Have you ever wondered: what determines the way we think, act and behave in a relationship? Why do you still have the same problems over and over again despite having been through many relationships with different people?
In 1950, a theory about how our early relationship with our parents affects how we react and interact in dating was called the “Attachment Theory”.
In this article, we take a deep dive in the first attachment – the Anxious Attachment Style.
The Attachment Theory
Let’s look at attachment theory, which dates back to the 1950’s.
According to psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, a child’s early relationship with their caregivers forms the way this child will approach social interactions and relationships throughout life.
The concept is relatively easy to grasp. When a baby is born, the first social bond they encounter is with the caregivers (in most cases, parents). This is when the child’s brain starts to form a perception of social interactions.
If the child is brought up in a warm and nurturing environment, where the caregivers are responsive to the child’s emotional needs, a secure bond (referred to as secure attachment) is formed. The child is taught, indirectly, that his or her emotions and needs will be recognized, that he or she will be supported and loved, and that people, in general, can be trusted.
On the contrary, when a child perceives that his or her needs are not met, the child is not able to build a secure and stable bond with the caregivers. This leads to a distorted perception of how relationships work.
Summary: Attachment is the ability to make emotional bonds with other people. It starts at birth and continues into early and later life as attachment in adults. It is a way of relating to another person.
The type of attachment you had with your mother or main caregiver can affect your relationships as an adult. From this first attachment relationship, you have a blueprint that affects later relationships.
When emotional needs aren’t met or responded to, this can have a long-lasting effect. This is called an insecure attachment.
Types of Attachment style & Causes
Anxious attachment is a type of insecure attachment style rooted in a fear of abandonment and an insecurity of being underappreciated. This is rooted from inconsistent parenting, the absence of the caregiver when they needed emotionally or physically.
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, so there is little room to be empathic and extend out in their circle of concern.
People with Avoidant attachment are the opposite of needy. Instead of wanting to be emotionally close, they avoid connecting with others. They might rely on themselves, crave freedom, and find emotions to be difficult.
Your parents were probably unavailable as a child. They might have rejected your needs or emotions, and you learned to withdraw and soothe yourself. You learned to avoid closeness or maybe never knew what it felt like and now avoid it all together.
People with a secure attachment style have empathy but can set boundaries. They are satisfied in their close relationships and feel safe and stable.
As a child, your parents were probably good at responding to your needs and managing their own stress in healthy ways.
People who have secure relationships:
- Have a good sense of self-worth
- Openly express feelings
- Easily ask for and give support
- Like being with others but don’t get anxious if they are not
Signs of anxious attachment
How to recognize a person with an anxious attachment style? Adults with an anxious/preoccupied attachment style might think highly of others but often suffer from low self-esteem.
These individuals are sensitive and attuned to their partners’ needs, but are often insecure and anxious about their own worth in a relationship.
If the loved one rejects them or fails to respond to their needs, they might blame themselves or label themselves as not being worthy of love.
Generally, adults with anxious attachment need constant reassurance that they are loved, worthy, and good enough.
The strong fear of abandonment might often cause anxious adults to be intensely jealous or suspicious of their partners.
This fear might also lead them to become desperate, clingy, and preoccupied with their relationships. Adults with an anxious attachment style are often afraid of or even incapable of being alone.
They seek intimacy and closeness and are highly emotional and dependent on others. The presence of the loved one appears to be a remedy for their strong emotional needs.
Both children and adults can exhibit signs of anxious attachment. A child who has developed anxious attachment toward their caregiver may seem notably anxious when separated by that caregiver. They may also be hard to console after the caregiver has returned.
In adulthood, a person who developed anxious attachment may need constant reassurance and affection from their partner. They may also have trouble being alone or single.
Signs of anxious attachment in children
- crying that isn’t easily consoled
- becoming very upset when a caregiver leaves
- clinging to their attachment figures
- exploring less than children of a similar age
- appearing generally anxious
- not interacting with strangers
- having problems regulating and controlling negative emotions
- displaying aggressive behavior and poor peer interactions
Symptoms of anxious attachment in adults
- Anxiety of emotions, intimacy, and emotional closeness
- Want to pull away when a person gets needy
- Are independent and don’t need others
- Disregard other people’s feelings
- Might not have boundaries
- Need constant reassurance
- Are needy or clingy
- Become obsessed or overly fixated on someone
- Crave affection but can’t trust others
- Are anxious or jealous when you’re away from your partner
It’s important to remember that an anxious attachment doesn’t always mean you weren’t loved as a child. It means that you didn’t receive all the emotional response that you needed. Your personality and other life experiences might have also played a role.
How a person with anxious attachment behave in romantic relationships?
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 those that are close to them, including their partners, and creates overwhelming insecurity about their relationships.
People who are anxiously attached often come off as emotionally needy.
This insecurity may cause them to become possessive, overly dependent, and clingy toward their partner. In an attempt to hold onto their partner, they may end up pushing them away.
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.
How to fix and healing treatment
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. 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.
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.
Choosing differently—even when it is scary or uncomfortable—can help you start to make changes that will lead to a secure relationship.
Talk with your partner
People with an anxious attachment often have low self-esteem and an intense fear that their partner will not be able to meet their emotional needs. This makes it extremely difficult for them to share their most vulnerable desires.
Those with an anxious attachment style tend to cover their needs, gradually turning into resentment and then at some point exploding. This causes the other person to feel confused, unsafe and distant (which further confirms the anxious person’s fear).
It’s important to communicate your needs openly and honestly for a stable and healthy relationship. Those who have anxious attachment need to practice trust and vulnerability, as well as the inner strength and resilience to work out the stressful situations rather than rely completely on their partners.
Remember, the right partner would always want to make you happy and fulfilled. But IT’S YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to fulfill yourself first. Believe you have all the strength and capability to do that.
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 who are close to them. Having an anxious attachment style is really common and something most therapists can help with.
Relationships are certainly not easy, but rewarding. Most of us want love, connection, affection and stability, yet somehow we always end up messing it up or just don’t know how to have a good relationship. It’s crucial to first, acknowledge your attachment style so that you raise your awareness and then strategize what you can do to improve.
Anxious attachment people can’t change the dynamic they had with their childhood caregivers in the past. As an adult, you may be able to restructure your thoughts to help you move toward a more secure attachment style. This will take a combination of self-awareness, patience, and conscious effort.
Working alongside a therapist can also help break the pattern of anxious attachment.