8 Signs of Attachment Issues in Relationships

Can attachment issues affect relationships, and what are the warning signs?
on June 17, 2024
Read time: 10 mins
by Laura Caruso LMHC

Forming a secure healthy emotional bond is the goal of all romantic relationships. 

However, the presence of underlying attachment issues can corrupt this pursuit of love, with early childhood experiences affecting your ability to form healthy attachments. While attachment styles are not officially diagnosed, they can provide a helpful barometer for understanding how we operate in relationships, and why we react the way we do. 

So, what do attachment issues look like as an adult? Discover how to spot signs of attachment issues, and understand how they’re affecting your relationships in our expert-led guide. 

What are attachment issues? 

Attachment issues refer to difficulties in forming and maintaining emotional bonds with others, often originating from early childhood experiences with primary caregivers.

This concept is rooted in attachment theory, which defines a direct connection between adolescent attachments and these early experiences. 

“Attachment is a critical bond between children and caregivers that later informs relationship dynamics as adults,” says Laura Caruso, a licensed therapist and relationship expert. 

“Difficulties with attachment in adult relationships develop as a result of inconsistent, chaotic, or challenging relationships with caregivers in early childhood.”

Based on these experiences, you can either develop a secure or insecure attachment style. While attachment theory is perhaps the most commonly referenced theory when it comes to emotional bonds, they are not diagnosable conditions like attachment disorders. 

What are some attachment issues examples? 

When following attachment theory, which was developed by John Bowlby, there are specific manifestations of attachment issues in adulthood. 

Four attachment styles are widely accepted in psychotherapy, these are:

Separate from this are attachment disorders, which are diagnosable conditions by medical professionals under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 

The most common are Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder (DSED). RAD usually occurs due to early childhood mistreatment or neglect and can result in adolescent effects such as difficulty with social interactions, maintaining relationships, impulsivity, and trust issues. 

DSED is another childhood attachment disorder that manifests in the first two years of life, as a result of neglect from providers. DSED is common in children who were raised in foster care, orphanages, or other forms of social care. 

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, common symptoms of DSED in childhood include hyperactivity, lack of social boundaries, and extreme socialability. In adulthood, this can appear as similar behavioral problems if relevant treatment options are not considered. 

What triggers attachment issues in adults?

Attachment issues are carried over from your childhood experiences, affecting all of your adult relationships. Therefore, serious romantic relationships or social interactions might heighten or trigger an engrained response — highlighting attachment issues that were present. 

Adult relationships can either reinforce or mitigate early attachment patterns. For instance, if an individual with a history of insecure attachment repeatedly encounters rejection or betrayal in romantic relationships, it can exacerbate their attachment issues. 

On the other hand, a supportive and healthy relationship can actually help individuals develop more secure attachment patterns. However, the dynamics within relationships, such as communication styles, conflict resolution strategies, and emotional availability, play a significant role in either triggering or soothing attachment anxieties.

Understanding your triggers, or why you’re acting a certain way in a relationship, is a helpful first step when healing your attachment wounds. This understanding can help your loved one respond in a way that’s fitting to your needs.

For example, instead of labeling you as ‘clingy’ or reacting negatively to your mood swings, openly communicating your triggers can help you heal and form a fulfilling bond with your partner. 

How do you know if you have attachment issues?

Identifying attachment issues starts with self-reflection, as you look into why you might be acting in a certain way — especially in romantic relationships. 

“Insecure attachment typically falls into three categories: anxious, avoidant, or disorganized,” says Caruso. 

“Signs of insecure attachment include clinginess, dependency, difficulty expressing feelings, avoiding serious conversations, and a fear of trusting others.”

Locating your attachment issues starts by identifying your behavioral patterns, and assessing your emotional responses in relationships. Depending on your attachment style, there are a variety of signs that indicate the presence of these issues — from a fear of abandonment to emotional withdrawal. While these signs should not be used as an official assessment, they could be used as a starting point for self-reflection.

Signs you have attachment issues

  1. Intimacy issues: Struggling to form close relationships or feeling uncomfortable with emotional closeness can indicate attachment issues. For example, avoiding intimacy, even when desiring a deep connection, could indicate an avoidant attachment. 

  2. Fear of abandonment: Are you afraid your partner will wake up one day and no longer want to be with you? This could indicate a fear of abandonment, resulting in clingy behaviors usually associated with anxious attachment. 

  3. Trust issues: While your partner may give you no reason not to trust them, you can’t help overanalyzing their intentions. This can push your partner away, as while your fears are based on past experiences — they may not understand this. 

  4. Intense emotional responses: Have you ever noticed that your emotional responses are not aligned with your partner's indiscretions? While no one wants to be told they’re overreacting, this kind of response can indicate underlying attachment issues. 

  5. Emotional withdrawal: When issues arise in the relationship, you might feel overwhelmed, and react by totally distancing yourself from the situation. This emotional withdrawal or shutdown can indicate issues with attachment. 

  6. Self-sabotage: Even if your relationship is going well, you might start to self-sabotage without realizing it. This can be seen as a preemptive strike so that you don’t end up as the one getting hurt. 

  7. Overdependence: If you have an insecure attachment style, it can often lead to codependency issues. You might start to rely excessively on your partner for attention, affection, and approval. 

  8. Reassurance: While needing reassurance in a relationship is normal, an excessive need for reassurance can be taxing on your partner. 

How to deal with attachment issues?

Healing attachment issues can’t happen overnight, with self-reflection, understanding, and evolving keys to growth. 

“Attachment work is a process of unlearning,” says Caruso. 

“Core behaviors rooted in early childhood development are slow to evolve, and self-compassion should remain at the center of change.” 

  1. Consider the causes. Attachment issues are rooted in the experiences of young children. Did you experience any childhood trauma? “Explore early attachment experiences and self-reflect on how these relationships shaped your current attachment patterns,” says Caruso. Consider how your close relationships from childhood might have affected your attachment style in your adolescent behaviors. 

  2. Be compassionate. Working through attachment problems is no easy feat. “Practice self-compassion for emotional “wounds” resulting from past attachment disruptions or traumas,” says Caruso.

  3. Discover secure attachments. What do healthy bonds look like? Discover more about healthy attachments (both in platonic and romantic relationships) and dive into the concepts of attachment theory. “Learn from relational models who have secure, healthy relationships,” says Caruso. 

  4. Get to the root of the problem. Look back at your relationship with your primary caregiver and how this relationship might have affected you in the long run. It’s not about blaming anyone, but understanding how your emotional attachments evolved with adolescence. “Identify negative and distorted thoughts related to attachment, like fears of abandonment or beliefs about unworthiness, and work towards reframing them,” says Caruso. 

  5. Confront the issues. While it’s difficult to confront these issues head-on, with the understanding of how greatly they can affect your relationships — it’s important to try and work through these attachment difficulties for the sake of your own well-being. “Challenge yourself to confront situations that scare you, like sharing your emotions with your partner or initiating intimacy,” says Caruso. 

  6. Be open about your struggles. Attachment issues can lead to difficulty trusting others, low self-esteem, and a distorted sense of self. If your partner is left in the dark about your potential insecure attachment style, it can make it very difficult for them to understand your relationship dynamic. “Communicate your challenges to your partner and explore ways to navigate these situations as a team,” says Caruso. 

  7. Healing takes time. You can’t dismantle your entire adolescent psychiatry overnight! “Remind yourself often that you are rewiring decades of learned behavior, which requires patience—it’s ok if it takes time to adapt to new habits,” says Caruso. 

  8. Self-care. While you’re working through coping strategies and treatment plans, you should be extra mindful of your own mental health. Take it easy Practice mindfulness to attachment anxiety by promoting a sense of calm and presence, helping you feel more secure and less dependent on external validation.

Attachment-based therapy can be instrumental in addressing and healing these deep-seated patterns by providing a safe and supportive environment to explore and reframe early attachment experiences. 

Working with a mental health professional in family therapy, or considering cognitive behavioral therapy, can help you on your path to healing so you can work towards forming healthy attachments going forward. 

“If you’re struggling to shift into more secure patterns of behavior, seek professional guidance from a therapist or counselor,” says Caruso. 

“Together, you’ll deconstruct limiting beliefs to create meaningful change.”

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the 4 types of attachment issues?

    There are four recognized attachment styles, secure, avoidant, anxious, and disorganized. While these are not official diagnoses, they can help you understand how you form emotional bonds and how this affects your relationships in adulthood.
  • How common is reactive attachment disorder?

    The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th Edition (DSM-5) classifies reactive attachment disorder as a trauma and stressor-related condition of early childhood caused by social neglect and maltreatment. According to studies, it occurs in about 1-2% of children and should always be professionally diagnosed.
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