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Attachment Theory: The Anxious Attachment Style

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
3/24/2022
Last updated:
5/8/2022
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
3/24/2022
Last updated:
5/8/2022

TL;DR

  • There are four principles of attachment theory - secure, anxious, avoidant and disorganized attachment.
  • People with an anxious attachment style are more likely to struggle with self-doubt, fall in love quickly and carry a strong fear that their partner will leave them. They often require reassurance.
  • It's important to recognize anxious attachment and learn more about the role of attachment style in relationship behavior, as it can negatively impact future interpersonal relationships.
  • A study found that “attachment style appears to be a more important contributing factor to satisfaction than desire among diverse sexual orientations".
  • Mindfulness and journaling can help reduce relationship anxieties in the short term, while longer term it is worth considering professional help from a sex or relationship therapist. The Blueheart app could be a great place to get started if you're concerned about the time commitment or cost of face-to-face therapy. 

 

We’ve talked about the principles of attachment theory in romantic relationships before, as well as why it can be insightful to figure out your personal attachment style.

But now we’d like to focus on just one of those styles, anxious attachment, something that might be particularly interesting to you if you tend to feel insecure in relationships.

What is attachment theory?

Often, when psychologists and therapists talk about attachment theory, they discuss childhood experiences and the bonds children develop with their parents or primary caregivers. But these bonds or emotional ties don't just affect us as children. Inconsistent parenting can impact on the way we see ourselves in later life. And, perhaps more importantly, they can impact on the relationships we have with others, determining whether we have positive or negative expectations of people. And even determining whether we see ourselves as worthy of love.

There are four types of attachment styles which can affect the way we approach intimate relationships and sex in adult life. These are known as:

  • Secure
  • Anxious
  • Avoidant
  • Disorganized

Let’s focus on anxious attachment patterns

Anxious attachment is characterized by high anxiety. People with an anxious attachment style are more likely to view themselves in a negative light, perhaps believing that others are better than them. They might struggle with self-doubt, fall in love quickly and find it difficult to move on when things end. Or they might need a lot of reassurance that their partner loves them.  

It's thought that roughly 20% of people have an anxious attachment style.

Do you have an anxious attachment style?

Anxious attachment, or relationship anxiety, can often manifest as jealousy. Someone displaying this type of attachment can appear overly emotional. They might expect their partner to act in certain ways that make them feel more secure – perhaps even coming across as controlling.  

These constantly swirling doubts and negative emotions can be extremely tiring for anyone who is feeling constantly insecure and anxious. That’s why it’s so important to recognize and address these issues.

Can you answer 'yes' to any of the below?

  • Do you feel insecure about your relationship?
  • Do you find yourself questioning whether your partner likes you?
  • Do you have a strong fear that your partner is looking for reasons to break up with you?
  • Do you feel better when you receive lots of attention and reassurance from your partner?
  • Do you find yourself trying to please your partner or gain approval?
  • Do you take your partner’s behavior personally?
  • Do you spend ages over-analyzing things your partner says or does?

It's worth noting here that just because you're an anxious person, or display anxious behaviors, does not mean you will display an anxious attachment pattern. 

Does your anxious attachment impact your sexual relationship?

A 2018 study in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found that “attachment style appears to be a more important contributing factor to satisfaction than desire among diverse sexual orientations”. (1) This means that yes, almost certainly your anxious attachment will affect your relationship, but the question is, how?

Due to their fear of abandonment or rejection, people with attachment anxiety will often find they’ll do almost anything to prove their love for their partner or to seek proof of their partner’s love for them. They may experience an intense fear of rejection and seek a constant sense of security. Sex is often a way to express their love, although it can also be used as a way to relieve any fears that their partner might leave them, or simply to please their partner, rather than to express their own sexuality or seek pleasure. (2)

The problem here is that the strength of these emotions, and lack of emotional regulation, can put very real pressure on your partner. They may feel forced to behave in a way that doesn’t feel right to them, they may struggle to provide the level of reassurance you need, or they may begin to worry that you don’t trust them. This is why anxious attachment disorder has been cited as a contributing factor to such issues as male hypoactive sexual desire disorder, female orgasmic disorder, and infidelity. These are things that can end up impacting both parties in the relationship, not only the anxious partner.

So this is not something to simply ignore.

How can you address your anxious attachment?

Many of the feelings and emotions surrounding anxious attachment are rooted in insecurities, experiences or trauma from the past. While this may sound like a lot to overcome, once you begin to understand the impact this can have, it is perfectly possible to learn to alter the way you behave in your relationships.

In the short-term, unpicking your past and getting your thoughts in order can really help to put things into perspective. Perhaps helping to understand more about yourself and why you are how you are. You may even be able to begin working towards a more secure attachment style.

Try mindfulness to help yourself stay in the moment and not allow your thoughts to begin wandering off, finding future problems and catastrophizing. This can all be part of starting the healing process. And start journaling so you can get that jumble of mixed-up, incoherent thoughts out of your brain and onto a page. Really dig deep inside yourself to understand where those feelings or unworthiness or rejection stem from. Did you have difficult relationship with a parent? Did an ex cheat on you? Did you experience some form of childhood trauma? Writing these things down can help you unpick the past and find connections with your present behavior. Don’t underestimate the benefits of sharing your current feelings, too, it may help you to work out what is triggering your anxieties and what you can do to help reduce them and improve your quality of life.

Longer term, consider individual or couples therapy. Enlisting the help of a therapist will enable you to learn how to communicate better with your partner. And it may help them to understand more about any behaviors that either you or they could change to make things easier. Simply believing that you are in a safe and supportive relationship can be a big turning point in the journey.

If you feel that face to face therapy might be too difficult or costly, try the Blueheart app. With Blueheart, you will benefit from therapy delivered by experienced sex therapists, through a tailored, online touch-based programme. You will be able to complete the sessions wherever you like and at whatever speed feels right to you. To begin, simply take the assessment. We've also got a few tips on how to bring up the topic of going to therapy with your partner.

If you believe you have an anxious or insecure attachment style, it’s important that you learn everything you can about the impact it is having on your relationship. These patterns of behavior will be impossible to unlearn without conscious effort. Keep an eye on whether your attachment issues are putting undue burden on your partner by expecting them to constantly validate they way they feel about you.

Many couples experience difficulties within their sex life at various times. It’s completely normal to find your desire and sex drive fluctuating. However, if you’re worried that you’re losing the emotional connection you had with your partner, or you feel there is a lack of intimacy in your relationship, it is worth investigating what’s behind that. If you feel that it could be your primary attachment styles that are having an impact, it is absolutely worth trying the tips above or seeking professional help.

If left unaddressed, insecure attachment styles can and do end relationships unless you’re able to begin to recognize the triggers for your anxiety and work to quieten your over-analytical brain.

(1) Mark, K., Vowels, L. and Murray, S., 2018. The Impact of Attachment Style on Sexual Satisfaction and Sexual Desire in a Sexually Diverse Sample. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, [Online]. 44 (5), 450-458. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2017.1405310
(2) Cooper, M. L., et al. (2006). 'Attachment Styles, Sex Motives, and Sexual Behavior: Evidence for Gender-Specific Expressions of Attachment Dynamics', in Mikulincer, M. and Goodman, G. S. (Eds.) Dynamics of Romantic Love: Attachment, Caregiving, and Sex. The Guildford Press: New York. pp. 243-274.
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