As a couples therapist, my couples often say that they are stuck in a dynamic where one partner is chasing or pursuing closeness and connection while the other shuts down or withdraws. They are confused by this dynamic and unsure how to break out of this cycle that ends with each person feeling hurt and alone. What helps many couples begin to understand each other is learning about attachment styles. If you are feeling stuck in a pattern of conflict and disconnection in your relationship, a deeper understanding of attachment styles can help you navigate your romantic relationships with more ease and harmony.

In my previous blog post on avoidant attachment style, I talked about the prevalence of different attachment styles, the origins of attachment styles, the signs of avoidant attachment, strategies to overcome avoidant attachment tendencies in yourself, and how to love someone with an avoidant attachment style. In this blog post, I want to focus on the anxious attachment style and dig deeper into this pattern of coping and communication in relationships. 

Origins of the Anxious Attachment Style

In a couple, the partner who is chasing or pursuing most likely has an anxious attachment style while the withdrawing partner most likely has an avoidant attachment style. Interestingly, anxious and avoidant people tend to be drawn to each other and form relationships with one another. This may be because they are each responding to the other in ways that remind them of their childhood attachment figures. As I wrote in the blog post on avoidant attachment style, attachment styles develop first in your relationship with your caregivers.

A person with an anxious attachment style most likely had parents who were inconsistently available to them. Sometimes they were there and sometimes they were not. On the one hand, if you had parents who were distracted by work, other children, their own mental health, etc., they did not have the bandwidth to attune to you in a predictable way that made you feel safe and secure. On the other hand, you may have had parents who overly depended on you for their emotional well-being and their need for love. You may have learned to perform, to be perfect, to act out, or to grow up quickly in order to get the love, attention, appreciation, and affirmation that you needed as a child. If you had acted out to get attention, you were told that you were “too much,” or labeled as “bad,” “selfish,” or “needy.”

 

What are the Signs of Anxious Attachment Style? 

Low Self-Esteem

People with an anxious attachment style may have high regard for their friends and loved ones but have a very poor view of themselves. They often struggle with feeling worthy, doubt their abilities, or question their loveability. They wonder whether they are “the problem” and blame themselves when things go wrong.

People-Pleasing

People with an anxious attachment style may have learned that pleasing others is a way to receive the love, praise, attention, and care that they needed growing up. People-pleasing may show up as:

  • Over-performing in their academics or extracurricular activities

  • Taking on extra duties and responsibilities around the home

  • Caring for their family members physically or emotionally

  • Becoming the “golden child” or their parents’ “mini-me” 

  • Being the helper, giver, and fixer in the family whom everyone goes to for support

Perfectionism

For both anxious and avoidantly attached individuals, perfectionism can become a coping strategy for the lack of emotional attunement and support in the family. 

Fear of Rejection or Abandonment

Children who grew up not knowing if and when their parents are available and if their needs will be met may develop an anxious attachment style. In this context of uncertainty, abandonment is always a looming threat. These children learned to be hypervigilant about signs of rejection and abandonment and developed strategies to prevent this from happening. As adults, they are always on the lookout for signs of danger. This hypervigilance may show up as frequently asking for reassurance, needing constant contact, feeling jealous of their partner’s other relationships, and checking for signs of infidelity. 

Difficulty Setting and Accepting Boundaries 

This means that saying “no” to people is hard and receiving a “no” from others can be devastating. Individuals with an anxious attachment style may have a hard time setting boundaries with others because they don’t want other people to feel rejected. They may have a hard time accepting other people’s boundaries because they interpret a “no” as their needs are invalid or not deserving to be met.

Preoccupation with Relationships

Individuals with an anxious attachment style may think about their relationships a lot. They may ruminate over small interactions that did not seem to go well. They may feel desperate and panicked when someone, especially their partner, has an unresolved conflict with them or is upset with them. Compared to someone with avoidant attachment who may feel that space and distance are comforting after a conflict, a person with anxious attachment may be in such distress that they cannot fully function. The anxious partners may be unable to sleep, unable to concentrate on work, or lose their appetite if there is an unresolved conflict and connection is not reestablished right away.

Sensitivity to Other's Moods, Wants, and Needs 

People with insecure attachment styles (avoidant, anxious, and ambivalent/disorganized) are all sensitive to other’s moods, wants, and needs. This is because they grew up in environments where their family’s moods, wants, and needs can change quickly and dangerously.

Resentment and Criticism Toward Their Partners

People with an anxious attachment style want to create closeness in their relationships and will fight for that closeness when it is disrupted. This fighting for closeness can sometimes come out as (1) doing everything to “fix” the relationship and then feeling resentful, and/or (2) criticizing their partners in the hopes that they will spur their partner into action.

Difficulty Regulating Their Emotions

Whereas people with an avoidant attachment style have a hard time recognizing and expressing their emotions, people with an anxious attachment style have a hard time regulating their emotions. People with an avoidant attachment style have learned to turn down their emotions while people with an anxious attachment style have learned to turn up their emotions in response to similar dilemmas in their childhood - lack of emotional responsiveness and support from their caregivers. Individuals with an anxious attachment style struggle with managing their emotions and often feel that their emotions are spiraling out of control. They may say or do things during a fight that they later regret. In relationships with an avoidant partner, the anxious partner may feel even more escalated and unable to regulate when the avoidant partner is unresponsive, dismissive, stonewalling, or angry. 

 

How to Overcome Anxious Attachment Style in Yourself

If you have an anxious attachment style, you are not alone. The first step is to understand that this attachment style developed as a coping mechanism in your childhood. The second step is to feel compassion for yourself, the challenges you had to go through, and how your attachment style protected you. The third step is to see how your attachment style is now preventing you from establishing the kind of healthy relationships you desire. Now you are ready to make the change. Becoming more securely attached is possible and you can begin by:

  • Take time to feel and validate your feelings and then share them when you feel calm

  • Practice self-compassion, self-acceptance and self-love

  • Develop a healthy sense of your strengths and areas of growth

  • Learn to set good boundaries with yourself and know what is your responsibility (e.g., your emotions, your actions, your decisions) and what is the responsibility of others (e.g., their emotions, their actions, their decisions) 

  • Practice reassuring yourself that you are ok, enough, adequate, and good even when other people do not agree with you, value you, or are disappointed with you 

  • Learn to validate and meet your own needs even if other people cannot at that moment 

  • Learn to ask for what you need from a place of vulnerability rather than using blame and criticism to spur action in the other person

Learn to Love Someone with an Anxious Attachment Style 

If you are in a relationship with someone with an anxious attachment style, you can learn more about this style and help your anxious partner become more secure. If you can understand their worldview, their behaviors will make a lot of sense. They are chasing and pursuing closeness with you out of a good place, even if their strategies are ineffective. They are hopeful that things can change and be better and from that place of hope, they fight for the relationship. You can reflect on how your behaviors may be triggering or unhelpful to them. For example, if you withhold validation and reassurance because you think that will create more dependence, you may inadvertently be escalating their panic and fear. 

You can be supportive of your anxious partner by: 

  • Provide consistent reassurance and validation of your presence, love, and availability 

  • Communicate clearly your intentions and the reasons behind your actions 

  • Share with them regularly your vulnerable emotions and your insecurities

  • Encourage them to ask for help and to practice saying “no” 

  • Initiate difficult conversations

Find a Great Couples Therapist in Seattle 

If you and your partner are struggling with different attachment styles or getting stuck in negative cycles, you may benefit from the support of an experienced couples therapist. Here at Thrive for the People, we use the evidence-based and research-backed approach of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) to work with our couples. Our seasoned couples therapists will work with you to understand the deeper issues that create the blocks in your relationship and help you get unstuck. Contact us today by scheduling a 15-minute phone consultation to see if one of our couples and marriage counselors is a good fit for you. 

 

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