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The Anxious Attachment Style

People with anxious (also know as preoccupied-anxious) attachment style seek a high degree of closeness to romantic partners, and are highly sensitive to any changes to the relationship that could be perceived as threats. This does not necessarily mean that they are joined at the hip with their partners. It means that their attachment alarm system is triggered more often by smaller threats. One of the key books in attachment style theory is Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. They describe anxious attachment in depth:

"People with an anxious attachment style are indeed more vigilant to changes in others' emotional expression and can have a higher degree of accuracy and sensitivity to other people's cues. However, this finding comes with a caveat. The study showed that people with an anxious attachment style tend to jump to conclusions very quickly, and when they do, they tend to misinterpret people's emotional state."

In childhood their emotional needs where inconsistently satisfied or conditional upon pleasing the caregiver. They were often dealing with emotionally immature caregivers that required them to take on a parental or emotional crutch type role. This leads to the child's independence being impeded, as the caregiver interferes with decisions or imposes their will on the child. The unpredictability leads to a confused child that doubts their own self worth of being deserving of unconditional love. They will learn to be highly tuned in to others moods as they were required to constantly monitor their caregivers, to try and find a way to work out the behaviours that would bring them love. The low sense of self they feel will even be reflected in dreams. People with anxious attachment reported having more dreams where they were the bad guy, being chased by police, committing crimes and trying to run away etc.

Characteristics of anxious attachment

  • Constantly thinking about relationships, difficulty concentrating on other things.

  • Focusing on threats to their relationship, this causes ambivalence as they also strongly value the benefits of being in relationships. Can lead to choosing partners who are at a distance in some way, which allows them to create a 'fantasy bond'.

  • Putting partners on a pedestal or seeing them through rose-tinted glasses.

  • A constant need to prove themselves and act in whichever way they believe they need to keep a partners interest.

  • Get attached very quickly.

  • Constantly analyse and discuss partners.

This article on Jeb Kinnison blog Changing Your Anxious Preoccupied Attachment Style Or Type; explains the difficulties anxious people find in establishing a relationship:

"The Preoccupied settle too soon on someone they don’t know well and try to force them to be a good partner who will make them feel constantly secure; naturally many partners thrust into this role don’t appreciate it or desire to be someone else’s fantasy partner. The Preoccupied will use sex (and accept sex that might not be safe or good for them) to attract a partner they want to love them, rather than seeing sex as a natural outgrowth of feelings."

The anxious attachment alarm system

When the anxious person's attachment alarm system is triggered they will seemingly become obsessed with reestablishing closeness to a partner. The attempts at reestablishing closeness are called activating strategies. These will continue until they get a sufficient response from the partner to reassure them that the relationship is intact. When the attachment alarm system is activated every signal is viewed as a threat.

Even the act of constantly talking about someone keeps them in the mind at all times, which is an activating strategy. If the partner was constantly available to them then the activating strategies would not escalate. However, they often pick people that are unavailable or unwilling to do this (as the drama of unavailability feels familiar). For example, if a person with anxious attachment style is unable to get hold of their partner for an extended period of time for no previously known reason, they would require the partner to get back in touch as soon as they were able to and provide an explanation for the absence before the attachment alarm system could calm down. Little steps and reassurances from the partner can keep the anxiously attached partner feeling secure, and prevent protest behavior. Activating strategies most often take the form of protest behavior, this is designed to try and get their partners attention:

  • Constantly trying to contact the partner. Sending many texts without a response, excessive calling or hanging around places the partner frequents.

  • Keeps score. Knows how long partner took to respond and will take as long if not more to respond back. Not wanting to make the first move to make up.

  • Makes empty threats to leave if things are not going their way. Uses other forms of manipulation like pretending to be busy or making partner jealous.

  • Stonewalls. Withdraws attention from partner, sulks.

  • Uses blame or guilt to keep partners close.

  • Gets angry, though this anger is as often directed at themselves.

Protest behavior is very destructive to relationships and it is important that an anxiously attached person learns to recognise and stop these behaviors when they start to occur. Anxiously attached people find it very difficult to turn off their attachment alarm system and will think about an ex-partner long after the relationship ends. A constantly activated attachment alarm system can also lead to love addiction.

Most often anxiously attached people are attracted to avoidant partners and vice versa. However, this pairing activates both attachment alarm systems but also serves to compound the destructive views they both hold of themselves and others. The anxious person will often rule out a secure partner too early thinking that they do not feel a romantic spark. The romantic spark they are actually subconsciously looking for is the anxiety of an activated attachment system. Not having to second guess someone means their attachment alarm system is not triggered, and they will mistakenly believe that the secure person is too boring.

How to calm the anxious triggers

Accept your needs and learn to choose secure partners. Accept that you need someone who is going to be secure, available and willing to be intimate. When you start dating someone have this at the forefront of your mind. Ask questions but more importantly observe their behavior. Do they want to see you regularly, do they call or text when they say they will, do they always stick to dates. Focus on this rather than how you can make them like you. Learn to recognise and stay away from avoidant partners. There are some key characteristics of an avoidant person to learn. They will send mixed messages and often leave you feeling confused. They will be quick to find fault with other people and disregard your emotional well being. They may comment that you are sensitive or needy. They will struggle to understand or accept your feelings and point of view.

Learn to communicate your needs and be authentic. If you are tolerating emotional distance and ambiguity from a partner than you are hiding your needs and not being your authentic self. People who lead authentic lives are generally more fulfilled and happy. This will in turn make you a more attractive partner and able to filter out people that cant meet your needs earlier. For example, being clear about how many times a week you would need to see someone or how much phone contact you need relatively early on. Then it is up to them to step up to the plate or leave the situation if they are unable to meet your needs.

Work on increasing your self-worth. Focus on accepting your imperfections and being less hard on yourself. This can be started by learning to silence the inner critical voice, you can read about this here. Listen to positive affirmations for 10 minutes a day and meditate.

Shift your perspective. Anxious people will tend to think that they hardly ever meet suitable people so they will very quickly attach if they believe they have met that person. It is better for anxious people to take things slower and date more people, this means you have a better chance of judging if they are actually right for you. This is explained further in Attached:

"By using the abundance philosophy, you maintain your ability to evaluate potential partners more objectively. What you are actually doing is desensitizing your attachment system and tricking it into being easier on you. Your system will no longer get so easily activated by one person because it will be busy evaluating the availability of a lot of different people, and you won't be likely to obsess about anyone in particular. You can quickly rule out people if they make you feel insecure or inadequate, because you haven't built all your hopes on them."

It is important to note that some anxious people will display avoidant characteristics from time to time or in certain relationships. This is because the avoidant attachment style is still an insecure attachment style. Therefore a fellow insecure attachment style is more likely to swap to this to suit a particular partners attachment style than being able to operate securely. You can read more by visiting the Attachment Styles page here. This includes a test to help you determine your attachment style.


Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, Attached - First released 5 January 212

Jeb Kinnison, Changing Your Anxious Preoccupied Attachment Style Or Type -


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