Have you ever described a significant other as “clingy?” You might have heard that term used in movies or TV shows. It describes a person who is always checking in on their partner, wanting to be with them every second of the day. It’s not usually a good thing to be.
What if I told you that “clingy” behavior starts to form before a person can spell the word “clingy?”
The attachment styles theory was created by psychologists originally to explain how child become attached (or become avoidant) to their parents. As time has gone by, psychologists have used these attachment styles to understand how people view themselves and their partners in romantic relationships.
What Is the Anxious Attachment Style?
There are four attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized. The anxious attachment style is also known as the "resistant" or "anxious-ambivalent" attachment style. It's an insecure style that is characterized by distress, resistance, and anxiety, caused by chaos in their relationship with their parents.
Where Does an Anxious Attachment Come From?
A child develops an attachment style based on the early relationships they had with their parents or caregivers. If someone has an anxious attachment style, their parents may have only met the needs of the child some of the time. They didn’t ignore the child completely - but the child could not rely on them for consistent love and support. Abusive parents or parents who were more concerned with their own needs
Of course, not all cases of anxious attachment come from violent or “bad” parenting. A child may interpret certain situations in different ways, snowballing into a resistant attachment style. If you display the behaviors of an anxious attachment style, it’s important to understand how your past influenced your behavior, but it’s more important to move forward and make the appropriate adjustments to your mindset and future behavior.
Characteristics of Anxious-Ambivalent Attachment in Psychology
One of the most famous studies on attachment styles is the Strange Situation procedure. Mary Ainsworth, creator of the Strange Situation, observed children while they were in a series of different scenarios involving their mother and a stranger. These observations helped to develop the first three attachment styles.
15% of children in these observations were labeled as having a Resistant Attachment. Throughout the procedure, they displayed similar behaviors:
- Serious distress and crying when the mother left the child
- High resistance to exploring the stranger, even when the mother was present
- May approach the mother upon reunion, but may also resist the mother
- Lots of crying as compared to the other children
These attachment styles were limited to the study of children until psychologists drew parallels between intimate adult relationships and parent-child relationships. They noted that children who developed an anxious attachment style were likely to display similar behaviors as an adult.
Signs of Anxious-Ambivalent Attachment in Adults
- Intense distress when the partner leaves
- Clinging to the partner and resisting their departure or distance
- Constantly “checking in” on the partner during the day
- Co-dependence and heavily relying on their partner
- Failing to explore strangers even when the partner is present
- Distrust of strangers
- Being overly sensitive to the attachment figure’s behavior
- Unpredictable behavior and mood swings
- Anger when partner or friend is not texting back
Unfortunately, people who fall under this attachment style may get a bad reputation with their partners. It’s not uncommon for an anxious attachment style to be written off as “clingy” or “needy.” Remember, the children who had an anxious attachment style cried the most out of any of the children in the Strange Situation studies.
Is Anxious Attachment Style Bad?
Many of these behaviors are red flags. If someone is codependent on their partner too quickly, the partner may later feel that they are overwhelming or suffocating. In order to keep the partner close, a person with an anxious attachment style may also use tactics like manipulation or acting out. These behaviors are intended to bring out the partner’s feelings and get reassurance that the partner is still invested in the relationship.
This can become a vicious cycle. Anxious attachment styles are often developed because a parent forces the child to be their main supporter and to “deal with” their emotional needs. The child grows up to have an anxious-attachment style and then repeats the same process with their partner. If their behavior is not changed, the same process could also be repeated with the person’s child.
Overcoming Anxious Attachment In Romantic Relationships
No one wants to be written off as clingy or needy. No one wants to set themselves up to be a parent who bestows an anxious attachment onto their child. But is it possible to overcome anxious attachment style in romantic relationships? Yes.
Acknowledge Where You Are
The first step is to accept and acknowledge where you are today. You may have damaged or even ended relationships due to codependency or your insecurity in the relationship. You may feel very anxious that your partner is going to leave you, even to the point where you act out. While these behaviors aren’t healthy, it’s also not healthy to label yourself as “broken” or wallow in self-pity because of your attachment style. Remember, your parents have played a huge role in this attachment style.
It’s also not healthy to get upset with your parents. They may not have understood how their behavior affected you. Creating boundaries with toxic people is healthy, but having empathy can also help you move forward and take on a more secure attachment style.
Talk to a Professional
There are many blurry lines in accepting, acknowledging, and changing behavior. The lines of a “toxic” or “misunderstood” parent may also be blurry. I don’t have any hard rules on when it’s time to cut off a parent or change your behavior - a therapist or mental health professional is better suited to give you this advice. If you are concerned about your role in your relationship and how you can enter a more secure headspace, reach out to someone. Therapy can help you work through any childhood trauma and unravel thoughts or events that lead to your current behaviors.
Persistent texting or anxiety comes from a fear that your partner is going to leave you. Every time they create distance, you are left fearfully wondering if or when they will close that distance. It’s time to be more mindful about when your partner creates “distance” and how you can handle yourself in a more secure manner.
Mindfulness can take you “out of your head” in the moment to look at your situation. Let’s say your partner tells you that they want to have a girl’s night and that it’s best that you stay home for the evening. It can be easy to get caught up in anxiety, especially if you had prior plans to hang out. Be mindful of how you feel and how your fears may be affecting your mindset and behavior. If you can step back and calm yourself down, you may be able to prevent acting out and let your partner have a good time.
Comments on this Reddit post titled "Women who have overcame anxious attachment style into secure attachment, how did you do it and how long did it take?" had some great advice that can be applied to women or men dating women or men!
"A mix of educating myself about myself through books and therapist-led podcasts and the fact that I have an incredible partner who makes me feel safe. It helped me put the things I learned into practice.
One of the most helpful phrases I learned was "hypervigilance". If you have an anxious attachment style, you know what that term means for you. It is so, so helpful to be able to identify it. Makes it so much easier to stop. Like, "Oh, I notice myself feeling anxious and paying too much attention to what my partner is up to. I'm being hypervigilant. Take a breath and assume he is completely fine." For me it activates most when it comes to separation/his safety, but for a lot of folks it has more to do with feeling threatened when your partner is being autonomous or meeting/spending time with other people."
If you believe you have an anxious attachment style, you don’t have to go to a therapist today and immediately change who you are. But if you notice that your fears or acting out tend to cause trouble in your relationships, your attachment style may explain why. Stay aware of how your behavior influences your relationships and when it might be time for a change.