Looking at romantic relationships through the lens of attachment theory can be revealing.
In fact, so many of what we perceive to be relationship failures can be attributed to reactions developed as a result of our early attachment styles.
Suddenly, we see clingy, distrustful, and avoidant partners in a different, hopefully kinder, light. We may also see ourselves and our role in relationships anew.
Attachment theory suggests that the way we experienced safety and caretaking before the age of 5 can have lifelong implications for our relationships.
The idea is that children learn trust and security in early childhood. They do it by evaluating how responsive the adults around them are.
For example, a child who is left to cry for long periods of time may not learn to trust that their needs will be met.
Instead, the child will see the world as a place where they need to be independent to survive. Because they can’t trust their needs will be satisfied otherwise.
The Attachment Theory
The theory, developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1950s, has a real-world application.
Research by Hazan and Shaver in the 1980s would go on to study how early childhood attachment impacted adult relationships.
The results confirmed that the primary attachment styles of childhood persisted throughout the lifespan. Those attachment styles are secure, anxious, avoidant, and fearful avoidant.
Securely attached children who were able to get their needs met consistently and who experienced warm, nurturing environments grew into trusting, confident, optimistic adults capable of maintaining healthy relationships.
Children with anxious, avoidant, and fearful avoidant styles learned to distrust the world around them.
It’s possible to later develop a secure attachment within relationships.
However, it’s important to understand our attachment style, how it impacts our interactions with others, and what we can do about it.
What Is an Anxious Attachment Style?
Anxious attachment style is also referred to as preoccupied attachment.
This style of relating to others develops in childhood when caregivers are inconsistently responsive to the needs of the child. Sometimes they responded, sometimes they didn’t.
And the child never knew which it would be.
Some children learn at a young age that they cannot trust the environment or people around them. So they grow into adults who perceive the world negatively and find it difficult to trust others.
Interestingly enough, anxious attachment can also develop when parents are overly involved in their children’s lives.
Helicopter parents who overprotect, parents who live vicariously through their children, and parents who use their children to meet their own unfulfilled relational needs can also create anxious attachment in their offspring.
These children are able to sense that it’s not their needs that are being met but their parents’ needs. This creates the same anxiety as the parents who responded inconsistently to their children.
The anxious attachment of childhood becomes an anxious way of processing adult romantic relationships. The early trust and abandonment issues are ideas we carry forward as we relate to new people.
Left unaddressed and unhealed, our relationships are sure to suffer.
Signs of Anxious Attachment Style
Anxious attachment style can be easy to spot within relationships. It manifests in a particular way of relating to others. Do these characteristics sound familiar?
People With an Anxious Attachment Style Have Low Self-Worth
Although anxiously attached individuals think well of others, they often have low self-worth. In fact, any disharmony in a relationship could result in the feeling that they are not worthy of love.
They are often very loving partners but rarely feel loved enough in return.
Crave Constant Reassurance
The anxiously attached also need constant reassurance within relationships.
Because they are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, they don’t ever completely relax and trust that the relationship is secure. They may seem both needy and fearful of the relationship ending.
Incapable of Being Alone
Someone with this attachment style may be preoccupied with relationships and seem incapable of being alone.
This hyper-focus on romantic attachments could have the anxiously attached person going from one relationship to the next with little time to no time in between.
Jealous and Paranoid Tendencies
Unfortunately, abandonment issues and distrust of the world around them can lead to jealous and paranoid behavior within relationships. These partners can be so fearful of losing the love they’ve found that they drive it away with their jealousy and fear.
Clingy Relationship Style
These partners can also be clingy within relationships, smothering their loved ones with affection and attention.
Space within the relationship could cause them anxiety and make them feel as if the relationship is at risk. Anxiously attached partners may show signs of codependent behaviors.
Partners with an anxious attachment style can be hypervigilant to nuances within the relationship. They can perceive the slightest hint of rejection or inattention as the end of the relationship.
They also tend to be hyperaware of their partner’s needs and try to make themselves indispensable to demonstrate their worthiness in the relationship.
An anxiously attached partner can feel unappreciated or under-appreciated within relationships. Their need for more love and more belonging can create a sense of imbalance.
Because they do whatever it takes to maintain the relationship all the while feeling as if the other person isn’t trying quite as hard to do the same.
The trouble with the anxious attachment style is that the individual never truly stops worrying about the relationship. Even a state of infatuation or love can trigger the fear of abandonment. Because they constantly worry, they often overanalyze relationships, sometimes self-sabotaging them in the process.
Lack of Trust
Even partners who show no signs of jealousy may still struggle to fully give their trust. Their underlying sense of the world is that love leaves.
The end is inevitable.
That may sound dark, but the inconsistency of early childhood has taught them that their survival can’t depend on others — even their emotional survival.
Yet, because they have a strong craving for love, they will continue to try to get their needs met by others.
All while fearing that it will not end well for them.
Repeating Relational Patterns
Many anxiously attached individuals will notice that they have had the same patterns within relationships.
The pattern will reinforce their belief that they can’t trust others without acknowledging that their choice of partner and reactions within the relationship are the very factors that create the pattern.
No matter how loving or reassuring the partner, the anxiously attached person may struggle to trust and depend upon them.
It’s easy to see how this combination of characteristics could negatively impact a relationship.
People with anxious attachment style need relationships but often self-sabotage them. And this only reinforces their feelings that they can’t trust others.
It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s possible to stop it.
How to Fix Anxious Attachment Style
Fixing an anxious attachment style won’t be easy, but it will lead to healthier relationships. To make an anxious attachment style become secure, try the following.
Become Aware of Patterns
Self-awareness is key to fixing an anxious attachment style. Understanding one’s style of attachment and how this can impact relationships can help shift our perspective.
For the anxiously attached person, it can be helpful to realize that the insecurity come from early childhood experiences. And not a lack of security within the relationship.
Monitoring thoughts and feelings to see where they originate (in the past or in the present) can help us determine if an attachment issue is present or if there’s real cause for concern.
Get Professional Help
Self-help books can assist you in learning more about attachment and how to correct it. However, it’s important to see a therapist if at all possible.
Therapeutic intervention can help us investigate and heal childhood wounds. It can help learn a new way of relating to others, develop increased coping skills.
And it can help figure out how to be healthier within our relationships.
Cognitive behavioral therapy in particular could be a help.
For anxiously attached individuals with an anxiety disorder, it could help to consider SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors).
Pairing medication with therapy is a best practice when dealing with repairs to an attachment style. While medication may not be the answer for every anxiously attached person, it could help some individuals.
Try Trauma Therapy Like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)
Trauma therapies like EMDR could also help address early childhood issues – so that they don’t continue to negatively impact relationships.
The process of EMDR involves going directly to the source of the issues. And it also involves learning to reprocess and integrate these experiences. We cannot change the past, but we can work to heal it.
For those who are anxiously attached and in relationships, it’s important to talk it out with partners. Assuming the relationship is healthy, the partner can be a support.
Talking about how we’re feeling and why can also help partners understand why we react the way we do. And it can help the understand the ways in which we’re trying to change those reactions.
Develop Social Support
Learning to develop healthy supportive relationships in general is important — not just romantic ones.
We need to cultivate the kind of social support that allows us to talk out our thoughts and feelings without judgment. Whether that looks like calling on one or more friends or attending a support group.
Even online support can validate our feelings. While helping us recognize that our perception is flawed and in need of healing.
Practice Self-Love and Compassion
An essential part of healing is learning to cultivate self-love, self-worth, and self-compassion. This is a practice, and it won’t be easy.
Part of this process could involve rediscovering who we are and what we like apart from our relationships with others. We begin to truly know ourselves and to love the people we’ve become.
With a heart full of compassion and acceptance, we begin to create a new narrative for our lives.
One where lovers don’t always leave, we can trust others, and happy ever after is not only possible but likely.
Increase Self-Care and Coping Skills
Throughout the healing process, self-care will be essential. We’ll also need an entire arsenal of coping skills.
Triggers will come up that will remind and reinforce early childhood relational patterns, and we’ll need coping strategies to combat them.
Deep breathing, meditation, and thought stopping and replacement can help us deal with the strong feelings that may arise as we start to change our patterns.
Learning to be secure within a relationship isn’t as easy as deciding to trust someone else. If only it were that simple!
It takes time and practice, energy and effort to cultivate new patterns of behavior.
It can also take social support, failing only to try again, and the determination to keep working toward that goal of a healthier, less anxious mindset.
Anxious Attachment Style – Final Thoughts
Fixing an anxious attachment is no guarantee that the current relationship, if applicable, will work out. That will, of course, depend on the health of the partner and the relationship as a whole.
Healing an anxious attachment and developing a secure one can help us enjoy relationships. It can help us learn to trust others, and develop a brighter perspective of the world around us.
It can also help the anxiously attached learn to be happy even when they are not in romantic relationships.
As we heal, we learn that relationships can be important without being all-consuming.
We learn that we need other people and also need to develop an independent identity. And we also learn that we can trust the people we love.
We develop the belief that we are worthy of love even if people haven’t shown up for us. At least in the way we needed.
If it’s our partners who are anxiously attached, we may have more compassion and understanding of the patterns as we address these issues within the relationship.
Change is uncomfortable. Accepting responsibility for the relationships we’ve sabotaged with our unhealed wounds is uncomfortable. But you know what else is uncomfortable? Growth.
As we push through the darkness and challenges, we’ll find ourselves developing new skills.
We’ll find ourselves strengthening our relationships, and making peace with the past. We can grow into healthier people capable of having loving, lasting relationships with others.