Loving a Partner with Anxious Attachment

“We’re only as needy as our unmet needs.” – John Bowlby

Attachment styles are formed in early childhood and can affect friendships and relationships throughout life. According to Attachment Theory, the style of bonding and type of love you experienced in early childhood from your primary caregivers often determine the way that you relate to other people and navigate relationships and intimacy throughout life.

The infant brain is profoundly influenced by the attachment bond, and understanding your attachment style can offer vital clues about the root of certain issues within a relationship. Living with a partner who has an anxious attachment style can be particularly difficult as your loved one may appear clingy and attention seeking then become dismissive. This is likely because they experienced a similar form of attention from their primary caretaker and were not always made to feel safe and understood as an infant.

Attachment Theory 

Attachment Theory focuses on relationships and connections between individuals, particularly the bonds between a parent and child and between romantic partners [1].

British psychologist John Bowlby, the first attachment theorist, discovered that attachment was marked by clear behavioral and motivation patterns that were observable throughout a person’s life. Attachment Theory explains that the earliest connections that are made with a child’s caregivers have a fundamental impact on these behavioral patterns [2]. 

In the 1970s, psychologist Mary Ainsworth added to Bowlby’s work by positing three different styles of attachment: secure attachment, ambivalent-insecure attachment, and avoidant-insecure attachment. In the 1980s, researchers Main and Solomon added a fourth attachment style, disorganized-insecure attachment, and all four have now been widely reputed and the focus of wide-ranging research [3].

The four attachment styles are thought to present differently in children and adults, and in many cases different titles are given to the attachment styles in adults and children. You may have heard of more than four styles, and it is most likely because while the secure attachment style remains the same, the three others have different titles. What is called anxious-ambivalent in children becomes anxious-preoccupied in adulthood. Anxious-avoidant becomes avoidant-dismissive, and fearful-avoidant becomes disorganized attachment style.

What is Anxious Attachment?

Ambivalent attachment, often called anxious-preoccupied attachment in adulthood, is characterized by low self-esteem, fear of rejection or abandonment, and clinginess in relationships. Adults with an anxious/preoccupied attachment style often think highly of others, yet not of themselves, and struggle with low self-esteem at times. This can mean that the partner with an anxious/preoccupied attachment style is loving, sensitive, and attuned to their significant other’s needs but is insecure and anxious about their own worth in the relationship and may struggle to prioritize or even identify their own needs.

This can be incredibly challenging if they feel rejected in some way or if you fail to respond to their needs, because they may blame themselves and reaffirm a belief that they are not worthy of love. It is common for adults with an anxious/preoccupied attachment style to need regular reassurance that they are good enough, loved, have worth, and make the right decisions. 

How Ambivalent Attachment Develops 

Secure attachment generally develops when a child’s primary caregiver provides a stable or predictable environment, and a child fundamentally feels that their caregivers can be relied on. Conversely, an anxious attachment style develops if a child interprets their caregivers’ responses to their needs as inconsistent. This means that responses may be supportive and attentive on occasion but other times are not aligned with what the child wants and needs. This can lead to difficulty making sense of the caregivers’ actions, leading to confusion for the child regarding their relationship with their caregivers. Children are likely to internalize the inconsistency in love and being attended to by assuming that it results from their behavior, which can cause low self esteem.

The child grows up believing that their needs are only important to others when it’s convenient.

Anxious Attachment in a Relationship

Whether in the early stages of a relationship or 30 years in, understanding your partner’s attachment style can provide useful insights into their feelings, needs, and inner world. 

An anxious style can cause people to fear abandonment and rejection and internalize inconsistency in attention. This can be incredibly challenging for anxiously attached people, as they struggle with self worth and often worry that their partner doesn’t share the same love for them or that this love will be taken away. It is common for anxiously attached people to worry that their partner doesn’t love them as much as they do in return. Paradoxically, this can cause anxiously attached people to become clingy and needy, further irritating their partner and thus continuing the cycle of anxiety and fear, abandonment, and unmet needs [4].

Anxiously attached individuals may use sex to fulfil their need for appreciation and feeling desired. Generally, people with anxious attachment engage in sexual encounters for one of two reasons: 1) manipulation, in order to evoke a sense of attentiveness, availability, and caregiving from their partner or 2) intimacy, reassurance, and approval.

While both having an anxious attachment style and loving someone with anxious attachment can be stressful and confusing, there are ways of overcoming these challenges. While the causes of anxious attachment are rooted in the past, a future with secure attachment is possible because attachment styles can change for a number of reasons. Often, being in a relationship with a securely attached person can provide a sense of loving stability and create the necessary conditions to overcome feelings of worthlessness or low self esteem. Generally, however, building a stable attachment style requires hard work and reflection, which is often accomplished with the support of a therapist or a book on Attachment Theory. Making sense of how you interact and behave with your partner and recognizing certain thought patterns and behaviors are key to healing anxious attachment.

If you suspect that you or your partner has an anxious attachment style, researching the causes and effects of this attachment style can help you understand and respond to your or their behavior. Delicately and non-judgmentally sharing information with them may help your partner understand their own behavior and thought patterns.  Becoming educated on the attachment style can help your partner better understand your actions if you’re the one who displays this behavior.  Increasing awareness and creating a safe and non-judgmental space may encourage your partner to become more reflective and identify certain coping mechanisms that you or they may have developed. 

Therapy can also be a helpful way of addressing and healing anxious attachment and can alleviate the pressure on partners to help each other identify childhood instability and certain conditions of worth that they believe they must meet in order to receive love and acceptance.  

If you or a loved one is struggling with anything you have read in this blog, please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates – call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com today.


[1] Cassidy, J., Jones, J. D., & Shaver, P. R. (2013). Contributions of attachment theory and research: a framework for future research, translation, and policy. Development and psychopathology, 25(4 Pt 2), 1415–1434. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579413000692

[2] Singh, N. (1988). A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory. By John Bowlby. London: Routledge. 1988. 180 pp. (pb). British Journal of Psychiatry, 153(5), 721-721. doi:10.1192/S0007125000224197

[3] Reisz, S., Duschinsky, R., & Siegel, D. J. (2018). Disorganized attachment and defense: exploring John Bowlby’s unpublished reflections. Attachment & human development, 20(2), 107–134. https://doi.org/10.1080/14616734.2017.1380055

[4] Campbell, L. and Marshall, T. (2011), Anxious Attachment: An Interactionist Perspective. Acta Anaesthesiol Scand, 79: 1219-1250. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2011.00723.x

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