Updated: Nov 16, 2022
Overview of Anxious Attachment Style
One common misconception about anxious attachment, or any of the three styles of insecure attachment for that matter, is that it is the result of bad parenting. This is overly simplistic and, quite frankly, untrue. Sometimes good parents endure circumstances that impact their ability to meet their children’s needs.
Anxious attachment style is most closely associated with early attachment relationships where a child’s needs for care and support are responded to inconsistently. The child, therefore, can never feel secure in trusting that their emotional needs will be met. From this foundation, individuals struggle to feel secure in their self-worth and depend heavily on relationships to feel safe and valued. They grow up developing strategies to maintain connections in their relationships and assure their needs will be met. Underlying all these strategies is a deep fear of rejection and abandonment.
The good news is that people with anxious attachment styles can change and develop earned secure attachment later in life. In this article, I will detail various signs to look for to recognize if you are experiencing traits of anxious attachment; as well as ways you can work to overcome these patterns and strengthen your relationships as an adult.
Below are five common signs of an anxious attachment style that might resonate with your own life experiences. If so, make sure to read my next blog about how to work on your attachment style and earn secure attachment as an adult.
Highly Sensitive to, and Feeling Responsible for your Partner's Emotions
Your radar antenna for your partner’s emotions is finely tuned and can detect even the smallest signals of distress. When your partner is in a bad mood or experiencing stress, you feel a strong impulse to act – to do something to “fix” their feelings. You want to help! And, while this is a very typical response to the distress of someone you love, those with an anxious attachment style feel this impulse with a heightened level of anxiety. In addition, if your antenna is signaling upset from your partner before they have communicated anything, responding to your anxiety about this potential issue may lead you to start the conversation before your partner is ready to talk about it.
“It doesn’t feel like nothing!”
This can be particularly frustrating when there is no “solution” or help to offer within your locus of control.
Due to the unpredictability of having their emotional needs responded to in early life, those with anxious attachment develop strategies to assure these needs will be met in their life today. As adults, those with anxious attachment depend heavily on their relationships to feel secure in their own self-worth. In many cases, they begin to develop behaviors in order to keep supportive relationships available and close. One behavior is the ability to recognize when caregivers/partners are emotionally available, as it helps these individuals minimize the pain of unmet emotional needs for love and care.
For example, when your partner experiences hardship it evokes a fear that your partner's reactionary feelings might create distance and threaten their availability and capacity for support. Your impulse to help is both an act of care and a survival instinct to remove the threat of abandonment. “If I can fix the problem, my partner will feel okay enough to be the source of safety I need them to be again.”
Personalizing the Needs or Feelings of your Partner
Related to the above, you also tend to view your relationship and your partner’s behavior as a reflection of yourself, and struggle to trust that other influences may play a role. When your partner asks for space, you think: “what did I do wrong?” If your partner chooses to spend time with a friend, you wonder, “why is this person more important than I am?”
When predominant beliefs of being unworthy of love influence the perception of anxiously attached partners, every interaction is scrutinized for possible confirmation of this fear. As a result, it can be hard to rest assured that your partner’s needs or emotions may derive elsewhere, as this may risk missing a sign of impending rejection or abandonment.
Frequently Criticizing or Trying to Control your Partner
You work so hard to meet your partner’s needs and take care of your relationships, so, when these efforts do not feel reciprocated by your partner, it is frustrating! It becomes easy to criticize or blame them when your relationship is not feeling secure. If they would only try harder, talk more, or listen better – we would be okay!
Since the stability of your relationship is so impactful on your own sense of internal peace, efforts towards managing how your partner engages within your relationship can feel like the most effective way of managing your own emotional state.
“If they would check in with me more often, I wouldn’t get so anxious when they’re gone.”
“If she would be more affectionate, I wouldn’t always wonder if something is wrong.”
“He would invite me out with his friends if our relationship was important to him.”
As children, managing our environment to maximize the availability of caregivers for love and support were crucial survival strategies. As adults, these strategies can feel controlling, or even manipulative, to partners of anxiously attached individuals.
One common theme of all insecure attachment styles is recognizing relationship problems as stemming from the other partner. For adults with anxious attachment styles, your partner has so much power to spark or soothe your anxiety. Thus, when your partner acts in a way that inspires insecurity, that behavior tends to become the focus and it can feel natural to hold your partner responsible for this impact.
Furthermore, because anxiously attached partners depend on relationships so highly for their own emotional well-being, you inevitably invest more time and energy into maintaining connectivity within the relationship. This has the consequence of creating a perceived imbalance of care and effort between partners and can be another source of criticism.
Needing Frequent Assurance and Validation
When your partner spends time and energy in other relationships, you experience feelings of jealousy, or even betrayal, as these relationships may feel threatening to the security of your partnership. It may feel difficult to rest assured in the stability of your relationship when your partner is not present with you. Naturally, in these moments you would turn to your partner for assurance that your relationship is “ok” and your fear of losing them is unfounded.
There may even be times when you recognize that your anxiety is sparked by your partner's behavior that was unintentional. Nevertheless, you need them to understand why it hurts you in hopes that this awareness might prevent similar ruptures in the future. Your need for validation of your feelings may cause you to pursue your partner with an intensity that comes across as angry or “over-explaining” and may even push your partner farther away.
Children internalize a sense of unworthiness of love when they do not experience consistent responsiveness to their needs from caregivers whom they depend on to feel safe. They learn that they cannot expect these needs to be met, or worse, that some of their feelings are undeserving of care. As adults, they learn to make their needs and feelings loud and clear as a means of creating safety in relationships. Asking for assurance and seeking validation are important tools to that end.
Fear of Being Alone
This one is self-explanatory, though it tends to cause a few behaviors as direct correlations. You feel afraid or very uncomfortable being alone and avoid this at all costs. Sometimes this fear causes you to feel lonely even when your partner is close by. When you do not feel seen or understood, this fear of being alone drives you to connect with them and restore your feelings of security.
Feeling close and connected to your partner is so crucial to your emotional well-being, which places high value on physical touch and intimacy within your relationship. Conversely, when intimacy and touch are not frequent, this may inspire fear that something is wrong.
Having experienced so many moments of emotional misattunement as a child, individuals with an anxious attachment style desperately seek to avoid this experience of feeling alone and unsafe. Therefore, they make great efforts to maintain closeness and connection to their partner which can look like any of the signs listed above.
What Do You Do About An Anxious Attachment Style?
At this point we’ve walked through the various signs to look for to recognize if you are experiencing traits of anxious attachment. Now is where you start to believe that people with anxious attachment styles can change and develop earned secure attachment later in life.
The question now becomes, how? We all want to overcome these patterns and strengthen our relationships as an adult, and it’s important to remember that these are not permanent traits and can be overcome with intentional work. Our attachment systems are continuously developing throughout our lives.
Check back for how to “earn” secure attachment in your life.