Written by Dr. Sha’Leda A. Mirra, Ph,D., LCSW, CAP
Anxious attachment in adults is a style of relating to others that is characterized by a heightened fear of abandonment and a strong desire for reassurance and closeness in romantic relationships. This attachment style often stems from experiences in early childhood where caregivers may have been inconsistent or unreliable in meeting the individual's emotional needs.
Anxious attachment in adults can be triggered or exacerbated by various factors, including past experiences, relationship dynamics, and individual personality traits. Anxious attachment often has its roots in early childhood experiences. Caregivers who were inconsistent in meeting the child's emotional needs, emotionally unavailable, or who abandoned the child emotionally or physically can contribute to the development of anxious attachment. The reason focus is being placed on this attachment style is because without knowledge, healing, and growth, trauma and unhealthy perceptions and behaviors manifest in relationships. Marriages, intimate partner relationships, and other interpersonal relationships are often impacted by the unhealthy thoughts and behavioral responses of those with anxious attachments.
Attachment formation begins in infancy and is a critical process in childhood development. It is one of the earliest and most fundamental aspects of a child's emotional and social development. Here is an overview of when and how attachment forms during childhood:
Infancy (0-2 years):
Attachment formation begins in the first few months of life, with the most critical period occurring during the first year. Infants form attachments to their primary caregivers, usually their parents or primary caregivers, who are responsible for meeting their basic needs such as feeding, comforting, and providing security. Attachment behaviors in infants include seeking proximity to the caregiver, showing distress when separated, and deriving comfort from their presence.
Attachment Styles (12-18 months):
By around 12 to 18 months of age, infants typically develop specific attachment styles. These attachment styles are often categorized as secure, anxious, avoidant, or disorganized, depending on the child's experiences with their caregivers. These early attachment patterns can influence the child's social and emotional development in later years.
Toddlerhood (2-3 years):
During the toddler years, children continue to develop their attachment bonds. They become more mobile and explore their environment but still seek proximity and comfort from their primary caregivers, especially during times of distress. This period is marked by a balance between independence and attachment.
Preschool and Early Childhood (3-6 years):
As children grow, they begin to expand their social interactions beyond their primary caregivers to include peers and other family members. However, the attachment bond with their primary caregivers remains crucial for emotional security. Securely attached children tend to exhibit greater self-confidence, social competence, and emotional regulation.
Middle Childhood (6-12 years):
During this stage, children's attachment figures may extend to teachers, friends, and other trusted adults. Secure attachment formed in earlier years continues to provide a foundation for healthy social and emotional development. Insecurely attached children may struggle with emotional regulation, forming peer relationships, and dealing with stressors.
Adolescence (12-18 years):
Adolescents continue to develop their sense of self and their relationships with peers and romantic partners. The quality of attachment formed in early childhood can influence their ability to form healthy, secure relationships in adolescence and beyond.
It's important to note that attachment is not a one-time event but a dynamic and ongoing process that can be influenced by various factors, including the child's temperament, caregiver responsiveness, and life experiences. A secure attachment in infancy provides a strong foundation for healthy emotional and social development throughout childhood and into adulthood. However, attachment can also be modified and improved through therapeutic interventions and positive relationship experiences at any age.
Here are some common triggers and contributing factors:
Abandonment or Rejection: A significant trigger for anxious attachment in adulthood can be experiencing abandonment or rejection in past relationships. These experiences can reinforce the fear of abandonment and intensify anxious behaviors.
Lack of Consistency: Inconsistent or unpredictable behavior from caregivers or partners can trigger anxiety in individuals with an anxious attachment style. They may become anxious when they can't predict their partner's responses or behaviors.
Unresolved Trauma: Past traumatic experiences, such as physical or emotional abuse, can contribute to anxious attachment. Trauma can create a heightened sense of vulnerability and fear in relationships.
Relationship Conflicts: Ongoing conflicts or misunderstandings in a current relationship can trigger anxious behaviors. Arguments or disagreements may be perceived as potential threats to the relationship's stability.
Low Self-Esteem: Individuals with low self-esteem may be more prone to anxious attachment. They may doubt their self-worth and believe that they are unworthy of love and affection, leading to a constant need for reassurance.
Negative Beliefs about Relationships: Holding negative beliefs about relationships, such as "people will always leave me" or "I'm not good enough for anyone to love," can reinforce anxious attachment patterns.
Overthinking and Catastrophizing: People with anxious attachment tend to overanalyze situations and imagine worst-case scenarios. This cognitive pattern can perpetuate anxiety and insecurity in relationships.
Insecurity About One's Own Desirability: Concerns about not being attractive or lovable can make individuals more prone to anxious attachment. They may feel that they need to constantly prove their worthiness to their partner.
Lack of Boundaries: Anxious individuals may have difficulty setting and maintaining healthy boundaries in relationships. They may be overly accommodating or have a tendency to merge their identity with their partner's.
It's important to recognize that these triggers can interact and compound each other, creating a cycle of anxiety within relationships. The good news is that with self-awareness, therapy, and personal growth, individuals with anxious attachment can work to identify and address these triggers and develop more secure and fulfilling relationships. Therapy, in particular, can be a valuable resource for understanding the origins of anxious attachment and learning healthier ways of relating to others.
Common characteristics and behaviors associated with anxious attachment in adults:
· Fear of Abandonment: Adults with anxious attachment often have an intense fear of being abandoned or rejected by their partners. This fear can lead to constant worry and anxiety about the status of the relationship.
· Seeking Reassurance: Anxious individuals tend to seek constant reassurance and validation from their partners. They may need frequent verbal or physical expressions of love and commitment to feel secure.
· Overanalyzing Relationships: People with anxious attachment tend to overthink their relationships, reading into every word and action of their partner for signs of potential abandonment. They may jump to conclusions or assume the worst.
· Becoming Clingy: Anxious individuals may become overly dependent on their partners, wanting to spend all their time together and feeling anxious when apart. This can put a strain on the relationship.
· Jealousy and Insecurity: Anxious attachment often leads to feelings of jealousy and insecurity, even in the absence of any real threat to the relationship. These individuals may feel threatened by their partner's other relationships or friendships.
· Difficulty Trusting: Trust is a significant issue for those with anxious attachment. They may have a hard time trusting that their partner truly loves and cares for them, which can lead to relationship conflicts.
· Emotional Rollercoaster: Anxious attachment can result in emotional ups and downs. Individuals may experience intense emotions, such as anger, sadness, or anxiety, and these emotions can fluctuate rapidly.
It's important to note that anxious attachment is not a fixed personality trait, and people with this attachment style can learn to develop more secure attachments through self-awareness and therapeutic interventions. Developing a secure attachment involves learning to manage anxiety, improve self-esteem, and develop healthier communication and coping strategies within relationships. Therapy, such as attachment-based therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can be beneficial for individuals with anxious attachment, as it can help them understand the origins of their attachment style and work on building healthier and more secure relationships.
Reducing anxious attachment can be a gradual and transformative process that involves self-awareness, personal growth, and changes in relationship dynamics. Here are some strategies to help reduce anxious attachment:
1. Self-Awareness: The first step in addressing anxious attachment is to become aware of your attachment style and how it manifests in your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Reflect on your past experiences and how they may have contributed to your attachment style. Here's an attachment style quiz you can take https://quiz.attachmentproject.com.
2. Therapy: Consider seeking therapy with a trained therapist who specializes in attachment issues or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Therapy can provide a safe and supportive environment to explore the root causes of your anxious attachment and develop healthier patterns of relating to others.
3. Mindfulness and Emotional Regulation: Practice mindfulness techniques to become more aware of your thoughts and emotions in the present moment. Learning to regulate your emotions and manage anxiety can help you respond more calmly and rationally in relationships.
4. Challenge Negative Beliefs: Challenge and reframe negative beliefs and thought patterns related to your self-worth and relationships. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be particularly helpful in identifying and changing these thought patterns.
5. Set Boundaries: Learn to set and maintain healthy boundaries in your relationships. Setting clear boundaries can help you feel more secure and respected, reducing the need for constant reassurance.
6. Communicate Openly: Practice open and honest communication with your partner. Share your feelings, needs, and concerns with them in a constructive and non-accusatory way. Effective communication can reduce misunderstandings and anxiety.
7. Self-Care: Prioritize self-care activities that help you feel grounded and confident. This might include exercise, meditation, hobbies, or spending time with supportive friends and family.
8. Build Self-Esteem: Work on improving your self-esteem and self-confidence. Engage in activities and pursuits that make you feel capable and accomplished.
9. Address Past Trauma: If you have a history of trauma that has contributed to your anxious attachment, consider seeking trauma therapy to process and heal from past experiences.
10. Develop a Secure Support System: Cultivate relationships with friends and family who provide emotional support and validation. A strong support system can help reduce the need for excessive reassurance from your partner.
11. Practice Independence: Gradually work on developing your independence and self-reliance. Building a sense of self outside of your relationships can reduce anxiety about being alone or abandoned.
12. Educate Yourself: Learn more about attachment theory and how it applies to your life. Understanding the origins and dynamics of attachment styles can help you make conscious choices in your relationships.
Remember that reducing anxious attachment is a process that takes time and effort. Be patient with yourself and be open to seeking professional help if needed. Building secure and healthy relationships is possible with self-awareness, self-compassion, and a willingness to learn and grow.
Reference Articles (Reviewed in development of the article):
1. Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
2. Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Attachment (Vol. 1). Basic Books.
3. Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511-524.
4. Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(2), 226-244.
5. Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. Guilford Press.
6. Fraley, R. C., & Shaver, P. R. (2000). Adult romantic attachment: Theoretical developments, emerging controversies, and unanswered questions. Review of General Psychology, 4(2), 132-154.
7. Cassidy J, Jones JD, Shaver PR. Contributions of attachment theory and research: a framework for future research, translation, and policy. Dev Psychopathol. 2013 Nov;25(4 Pt 2):1415-34. doi: 10.1017/S0954579413000692. PMID: 24342848; PMCID: PMC4085672.
8. Simpson JA, Steven Rholes W. Adult Attachment, Stress, and Romantic Relationships. Curr Opin Psychol. 2017Feb;3:19-24. doi: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.04.006. PMID: 27135049; PMCID: PMC4845754.
9. Ross A. Thompson, Jeffry A. Simpson & Lisa J. Berlin (2022) Taking perspective on attachment theory and research: nine fundamental questions. Attachment & Human Development, 24:5, 543-560, DOI: 10.1080/14616734.2022.2030132