July 23, 2019

Anxious Attachment


In previous posts, I mentioned that there is a secure attachment style, and three different types of insecure attachment styles. This post, we’ll be taking a look at the insecure anxious attachment style.

Insecure doesn’t mean bad

While the insecure attachment styles may not be as ideal as the secure style, that does not mean that they are all bad. As I mentioned in the first post about attachment, we likely learn to attach in a way that allows us to get our needs met (even if there is also a genetic factor at play), and a strength of those with the anxious attachment style is that they often have a keen sense for when their needs might not be met. That sense and the accompanying fear or anxiety informs how they attach and relate to their family, friends, or partners.

What do anxious attachers want?

Anxious attachers want what everyone wants: to be confident and secure in their relationships. The difference is that secure attachers assume that their partner is invested and wants to be close with them as well; anxious attachers often assume the opposite.

The authors of Attached, a book on adult attachment, describe a study in which researchers showed participants “movies” of a person making an emotional facial expression that gradually changed into a neutral one, and vice versa. They measured the time it took for participants to recognize the change in emotion, and found that those with anxious attachment styles were more likely to perceive the change faster than those of other attachment styles. The findings suggest that those with anxious attachment styles truly do have a unique ability to attune to and recognize emotional cues in others. A difficulty that comes with that, which the book goes on to explain, is that often they can pick up on the emotion and then jump to conclusions, which may not be accurate even if the emotion is.

Characteristics of anxious attachers

Because anxious attachers so deeply want connection and are so sensitive to perceived rejection or brokenness of that connection, any sign of such things heightens their sense of threat and therefore their anxiety. They become hyper-focused on reestablishing that closeness and connection. In that moment, what anxious attachers need is reassurance of the relationship and reassurance of security. The danger there is that other attachment styles (especially avoidant attachers) may not be able to give you the reassurance you need, or may feel overwhelmed by what you need. This can lead to tumultuous relationships, and that intense desire to maintain connection can lead to sticking with someone even if it might not be a good fit.

Attached authors write that anxious attachers often put their partners on a pedestal, or feel that this relationship is their only chance for love. They often feel anxious unless they are with their partner, and find themselves thinking excessively about their partner, or making excessive attempts to reestablish contact with them. Sometimes, people with the anxious attachment style will engage in testing behaviors, in a way, if they aren’t getting the reassurance they want or need. They might threaten to end it, or be hostile or withdrawn.

 The underling thread of anxious attachers

The anxious attachment style can look different, but the underlying thread is pretty consistent: anxious attachers feel anxiety when their partner or attachment figure isn’t around, are extremely committed to closeness and intimacy, and can often jump to conclusions about potential threats in the relationship that end up inducing more anxiety.

If you feel like you tend to relate to others with an anxious attachment style, hopefully this blog post feels validating. The way you attach comes from a good place of a desire for good things, like love, care, consistency, trust, etc. If you can understand where you’re coming from, you can consider what it would look like to adjust your behavior or catch your thought processes in a way that soothes your anxiety rather than heightens it.

There are a lot of strategies to maximize the strengths and cope with the difficulties that come with an anxious attachment style. If you are interested in learning more about it in any way, give us a call. We would love to process this with you.

Written by therapist Clair Miller

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