Attachment Anxiety: What It Is And How It Affects Your Relationships
Updated May 11, 2021
Human beings are social animals, and it’s our natural tendency to form attachments to others. These attachments keep us feeling secure, loved, and cared for. However, some people may develop an anxious attachment strategy for various reasons when forming and maintaining relationships. This anxiety can result in exactly what the anxious person may fear most: the relationship's premature end.
To understand attachment anxiety, it’s helpful to know the theory behind attachment. Attachment theory comes from British psychologist John Bowlby, positing that humans have an inherent need to form an attachment to a caregiver early in life. This caregiver acts as an attachment figure, and this early attachment strongly influences the child’s development. Different attachment styles are formed during infancy, affecting the experience, expression, and regulation of emotions.
As Bowlby and his colleagues called it, the attachment system primarily served two functions: preventing potential threats and managing negative emotions after such a risk occurs. Bowlby came up with attachment theory by observing infants’ behavior when they were separated from their caregivers. They clung, cried, or frantically searched in a frenzied attempt at preventing separation or finding a missing caregiver. According to Bowlby, these strategies exemplified an adaptive behavior to re-establish security and care. After all, infants are highly dependent on others for food and safety. In sum, the attachment system is this motivational feedback loop in which infants express contentment when a caregiver is near and anxiety when a caregiver is nowhere to be seen.
Attachment theory also outlines a number of attachment styles. Mary Ainsworth, a colleague of Bowlby’s, further developed attachment theory to define different attachment styles. Her “strange situation” experiment, in which children were separated from attachment figures in a lab setting, identified three types of attachment.
The secure attachment style is the most common form of attachment. Children with secure attachment expressed negative emotions when separated from their caregiver but were easily comforted when reunited with him or her. Ainsworth’s study found that roughly 60% of children express a secure attachment style.
Avoidant attachment style was also identified in Ainsworth’s expansion of attachment theory. Avoidant children didn’t express distress when separated from their caregivers and actively avoided them even when they were reintroduced to the room, diverting their attention elsewhere. The study found that about 20% of children exhibit this attachment style.
The third attachment style in attachment theory is anxious-resistant. In the strange situation, children with this attachment style started ill-at-ease and expressed extreme distress when separated from their caregiver. When the caregiver returned to the room, they remained inconsolable, seemingly wishing to be comforted while also wanting to punish the caregiver for leaving. Similar to avoidant attachment, about 20% of children express anxious attachment.
Adult Attachment Styles
While attachment theory was originally developed to explain behaviors between infants and caregivers, some researchers have found the same attachment styles in adult relationships, especially romantic ones. The behaviors may be somewhat different, but adult attachment functions in much the same way. Adults in romantic relationships often rely on each other as attachment figures, going to them for comfort and distressed when separated. Those with recurring relationship problems could be exhibiting avoidant or anxious-resistant attachment styles.
When it comes to attachment style and gender, there is some evidence that there may be a connection. Currently, however, few studies have been conducted on the topic. While it may align with the widespread belief that men tend to be more avoidant and women anxious in romantic relationships, little evidence supports this. Besides, broad generalizations won’t solve individual cases, varying widely, no matter the partner’s gender. What matters most is how you feel in your relationships.
Your attachment style affects your relationships in a way you may not realize, as people form their attachment strategies rather early in life. The variance in attachment styles among young children is about the same among adults. However, this by no means equates to a static attachment pattern.
You can figure out your attachment type by reading the book Attached by psychologists Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, which delves deeper into attachment theory, defines the different attachment types, and how to adjust your behavior depending on your attachment type. This book may indeed be helpful to anyone having relationship problems, not just anxious types.
What Is Attachment Anxiety?
Early on in a relationship, people might feel anxiety when forming an attachment. There is the anticipation of meeting and forging greater intimacy, as well as a whole host of fears related to becoming closer to someone. Yet attachment anxiety usually goes beyond the usual anxious excitement and can continue even as the relationship progresses.
Attachment anxiety stems from the anxious-resistant attachment style. In adults, attachment anxiety may be expressed through repeated attempts to seek love and reassurance from others. People with attachment anxiety often have difficulty believing that their partner will be for them in times of need, regardless of the partner’s behavior to the contrary. This anxiety can show up in other types of relationships, not just between partners or parents.
Anxious attachment style has many of the same hallmarks of anxiety in general but is directed at relationships. Attachment anxiety often, but not always, goes hand-in-hand with many anxiety disorders, especially social anxiety. However, plenty of people with an anxious attachment style don’t necessarily experience a mental disorder. The difference is the frequency, severity, and degree of disruption to day-to-day life.
How Does It Impact Relationships?
Anxiously attached people may often experience relationship problems. They might sense an absence of the attachment from an unresponsive partner, even if the partner is merely busy and not being avoidant. They might immediately become insecure if a partner doesn’t reply to a text in a couple of hours and call or text repeatedly to stay in contact if the partner is far away. While some separation anxiety is normal in close relationships, anxious types may experience a severe form of separation anxiety when a partner is away, impacting their ability to function. An anxious person may also act controlling and aggressive, asking their partner overly specific questions or forbidding them from contacting others deemed threats.
Attachment anxiety’s impact on relationships often depends on the style of the other partner. A relationship between an anxious and avoidant type can be particularly disastrous. Anxious types who get into relationships with avoidant types often have their anxiety confirmed again and again, as their partner continually pushes them away, no matter how much they cling to them. With this experience, anxious types may be surprised by a person's behavior with a secure attachment, even while they always follow the same attachment patterns. The constant need for reassurance may put off even people with a secure attachment style, especially if it continues.
If unaddressed, anxious attachment behaviors often result in the destructive end of a relationship. In the case of breakups, those with attachment anxiety may experience even worse anxiety in the aftermath. They might become preoccupied with the former partner, angrily protest against the breakup, or turn to drugs and alcohol to cope. This can lead to a host of other issues that go well beyond anxiety alone.
However, anxious attachment types aren’t doomed to relationship failure. People with insecure attachment styles make up a large portion of the population, so anxious or avoidant attachment strategies aren’t necessarily signs of the disorder. No one is really sure why these insecure attachment strategies are so prevalent. However, the fact is that many people are still able to forge healthy, long-lasting relationships regardless of attachment type. In fact, many do end up in secure long-term relationships, no matter whether the partner has a secure or insecure attachment style.
A fulfilling relationship is possible even between anxious and avoidant types, as long as both acknowledge their tendencies and work on improving them together. And it’s not because they magically meet “the one,” but because they happen to find someone willing to work with them on managing their anxiety. Or they have decided to work on it themselves, opening up the possibility of entering a stable, secure relationship later on.
Overcoming Attachment Anxiety
Considering that researchers first identified attachment styles among infants, is it possible to change your attachment style? The jury is still out on a definitive answer, but some have found that changing your attachment style is possible. One study conducted over four years found that one in four people do, in fact, successfully change their attachment style. Regardless of a person’s attachment style at infancy, that strategy may change if the attachment pattern's expectations do not match their experience.
Regardless of one’s attachment strategy, it is still possible to form secure attachments that last. It can be challenging to feel attachment security when you have attachment anxiety, but attachment anxiety can be managed and even overcome with more than a little effort. If you feel you have attachment anxiety, it may be reasonable to assess your expectations in a relationship and evaluate whether these are realistic and adequately met.
It’s best to start with some introspection and examine your relationships, romantic and otherwise. How did your partner behave when you expressed attachment anxiety? Did their behavior reflect the expectations set up by your attachment anxiety? If not, then where does the anxiety come from? It can be difficult to work through these questions independently, so therapy may help give you some perspective on attachment anxiety. If you feel comfortable with online therapy at home, the licensed mental health professionals at ReGain may be able to help work through your anxious attachment strategies. Whatever the best method for you, there is a way to manage and overcome your attachment anxiety.
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