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Anxious preoccupied attachment is one of four possible attachment styles, or ways that people relate and interact with others. Someone with an anxious preoccupied attachment style may come off as “needy” or “clingy” and lack healthy self-esteem.
Attachment styles develop in childhood and continue into adulthood. Anxious preoccupied attachment—also known as anxious attachment in adults and ambivalent attachment in children—usually occurs when there has been an inconsistent relationship with a parent or caregiver during childhood.
With therapy, it’s possible to change attachment styles and have healthy relationships.
This article explains the characteristics of anxious preoccupied attachment, including how to recognize symptoms in yourself or others. It also offers strategies for coping if you have been diagnosed with or think you may have anxious preoccupied attachment.
Characteristics of Anxious Preoccupied Attachment
As per its name, anxious preoccupied attachment is characterized by an unhealthy preoccupation with relationships that causes anxiety. It is not a disorder unto itself but can be a feature or characteristic of an anxiety disorder.
Attachment Style vs. Attachment Disorders
Attachment styles should not be confused with attachment disorders as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. By way of comparison:
- Attachment disorders are those in which people have difficulty making emotional or appropriate attachments.
- Attachment styles are simply how individuals feel and behave in relationships, which can positively or negatively influence the person’s life.
Adults with anxious attachment often need constant reassurance in relationships, which can come off as being “needy,” “clingy,” or “whiny.”
Research has shown that anxious attachment can affect trust in a relationship. People who experience anxious preoccupation attachment are more likely to become jealous, snoop through a partner’s belongings, or even become psychologically abusive when they feel distrust.
You may have an anxious attachment style if you:
- Worry excessively about being rejected or abandoned by your partner
- Frequently try to please and gain approval from your partner
- Fear infidelity and abandonment
- Want intimacy in a relationship but worry about whether you can trust your partner
- Overly fixate on the relationship to the point where it consumes much of your time
- Constantly need attention and reassurance from others
- Have difficulty setting and respecting boundaries
- Feel threatened, panicked, angry, or worried that your partner no longer wants you when you spend time apart or do not hear from them within an otherwise reasonable amount of time
- Manipulate your partner to get them to stay close to you
- Tie your self-worth in with relationships
- Overreact to things that you see as being a threat to the relationship
Anxious preoccupation attachment usually refers to romantic relations but may also apply to friendships and other types of relationships.
What are anxious attachment triggers?
Feelings that stem from anxious attachment can come up when a person is away from their partner or feels (or fears) that their partner may not love them anymore.
Does My Partner Have Anxious Preoccupied Attachment?
Your partner may be experiencing anxious attachment in your relationship if you notice that they:
- Regularly seek your attention, approval, and reassurance
- Want to be around you and in touch with you as much as possible
- Worry that you’ll cheat on them or leave them
- Check up on you excessively
- Overreact if they feel something is threatening the relationship
Keep in mind that you cannot diagnose someone with an attachment style. Only a trained therapist can do this. In the end, you cannot know for sure what someone else is thinking or feeling.
Why Someone Develops Anxious Attachment Style
It’s believed that anxious preoccupation attachment starts when a child experiences inconsistent caregiving in which their needs are met unpredictably.
For example, a parent or caregiver may respond immediately to a child sometimes but not at other times. The inconsistent behavior can sometimes be linked to psychological factors like substance use, depression, stress, anxiety, and fatigue. Children in temporary care (such as those living in foster care) are also exposed to inconsistent caregiving.
Children raised without consistency can view attention as valuable but unreliable. As a result, they may develop anxiety and may perform attention-seeking behaviors, both positive (like pleasing) and negative (like disruptions).
How Anxious Attachment Compares to Other Styles
A person’s attachment style influences how they feel and behave when they’re in a relationship. Attachment styles can be secure (a person is confident in relationships) or insecure (a person has fear and uncertainty in relationships).
Here is how anxious attachment compares to the other main attachment styles:
|Anxious Preoccupied||Secure||Avoidant Dismissive||Disorganized|
|Appears anxious, clingy||Can set appropriate boundaries||Avoids closeness and relationships||Fearful|
|Comes off as uncertain/in need of validation||Has trust and feels secure in close relationships||Seeks independence||Feel they don’t deserve love|
|Wants relationships, but worries others don’t enjoy being with them||Thrives in relationships and alone||Doesn’t want to rely on others or vice versa|
One study found that people with anxious attachment reported less positivity and more difficulties in their friendships than those with secure attachment styles.
Coping With Anxious Preoccupied Attachment
While anxious attachment can be challenging, having a healthy relationship is possible no matter what attachment style you have if you use the right strategies for coping.
Short-term strategies include:
- Research: Learn about attachment styles and figure out which one applies to you.
- Keep a journal: Writing about your thoughts and feelings can help you recognize patterns in how you think and act. You can bring your journal to therapy to share with a mental health provider.
- Practice mindfulness: Regularly engaging in mindfulness exercises like meditation and deep breathing can help you learn how to “sit with” and manage your emotions and anxiety.
- Note your partner’s attachment style: The chance of success in a relationship is higher if you are paired with someone who has a secure attachment style.
Long-term strategies include:
- Group therapy: A professionally-guided group setting can give you perspective and help you feel less alone in your experience.
- Couples therapy: Going to therapy gives you the opportunity to discuss your relationship with your partner in a safe space and with a skilled moderator. You both will have a chance to process your thoughts and feelings and learn to communicate with each other outside of your sessions.
- Individual therapy: You don’t need to be in a relationship to address attachment style challenges. You can start working on recognizing your patterns, examining your feelings, and learning to approach relationships with other people in a healthy way at any time.
Therapies for Attachment Styles
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This fundamental form of therapy focuses on recognizing and changing negative thought patterns.
- Interpersonal therapy (IPT): This is aimed at improving your interpersonal relationships and social interactions. A 2017 study found IPT particularly beneficial for adolescents with anxious attachment.
- Psychodynamic psychotherapy: This involves the in-depth exploration of unconscious emotional reactions and how they manifest in relationships.
Supporting Loved Ones With Anxious Attachment
Whether you are a parent or a partner of someone with anxious preoccupation attachment, you can help foster a healthier relationship by adhering to a few basic principles.
Helping Kids with Anxious Attachment
If you have a child with anxious attachment, therapists often recommend:
- Setting consistent boundaries: Setting reasonable boundaries that are enforced with consistency can help children feel more secure. Let them know what is expected of them and what they can expect (and rely on) from you.
- Remaining calm: Always follow through on consequences for unacceptable behavior but do so calmly. This teaches a child that their feelings can be managed.
- Reconnecting after a conflict: If you have disciplined a child, always reconnect afterward. It’s important that a child knows that your empathy will be consistent no matter what happens.
- Owning up to errors: If you made a mistake or have become frustrated with a child, own up to it right away and make amends. This shows a child that they don’t need to be perfect.
- Being predictable: Try to stick to a regular routine, even during vacations. This can give a child a sense of familiarity and security.
Supporting a Partner
If your partner experiences anxious attachment, you can support them by:
- Setting clear boundaries and expectations—and enforcing them
- Following through on promises and commitments
- Encouraging them to go to therapy, or to go together
- Showing your partner you appreciate them without provocation
A 2019 study showed that perceiving gratitude from a romantic partner reduces anxiety for adults with an anxious attachment style.
Anxious preoccupation attachment develops in childhood and continues into adulthood. It’s believed that anxious attachment develops when a child gets inconsistent caregiving because their needs are only met some of the time.
An adult with an anxious attachment style may become preoccupied with their relationship to the point of coming off as “clingy” or “needy.” They often worry that their partner will leave or stop loving them. People with anxious attachment may also become manipulative when they feel that a relationship is threatened.
People with anxious attachment can learn coping skills and often do well in relationships with a partner who has a more secure style of attachment.
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