Have you ever found yourself wondering why your partner hasn't texted you back, worrying if they're mad at you, and panicking that they might end the relationship? Then consider this: All of your dating-related insecurities and fears may have formed long before you could walk or talk. According to the psychological theory of attachment styles, the emotional bond between a child and their caregiver has a major impact on how they behave in romantic relationships later on. Anxious attachment style is the term that describes a pattern of emotions and behaviors surrounding all relationships, including romantic ones. If you identify with the scenario above, you might be anxiously attached. (You can take a free quiz to find your attachment style. The other common style is avoidant attachment.)
The theory of attachment can be attributed to John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst who studied the distress experienced by infants who were separated from their parents. During his research in the 1950s, Bowlby noticed that babies would go to great measures to prevent this separation or reconnect with a parent — such as by crying, physically clinging to them, or frantically searching around. Bowlby concluded that infants who learned through experience that their caregiver was accessible and attentive were more likely to feel secure, but if the baby could not depend on a parent to answer their cries or soothe them, they developed anxiety around that attachment. Your attachment style is thought to affect your adult relationships in a number of ways, from how you communicate your needs and feelings to the way you handle conflict.
Experts say that an anxious attachment style can present some challenges in maintaining healthy and happy relationships — but rest assured your style is not set in stone, so there's definitely hope for healing.
Here's everything you need to know about the anxious attachment style, how it can affect your relationships, and what to do about it.
What are some signs of anxious attachment?
According to Dr. Dominique Samuels, the resident psychologist for relationship-health app Emi Couple, there's a good chance you've developed this style if you're constantly seeking out reminders and reassurance of your partner's love.
"Maybe you don't want your partner to exercise without you," Dr. Samuels explains. "Or, perhaps you read between the lines all the time, hunting for clues that the partner is going to leave/reject/betray you in some way. To counter those fears, you ask for frequent verbal and physical validation, or in whatever way your love language hears love."
Dr. Samuels adds that people with the anxious attachment style are very often people-pleasers who will go above and beyond for their partners in hopes of making themselves indispensable (again, so they won't leave).
"The deepest parts of the anxiously attached adult's fear is that they are unsafe — and thus, they do whatever they can to ensure that safety," she adds.
Other attributes associated with the anxious attachment style include poor personal boundaries, placing excessive importance on a partner's moods and behavior (and taking it all very personally), and connecting through conflict ("stirring the pot").
It's worth noting that anxious-avoidant is an entirely different attachment style. Those with the anxious-avoidant style tend to withdraw and distance themselves from others because they're uncomfortable with intimacy. Essentially, they avoid getting too close to protect themselves from getting hurt.
Why am I anxiously attached?
There's a very valid reason why you might feel this way if your primary caregiver wasn't reliable — either because they were physically unavailable when you needed them, were struggling with mental health issues, or were otherwise neglectful.
"If you grew up with someone who you couldn’t trust, then you might not trust your relationships — and you could be afraid of abandonment or rejection," explains Dr. Tammy Nelson, a sex and relationship therapist and host of the podcast The Trouble with Sex.
Women are often associated with the anxious attachment style more than men (who are often associated with the avoidant or anxious-avoidant style). Interestingly, experts agree that this is mainly due to longstanding social constructs and gender norms that continue to persist in parenting.
“Many parents let boys play rough, but tell the girls to be careful," says Dr. Samuels. "And alternatively, boys are taught early to be 'brave' while girls are taught they can 'scream like girls.' This means that even as adults, women are going to be more willing to admit when they feel unsafe and ask for help. Men are taught to distract themselves or pretend they don't feel what they feel."
Dr. Nelson also points out that different relationships can bring out your attachment style to varying degrees.
"It can create anxiety if you are in a relationship with someone who avoids intimacy, who is afraid of commitment and who triggers your anxiety by pushing you away when you get too close," she adds. "As a result, you may act needy and fearful, and feel rejected when they don't call or text you."
How can I feel more secure in my relationships?
In order to make some positive changes, it's important to first understand why you may have developed an anxious attachment style. Therapy offers a wonderful setting to explore your attachment style in-depth, and under the guidance of an unbiased expert. Dr. Samuels highly recommends seeking out a professional who specializes in using specific therapy modalities that work with attachment disorders. In particular, she says that couples therapy is a great way to "squash detrimental relational patterns." According to Dr. Samuels, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is often the most effective approach.
“Feeling anxious doesn’t mean you are needy even if it feels that way," she explains. "It may mean you are attracted to people who are afraid of intimacy and you need to learn to find people who are can more securely attach, are more mature and trustworthy.”
If you're currently in a relationship, Dr. Samuels suggests spending some time to share your background with your SO so that they can support and empathize with you.
Whether or not you decide to pursue therapy, Dr. Samuels suggests incorporating some loving-kindness and self-compassion meditations into your daily life. Becoming aware of any negative self-talk, and shifting gears by using positive affirmations, can also work wonders.
Even though your attachment style was likely formed long before you could walk or talk, that doesn't mean you can't do anything about it. Remember: there's nothing wrong with you, and any adjustments you make are solely for the purpose of allowing you to enjoy healthier and happier relationships, with less unnecessary stress. BTW — that validation you seek from your partners could be right inside of you. Repeat after me: I am worthy, I am lovable, I am enough.
Dr. Tammy Nelson, sex and relationship therapist
Dr. Dominique Samuels, licensed clinical psychologist