or blocking each other out.
Remember that occasional distance is normal
If a partner frequently avoids closeness or seems to push you away, they may have an avoidant attachment style. However, if they occasionally become a bit detached, especially when they’re stressed or overwhelmed, this can be normal.
It’s also normal for each partner to want alone time occasionally. It may help to communicate your anxiety about such situations, but when they reassure you, try to believe them. Meanwhile, practice self-care during these challenging moments.
Take care of your own needs
With this in mind, prioritize your own emotional, physical, social, and spiritual needs. Take note of times when you feel happier and most productive.
Perhaps it’s when you are practicing meditation, jogging regularly, or making time for other friends. Taking care of yourself will make you a better partner, or make life more enjoyable as a single person.
Healing Over Time
Traits of anxious attachment can improve over time. We all learn from the mistakes and challenges of each relationship, and get a better idea of what types of partners are a good match for us. Many people find their anxiety improves when in a loving, long-term relationship.
If you’re single, you may not know how you’ll attach in the future. Ultimately, some anxious traits can only be fully addressed when they’re triggered within a relationship. The right partner will be there with you in this process, ready to work on any challenges, while enjoying all of the benefits of being together.