Codependency, toxic relationships, and narcissism are all psychological terms that have made their way into everyday conversations. What does it mean if you’re in a clingy relationship? Learn more about what clinginess means for you and your partner, understand your attachment style, and plan to move forward in a healthy way.
What Is Being Clingy?
First, it’s important to define clinginess. It’s not just immaturity, though a person’s emotional intelligence and maturity level definitely factor into how clingy they are. Clinginess is also not the same thing as spending a lot of time around your partner or wanting to see them all the time.
Acting clingy tends to stem from attachment issues and past relationships that were emotionally dramatic. Clinginess is not as severe as codependency, but it can be a symptom of this unhealthy relationship style. If you’re not sure whether or not you’re acting clingy or codependent, check out the following clingy symptoms:
- Having anxiety when you are away from your partner
- Fearing abandonment
- Needing approval from your partner even for small decisions
- Feeling jealous when your partner spends time with anyone else
- Avoiding conflict and arguments so you don’t upset your partner and make them leave
- Doing too many things for your partner or being too “helpful” to prove your worth to them
- Experiencing more negative emotions than positive ones when it comes to your relationship
Is Codependency the Same Thing as Clinginess?
Codependency refers to the state of needing to have another person validate you, depend upon you, and make sacrifices for you to prove their love to you. It's a dysfunctional relationship pattern that may involve clinginess when your partner isn't there.
If you are clingy in one relationship or at certain times in your life when you aren’t at your best, it could be because you’re feeling generally insecure, or perhaps your partner is the wrong person to meet your needs. If you’re clingy in all of your relationships, as a rule, it might be that you confuse codependency for true love.
What Causes Clinginess in Relationships?
You’re young. If you’re a teenager or someone in your early 20s, you likely experience strong emotions with dramatic ups and downs. Feeling clingy from time to time is normal behavior at this age, especially when you’re discovering who you are, navigating your sexuality, and living on your own for the first time. If you’re past adolescence and are still feeling unstable in relationships and are having a difficult time feeling OK when separating from your partner, though, this may represent a deeper problem.
Your family of origin was dysfunctional. Clinginess, as well as codependency, can be the result of growing up with parents and older family members who displayed this behavior. For example, if your parents showed jealousy when you spent time with a friend, or if you were reprimanded for not “proving” your love to a family member, you may have a skewed perspective on what’s normal in relationships.
You have past relationship trauma. If someone you loved emotionally or physically abused you, passed away suddenly, or left you without an explanation, you may feel clingy and insecure when it comes to new partners. Fortunately, you can heal from past relationship trauma with time.
You have an unhealthy attachment style. Having an anxious attachment style, which likely developed as a result of your relationship with one or both of your parents, can make clinginess a knee-jerk reaction in relationships.
How Do I Stop Being Clingy?
It’s impossible to stop being clingy if you don’t understand why you feel the need to seek constant reassurance or validation from your partner. Take the following steps to develop a healthier mindset:
Learn your attachment style. John Bowlby was a psychologist who fleshed out the idea of attachment theory — the concept that the way we relate to other people has its origins in our childhoods. The following are three attachment styles that may contribute to — or conflict with — healthy relationships:
- Secure attachment: These people are emotionally healthy and have a good sense of who they are and what they want in a relationship. They see themselves as separate individuals from their partners, understand emotional boundaries, and are generally confident in romantic relationships.
- Anxious attachment: These people may have not had their core needs met in childhood. They may have even been abandoned by a parent. As a result, they can be clingy, afraid of abandonment (even when there is no real threat), and preoccupied with thoughts of their partner.
- Avoidant attachment: These people may be dismissive or outright rejecting of a potential partner, or they may be scared of getting involved because they're afraid of potential abandonment. They may want to be loved and cared for, but they prevent themselves from engaging in a relationship to keep themselves from getting hurt.
Keep a clinginess journal. It can be enlightening (if somewhat embarrassing) to note when you feel the most clingy, what sparked the feeling, and what you did in response. Journaling is especially helpful if you have trouble understanding what triggers your clinginess — or if you’ve had several partners or friends refer to you as clingy but don’t know why.
Find a therapist. Sometimes there’s no substitute for breaking unhealthy patterns of behavior with a qualified mental health professional. If clinginess is a pattern in your life and this bothers you, seek out a practitioner that specializes in relationships, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or relationship trauma. There are many types of psychotherapy, so you may need to do research to find out which style and which type of practitioner you need.
Is There a Way to Develop a Secure Attachment to My Partner?
Absolutely. People with anxious and avoidant attachment styles can become secure with time, work, and often, the help of a more secure romantic partner. After all, if you’ve never seen a healthy, secure relationship (for example, if your parents were codependent, overbearing, or negligent), it’s going to be difficult to develop one without assistance.
If you feel that you have an anxious attachment style, it’s very important for you to avoid potential partners who have an avoidant attachment style: These partners will always stay at arm’s reach, resist opening up to you, and maybe even disappear for days without notice. All of these avoidant behaviors, aside from being unhealthy in general, will make you feel more anxious about your relationship and bring out your clinginess.
It's possible to find a healthy relationship that makes you feel happy and secure, though, instead of clingy. Look for a partner who demonstrates secure attachment qualities such as knowing when to give you space, communicating with empathy, and demonstrating emotional maturity. Work on yourself and uncover the cause of your clinginess. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you need it.