Anxious Attachment: Definition, Causes, and Signs

There are several psychological theories explaining how childhood experiences can impact people’s behaviors in their adult lives. One of the most popular relationship-related theories is the attachment theory. According to it, an individual’s relationship with their primary caregiver in their early childhood (6 months to 2 years) influences all their relationships in their adult lives.

There are healthy and unhealthy types of attachment styles. A secure attachment pattern is the only healthy one. The other three attachment patterns are unhealthy. Psychologists call them insecure types of attachment styles.

In this article, we want to raise awareness about the anxious attachment style. It is one of the above-mentioned insecure attachment types, and in children, it's often referred to as anxious ambivalent attachment. In the majority of cases, a child develops unhealthy patterns if their parents' or guardians' caregiving style is poor and inconsistent.

The good news is that people suffering from anxious attachment issues can develop a secure style. However, it requires a deep understanding of the problem and obviously the desire to overcome it, time, and effort.

Here, we will answer some fundamental questions about this type of attachment, such as:

  • How does an attachment type form in a person’s early childhood?
  • How do children develop an unhealthy attachment type?
  • What leads an individual to become anxiously attached?
  • What are main risk factors that could lead to the development of insecure attachment in children?
  • How does this type of attachment style manifest in a relationship?
  • Can a person heal their emotional wounds and change their attachment patterns?

All You Wanted to Know about Anxious Attachment but Were Too Shy to Ask

We all want to be loved and appreciated. It is okay to seek affective responsiveness, help, and validation from your spouse, friends, and family under some circumstances. It is also natural to have thoughts from time to time that your partner might stop loving you one day. The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost, after all.

But if a person’s needs and worries are too big, their constant validation-seeking and fear of being abandoned/rejected, basically, start controlling their relationships. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to spot attachment-related unhealthy patterns in adults. However, there are certain signs that can help you recognize each insecure style. This article will walk you through these signs, their causes, and what to do to change an insecure attachment type.

Attachment Theory Briefly Explained

This theory was developed by the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby. Its most essential principle is that a young child needs to form a strong bond with at least one primary caregiver (which is usually one of the infant’s parents) for proper emotional and social development.

A baby is born with a drive to become attached to their first and the most important caregiver (which, in most cases, is the mother). But only if the little one grows up in a nurturing, safe, and friendly environment, where they feel safe and all the child’s emotional needs are met by their parent (-s) or guardian (-s),a successful attachment pattern can be formed. Because they experience a quality bonding with their first caregiver, they feel loved, heard, supported, and know they can trust the people around them.

On the contrary, an infant whose needs are ignored will learn that the world is a confusing and untrustworthy place. Most likely, such a person will experience difficulties building stable and emotionally connected relationships in their adult life. It is particularly true for friendships and romantic relationships.

The types of insecure attachment styles in adults include the following:

  • Anxious (otherwise referred to as preoccupied) attachment style
  • Avoidant (also sometimes referred to as dismissive) attachment style
  • Disorganized (otherwise referred to as fearful-avoidant) attachment style

What Usually Causes the Development of Anxious Attachment in Children?

Inconsistent parenting - when a parent/guardian manages to be nurturing and supportive at times but fails to meet the infant’s emotional needs and is highly insensitive at other times, is one of the main reasons someone becomes anxiously attached.

The parent’s inability to always give a timely response to the infant’s needs also sends mixed signals to the little one. Such parental behavior patterns are very confusing for the infant - it is extremely hard for the child to figure out what to expect next from their mom or dad. If an infant cannot rely on their primary caregiver (-s) to be there when they need them (for instance, if their parents have to travel for work often),this, most likely, will also cause the development of this type of attachment style in the child.

If the little one’s parents or guardians are emotionally hungry (this can happen due to job loss, divorce, depression, etc.),chances are high that the infant may develop this unhealthy attachment style.

In case you’re wondering what emotional hunger is. It is when a parent/caregiver seeks closeness with their infants to satisfy their emotional needs instead of satisfying the children’s - to fill the holes in their hearts, so to speak. Such caregivers are usually overly protective or, on the contrary, expect the child to be their confidant or counselor, in other words, to take care of them emotionally. This phenomenon is called emotional parentification.

Parents having anxious attachment patterns, often without realizing it raise their sons and daughters using a parenting style that causes the children to develop this type of attachment too. And it is not about genetics. The thing is that such parents, very likely, also have been raised by caregivers with similar patterns.

What Children Are More Likely to Become Anxiously Attached?

In the previous paragraph, we talked about parental behaviors that might cause a child to develop this type of attachment style. Some other experiences that may cause an anxious style of attachment include the following: early, sudden, and especially long-term separation from a parent; neglect and/or mistreatment; physical and/or sexual abuse.

Note that having this attachment style does not mean someone has a mental disorder. Yet, insecure attachments mean a person with such patterns will constantly attract “wrong” partners with whom they will have “rocky” relationships, which will cause a lot of distress to both the anxiously attached individual and people close to them.

If you notice that someone has these behaviors and feelings, this person is likely to be anxiously attached:

  • Negative self-image and low self-esteem while thinking highly of other people;
  • Putting others’ (most often, friends’ and/or romantic partner’s) needs first while neglecting one’s own needs;
  • Difficulty setting boundaries;
  • Lack of autonomy;
  • Trouble trusting people yet a constant need for their reassurance and approval;
  • Feeling unworthy of emotional closeness and love in relationships;
  • Inability to manage conflicts in a healthy way;
  • Fear of loneliness, rejection, and abandonment;
  • Excessive jealousy, neediness, and clinginess.

According to numerous studies, women are much more likely to develop an anxious pattern of attachment than men. This insecure style can harm both close friendships and intimate relationships, especially the latter. When it comes to the latter, anxiously attached people often have obsessive thoughts about whether or not their partner loves them enough and engage in behaviors like refreshing their partners’ social media 24/7, calling or texting them multiple times a day whenever they’re away.

Very often, anxiously attached individuals find themselves in toxic co-dependent relationships with people whose attachment style is also insecure (it can be anxious or avoidant/disorganized style). And even if a person whose type of attachment is anxious ends one unhealthy relationship, most likely, after a short break, they will end up in another one - not least because they have difficulty being alone/single.

Why Being Anxiously Attached Can Never Lead to a Successful Relationship

For a person with an anxious attachment style, being in a romantic relationship is like constantly riding an emotional rollercoaster. It is very exhausting and causes an individual even more anxiety and unhappiness. But, even though relationships are very stressful for anxiously attached romantic partners, it is exactly what they seek, as strange as it may sound.

For anxious types, the best remedy against feeling unworthy is when their partner shows them their affection. On the other hand, fear of loneliness and rejection anxiously attached individuals experience is a toxic substance that leads to nothing but persistent anxiety and worry. It is a vicious cycle that’s oh so hard to break.

So, What Can Be Done to Change an Unhealthy Attachment Style?

To heal their wounds and disturbances, an unhealthily attached person needs to heal their inner child and let them grow into an adult with a secure attachment style. While it might be difficult to achieve, remember that nothing is impossible.

Recognizing one’s unhealthy behavioral patterns in relationships is the first and the most important step in solving this problem - awareness is the key. Talking to a therapist is a valuable instrument and probably the best way to develop secure attachment. But there are also other things that can help an anxiously attached individual achieve serenity and happiness. Some of these include:

  • Using mindfulness therapy/meditation - it will help an anxiously attached person move away from their constant anxiety;
  • Doing something an individual is passionate about, finding their life purpose, and focusing on that;
  • If you’re single or divorced, you should stop looking for “the one” who will fix all your problems and “save” you - and save yourself instead by fostering a healthy self-image and boosting your self-esteem;
  • If you are married/in a relationship, and your partner is also insecurely attached, discuss your issues with them and consider seeking relationship counseling.