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What Is Anxious Attachment?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 08, 2021

Anxious attachment is a type of insecure relationship that children have with mothers or caregivers. Having this attachment in childhood can affect your relationships later in life.

What Is Attachment?

Attachment is the ability to make emotional bonds with other people. It starts at birth and continues into early and later life. It is a way of relating to another person.

The type of attachment you had with your mother or main caregiver can affect your relationships as an adult. From this first attachment relationship, you have a blueprint that affects later relationships.

When emotional needs aren’t met or responded to, this can have a long-lasting effect. This is called an insecure attachment.

Attachment Styles

There are four main attachment styles. These include:

  • Secure
  • Anxious-ambivalent
  • Anxious-avoidant
  • Disorganized

‌These attachments can shape the way you react and behave in your adult relationships, especially with a romantic partner. Understanding these patterns can help you learn what you need and how to overcome problems.

Secure Attachment. People with a secure attachment style have empathy but can set boundaries. They are satisfied in their close relationships and feel safe and stable.

As a child, your parents were probably good at responding to your needs and managing their own stress in healthy ways.

People who have secure relationships:

  • Have a good sense of self-worth
  • Openly express feelings
  • Easily ask for and give support
  • Like being with others but don’t get anxious if they are not

Anxious-ambivalent attachment. People with anxious attachment are usually needy. They are anxious and have low self-esteem. They want to be close with others but are afraid that people don’t want to be with them.

As a child, your parents probably were inconsistent. They might have responded sometimes. Other times, they might have been distracted or just not there. You might have felt anxious and unsure and felt like your parents were all over the place. 

Anxious-avoidant attachment. People with anxious-avoidant attachments are the opposite of needy. Instead of wanting to be emotionally close, they avoid connecting with others. They might rely on themselves, crave freedom, and find emotions to be difficult.

Your parents were probably unavailable as a child. They might have rejected your needs or emotions, and you learned to withdraw and soothe yourself. You learned to avoid closeness or maybe never knew what it felt like and now avoid it all together.

Disorganized attachment. People with this attachment style don’t feel they deserve love. They usually have an intense fear which may come from childhood trauma, abuse, or neglect.

If you have this attachment style, you might have had a caregiver who ignored your needs or had chaotic behavior that was scary and traumatizing. They might have had their own emotional problems.

Impact of Anxious Attachment

Having an anxious attachment can make it difficult to cope with stress and change. You might have trouble with romantic relationships, friendships, and other relationships.

Anxious or disorganized attachments are more likely to happen from:

  • Trauma
  • Neglect
  • Early separation from parents
  • Long hospitalization
  • Inconsistency in parenting and emotional response
  • A caregiver with depression
  • An inexperienced mother

If you had troubles in your early childhood, as an adult you might not trust others. You might have an anxious attachment if you:

  • Are afraid of emotions, intimacy, and emotional closeness
  • Want to pull away when a person gets needy
  • Are independent and don’t need others
  • Disregard other people’s feelings
  • Might not have boundaries
  • Need constant reassurance
  • Are needy or clingy
  • Become obsessed or overly fixated on someone
  • Crave intimacy but can’t trust others
  • Are anxious or jealous when you’re away from your partner

It’s important to remember that an anxious attachment doesn’t always mean you weren’t loved as a child. It means that you didn’t receive all the emotional response that you needed. Your personality and other life experiences might have also played a role.

How to Prevent Anxious Attachments From Affecting Your Relationships

There are some things you can do if you have an anxious attachment.

Learn communication skills. Learning how to express your emotions and ask for what you need can help you be clear in your relationships. Learning nonverbal cues like posture and gestures can help you better interpret how your partner feels. This can help you react more appropriately.

Go to therapy. If you have trouble with your relationships, it’s a good idea to talk to a therapist. Therapy can help you resolve some of your earlier childhood experiences that gave you this relationship blueprint.

Find someone who is securely attached. It might feel uncomfortable at first to have a relationship with someone who has a secure attachment. This can help you understand what a stable and safe relationship feels like. Also try to build friendships with people who have high self-esteem, good boundaries, and are securely attached.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Good Therapy: “Therapy for Attachment, Therapist for Attachment.”

Help Guide: “How Attachment Styles Affect Adult Relationships.”

NHS: “Attachment.”

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