What Is an Anxious Attachment Style?

When you aim to please others and seek validation in relationships

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Anxious attachment is one of four possible attachment styles, or ways someone relates to and interacts with others. Someone who has an anxious attachment style may come off as "needy" or "clingy" in their relationships and lack a healthy self-esteem.

Attachment styles develop in childhood and continue into adulthood. Anxious attachment—also known as ambivalent or anxious-preoccupied attachment—usually happens because there was an inconsistent relationship with a parent or caregiver during childhood.

With therapy, it's possible to change attachment styles and have healthy relationships.

This article explains the characteristics of anxious attachment, how to recognize signs of anxious attachment in yourself and others, and strategies for coping.

Characteristics of the Anxious Attachment Style

Signs of Anxious Attachment Style - Illustration by Ellen Lindner

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Adults with anxious attachment often need constant reassurance in relationships, which can come off as being "needy" or "clingy."

One study found that anxious attachment can affect trust in a relationship. People who experience anxious attachment are more likely to become jealous, snoop through a partner’s belongings, and even become psychologically abusive when they feel distrust.

You might have an anxious attachment style if you:

  • Worry a lot about being rejected or abandoned by your partner
  • Frequently try to please and gain approval from your partner
  • Fear of infidelity and abandonment
  • Want closeness and intimacy in a relationship, but worry about whether you can trust or rely on your partner
  • Overly fixate on the relationship and your partner to the point where it consumes much of your life
  • Constantly need attention and reassurance from others
  • Have difficulty setting and respecting boundaries
  • Feel threatened, panicked, angry, jealous, or worried that your partner no longer wants you when you spend time apart or do not hear from them for what most would consider a reasonable amount of time; you may use manipulation to get your partner to stay close to you
  • Tie your self-worth in with relationships
  • Overreact to things that you see as being a threat to the relationship

Discussions about anxious attachment usually focus on romantic partnership, but it can affect friendships and other types of relationships as well.

Does My Partner Have Anxious Attachment?

Your partner might be experiencing anxious attachment in your relationship if you notice that they:

  • Regularly seek your attention, approval, and reassurance
  • Want to be around you and in touch with you as much as possible
  • Worry that you'll cheat on them or leave them
  • Feel threatened, jealous, or angry and overreact when they feel something is threatening the relationship

However, keep in mind that you cannot diagnose someone with an attachment style. Only a trained therapist can do that.

You also can't know for sure what someone else is thinking or feeling.

Why Someone Develops Anxious Attachment Style

It's believed that anxious attachment in childhood happens when a child experiences inconsistent caregiving where their needs are met unpredictably.

For example, a parent or caregiver may respond immediately and attentively to a child sometimes but not at other times. The inconsistent behavior on the part of the caregiver can be related to factors like substance use, depression, stress, anxiety, and fatigue.

Children raised without consistency can view attention as valuable but unreliable. As a result, they may develop anxiety and may perform attention-seeking behaviors—both positive and negative.

How Anxious Attachment Compares to Other Styles

A person's attachment style influences how they feel and behave when they're in a relationship.

Attachment styles can be secure (a person is confident in relationships) or insecure (a person has fear and uncertainty in relationships).

Here is how anxious attachment compares to the other main attachment styles:

 Anxious  Secure  Avoidant-Dismissive  Disorganized
Appears anxious, clingy Can set appropriate boundaries Avoids closeness and relationships   Fearful
Comes off as uncertain/in need of validation Has trust and feels secure in close relationships Seeks independence Feel they don't deserve love 
Wants relationships, but worries others don't enjoy being with them   Thrives in relationships and alone Doesn't want to rely on others or vice versa   

One notable study found that participants with anxious attachment reported less positivity and more difficulties in their friendships than participants living with secure attachment styles.

Coping With Anxious Attachment

While anxious attachment can be challenging, having a healthy relationship is possible no matter what attachment style you have if you use the right strategies for coping.

Short-term strategies include:

  • Research: Learn about attachment styles and figure out which one applies to you.
  • Keep a journal: Write about your thoughts and feelings in a journal. This exercise helps you let out your emotions and may help you recognize patterns in how you think and act. You may want to bring your journal to therapy sessions where you can unpack its contents with a mental health provider.
  • Practice mindfulness: Regularly engaging in mindfulness exercises can help you learn to "sit with" and manage your emotions and anxiety.
  • Be aware of partner's attachment styles: The chance of success in a relationship for someone with anxious attachment is higher if they're paired with someone who has a secure attachment style.

Long-term strategies include:

  • Group therapy: Processing anxious attachment in a professionally-guided group setting can give you perspective and help you feel less alone in your experience.
  • Couples therapy: Going to therapy gives you the opportunity to discuss your relationship with your partner in a safe space and with a skilled moderator. You both will have a chance to process your thoughts and feelings and learn to communicate with each other outside of your sessions.
  • Individual therapy: You don't need to be in a relationship to address attachment style challenges in your life. You can start working on recognizing your patterns, examining your feelings, and learning to approach relationships with other people in a healthy way at any time.

Therapies for Attachment Styles

  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT): In IPT, you learn how to improve your interpersonal relationships and social interactions. A 2017 study found that variations of IPT were beneficial for adolescent participants experiencing anxious attachment.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This form of therapy focuses on recognizing and changing your negative thought patterns.
  • Psychodynamic psychotherapy: In this type of therapy, you learn about the unconscious emotional dynamics at work in your mind and examine how your attachment style may show up in the therapy relationship.

Supporting Loved Ones With Anxious Attachment

Whether you are a parent or a partner of someone with anxious attachment, you can help foster a better, healthier relationship and encourage them to better cope with the challenges their attachment style brings.

Helping Kids with Anxious Attachment 

If you have a child who is anxiously attached, there are some steps that you can take to help them.

  • Set consistent boundaries: Having appropriate limits and boundaries that are reinforced with consistency can help children feel more 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. Show a child that their feelings can be managed.
  • Reconnect after a conflict: If you have disciplined a child, always reconnect after. It's important that a child knows that your empathy will be consistent, no matter what. If you have made a mistake or become frustrated with them, own up to it right away and make amends. This helps show a child that they don't need to be perfect.
  • Be predictable: Try to stick to a regular routine, even during vacations. This can give a child a sense of familiarity and security.

Supporting a Partner

If your partner experiences anxious attachment, you can support them by:

  • 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 anxiety for participants with an anxious attachment style.

Summary

Anxious attachment develops in childhood and continues into adulthood. It's believed that anxious attachment develops when a child gets inconsistent caregiving because their needs are only met some of the time.

An adult with an anxious attachment style may become very preoccupied with their relationship, to the point of coming off as "clingy" to their partners. They often worry that their partner will leave or stop loving them. People with an anxious attachment style may become manipulative when they feel that a relationship is threatened.

People with an anxious attachment style can learn coping skills and often do well in relationships with a partner who has a more secure style of attachment.

A Word From Verywell

It can be overwhelming navigating the social world when you're living with an anxious attachment style. However, you should know that you can experience anxious attachments and still have healthy relationships.

If you're having trouble in your relationships, talking to a mental health provider can help you get to the root of the difficulties you're experiencing.

Living with an anxious attachment can be challenging, journaling, mindfulness, and therapy, are tools you can use to cope.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are anxious attachment triggers?

    Feelings that stem from anxious attachment can come up when a person is away from their partner or feels (or fears) that their partner may not love them anymore.

  • How do people with anxious attachment feel?

    Having an anxious attachment style can make a person feel insecure in their relationships. They often come off as clingy, seek constant reassurance, and can become distressed when they're away from or out of touch with their partners.

  • What helps with anxious preoccupied attachment?

    Therapy is a very effective way to gain the tools you need to manage anxious attachment. You can do it individually, as a couple, in a group, or a combination of these.

  • Can people with anxious attachment style have healthy relationships?

    People who have an anxious attachment style may have healthier relationships with partners who are securely attached. Therapy—individually or as a couple—can also go a long way in fostering healthy relationships for people with any attachment style.

  • Are romantic relationships always influenced by childhood?

    It's generally accepted that early attachment experiences influence a person's attachment style in adult romantic relationships, but how much they are related is not clear. Research has not definitively defined the source and degree of overlap between the two.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Heather Jones
Heather M. Jones is a freelance writer with a strong focus on health, parenting, disability, and feminism.