Understanding Anxious Attachment and How to Deal With It
We all crave attention, support, and appreciation from our family and friends. It is natural to want to be loved, valued, and appreciated to feel secure in our relationships. We think it is customary to fear losing the love and support of our near ones. So craving for love, support, and emotional responsiveness of our near ones is a natural emotion. However, sometimes the emotional need for love and fear of adornment becomes so strong that it overshadows our logic and hampers our relationships. In these scenarios, our fear and need for constant assurance control our relationships and eventually spoil them. Such a strong need for continuous validation, assurance, and support from our near ones is called anxious attachment.
What Is an Anxious Attachment?
The theory about anxious attachment was first proposed by John Bowlby in the 1950s. John Bowlby, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, said that a child’s relationship with their parents or caregivers forms the basis of how they will respond to other relationships in their lives and behave in social interactions when they grow up. This implies that for every person, their relationship with their parents during childhood defines their interactions and behavior throughout their life.
For example, a child brought up in a loving and caring environment with all the emotional needs met by their parents will develop into a secure person. The fulfilling relationship with their parents makes them know that their parents will recognize all their needs and emotions and always love and support them. However, when a child feels that their parents are not fulfilling their emotional needs, they don’t have a strong and secure bond with their parents. Such children grow up with distorted perceptions about relationships. When their emotional needs are not met, they cling to their parents and become desperate for attention. They experience anxiousness about their relationship and need repeated assurances in words or actions to feel secure.
For people whose emotional needs are not met, the best way to get attention from their parents is to cling to them. They develop an anxious attachment with their parents or caregivers, later reflected in their adult relationships. So, anxious attachment refers to the anxiety felt by a person in their relationships with their parents, partner, or friends. Anxious attachment stems from insecurity, making the person constantly need attention and assurance to feel secure in the relationship.
Types of Attachment
Attachment can be generally categorized into four styles. They are:
1. Anxious preoccupied
People with anxious attachment are not secure in their relationships. All their happiness and feeling of safety are dependent on their partner and how they treat the person. To feel secure in their relationship, they tend to manipulate their partner for attention or cling to them to avoid being left alone.
2. Dismissive avoidant
People with dismissive avoidant attachment move away from people as they feel their needs will not be met. Instead of connecting with others, they rely on themselves to avoid disappointment when their expectations are not fulfilled. They tend to crave independence and find dealing with or showing emotions difficult.
3. Fearful avoidant
People with fearful avoidant attachment lack a coherent understanding of relationships. They want relationships and love but, at the same time, are terrified to let anyone in their life. Their intense fear of getting hurt by their near ones makes them avoid proximity with others. The difference between dismissive and fearful attachments is that people with fearful attachments crave relationships but avoid them actively out of fear.
People with secure attachment had a secure and trustful relationship with their parents. Such children grow up as trusting, trustworthy, and confident adults who know their worth and accept their partners like they are. They don’t need to play manipulative games to attract their partner’s attention and care. They address their and their partner’s grievances with maturity without getting defensive.
Causes of Anxious Attachment
How does anxious attachment develop, and what are its causes? Anxious attachment is mainly caused by incidents or emotions faced by people during their childhood. Some causes for anxious attachment are:
1. Over-protective parents
Some parents are overprotective of their kids or are highly attached to them. They fulfill their need for attention and appreciation through their child. The extra intrusiveness of parents in their kid’s life can cause anxious attachment in kids.
2. Lack of consistency in the parents’ actions
Some parents have varying actions towards their kids. Sometimes they are caring while occasionally being neglectful of their kids. These inconsistent actions make the child unsure of their parents and worry about whether they will fulfill their emotional needs.
3. Trauma or distress
Trauma or stressful incidents are also a significant cause of anxious attachment in kids. Stressful situations, such as the death of a parent, divorce, extreme poverty, or abuse, could be the possible reasons for developing anxious attachment.
4. Extreme parenting styles
Over-controlling parents won’t allow even the slightest freedom to their kids, thereby fostering anxious attachment in the kids. Similarly, parents who are not focused on their kids and are absent from their lives also foster anxious attachment in them.
Signs of Anxious Attachment Type
It’s not difficult to detect anxious attachment in both children and adults. Many signs indicate that the child or adult has developed anxious attachment. There are many common signs which are typical for both adults and children to indicate anxious attachment. However, there are certain signs which are specifically present in adults and children.
Common signs of anxious attachment are:
- Yearning for intimacy
- Low confidence and self-worth
- Fear of abandonment
- Overthinking or negative thinking
- Manipulative actions to gain attention
- A constant need for reassurances of being loved
Anxious Attachment in Children
In children, signs of anxious attachment are:
- Feeling upset when their parent or caregiver is away from them
- Inconsolable crying on separation with a parent or caregiver
- Clinging to their parents or caregiver
- Reduced interest in exploring surroundings in the absence of guardian
- Generally anxious disposition
- Frequent whining
- No interaction with strangers
- No control over negative thoughts
- Poor peer interactions
- Display of aggressive behavior
Anxious Attachment in Adults
Signs of anxious attachment in adults are:
- Difficulty in trusting others
- Low self-esteem
- Anxiety over their partner leaving them
- Craving for intimacy and closeness
- Over-dependence on their partner
- Suppressing self needs and desires
- Requiring frequent assurances to feel they are cared about
- Over sensitiveness over their partner’s words, moods, and actions
- Highly emotional, moody, and unpredictable
Can Anxious Attachment Affect Your Relationship?
Anxious attachment can affect any and every relationship. Strong relationships are happy, secure, and based on the trust of people in the relationship. In contrast, relationships with a person with anxious attachment are tiring for the other people in the relationship. The constant up-and-down emotional levels lead to irritation and frustration, resulting in stress, anxiety, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness. The anxious attachment can make the relationship life-threatening or life-saving, or both, depending on the person who has anxious attachment. However, primarily, anxious attachment brings fear of abandonment and rejection in the relationship.
The person having anxious attachment suffers from low-esteem, insecurity and is easily disappointed at the most trivial things and worries their partner will leave them. The constant doubt and anxiety spoil the relationship, as the anxious person starts to hurt or suffocate their partner due to their insecurities. The other person becomes distant and cold with time after spending months or years consistently clearing doubts and insecurities of their anxious partner. A strong person who can keep demonstrating their love and care can manage a healthy and happy relationship with an anxious attachment person. However, it doesn’t mean people having anxious attachments can never have happy relationships. When they recognize their anxious attachment and learn to handle it with strategies or treatment, they can enjoy healthy and happy relationships.
Strategies to Handle Anxious Attachment
Anxious attachment doesn’t mean the person is incapable of forming relationships. With efforts, patience, and coping strategies, a person with anxious attachment can have good relationships. Some crucial strategies to handle anxious attachment are:
- Recognize that you have an anxious attachment style. Once you recognize the anxious attachment behaviors, you can work on overcoming them. Self-awareness is most crucial in overcoming anxious attachment.
- Learn in detail about the anxious attachment style to have a better understanding of the issue and yourself.
- Going for anxious attachment therapy with the parents or partner is helpful for relationships.
- A person with an anxious attachment style should choose a partner with a secure attachment style. Recognizing whether your partner’s attachment style is increasing or decreasing your attachment anxiety is essential.
- Deciding to move on from the past to make a new life with new choices is vital. Focusing on your past experiences is not healthy.
- Recognize people or incidents that trigger your attachment anxiety. It would help in the future to control your attachment anxiety by staying away from anxious attachment triggers.
Treatment for Anxious Attachment
You can cure anxious attachment with certain treatments and behavioral changes. Some things that can help in treating anxious attachment are:
Taking treatment from a therapist experienced in healing anxious attachment can help you with your attachment anxiety. A therapist with whom you can freely discuss your life experiences and childhood can help you handle your current condition.
The therapies for treating anxious attachment are similar to people for age groups. The treatments involve cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or couple therapy or family therapy for people who cannot move on from their anxious attachment due to top family issues. Therapies provide support to form a safe and trustworthy relationship with their therapist to understand their challenges and emotions to foster healthy attachment.
Therapy alone can be effective in healing childhood traumas. It can also assist you in understanding how to change old coping strategies to be on the way to becoming the person you want.
2. Learn to express feelings
Most anxious attachment develops in the absence of good communication. Once a person understands that their parent or partner cannot understand their needs or vice-a-versa, they can improve their communication. Sometimes, due to lack of communication, expectations remain unfulfilled. So once the child understands that their parents are not avoiding them or are being over-protective for some genuine reason, they feel more secure and develop trust in their parents. Similarly, when two partners talk openly about their expectations, they can improve their relationship. Expressing feelings and emotions enables better communication and stronger relationships.
3. Maintain a journal
Record your feelings, thoughts, experiences, and reactions in a journal. Writing and then later reading them will make you better understand your attachment anxiety. Even when undergoing therapy, it is an effective method to reinforce the new ways of coping. Maintain a progress journal and keep a constant focus on improvement between therapy sessions. A journal holds you responsible and helps you stay focused on your goals. For children, an art journal can be a creative outlet to help them express and channel their emotions.
4. Behavioral adjustments
Once you understand your anxious attachment style better, you know what triggers it. Now you can make behavioral changes to cope with your attachment anxiety better. Shifting your focus from negative to positive things can make you see brighter sides and lessen your anxiety.
Having an anxious attachment style doesn’t mean you are incapable of forming strong relationships. You can handle anxious attachment with therapy and strategies and by understanding your deep-rooted fears. Once you start to understand and love yourself, you can easily overcome the challenge of anxious attachment to live a healthy life with secure relationships.