How to Manage Anxious Attachment in Relationships

Let’s say you’re in a new relationship, and you send your significant other a text asking if they want to do something this weekend. Two hours later, you haven’t received a response.

Do you:

A. Believe that they don’t care for you anymore and are looking for a way to break up with you.

B. Worry that they must have found someone they like better and may be cheating on you right now.

C. Assume they might be busy with work, school or family and trust they will respond when they have a moment.

If you answered A or B, you may be exhibiting signs of an anxious attachment style, while C is a sign of a secure attachment style. According to research, about 20 percent of people have an anxious attachment style.

What are attachment styles? Why do they matter? Can you change your style? We talked to Susannah Matthews, a licensed clinical social worker in UNC’s Department of Psychiatry, for answers.

What is attachment theory?

Attachment theory suggests your relationship with your primary caregivers when you were a baby affects your relationships later in life. Psychologist Mary Ainsworth and other researchers have identified four attachment styles based on how babies react when their parents leave the room and then return:

  • Secure attachment is experienced by babies who are upset when their parents leave the room and comforted by their return. In adult relationships, people with this attachment style are more likely to form a long-lasting, healthy relationship with trust and open communication.
  • Anxious attachment is experienced by babies who are upset when their parents leave and unable to be comforted when they return. As adults, they may be concerned about abandonment and need constant reassurance in relationships.
  • Avoidant attachment is experienced by babies who barely react when their parents leave or return. Later in life, they may be guarded and value independence over intimate relationships.
  • Disorganized attachment is experienced by babies with an erratic or confusing response to their parents leaving or returning. Adults with this attachment style may act irrationally in relationships due to fear or trauma, and they may also have a mental health disorder.

You might recognize your attachment style as an adult but find it difficult to believe your parents’ behavior could have caused it.

“It doesn’t mean you had a bad parent, but they may not have been able to consistently meet your needs when you were a baby,” Matthews says. “Attachment style is set early, before you have access to language, so you may not be able to connect to a memory of when this happened.”

If you find yourself repeatedly struggling with the same issues in relationships, consider your attachment style.

“Your attachment style doesn’t reflect how you’ll react every single time in every relationship,” Matthews says. “It’s an overall pattern, and when we’re aware of it, we can adapt and change to create healthier relationships.”

What does anxious attachment look like?

People with anxious attachment style may have had parents who struggled to consistently emotionally connect with them or attend to their cues.

“For the child, there will be some anxiety related to the caregiver,” Matthews says. “They don’t trust that the caregiver can meet their needs, so they may struggle to trust that other people will be there when they need them. They may have a general feeling of unworthiness.”

In relationships, people with this attachment style may be considered clingy and possessive, and it may seem as if they need constant reassurance that they’re not being rejected. They may overly worry about minor concerns or assume the worst about a partner’s words or actions, believing that everything indicates anger or a potential breakup. This behavior may push a partner away, reinforcing a person’s belief that they’re unworthy.

People with this attachment style may avoid conflict because they see it as a threat.

“There tends to be a lot of people-pleasing with anxious attachment,” Matthews says. “They may have a belief that their emotional needs aren’t valued, so they won’t express them, or they fear they’ll be abandoned if they bring up an issue.”

How can I manage my anxious attachment?

Recognizing patterns of anxious attachment is the first step to managing it.

“Having a name for it helps; you have to name it to tame it,” Matthews says. “People blame themselves for these behaviors, but you’re not always purposely choosing these actions. Once you’re aware, you can find ways to pause and slow down before following an impulse to seek excessive reassurance.”

Matthews recommends therapy for anyone struggling with forms of insecure attachment.

“We can develop deep-seated beliefs, like, ‘I will be abandoned,’ and then we live according to that belief and look for information that confirms it,” she says. “In therapy, you learn to question those thoughts and beliefs and notice when they’re unhelpful or no longer serving you.”

Therapy may not stop all thoughts associated with anxious attachment, but it provides tools for handling them more appropriately. Matthews says that practicing mindfulness and self-compassion help, as do self-soothing behaviors such as practicing yoga, exercising, deep breathing and journaling.

It’s also important to talk to your partner about how your attachment style may be affecting your behavior.

“It’s normal to seek reassurance from a loved one, so you can come up with ways to find middle ground on getting your needs met without seeking excessive reassurance,” Matthews says. “If you notice anxious attachment in a partner, be compassionate and nonjudgmental. Provide reassurance that you’re not going anywhere, even if there is conflict.”

Matthews also recommends that people consider how many of their conversations are happening face-to-face versus on the phone.

“Texting and social media can exacerbate anxiety, because there’s an expectation that people can be reached immediately,” she says. “When people don’t respond right away, it can trigger your threat mode.”

In recent years, the concept of “ghosting”—when a person suddenly disappears from your life without warning—has been much-discussed, probably contributing to increased worries for people with anxious attachment styles.

Matthews says to be mindful about other elements in our culture that can trigger negative behaviors.

“Narratives in movies and television can overemphasize the importance of romantic love and make it easy to believe that one person should meet all your emotional and physical needs for a lifetime,” Matthews says. This causes difficulties when you perceive a threat to the stability of an idealized romantic relationship or when your partner can’t live up to what love looks like on screen.

Knowing you have this attachment style and the situations that trigger it can help you in all of your relationships.

“If you’re aware of this, you’re a step ahead,” Matthews says. “You can recognize issues and recurring thoughts, decide how much attention you’ll pay to those thoughts, and make choices about what really matters.”

If you think you might benefit from therapy, talk to your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.