Of all the psychological terminology that has found its way into our day-to-day vernacular, one of the phrases you might hear the most often is the notion of an ‘anxious attachment style,’ generally in contrast to the other three primary attachment styles found in adult relationships: ‘avoidant,’ ‘secure,’ and ‘disorganized.’ While attachment styles certainly shouldn’t be taken as gospel, they can provide a helpful blueprint of sorts. If you know someone who aligns with an anxious attachment style, it helps to understand what it means and how to best show up for them.
“Simply put, our attachment style refers to the way that we relate to others, especially in close, intimate relationships,” says Dr. Erika Bach, a clinical psychologist specializing in attachment and relationships. The theory originated with British psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who wanted to find an explanation for the behavior of infants who had been separated from their parents. Other researchers subsequently explored this theory within the realm of adult romantic relationships, in line with Bowlby’s belief that child-parent relationship dynamics play out in various forms and contexts over the course of a lifetime.
Now, attachment theory’s crossover into the world of pop psychology should still be taken with a grain of salt. One of the reasons we hear about it so much is due to the way it lends itself to self-diagnosis, inadvertently becoming a too-convenient tool for explaining why a relationship is or isn’t working. As a result, so much discussion has revolved around which attachment styles are ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ when the actual purpose of the theory, as Pascal Vrticka writes for The Conversation, is to “help people understand what coping strategies they use when the people they are closest to are, or are perceived to be, unavailable or inconsistently responsive.”
In a romantic context, an anxious attachment style is characterized by a partner’s strong need for emotional intimacy and a constant sense of worry over potential abandonment. “For those who are anxiously attached,” says Dr. Bach, “their relationships are marked by fear, uncertainty, preoccupation with the relationship, and a craving for intense closeness.”
Those with an avoidant attachment style, by contrast, have less tolerance for sustained emotional intimacy, and can distance themselves from others as a result. “Oftentimes,” adds Dr. Bach, “anxiously attached individuals and avoidantly attached individuals are drawn to one other because of what their behaviors trigger in the other.”
So, Your Partner Has An Anxious Attachment. How Can You Best Show Up For Them?
If your partner has an anxious attachment style, the best way to support them is to start by reaching the empathetic understanding that their reactions are the result of a fear response they of which they aren’t in control. “Anxious attachers are not choosing to be ‘clingy’ or seek reassurance constantly because they don’t trust you,” says Dr. Bach. “They are experiencing a deeply-rooted, biological reaction.”
By validating and meeting them where they are, Bach says, “you’re not only creating an opportunity for more closeness, but also helping to eliminate shame surrounding your partner’s reactions, decreasing the power of those feelings over time.”
Establishing open and honest communication between you and your partner is a key quality for any healthy relationship, but an extra important one when one partner needs extra access to the other.
“Create a safe space for your partner to express their feelings and concerns without judgment, reassuring them that their feelings are valid and that you’re willing to listen,” says Dr. Ryan Sultan, a teaching psychiatrist and researcher at Columbia University. “Individuals with an anxious attachment often need regular affirmation of your love and commitment. This might include small gestures of affection and verbal affirmations.”
It’s the consistency of these gestures that makes all the difference to someone with an anxious attachment style, creating a sense of stability and helping to alleviate their fear of abandonment. Finding the gestures that make the most impact is even something you can brainstorm together once this dynamic is accepted as part of the relationship.
Some gestures to consider might be regular cuddling to help soothe the nervous system of the anxiously attached partner, checking in at a specific time of day when they’re apart, or taking the initiative to demonstrate to your partner that you are thinking about them, attracted to them, and love them.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have boundaries with your partner. In fact, setting boundaries with a partner who has an anxious attachment style may be the most crucial step you can take to be there for them.
“Define what behaviors are and aren’t acceptable, and encourage your partner to do the same,” says Dr. Sultan. “It can help reduce anxiety related to potential conflicts or misunderstandings.”
Being patient as your partner figures out how to find a comfortable balance will help them to be patient with you — that kind of understanding will always be a benefit to the relationship when it cuts both ways. According to Dr. Sultan: “offering the space to maintain their independence and pursue their interests is vital in reducing dependency on the relationship for emotional security.”
In some cases, attachment-related issues can be a reason you might seek out a therapist or counselor, and there are professionals who focus on helping couples work through attachment-related issues specifically. This likely won’t be the first solution you try, but it can be a valuable one. “They can provide guidance and tools to navigate the challenges associated with an anxious attachment,” says Dr. Sultan.
They can also assist you in taking care of your own well-being as you work on reaching an equilibrium with your partner — it’s important that your counselor and partner understand that the kind of support someone with an anxious attachment style needs can be emotionally taxing to provide.
Ultimately, supporting a partner with an anxious attachment style rests on your — and their — ability to remember that building trust is a gradual, cumulative process that won’t result in a rock-solid status quo overnight. That process can, at times, feel overwhelming, but finding ways to fall back on reliability and consistency will always move the ball forward. “Show through your actions that you are committed, dependable, and that [your partner’s] feelings and needs matter to you,” says Dr. Sultan, and you can create a secure and loving bond with an anxious partner that will help you both evolve.