Anxious attachment style is one of four attachment styles proposed by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. According to attachment theory, the relationships you had in childhood with your parents or primary caregiver can shape the way you navigate intimate relationships with loved ones as an adult. It specifically looks at the way your caregivers would respond or not to your needs, thus teaching you how to get your needs met.
The other three types of attachment styles are avoidant attachment, disorganized attachment, and secure attachment. Anxious, avoidant, and disorganized attachment all fall under the category of “insecure attachment style”.
An anxious attachment style is characterized by anxiety and insecurity about the relationship, which creates a fear of rejection or abandonment, and a constant need for reassurance.
Also known as ambivalent or preoccupied attachment, anxious attachment style is a lot more common than you might think. Some research suggests around 20% of people have an anxious attachment style.
If you think you or your partner might fall into that category, keep reading to learn about anxious attachment style in relationships, what causes it, and how to navigate it.
“Someone with an anxious attachment style is typically preoccupied with feelings of insecurity in their relationships and struggles to truly feel secure in being lovable,” explains Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Relationship Expert at Paired.
“An anxious attachment style leaves one person always feeling very unsettled in the relationship,” she adds. “So even in satisfying relationships, it can often cause a block to intimacy because one partner craves reassurance, while the other partner feels connected and sure about the relationship. It can even leave their partner feeling like they’re doing something wrong and like they aren’t enough.”
One study suggests that it can also affect trust in a romantic relationship, while another study found that an anxiously attached person may experience lower relationship satisfaction, compared to those with a secure attachment style.
Needing constant reassurance or validation
Feeling insecure or that you’re “not enough” for your partner
Worrying that your partner is unhappy with you
Coming across as needy, jealous, or possessive
Fear of abandonment (such as worrying that your partner will break up with you)
Craving consistent communication
Expressing deep fear over being alone
Difficulty setting and maintaining healthy relationship boundaries
Worrying about your partner's needs over your own needs
Feeling unlikable or unlovable
Having low self-esteem or sense of self-worth
An anxious attachment can develop in early childhood if a parent or caregiver was physically or emotionally absent, distant, or didn’t meet your emotional needs. Inconsistent parenting and childhood experiences can all impact adult attachment later in life.
“Anxious attachment stems from childhood abandonment,” explains Seeger DeGeare. “That abandonment influenced the stories a person tells themselves about who they are and how they belong in the world. It can be larger moments of abandonment or smaller events that consistently gave them the message that they don’t belong.”
Some common anxious attachment triggers include:
A partner not replying to calls or texts
Perceiving a threat to the relationship (real or imagined), such as seeing someone flirt with your partner, or your partner bringing up a problem in the relationship
A partner going out alone with friends or coming home late
Being away from a partner, such as for work or a holiday
Low body image or self-confidence
A partner who behaves unpredictably or inconsistently
A partner who is emotionally distant
A partner forgetting important events, such as birthdays, or relationship milestones, such as anniversaries.
Although it’s entirely possible to change your attachment style, Seeger DeGeare cautions that it’s not about “fixing” an anxious attachment, but rather learning to recognize patterns or triggers.
By knowing what situations can make an anxious attachment show up, you can develop healthier coping skills that will help you feel more relaxed and connected, and have a better chance for deeper intimacy with your partner.
“It’s also worth noting that in many long-term relationships, people move from anxious to securely attached, and during certain situations or even with different people, the anxious attachment style will still show up,” adds Seeger DeGeare.
“It’s important to lean into the flowing nature of attachment styles, and our partner's communication skills and ability to be introspective can help move to a more secure attachment.”