The wonder, worry, and excitement that is so much a part of meeting someone new has long been the stuff of pop songs and poetry: What are they doing right now? Who are they doing it with? Are they thinking of me? Yet once a connection is established and two lives merge, such anxieties are usually replaced with the comforts and intricacies of knowing and trusting one's partner and of, yes, even a kind of predictability and routine. However, when such thoughts aren't tempered by a broad, balanced view of one's own life, they may begin to take over, unleashing a powerful and destructive emotional force that can have devastating consequences for both partners.
Naturally, individuals seek physical closeness with their romantic partners. They seek comfort or aid from them; they can rely on them; and they are distressed by separation. The defining features of an individual's attachment to their caregivers during infancy may influence the way in which they experience intimate relationships1.
According to the attachment theory put forth by British psychologist John Bowlby, the quality of care received during infancy, including sensitivity and responses to a child's signals, affects the nature of an individual's attachment later on in life. The expectations of parents and other attachment figures and their ideas influence the internal working model, which is a person's mental representation of himself or herself and others2.
The psychologist Mary Ainsworth's research with children supported Bowlby's claims by proposing three distinct attachment patterns: secure, anxious-avoidant, and anxious-ambivalent.
- Securely attached children perceive themselves as confident that their caregivers can meet their needs; they feel comfortable exploring new surroundings, and they have trust in other people.
- Anxious-avoidant children perceive their caregiver as indifferent and insensitive so they tend not to show distress to avoid dealing with a rejecting caregiver.
- Anxious-ambivalent children are used to caregivers who are usually inconsistent and unpredictable. They learn to believe that the only way to elicit care and proximity is to exaggerate their expression of discomfort; they tend to become extremely agitated when separated from their caregivers and show difficulty moving away from them to explore new surroundings3.
A recent study has considered parental antipathy, or emotional neglect, as an antecedent of anxiety disorders; anxious-ambivalent internal working models involved fear of rejection and/or of separation as a mediating factor. Parental antipathy included parental hostility, rejection, coldness, and the experience of being the scapegoat for one's siblings.
The study's results showed that among adolescents and young adults with insecure attachment styles, those with anxious attachment showed a 12-month prevalence of anxiety disorders4. Attachment is moderately related to anxiety, with anxious-ambivalent attachment in particular showing the strongest association5, according to a meta-analysis of 46 studies with children from 1984 to 20105.
Anxious attachment in adults (including fearful avoidant and preoccupied styles) also shows strong associations with symptoms of depression and GAD (generalized anxiety disorder). The connection between GAD and anxious attachment seems to manifest most often as the fearful-avoidant and preoccupied-attachment relationship styles. Both of involve hypervigilance to perceived threats such as abandonment; worry-related cognitions with a focus on interpersonal and social domains; and the constant seeking of attention and care from others when such threats are present. Also, a generally negative self-perception about the ability to handle distress serves to heighten anxiety and remain vigilant to potential threats6.
Anxiously attached individuals tend to experience more intense negative emotional reactions and cognitions, such as rumination, and downplay and dismiss positive life events and experiences7. Findings from a study that explored individuals with social anxiety disorder and attachment styles showed that those with anxious attachment reported more severe social anxiety and avoidance, greater impairment, greater depression, and lower life satisfaction than participants with secure attachment8.
When considering the effect of adult attachment on romantic relationships, secure adults are known for having positive expectations about intimate relationships, and they are not afraid of closeness. In contrast, avoidant adults may get nervous whenever someone gets too close, claiming their independence and that they do not need anybody. Anxious adults represent clingy types and may often experience jealousy; they usually worry a lot about being rejected by their partner, so they try to please and gain their approval1.
Fear of infidelity may become an overriding concern for anxiously attached individuals. In a recent study, anxiously attached participants demonstrated being more hypervigilant for rejection cues by their partners and more prone to perceive many behaviors—sexual, erotic and causal interactions—as cheating9.
Fears of infidelity and abandonment may also influence the behavior ("mate retention behaviors") of adults who try to reduce the infidelity risk and dissolution of the relationship. Findings from a 2016 study demonstrated that women and men who rate higher in anxious romantic attachment perform more frequent mate retention behaviors.
Men seem to demonstrate such behaviors more often, and in general they scored higher on tests indicating anxious romantic attachment as compared to women10. From an evolutionary perspective, greater frequency of mate retention behaviors might make sense since the specter of cuckoldry and uncertain paternity has been an adaptive problem for men11. Men reported higher scores on behaviors such as direct guarding, vigilance, monopolizing time, inducing jealousy, punishing a partner's infidelity threat, emotional and commitment manipulation, derogatory actions, violence against rivals, submission and debasement, and public signals of possession. Conversely, women seem to utilize a distinct set of mate retention strategies—namely enhancing their appearance, love, and care 10.
While much of this discussion is centered on the aspects of anxious attachment on the self, it isn't hard to spot a partnership affected by this issue. Many anxiously attached individuals can appear clingy, controlling, or even aggressive. Their anxieties reflect their over-dependence on their partner for stability and reassurance—to give their life definition and purpose.
Paradoxically this puts a strain on relationships and results in lower relationship satisfaction12.
And while this attachment style cuts a destructive path through the fabric of one's most intimate connections, the dissolution of such a partnership does little to alleviate the condition. Anxiously attached individuals may react to breakups with angry protests, an all-consuming preoccupation with the former partner, a heightened sexual attraction to win the person back, and often by self-medicating with alcohol or drugs13.
When concerned with the state of their intimate relationships or other relationships in general, anxious individuals would be well-served to consider ways to overcome attachment issues as an important step to improving social aspects of life.
A clinician would help them understand their internal working models, how they relate to others, their early experiences, and their relationships with significant others. An important goal in therapy could be modifying their working models to accommodate the realities of new experiences and relationships1.
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1. Poulsen, F. O., Holman, T. B., Busby, D. M., & Carroll, J. S. (2013). Physical attraction,
attachment styles, and dating development. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30, 301-319. doi: 10.1177/0265407512456673
2. Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss. Separation: Anxiety and anger (Vol. 2). New
York: Basic Books
3. Ainsworth, M. S., & Bowlby, J. (1991). An ethological approach to personality development. American Psychologist, 46(4), 333-341.
4. Schimmenti, A., & Bifulco, A. (2015). Linking lack of care in childhood to anxiety disorders in emerging adulthood: the role of attachment styles. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 20(1), 41-48.
5. Colonnesi, C., Draijer, E. M., Jan JM Stams, G., Van der Bruggen, C. O., Bögels, S. M., & Noom, M. J. (2011). The relation between insecure attachment and child anxiety: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 40(4), 630-645.
6. Marganska, A., Gallagher, M., & Miranda, R. (2013). Adult attachment, emotion dysregulation, and symptoms of depression and generalized anxiety disorder. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 83(1), 131.
7. Gentzler, A. L., Kerns, K. A., & Keener, E. (2010). Emotional reactions and regulatory responses to negative and positive events: Associations with attachment and gender. Motivation and emotion, 34(1), 78-92.
8. Eng, W., Heimberg, R. G., Hart, T. A., Schneier, F. R., & Liebowitz, M. R. (2001). Attachment in individuals with social anxiety disorder: the relationship among adult attachment styles, social anxiety, and depression. Emotion, 1(4), 365.
9. Kruger, D. J., Fisher, M. L., Edelstein, R. S., Chopik, W. J., Fitzgerald, C. J., & Strout, S. L. (2013). Was that cheating? Perceptions vary by sex, attachment anxiety, and behavior. Evolutionary Psychology, 11,159–171.
10. Barbaro, N., Pham, M. N., Shackelford, T. K., & Zeigler-Hill, V. (2016). Insecure romantic attachment dimensions and frequency of mate retention behaviors. Personal Relationships, 23(3), 605-618. doi:10.1111/pere.12146
11. Buss, D. M. (2003). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating. New York, NY: Basic Books.
12. Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. Guilford Press.
13. Davis, D., Shaver, P. R., & Vernon, M. L. (2003). Physical, emotional, and behavioral reactions to breaking up: The roles of gender, age, emotional involvement, and attachment style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 871–884.
Date of original publication: October 09, 2017
Updated: August 21, 2019