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.1
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:1
- 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 1982.2
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.3
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.2
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.4
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.5
Characteristics of Anxious Attachment
Anxious attachment is an insecure attachment. Insecure attachment can take one of three forms: ambivalent, avoidant, or disorganized.1
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.6
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.1
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.7
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 partner1
- 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:8
- 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.