Attachment Series Part 2: Anxious Preoccupied

Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC

Calling someone "clingy" never has good connotations. Even when talking about a child, the word insinuates we'd rather they be something else. That's because most people perceive "clingy" to be the same as "desperate" and "codependent." 

The truth is that people learn this behavior in childhood, and it runs far deeper than seeking attention. Independence and dependence need to go hand-in-hand to be balanced. For those with an anxious preoccupied attachment style, they learned to lean too far into dependence.

What Does Anxious Preoccupied Attachment Look Like in Adults?

You've probably had a friend that throws themselves completely into romantic relationships. Maybe you've even been that person.

They seem to become serious overnight. All they can talk about is that person as if everything in their life revolves around this new partner.

This example is just one way that anxious attachment can present itself. We're most familiar with it in romantic relationships, but it can be very apparent in friendships or mentorships.

Another common trait is the need for reassurance. This hypothetical friend might show what feels like a lack of "emotional object permanence." One day, you might tell them how much they mean to you. But a few days later, they ask if you're still friends.

Other traits of someone with this attachment style are:

  • Fear of being away from that person
  • Low self-esteem
  • Searching for external validation
  • Others call them "needy" 

Someone with this attachment style often needs a lot of reassurance in their relationships and works overtime to keep others happy to "earn" love. They feel insecure or anxious that someone they're close to might leave them.

Causes of Anxious Preoccupied Attachment Style

It's well established that what happens in childhood determines how we act in adulthood. First and foremost, these patterns start with how our parents or caregivers treat us. 

As infants and toddlers, attention and love are almost as important as food and shelter. How guardians give attention to us determines how we view the rest of our close relationships.

Inconsistency Leading to Anxiety

Inconsistent attention from caregivers causes anxious preoccupied attachment to develop in babies. Babies cry when they need something from their parents, usually the mother. If the mother continually responds to the cries, the baby trusts them. 

However, if the mother responds only sometimes, the baby doesn't know if they can count on the mother to fulfill their needs. As we age, this translates into interpreting any perceived lapse of affection as neglect.

Anxious Attachment vs. Ambivalent Attachment

In adults, "anxious attachment" presents itself as anxiety around relationships. Those with anxious attachments feel a lot of fear and uncertainty.

We don't have those feelings or understand them when we're children. Mary Ainsworth was the first to lay out different attachment styles. She described anxious attachment in children as insecure resistant or insecure ambivalent.

In Ainsworth's experiments, the children with insecure attachment cried when they needed soothing but didn't reach for their mothers. These babies knew they needed something, but not who they should turn to for help. Because the affection they received happened so inconsistently, they never learned to turn to their mother for comfort.

As ambivalently attached children become adults, not knowing who to turn to for affection becomes doubting. Unless they're doused or desperately seeking it, adoration may feel unknown.

How to Cope with Anxious Preoccupied Attachment Style

These behaviors can make maintaining healthy relationships very difficult. They were learned so young, during arguably the most critical relationship and developmental stage in life. However, learning healthier habits is possible with some work.

If You Have Anxious Preoccupied Tendencies

Altering anxious behavior can help you in every relationship. Anxious preoccupied attachment is most apparent in romantic relationships but can occur in any interpersonal relationship.

  1. Healthy Communication—Talk to your partner about your anxieties, don't go through their phone to "catch" them. Sometimes writing in a journal can help you organize your feelings before you talk to someone. Listen to them—they might not know that something they're doing is triggering your anxiety.

  1. Self-Care—Internalize your self-worth. Do something that makes you feel good about yourself, like exercising, eating a little candy, spending time outside, or drinking lots of water. It could be anything that makes you feel cared for and happy.

  1. Create a Support Network—We inherently need support from others. Humans are social creatures. However, we need more than one person. Having a varied support network of friends, family, and colleagues takes some pressure off your partner while creating space to fill your emotional needs.  

Is it a long time between texts? Did they mention a previous relationship? Learning your triggers can also help you get ahead of anxious feelings. Focus on working through your feelings in those moments. Some breathing and mindfulness techniques can help you cope with anxiety in relationships. 

If Your Partner Has Anxious Preoccupied Tendencies

Being with a partner with an anxious attachment style can feel overwhelming. However, support without enabling can help them work through their anxiety.

  1. Active Listening—Acknowledge that your partner is having a hard time. Try to understand their perspective before you talk about yours.

  1. Clear, Consistent Communication—Tell your partner you understand them and reassure them that they matter to you. Don't drop off the map; keep them updated if there might be a lapse in communication. Small check-ins and being vocal about your emotions can make an impact. 

"I'm going to the gym, so I won't be able to text back for two hours."

"I've been thinking about you, and I'll call you when I get home."

  1. Set Boundaries—Remember, proper boundaries aren't controlling another person but telling them clearly what you won't tolerate in a relationship. Maintaining boundaries such as "I won't tolerate someone looking through my phone" can help your partner alter some of their anxious feelings.

Create Secure Attachments with Inner Balance

An anxiously attached person and their partner can benefit from talk therapy. Methods like dialectical behavioral therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy can help alter behavior patterns that no longer serve you. We also offer couples counseling so you and your partner can learn how to create secure attachments together.

You can't change your childhood, but you can change how you move forward. The therapists at Inner Balance Counseling want to help you create healthy, secure relationships. It's never to begin your wellness journey. Call us today for a consultation.

Learn more about anxious attachment styles in the Attachment Series Part Three and Part Five

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Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC

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