One night, my partner used a slightly different tone than usual—one that felt more short, more irritated, somehow.
Oh no, I’ve annoyed her, I thought. I said the wrong thing. Why do I keep messing up?
My instant, worry-filled reaction was not her fault. She affirms me often, saying she loves and wants me. So what’s the real reason I worried so easily?
I have an anxious attachment style.
The four attachment styles (and the signs)
Anxious attachment is one of four attachment styles first introduced by psychologist Mary Ainsworth and psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1950s, along with avoidant attachment, fearful-avoidant attachment, and secure attachment.
According to licensed clinical psychotherapist Allison Chawla, the signs of anxious attachment can be sudden and quite detrimental. Many people may even see these feelings and behaviors as healthy because they grew up with them.
“Individuals with anxious attachment disorder or anxious attachment history tend to experience clinginess, fear of abandonment, fear of separation, and require a tremendous amount of reassurance from others,” explains Chawla, who also works as a spiritual counselor and certified life coach.
Unlike anxious attachment, avoidant attachment is evident “when a person keeps an emotional distance from their partner because they do not want to depend on them for anything, and considers themselves to be independent,” says Elana Hoffman, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Maryland who specializes in relationships. Fearful-avoidant is similar, but those individuals are more likely to seek and want relationships (at least at first).
All of these attachment styles “differ from being securely attached, where you are confident in the emotional security you have with your partner, and therefore are not anxious that they will leave, but you also do not keep walls up [to avoid getting] hurt,” Hoffman says.
According to estimates, secure attachment styles are most common at around 50 percent of the population. However, 25 percent are avoidant, five percent are fearful-avoidant, and a solid 20 percent are anxious—just as I am.
How anxious attachment presents in a relationship
When I first learned about anxious attachment, I felt both anxious and relieved. I had finally found a word that explained my worries. It also provided a science-based explanation for many of my actions and feelings. This felt validating, but also too real.
My anxious attachment style looks like asking for frequent validation of my partner’s love. (I can’t tell you how often I’ve asked, “Do you love me?”) It also shows up when I’m constantly worried my partner is mad at me and when I feel codependent. I can enjoy activities without her, but I still long for her presence. I have to push myself to do things independently. And when she doesn’t reply quickly or seems frustrated, I worry she’s falling out of love and I feel upset with her.
“Because [those with anxious attachment] are insecure about their partner’s love and devotion in the first place, they interpret this as a lack of love and a lack of attention to their emotional needs,” Hoffman explains.
The Psychology Behind Anxious Attachment
Since my partner constantly shows affection without me having to ask, I was curious about the root of my anxieties. According to Chawla and Hoffman, attachment styles are formed at birth and depend on how we were parented.
“Anxious attachment is often developed when a child has parents or caregivers who are not present or not affectionate. This can present itself in a parent who doesn’t tend to their child’s cries, basic needs, and emotions as the child develops,” Chawla explains.
Eventually, you take those traumas and responses into your adult relationships.
As a child, “you would do anything you could to get these needs met, [such as] reaching out or crying,” Hoffman says. “You may have been terrified that your caregivers would not come back and provide for you. As an adult, we emulate these patterns with romantic partners.”
As someone with divorced parents, this hits home. While I was too young to conceptualize “abandonment,” and while my parents showed their love consistently, I still felt terrified of being “left” or “too burdensome.” When my parents dated or didn’t tend to my needs like I wanted, I struggled.
Helpful Communication Skills
If this concept feels all too familiar, don’t worry: Having an anxious attachment style doesn’t mean you’ll be unhappy in relationships forever.
According to Chawla, the first step is letting go of shame, as anxious attachment tendencies are “not your fault.” Chawla recommends that both partners engage in open and honest communication early on, as well as couples therapy. Doing so can not only help you recognize and end unhealthy patterns, but also build confidence.
“At first, this may be a lot of work for the couple, but you can grow together and build trust so that the person’s anxiety and anxious attachment dissipates over time,” she says.
Along with therapy, Hoffman suggests taking time to understand your anxious attachment style and examine your underlying emotions. While you may feel angry at your partner for not quickly responding, for example, your actual worry may be abandonment.
“Under the surface, you might be afraid that they don’t care about you and your emotional needs because you might really be saying, ‘Do you care about me? Will you be here for me?’” she explains. Once you understand those subconscious anxieties, you can better address your needs.
This is true in my relationship. I’m not afraid I’m burdening my partner—I know she loves and supports me. I’m more afraid that she’ll leave, thinking I’m “too much.”
When I feel this way, I utilize a few helpful tools. Sometimes, I’ll straight up tell my partner I need attention. Other times, I’ll appreciate her consistent affirmations and explain my anxieties aren’t her fault. I also love “I statements” which are effective and non-accusatory. The format is “I feel ___ when ___ because ___. Can you ___ instead?”
These straightforward skills help my partner and I understand and support each other better. Over time, I’ve changed my perspective when she responds to me in a seemingly short or irritated way. Instead of instantly worrying, I remind myself of this:
My partner loves me wholeheartedly, which she shows me multiple times a day. She’s not upset. Everything is okay.