What to Know About Anxious Attachment and Tips to Cope

Understanding Your Attachment Style in Relationships

Anxious attachment is one of four attachment styles that develop in childhood and continue into adulthood. Attachment styles are ways of relating and interacting with people in relationships. 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 experience anxious attachment may come off as 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.

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

A woman and man sit at a kitchen table. The man looks down at his phone and subsequently ignores the woman. The woman looks insecure and hurt as she looks at him, hoping for some attention.


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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 come off as anxious, clingy, 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

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 

It's believed that anxious attachment in childhood is a result of inconsistent caregiving. More specifically, the child's 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 who experience 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 experience anxious attachment 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
  • 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 them for 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 experiences anxious attachment may exhibit similar behaviors like 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'll 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 healthy relationship is possible. There are ways to address and get beyond attachment challenges in your relationship, including:

Short Term

  • 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 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 who experiences anxious attachment are higher if they're paired with someone living with a secure attachment style.
  • Practice mindfulness: Regularly engaging in mindfulness exercises can help you learn to manage your emotions and your anxiety.

Long Term

  • 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 experien 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 style may present in the therapy relationship itself.

Strategies for Kids 

Ways to help a child experiencing anxious attachment include:

  • Set consistent boundaries: Appropriate limits and boundaries, reinforced with consistency, can help children feel 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 empathy 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.
  • 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 experiences 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 participants living with anxious attachment reported less positivity and more difficulties in friendships than participants living with secure attachment styles.

Summary

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 child's needs are met unpredictably.

Although living with an anxious attachment may present challenges, you can still have healthy 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're living with an anxious attachment style, but people who experience anxious attachment can have healthy 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 child's needs are met inconsistently, with a primary caregiver responding attentively occasionally.

  • How do people with anxious attachment feel?

    People with an anxious attachment style 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 come off as clingy.

    People who experience anxious attachment 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.

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10 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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