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  • Dan Neuharth, Ph.D., MFT

7 Telltale Signs of an Anxiously Attached Partner

How to recognize an anxious-preoccupied attachment style.

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  • Recognizing the signs of an anxious attachment style is important for greater relationship satisfaction.

  • Anxiously attached partners may seem excessively clingy, desperate, or over-invested in a relationship.

  • Partners of anxiously attached people may feel smothered, tested, or exhausted.

An estimated one in five adults has an anxious–preoccupied attachment style.


Persons with this attachment style seek to feel closely connected with and reliant upon their partners. While these are healthy values, anxiously attached persons can experience their longings as so compelling that it overwhelms logic or their ability to control their feelings.


In addition, anxiously attached persons may sacrifice healthy self-reliance and self-love in their pursuit of closeness. This can complicate intimate relationships.


Being in a relationship with an anxious–preoccupied partner may feel exciting and engaging but can also feel stifling or unstable. Such feelings tend to be felt most acutely by someone with an avoidant attachment style, which is on the opposite end of the spectrum from anxious attachment.


Anxious-preoccupied attachment—termed “anxious” for short—can range from mild to severe. It can vary from relationship to relationship and change over time.

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The following are seven tendencies of anxious attachment in relationships:


1. Anxiously attached partners seek repeated reassurance.

Anxiously attached partners may view their self-worth, safety, and identity as flowing from the relationship rather than from within themselves. They worry that they care about the relationship more than their partner does.


As a result, they can become preoccupied—thus, the "anxious-preoccupied" descriptor—and seek repeated reassurances that their partner loves them and won’t leave them.


In their search for reassurance, people with anxious attachment styles may:


  • Bombard their partner with texts or voicemails if the partner doesn't respond quickly

  • Become nervous or upset if a partner seems distant, critical, or unhappy

  • Try to "read between the lines" of their partner's comments or actions

  • Repeatedly solicit compliments and acknowledgments

The effect of an anxiously attached partner’s need for reassurance is this: Their partner may feel overwhelmed by excessive or unreasonable demands.


2. Anxiously attached partners crave closeness but have difficulty trusting it.

Whereas an avoidantly attached person thinks “I can only depend on myself,” anxiously attached people think “I am not OK by myself.”


Anxiously attached partners struggle with feelings they are unable to regulate or soothe. But looking outside themselves to solve feelings within is not sustainable.


Anxiously attached partners may:


  • Worry that intimacy isn’t real or won’t last.

  • Find it hard to relax even when things are going well in the relationship.

  • Become more anxious when times are good, for fear that the good times will end.

  • Be on the lookout for signs their partner is growing tired of them.

The effect of an anxiously attached partner’s difficulty trusting is this: Their partner may try to help the anxiously attached partner trust more, but over time come to feel that their efforts will never be enough.

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3. Anxiously attached partners can unwittingly sabotage a relationship.

People with anxious attachment fear they won't be OK without their partner. As a result, they may unconsciously deal with fears of their partner pulling away by pre-emptively pushing the partner away by:


  • Being jealous or possessive

  • Testing their partner’s love or loyalty

  • Complaining or nitpicking

  • Engaging in stalking or harassment

  • Becoming despondent or argumentative when their partner wants solo activities or alone time

The effect of an anxiously attached partner’s possessiveness is this: Their partner feels mistrusted.


4. Anxiously attached people seek to be perfect for their partners.

Many anxiously attached partners feel they will be loved only if they are on their best behavior. They may worry that if their partner sees their deepest and most vulnerable parts, the partner will be turned off and reject them. Or they may believe they will be loved for what they do for their partner, not for who they are.


Anxiously attached partners often feel that they alone must keep the relationship from falling apart. They work overtime at catering to their partner, yet silently resent their partner's failure to do as much as they are. In focusing so intently on their partners, anxiously attached people neglect their own needs. They may:


  • Engage in people-pleasing behavior

  • Have loose boundaries

  • Try to be indispensable to their partner

  • Accept unhealthy treatment

  • Hesitate to ask for what they need directly

The effect of an anxiously attached partner’s need to appear as perfect is this: Their partner may assume that their partner is happy and fulfilled, then feel blindsided by complaints seemingly out of nowhere.


5. Anxiously attached partners live in emotional turmoil.

Unlike avoidantly attached people, who tend not to feel their emotions as acutely, anxiously attached partners feel awash with feelings of loneliness, emptiness, or lack of safety. They tend to:


  • Live in terror of abandonment or rejection

  • Experience frequent or dramatic emotional ups and downs

  • Create drama

The effect of an anxiously attached partner’s emotionality is this: Their partner feels smothered or exhausted.

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6. Anxiously attached partners feel one-down in a relationship.

Persons with an anxious attachment style may worry that there is something defective about them that drives people away. They struggle with feeling unlovable, powerless, alone, and undesirable. They may project these feelings onto their partner, misconstruing innocent actions as signs their partner doesn't care for them or is planning to leave.


The effect of an anxiously attached partner’s one-down stance is this: Their partner can come to feel responsible for, and burdened by, their partner’s unhappiness.


7. Anxiously attached partners overinvest in the relationship.

Persons with an anxious attachment style may enter a relationship feeling that they have finally found their much-desired intimate connection. As a result, they may:


  • Seek to quickly deepen a relationship

  • Frequently ask their partner how the relationship is going

  • Idealize their partner or relationship

  • Fixate on the relationship so that it becomes their main focus of time and attention

The effect of an anxiously attached partner’s overinvestment is this: Their partner feels saddled with responsibilities they didn’t choose and cannot fulfill.


Dan Neuharth, Ph.D., MFT - website


References:

Ainsworth, Mary D. S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Lawrence Erlbaum.


Bowlby, John. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. Basic Books.


Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511–524. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.52.3.511


Levine, A. and Heller, R. (2010). Attached: The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find and keep love. Tarcher/Penguin.

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