May 29, 2024

Why Your Anxious Attachment is an Adaptation.

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He walks in the room, and you know something is wrong.

He’s angry. Have you done something? Is he angry with you? What can you do to fix it? You act casual, but you are watching him like a hawk in your peripheral vision.

He says he had a bad day at work and his boss is being an idiot. He doesn’t look at you while he’s speaking. He’s making some tea. He feels distant. You feel tense. You can’t relax until you feel closer to him. You don’t feel safe. You try to talk to him about his day at work, but he says he doesn’t want to talk about it and just wants to watch the news and zone out.

You follow him to the TV room. You watch TV, but you are waiting for a sign that it is safe to get closer. You make some comments about the news to see how he responds. He seems more relaxed. You reach over to squeeze his hand. He squeezes your hand in return. You didn’t realize until that moment just how stressed you had been. A wave of relief washes over you. The relationship is safe, and so you are safe. Exhale.

When you have the anxious adaptation, scenes like this are typical. You might have noticed in intimate relationships that you tend to be hypervigilant about your partner’s mood and how close you feel to one another. You are likely to be hyperaware of moments when your partner seems to pull away and find that you have a strong reaction and struggle to calm down until they feel close again. In those moments, you need reassurance that the relationship is safe and that they love and care for you.

In the back of your mind, you are wondering if they will stay with you. You feel that they are somehow better than you. It’s so difficult to believe that they care for you. No matter how much they tell or show you, there’s always a nagging doubt that they will find something unlovable in you and leave. And that would be the most devastating thing. To be left. To have your fears confirmed. You’ll do anything to prevent that. This is where you betray yourself in big and small ways. It might be saying something is okay when it is not or always putting their needs before yours. You might also start to feel like you can’t survive without them, that they are the only good thing in your life, becoming emotionally dependent.

Know that you are not alone in this experience. This is the impact of your anxious attachment adaptation.

Attachment Theory, the Dance of Love

Attachment theory emerged from the work of psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby* and has been built on by neuroscientists and social psychologists. All children have an inbuilt attachment system that drives them to stay close to their caregivers to help them survive in an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous world. The goal of this attachment system is a “sense of felt security”*. You can relax when you feel safe and know that your caregiver is close and responsive. If you are unsure if they will be there in the way you need, part of you must remain on high alert—anxious.

We develop this sense of felt security from the experience of being attuned to. Attunement happens when someone is aware of your physical and emotional needs and is lovingly responsive to them. You will have developed a secure attachment style if you have received good enough attunement from your attachment figure as a child. Picture a 10-month-old in their bouncer who starts to get bored or hungry. They moan and move their arms and legs, looking toward their mother. The mother sees this gentle call for attention, approaches, and lifts them out of their bouncer while asking what they might need with a loving voice. This is attunement. The infant doesn’t need to escalate, to start to cry or scream, because they have been attended to.

What helps us create secure attachment? Researchers have found protection, attunement, soothing, expressed delight in the child, and encouragement to be core factors in creating a secure attachment*. When these five conditions are met enough of the time, a secure attachment is formed, and as a result, we grow healthy and supportive ideas about ourselves and others. If there was insufficient attunement, you would have formed one of the three insecure attachment styles: anxious, avoidant, or disorganized.

Your anxious attachment adaptation is a logical and natural response to inconsistent, unpredictable, or overly anxious parenting, especially by your primary caregiver. You might have grown up with a traumatized mother who was terrified of you being hurt in the way she was, so she was overprotective and smothering, limiting your natural desire to explore the world. Or perhaps you had an inconsistent caregiver—sometimes validating and emotionally available, but sometimes overwhelmed by working three jobs, caring for a sibling who needs a lot of attention, or managing an abusive partner. This causes you to become hypersensitive to their behavior, tone of voice, and change in mood as you try to get your needs met.

While you make space to acknowledge how it was for you in your childhood, it is important to note that the intention here is not to blame your parents or make them wrong for everything they did or didn’t do. It is to recognize where the patterns have come from, for the patterns to make sense, given some of the things you did and didn’t experience in your childhood. These experiences of connection and disconnection created embedded patterns of relating and attaching, which built the foundation for your future intimate relationships.

Attachment in Adulthood

Just as children have a survival instinct to stay connected to their caregiver, research shows that this continues into adulthood with a drive to have an intimate attachment figure. A growing body of research demonstrates the similarity of the child-caregiver relationship to the adult-couple relationship*. Researchers have explored the patterns of infant-caregiver separation and found that intimate partner relationships follow a similar pattern during periods of separation.

By the time we are fully grown adults, we already have an imprint of how intimate relationships work based on our childhood experiences.

These form a template for our adult relationships, whereby we will tend to expect what we received as a child and will have an automatic pull to respond in the same way we did as a child.

Do You Have an Anxious Attachment?

As you answer the following questions, consider a recent or current significant relationship. Using your journal, work through the statements below and rate them according to the following scale:

True: 3 points

Sometimes true: 2 points

Not at all true: 1 point

1. Do you tend to get attached to a new partner quickly and find it difficult to keep perspective?

2. When you get upset, do you find it difficult to calm yourself down and feel that you need others to calm you?

3. In a relationship, do you tend to put your partner’s needs before your own?

4. Do you feel that your partner doesn’t care about you as much as you care about them?

5. Do you find that you are highly attuned to your partner’s mood?

6. Do you find yourself yearning for emotional validation (to have your emotions understood and accepted by your partner)?

7. Once you sense something is wrong in the relationship, do you feel compelled to fix it, even to your detriment?

8. Do you have a pattern of over-giving in relationships and then feeling resentful?

9. Is it difficult to feel your partner’s love when they express it in different ways?

10. Do you tend to become highly reactive and distressed during conflict?

11. Do you frequently worry about your relationship ending?

12. Is it difficult for you to know where your boundaries are?

13. Do you worry about being abandoned?

14. Is it challenging to be alone? Do you find being alone triggers strong emotions?

15. Do you worry that when your partner gets to know you, they won’t like who you are?

Notice if you have a lot of one, two, or threes. If you have a lot of ones, you are likely to be more on the avoidant end of the attachment spectrum. If you have a lot of twos, you are more secure in your attachment style. If you have a lot of threes, you are more anxious in your attachment style.



*Bowlby, J. 1969. Attachment and Loss: Volume 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

———. 1988. A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human

Development. New York: Basic Books.


*Mikulincer, M., and P. R. Shaver. 2016. Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics, and Change. New York: Guilford Press.


*Brown, D. P., and D. S. Elliott. 2016. Attachment Disturbances in Adults:

Treatment for Comprehensive Repair. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.


*Zeifman, D. M., and C. Hazan. 2016. “Pair Bonds as Attachment: Mounting

Evidence in Support of Bowlby’s Hypothesis.” In Handbook of Attachment:

Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications, edited by J. Cassidy and P. R.

Shaver. New York: Guilford Press.


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