What is anxious attachment in relationships?
Do you feel you do everything you can to impress your partner, only to have them pull away? Maybe you’re struggling with jealousy, worried that no matter how hard you try, you’re never good enough, and/ or feel like you have to walk on eggshells around them. If so, you’re in the right place.
Today, we’re diving into anxious attachment in relationships by defining what this attachment style is, where it comes from, examples of what it looks like, and better yet – how to overcome anxious attachment.
Ready to have all your relationship questions about anxious attachment answered? Let’s get started.
What is anxious attachment?
Anxious attachment is one of the four relationship attachment styles. Being anxious in relationships can start from infancy and follow adults throughout their lives. This idea is proved and explained through the attachment theory.
The fundamentals of attachment theory
The attachment theory consists of four unique attachment styles in relationships. All four styles are blueprints for how you’ve learned to give and receive love and they explain your behaviors in adult romantic relationships.
The attachment theory reveals that these styles are developed during your childhood and formed from the interactions you have with your primary caregivers. Those early-life relationships shape the romantic ones you’ll have as an adult.
The four attachment styles are classified as:
- Anxious: Adults who struggle with feelings of unworthiness
- Avoidant: Adults who avoid commitment rooted in feelings of fear
- Disorganized: Adults with insecurity and unpredictable behaviors
- Secure: Adults with a positive self-image and who are open to romance
The first three attachment styles (Anxious, Avoidant, and Disorganized) are insecure styles. The fourth style (Secure) is where many strive to be. According to research, people with secure attachment styles tend to be happiest in relationships.
Let’s take a closer look at anxious attachment and what specifically causes that insecure attachment style.
What causes anxious attachment?
The consensus in the field is that our experiences, especially those of our childhood, often impact our attachment style. How our parents and primary caregivers show us love (or lack thereof) develops our attachment style. It’s common that parents will even pass down their own attachment styles.
Therefore, anxious attachment is often developed by an anxious or preoccupied parent. The parent likely experienced this attachment style themselves as a child. Anxious parents may have grown up without their own emotional needs being met, which left them feeling empty. As they grow up and have children, they may cling to their baby to fill this emotional void.
Enter the generational cycle of anxious attachment. For example, an anxious parent may overdo it with their child in an attempt to feel love and reassurance from them. In exchange, the child does not internalize a sense of calm and may be left in a state of confusion about whether they can or cannot depend on others. As they grow up, this carries into their romantic relationships and eventually onto their children, and the cycle continues.
However, there are instances where the opposite happens. You might have a child that is temperamentally desirous of more affection than an avoidant or dismissive parent is willing or capable of providing. So, the child grows up to anxiously search for a new parent in their adult romantic partners in an unconscious attempt to heal their inner child (more on that soon).
Now that you know how we develop our attachment styles, let’s break down anxious attachment specifically.
Anxious attachment traits
If you’re walking on eggshells or chasing after an unattainable partner, you may be dealing with anxious attachment. Anxious attachment in adults, or what I refer to as Open-Hearted attachment, describes adults who struggle with feelings of unworthiness.
Anxious attachment is often formed from an underlying fear of abandonment and rejection. Often, it’s shown in relationships as a fear of not being good enough and clingy behavior.
Curious to learn how to spot an Open Heart with anxious attachment? Here are the traits they may display:
- You experience jealousy often as a result of your insecurity
- You are accustomed to a lack of love in your relationships
- You feel like you give too much and are always people-pleasing
- You tend to be overly helpful in relationships to make your partner “need you”
- You take on the majority of the responsibility, guilt, and blame in a relationship
- You struggle with low self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness
Due to your nature of insecurity, you may believe you don’t deserve love, but instead have to earn love and approval. This makes you drawn to challenging partners that make you work for it. On the other hand, if your partner gives you love and affection too freely, you may find them boring and want to move on.
Now that you know what anxious attachment looks like as an individual, let’s see how this attachment style affects relationships.
How does anxious attachment affect relationships?
Your attachment style directly affects your relationships. Attachment styles are a good indicator of how you deal with emotional intimacy, so those with different styles behave differently in relationships.
So how does anxious attachment affect relationships? Let’s look at some examples.
What does anxious attachment look like in relationships?
Earlier, we discussed some traits of the anxious attached individual. Now let’s look at how it plays out within a relationship.
In an intimate relationship, many anxious adults will make themselves indispensable to their partners. They think “If they need me, they won’t leave me.” They want to feel needed.
But, this backfires. After all the work you put in, you always question whether or not they really love you for YOU.
Within a relationship, Open Hearts struggle with knowing – or showing – the real version of themselves. Their insecure feelings of unworthiness tend to get them lost in the potential of a relationship, rather than seeing the reality of it.
Anxious attachments often mask their true feelings because they are afraid of showing vulnerability. As a result of not having their needs met or their feelings heard, they cause conflict by acting defensively or in provocative ways.
But, the hardest thing for those with anxious attachment in relationships is that they usually attract other partners with insecure attachment styles. This causes what’s called the anxious-avoidant trap. This is where you typically find yourself dating someone that is emotionally unavailable, thus “proving” your deepest fear: that you are unlovable.
By avoiding the anxious-avoidant trap, you can successfully date someone with anxious attachment. But, how? That’s next.
How do you date someone with an anxious attachment style?
Clients repeatedly ask me, “How can I date someone with anxious attachment?” My advice is to learn some anxious attachment trigger statements and learn how to respond.
For anxious Open Hearts, avoid triggering statements like:
- “Love is not enough, but I still love you.”
- “I am sorry you feel that way.”
- “I don’t know what you’re so upset about, it’s not that big of a deal.”
- “I need some time alone to think about it.”
- “I don’t know why I feel that way, the chemistry just must be off.”
Instead, try to reassure Open Hearts with statements like:
- “It’s alright, we’ll get through this.”
- “Let me give you a hug, it will be okay.”
- “I’m not scared of your feelings, I want to listen to you.”
- *Reaffirm that what they say and think is important to you.*
- *Allow them to cry. Maybe hold them while they do it.*
Another common, triggering phrase that Open Hearts hate to hear is “You’re overreacting.” Although this phrase is said as an attempt to defuse a tense situation and reduce anxiety, an Open Heart might perceive it as dismissive and devaluing.
Instead, what an Open Heart needs to hear is: “Even if I can’t understand why you’re feeling this way, I know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed. How can I support you?” You and your partner can move forward from this conflict by finding common ground that each of you has felt overwhelmed in life.
When you can learn to reduce the anxiety of your partner and understand that many of their actions come from a place of love, you’ll find greater success – no matter what attachment style they are. For someone with an anxious attachment style, just remember to be there for them.
What triggers anxious attachment?
Inevitably, your anxious attachment will be triggered. Before you take the blame and get down on yourself, try to take a moment to overcome the trigger. Here are some tips on how to handle being triggered.
The first thing to do is always breathe. Reground yourself in the present moment and pause to notice how you feel within your body. What sensations are there internally? Where do you feel the stress? Just look inward and take a moment to allow yourself to simply feel.
You may feel like you’re being flooded and overwhelmed by your feelings. Rather than reacting and allowing your emotions to boil over, try to leverage body activation.
What I mean is trying to shift gears in your head and think ahead, instead. This doesn’t mean denying your feelings, but rather switching to positive thoughts. For example, plan your next vacation in your head. Just thinking positively can turn things around quickly.
Another option? Think about being the hero of your own story. You may feel less triggered when you focus on the idea that your happiness is in your control.
Overcoming anxious attachment triggers is possible, but it takes practice. Be gracious and patient with yourself and your partner as you learn these new behaviors. So, let’s talk about overcoming anxious attachment in relationships next.
How do you overcome anxious attachment in relationships?
Do you want to overcome anxious attachment? You can. With some help, you or your partner can go from “you’re too good for me” to “you make me want to be a better partner.” Let’s discuss actionable steps to help you get started. First, we must address your inner child.
How do you heal your wounded inner child?
Anxious attachment is developed when we’re children, so healing your inner child is a good place to start. The concept of an inner child is an effective strategy at overcoming anxious attachment because it’s a powerful metaphor. When we struggle in relationships, it’s often our inner child being projected into it.
To heal your inner child, you must look inward. It involves acknowledging and reparenting the suppressed inner child on a spiritual level. You have to gain that inner child’s trust, just as you earn it with anyone else. The inner child has long been unkind and neglected, so on a fundamental level, building this inner trust lets you tap into it.
How? You earn your inner child’s trust through consistent action and behavior. You must create cohesiveness between what you say and what you do by honoring your needs no matter what. You must start to believe that you deserve your needs and are free to feel as you do, no matter what. Basically, you need to stop letting people walk all over you and fight for your inner child.
Once we claim that child as our own, we commit ourselves to love that child. We must feed that child, defend that child, and give it what it needs to really grow and mature in a healthy way. As a result, we are filled with a deep loving feeling that is both giving and receiving.
In a relationship, you must learn to prioritize your own needs as much as your partners – not more and not less. Otherwise, there will always be a toxic imbalance and you could get stuck in the validation trap. You need to stop looking to others to validate your own growth. You must fix what’s within yourself, then see how that projects onto others.
Healing your inner child can also be accomplished through therapy or creative exercises, like those in my online courses.
How do you self-soothe anxious attachment?
Another method of overcoming anxious attachment in relationships is to self-soothe. This includes learning to cope with jealousy.
As an anxious partner, you may experience jealousy a lot as a result of the nature of your insecurity. You may see your partner experiencing jealousy too, and this just feels like proof positive of reciprocated feelings.
Jealousy can be interpreted in many different ways. For an anxious Open Heart, jealousy might make them feel closer to their partner, because it’s a powerful emotion that makes them feel alive, crystal clear about their feelings, and laser focused on what they want. If their partner feels jealous, that makes them feel even more connected, because it seems like proof positive that they care. But for obvious reasons, this lifestyle isn’t going to lead you to a secure relationship style. You must confront jealousy.
Coping with jealousy via self-soothing begins with realizing that jealousy is often a defensive coping strategy for anxious attachment, and it points to what we are afraid of losing. This fear of loss usually predates your current partner, and/or the object at hand. Healing your inner child will help reveal the root pain of this fear, and help you become more satisfied internally.
Next, it’s important to realize that jealousy can deepen your relationship, if approached in a certain way. If you can be honest about your feelings of jealousy (and all feelings!), this can give your partner a window into your more vulnerable self, and establish a deeper, more secure connection. Now, your partner has an opportunity to make conscious efforts to meet your needs authentically and honestly.
Furthermore, listening to your jealousy may help you gain access to your deepest needs around self-esteem. Feelings of not being good enough, feelings of shame, or fears of failure, or feeling discredited, or disrespected, or undervalued in some way, often lurk behind the umbrella emotion of jealousy. If we can address these subtler emotions with a more nuanced and mindful perspective, it can open you up to experience a much wider and more fulfilling range of emotion, and life satisfaction. Thus, jealousy is a poignant reminder that we need to take care of ourselves.
It might help to think about why you’re jealous. Are you comparing the worst of what we have to the best of what we perceive someone else has? If so, think back on what we discussed earlier: You are the hero of your own story. Step out of your triggered fog and remember that you are in control of your own emotions.
Over to you!
That’s it. Now you know all about anxious attachment in relationships.
In the end, learning what your attachment style is can help you and your partner tremendously. If you’re someone with anxious attachment, or dating someone who has anxious attachment, practice recognizing triggering behaviors and do your best to have patience. It takes time to reframe how you act in a relationship, but you all have the potential to move on to a secure attachment style.
What other questions do you have about anxious attachment?
Share them with me in the comments below.