Anxious attachment is one of four attachment styles that develop in childhood and continue into adulthood. These attachment styles can be secure (a person feels confident in relationships) or insecure (a person has fear and uncertainty in relationships).
Also known as ambivalent attachment or anxious-preoccupied attachment, anxious attachment can result from an inconsistent relationship with a parent or caregiver.
Adults who are anxiously attached may be considered needy or clingy in their relationships and lack healthy self-esteem.
Through approaches such as therapy, it’s possible to change attachment styles or learn to have healthy relationships despite attachment anxiety.
What’s Your Attachment Style?
There are four main attachment styles. The following are some of the ways they may manifest in relationships:
- Secure attachment: Able to set appropriate boundaries; has trust and feels secure in close relationships; thrives in relationships but does well on their own as well
- Anxious attachment: Tends to be needy, anxious, and uncertain, and lacks self-esteem; wants to be in relationships but worries that other people don’t enjoy being with them
- Avoidant-dismissive attachment: Avoids closeness and relationships, seeking independence instead; doesn’t want to rely on others or have others rely on them
- Disorganized attachment: Fearful; feel they don’t deserve love
History of Attachment Theory
British psychiatrist John Bowlby developed the foundations of attachment theory from 1969 to 1982.
Attachment theory suggests that early life experiences, particularly how safe and secure you felt as a young child, determine your attachment style as an adult. These events shape your ability to develop trust, boundaries, self-esteem, feelings of security, and other factors at play in relationships.
Developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth built upon Bowlby’s theory with her “strange situation” test to determine the nature and styles of attachment behavior. The assessment consists of a mother leaving her infant alone with a stranger for a few minutes. The infant’s response is observed and coded when they’re reunited with their mother.
Exploration of adult attachment began in the mid-1980s by researchers such as Mary Main, Phil Shaver, and Mario Mikulincer.
Attachment theory’s principles are currently supported by hundreds of studies on bonding between child and parent and between adult partners.
How Closely Linked Are Childhood and Adult Attachment Styles?
While it’s generally accepted that early attachment experiences influence attachment style in adult romantic relationships, the degree to which they are related is less clear-cut. Studies vary in their findings on the source and degree of overlap between the two.
Characteristics of Anxious Attachment
Anxious attachment is an insecure attachment. Insecure attachment can take one of three forms: ambivalent, avoidant, or disorganized.
It’s believed that anxious attachment in childhood is a result of inconsistent caregiving. More specifically, the children are loved but their needs are met unpredictably. A parent or primary caregiver may respond immediately and attentively to a child sometimes but not at other times.
This inconsistency can be a result of factors such as parental substance use, depression, stress, anxiety, and fatigue.
Children raised without consistency can view attention as valuable but unreliable. This prompts anxiety and can cause a child to perform attention-seeking behaviors, both positive and negative.
Adults with anxious attachment often need constant reassurance in relationships, which can come off as being needy or clingy.
One study showed that anxious attachment can affect trust in a relationship. Further, those who are anxiously attached are more likely to become jealous, snoop through a partner’s belongings, and even become psychologically abusive when they feel distrust.
Recognizing the Signs in Yourself
Some indications that you might be experiencing anxious attachment include:
- Worrying a lot about being rejected or being abandoned by your partner
- Frequently trying to please and gain approval from your partner
- Fearing infidelity and abandonment
- Wanting closeness and intimacy in a relationship, but worrying if you can trust or rely on your partner
- Overly fixating on the relationship and your partner to the point it consumes much of your life
- Constantly needing attention and reassurance (can be viewed as needy or clingy)
- Having difficulty setting and respecting boundaries
- Feeling threatened, panicked, angry, jealous, or worried your partner no longer wants you when you spend time apart or don’t hear from your partner during what most would consider a reasonable amount of time; may use manipulation to get your partner to stay close to you
- Tying self-worth in with relationships
- Overreacting to things you see as a threat to the relationship
Recognizing the Signs in Someone Else
A partner who is anxiously attached may exhibit similar behaviors as those listed above, but you can’t know for sure how they are feeling unless they tell you.
Signs of Anxious Attachment in a Partner
- Regularly seeks your attention, approval, and reassurance
- Wants to be around you and in touch with you as much as possible
- Worries you will cheat on them or leave them
- Feels threatened, jealous, or angry and overreacts when they feel something is threatening the relationship
Strategies for Coping
While anxious attachment can be challenging in a relationship, having a loving, healthy relationship is possible. There are ways to address and get beyond attachment problems in your relationship, including:
- Research: Learn about attachment styles, which ones best apply to you and, if applicable, your partner.
- Keep a journal: Keep track of your thoughts and feelings in a journal. This is a helpful exercise for getting out your emotions, and it may help you recognize some patterns in your thoughts and behaviors. It may be worthwhile to bring your journal to therapy sessions where you can unpack its contents with your mental health professional.
- Choose a partner who has a secure attachment: The chances of success in a relationship for someone with anxious attachment are higher if they are paired with someone who is securely attached.
- Practice mindfulness: Regularly engaging in mindfulness exercises can help you learn to manage your emotions and your anxiety.
- Group therapy: Processing anxious attachment in a professionally-guided group setting can help.
- Couples therapy: Seeing a relationships specialist can give you a chance to participate in a discussion with your partner helmed by a skilled moderator. They can help you process your thoughts and feelings at the moment, and give you tools to communicate with each other outside of the sessions.
- Individual therapy: If you know or suspect you have an anxious attachment, you don’t need to be in a relationship to address it. Working on yourself is a great way to recognize your attachment patterns, examine your feelings about yourself, and learn to approach relationships with other people in a healthy way.
Therapies to Consider
- Interpersonal therapy (IPT): Learn how to improve interpersonal relationships and social interactions. A 2017 study found that variations of IPT were beneficial for adolescent participants with anxious attachment.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Focus on recognizing and changing negative thought patterns.
- Psychodynamic psychotherapy: This focuses on unconscious emotional dynamics and can examine how attachment issues may present in the therapy relationship itself.
Ways to help a child who has an attachment disorder feel secure include:
- Set consistent, loving boundaries: Appropriate limits and boundaries, reinforced with consistency and care, can help children feel safe and secure. Let them know what is expected of them, and what they can expect (and rely on) from you.
- Remain calm while managing and reinforcing rules and expectations: Follow through on consequences that have been laid out for unacceptable behavior, but stay calm while you do so. Show them their feelings can be managed.
- Reconnect after a conflict: If you have disciplined them, reconnect afterward. It’s important that they know your love is consistent, no matter what. If you have made a mistake or gotten frustrated with them, own up to it right away and make amends. This helps show them they don’t need to be perfect to be loved.
- Be predictable: Try to stick to a regular routine, even during vacations. This can give a sense of familiarity and security.
How Can I Help My Anxiously Attached Partner?
If your partner has anxious attachment, some ways to help them include:
- Setting clear boundaries and expectations (and reinforcing them)
- Following through on promises and commitments
- Encouraging them to go to therapy, or go together
- Showing your partner you appreciate them. A 2019 study showed that perceiving gratitude from a romantic partner reduced attachment anxiety.
Anxious Attachment in Non-Romantic Relationships
While discussions about anxious attachment in adults usually focus on romantic partnership, anxious attachment can affect any type of relationship.
For instance, one small study conducted on a group of women showed that anxiously attached participants reported less positivity and more difficulties in friendships than securely attached participants.
Anxious attachment develops in childhood and continues into adulthood. It’s believed that anxious attachment in childhood may be a result of inconsistent caregiving. More specifically, the children may be loved but their needs are met unpredictably.
Although having an anxious attachment may present challenges, you can still have healthy and loving relationships with friends and partners. Coping techniques include journaling, mindfulness, and therapy, to name a few.
A Word From Verywell
It can be overwhelming navigating the social world when you have anxious attachment, but people who are anxiously attached can have healthy, fulfilling relationships.
If you’re having difficulties in your relationships due to anxious attachment, seek care from a healthcare professional with experience in attachment disorders.
With the right tools and effort, anxious attachment can be managed or overcome.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are anxious attachment triggers?
Anxious attachment may result from inconsistent caregiving in childhood. The children can be loved, but their needs are met inconsistently, with a primary caregiver responding attentively occasionally.
How do people with anxious attachment feel?
People with anxious attachment can feel insecure in their relationships and worry their partner won’t want them. This can cause them to become preoccupied with the relationship and their partner in a way that seems needy or clingy.
People who are anxiously attached tend to seek constant reassurance and can feel distressed when away from or out of touch with their partners.
What helps with anxious preoccupied attachment?
Therapy is the best way to help gain the tools to manage anxious attachment. It can be done individually, as a couple, or in a group.
Can people with anxious attachment style have healthy relationships?
Yes. People who have anxious attachment often have healthier relationships with partners who are securely attached. Therapy—individually or as a couple—can also go a long way to fostering a healthy relationship.