Relationships are very much about give and take. At their best, they are a back-and-forth flow of love and affection. Things go smoothly when we’re able to attune to another person’s wants and needs, and they’re able to attune to ours. Yet, as most of us know, this sweet and simple-sounding interaction is often fraught with complications. One person may want more closeness, while the other needs some space. Often, one person feels more insecure and needs reassurance, while the other feels intruded on and needs distance.
The reasons for these tendencies have a lot to do with our early attachment pattern. I often say that getting to know our attachment patterns can be a gift that keeps on giving in terms of understanding how we think, feel, and act in our relationships. In my last blog, I wrote about how having an avoidant attachment pattern can impact a person throughout their lives. In this blog, I’ll talk about how an anxious attachment pattern is formed in childhood and how it goes on to affect us in our adult relationships.
When a child feels safe, seen, and soothed by their parent in a consistent way, they are able to form a secure attachment to that parent. However, when a parent is available and attuned at times and insensitive or intrusive at others, the child is more likely to experience an anxious ambivalent attachment pattern. An anxiously attached child can feel like they have to cling to their parent to get their needs met. They may feel upset by separations and have trouble feeling soothed by the parent when reunited.
This attachment pattern can form when a child experiences emotional hunger directed at them by the parent instead of nurturing love. When a parent is emotionally hungry, they may focus on or look to the child to meet their own needs. For instance, they may hug the child when they need a hug or seek reassurance from the child when they wish to be comforted. However, when the child needs affection or love from the parent, the parent may be distracted or preoccupied with their own needs.
Parents who form an anxious attachment between themselves and their child are often misattuned to the child’s needs. When they give to the child, they do so in a manner that’s intrusive or more about themselves. They may care more about the appearance of being a good parent than the act of tuning in to their children, that is, seeing their kids for who they are and giving to them in a way that’s sensitive to what they need in that moment. For example, one mother described creating elaborate birthday parties for her daughter. She’d decorate lavishly and dress up herself, hoping to gain attention for being a “perfect mom.” However, her daughter would be left feeling anxious, uncomfortable, and pressured to perform as the “perfect little girl” to make her mother look good. The daughter ended up feeling drained and empty from the party, which wasn’t really about her.
These parents can become distracted by their own anxiety and insecurity and, without realizing it, can act in ways that are either overbearing or disregarding of their kids. However, because they sometimes “get it right” and respond to their child in attuned ways, the child may be left feeling desperate and needy toward the parent, feeling they have to fuss or make their emotions known in order to get what they need.
A child who experiences an anxious attachment often feels drained rather than nurtured by their parent’s attention, because that attention feels empty and disabling. They tend to worry about their parent and cling to them out of a feeling of need, and sometimes guilt, like they have to take care of their parent.
A parent who creates an anxious attachment pattern may overdo for their child in an attempt to get “love” and reassurance from them. The child with this type of attachment to their parent does not internalize a sense of calm. They are left in a state of confusion about whether they can depend on others. They cannot benefit from the intermittent times that their parent is attuned, because there are too many painful interactions in between.
A parent who creates an anxious attachment with their child often experienced this style of attachment themselves as a child. They had their own emotional needs that weren’t consistently met which left them feeling empty. When they become parents, they often turn to their child to attempt to fill the emotional hole. This style of attachment becomes a model for the child for how relationships work, and they carry this model into their own adult relationships. Thus continues a generational cycle of anxious attachment.
When a person has experienced an anxious ambivalent attachment as a child with their parent, they may go on to form a preoccupied attachment to their partner in an adult romantic relationship. Because they’re used to having someone be inconsistently available, they tend to feel more insecure and seek more reassurance in their relationship. At the same time, they may have trouble trusting their partner’s words, warmth, and affection, because when these words were used by their parents they were often empty, lacking the real attuned nurturance they needed.
As adults, they may feel compelled to demand signs that they are special to their partner in an attempt to quell their anxiety. They may experience feelings of emotional hunger toward their partner that are similar to those that were directed toward them by a parent. They may hope their partner will “rescue” or “complete” them, a pursuit that is impossible for any other person to fulfill. Therefore, even as they believe they’re seeking closeness and a sense of safety by clinging to their partner, their desperate actions actually push their partner away.
Because of a deep-seated insecurity from their past, preoccupied people in a relationship can behave in ways that seem desperate, insecure, demanding, possessive, jealous or controlling toward their partner. They often misinterpret their partner’s actions as being rejecting or insensitive, often thinking things like, “He doesn’t really love me.” “If he really loved me, he would have…,” or “She’s going to leave me.” “How can he treat me that way? Doesn’t he see how much I do for him?” “I was right not to trust her.” In addition to worrying about their partner’s feelings towards them, or perhaps because of this, an anxiously attached person may have a tendency to overdo for their partner just as their parents overdid for them in an attempt to “make them love them.”
While it may seem that an anxiously attached person would seek out someone who was nurturing and available, oftentimes they wind up being drawn to a person with an avoidant attachment style who has trouble meeting their emotional needs. While this sounds paradoxical, their intense emotions complement the missing, actually suppressed emotions of the person with avoidant attachment. They reinforce each other’s adaptations in the painful dance of their interactions. The avoidant person reinforces their feeling of needing to withdraw emotionally, since their partner is so demanding. In turn, the preoccupied partner reinforces their need to pursue and pressure their partner since their partner is so distant and withholding. Although it is painful to re-experience this insecurity, people often feel compelled to recreate the emotional climate of their childhood. This is why it is so important to understand our attachment styles and make sense of them, so we can then change our style of relating.
A preoccupied attachment style can make romantic relationships difficult, however, it is possible to develop a secure attachment style as an adult. This is a topic I discuss in the online workshop, “Developing Secure Attachment.” In order to build more inner security, we have to understand our own attachment history and where our models for relationships come from. With this understanding, we can develop a coherent narrative of our early experiences that will give us insight into how we relate today.
It can also be helpful to build relationships with people who have a more secure attachment style than our own. If we hang in there, even when things start to feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar, we can adapt to a new kind of relating and form an earned secure attachment. Finally, seeking therapy can be a very valuable, life-changing tool for developing more secure attachment. A therapist can not only help us explore our early life and how it has affected us, but as a trusting, consistent relationship develops with a therapist, we can develop more inner security. Overall, with self-compassion and courage to face the past, we can change our attachment style, enjoy more love in the present, and shape our future.