Anxious attachment style may be damaging your relationship - here's how to recognize the signs and get help

Sarah Fielding,Rosara Torrisi
·5 min read
relationship fighting couple sad reassurance
Anxious attachment style can cause a person to need frequent reassurance from their partner. Westend61/Getty Images
  • Signs you may have an anxious attachment style include being clingy and fearing abandonment.

  • Anxious attachment style is developed in childhood either due to trauma or absent parents.

  • To fix an anxious attachment style, seek a therapist on your own or with a partner.

  • Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.

Your relationship with your parents can have a significant impact on how you connect with friends and romantic partners. This is known as attachment theory of which there are four types: secure, avoidant, disorganized, and anxious.

A secure attachment style generally allows for trust and healthy, independent relationships, while avoidant, disorganized, and anxious attachment styles can have negative repercussions.

Specifically, people with an anxious attachment style often experience clinginess, a fear of separation, and regularly need reassurance that they're loved. Moreover, anxious attachments could make it more difficult for you to form healthy relationships in adulthood.

Here's how to identify whether, or not, you have an anxious attachment style and measures you can take to feel less insecure in your relationships

What causes an anxious attachment style?

Anxious attachment style develops in childhood. The relationship and interactions you have with your parents or other primary caregivers ultimately lays the foundation. If those interactions are often anxiety-inducing, chances are you'll develop an anxious attachment style. Some examples of what types of interactions can lead to anxious attachment style include:

  • Lack of consistency. When a parent's actions vary, such as moving between loving and neglectful, it leaves the child unsure if their needs will be met and anxious, says Gail Saltz, MD, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.

  • Extreme parenting styles. On one end it may be a parent who is overly controlling and does not allow for age-appropriate independence. On the other, it could be a parent who isn't focused on the child and absent from their lives. Both forms of parenting can foster an anxious attachment style, says Jessica January Behr, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and founder and director of Behr Psychology.

  • Trauma or distress. Experiencing abuse or stressful situations - such as a messy divorce, violence, or extreme poverty, can cause this attachment style, says Saltz.

These events and interactions can be stressful, which is why those with anxious attachment styles typically experience more stress and have a harder time in future relationships.

In a small 2011 study of girls aged 9 to 18, participants with an anxious attachment style had higher cortisol levels, a stress-regulating hormone, upon waking up than those with a secure attachment style.

Signs of anxious attachment style

The signs of an anxious attachment style change as people move from childhood to adulthood.

According to Saltz, a child may have an anxious attachment style if they are:

  • Overly clingy

  • Frequently whining

  • Cry when separated from their parent

  • Anxious

According to Behr, an adult with an anxious attachment style may have symptoms such as:

  • Unfounded fear of abandonment and rejection by a significant other

  • Clinginess

  • Needs frequent reassurance

  • Craves closeness and intimacy but still does not feel fulfilled

An anxious attachment style can strongly impact a person's relationships regardless of their partner's actions. For example, a person may constantly call and request their partner's location even if their partner gives them no reason to worry, says Angela Robinson, LPCMH, NCC, the clinical director at NorthNode Counseling Group.

"This can lead to conflicts as the partner may feel that no matter what they do, their partner remains worried, anxious, and even paranoid about the relationship," says Behr. "It can be difficult on the partner whose attempts at reassurance and commitment are doubted and negated by the anxious partner's attachment insecurity,"

How to fix anxious attachment style

You can move towards healthier attachment styles with effort over time, but you can never fully change it.

In a 2019 study, researchers looked at how attachment styles change from age 13 to 72. On average, symptoms of anxiety attachment style decreased with age, especially in participants of middle and older age.

"While you can't fully change your attachment style, you can work to understand your attachment style, how it affects your behavior and thinking in your relationships, and build skills to counteract the negative effects of insecure attachment," says Behr.

A therapist with expertise in psychotherapy can help you identify your attachment style, potential root causes from your childhood, and ways to move forward in a healthier manner. The length and frequency of therapy vary tremendously from person to person, but 12 to 16 weekly sessions can lead to improved results.

You also don't have to work on this alone. For example, if you are in a relationship and feel that your anxious attachment style is causing problems like distrust, paranoia, and insecurity, consider going to couple's therapy with your partner.

On their own and in therapy, couples can work together on issues brought on by an anxious attachment style by communicating fears and frustrations and having patience as their partner works to address their anxious attachment style, says Behr.

Developing robust social networks outside of your romantic relationships can help as well. If you have supportive friends and family members, you may not feel as reliant on a partner, and thus fearful they will leave.

Important: Parents can also play an active role in preventing anxious attachment style in their kids. As a parent, understanding your own attachment style allows you to work through any potential negatives and create a healthier relationship with your kid, says Robinson.

Insider's takeaway

An anxious attachment style can interfere with a person's ability to form trusting, strong relationships. However, it does not have to permanently affect your relationships.

You can overcome the challenges of an anxious attachment style through therapy, communicating with a partner, and challenging your deep-rooted fears.

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