Couples Counselling brighton hove

What is Anxious Attachment?


The foundations of the model (EFT: Emotionally Focused Therapy) I use in my work is based on attachment theory. So let’s start by exploring a bit about attachment. Psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth first developed attachment theory in the 1950s and 1960s. Watching mothers and their babies, they discovered that we need other people as much as we need essential life-sustaining sources such as food and water. To thrive and be mentally and physically well, we need secure, available others who accept and care for us and are in tune with our needs.

According to attachment theory, we adopt four relationship styles to maximise our access to care. However, many families can become too overwhelmed with stress and trauma to provide children with a ‘good enough’ secure attachment.

If we find ourselves in a stressed family, we may adopt one of three attachment styles: anxious, avoidant, and fearful-avoidant.

Those who develop anxious attachment intensify relationship signals and responses to actual or perceived relationship threats. For example, we may shout, get upset, plead and get critical to try and get support. Roughly 20% of us relate to our loved ones in this way.

Anxious Attachment As Normal Coping Mechanism

We will relate in an anxious way when we grow up under significant family stress. Parents in this type of environment can miss or dismiss attempts by their children to get love, attention and support.

Alternatively, parents dealing with stressful circumstances can be hyper-focused on their children. Children in these environments learn that relating anxiously can maximise their possibility of love, attention and support.

Anxious attachment can look like getting bigger somehow, maybe being forceful about feelings, acting -up, poking, prodding or criticising. But, likewise, taking care of stressed caregivers (becoming a parentified child) can help a child have hope that they will eventually receive care, even if this does not happen: if I take care of you, maybe when you are better, you will take care of me.

Though the four attachment styles have been theorised, each person and their coping mechanisms are unique. In addition, many of us combine attachment styles and respond differently when faced with different challenges.

It’s is Exhausting to be Anxiously Attached

It is normal to feel alone in your hard work to maintain close relationships if you are anxiously attached. In addition, it is often typical to feel the weight of holding your family or relationship together.

Many who find themselves in this situation feel angry because they care for others but feel unsupported, leading to them feeling unimportant.

Below are some of the statements I hear from my anxiously attached clients:

  • Even if I’m done at the end of the day, I will go out of my way to take care of my partner and family.
  • If I need support, I have to make a strong case for what I need. I wish I didn’t have to.
  • When I ask for what I need, I feel like I am too much, so, over time, I have learned to try to take care of myself and ask for support only when I can’t cope.
  • I get irritable because it doesn’t feel like my partner cares for me or that I am important.
  • Others tell me that I am critical and controlling when i am actually feeling alone and overwhelmed.

Anxious Attachment is Taxing to Your Health

Being anxiously attached is constantly stressful. As a result, your nervous system continually responds to threat cues even when threat is not present. We learn to relate anxiously in childhood and carry this into our adult relationships. However, the good news is we can change our attachment style.

To begin the road to relationship security, we get more curious about the intelligent, anxious attachment strategies and how they have served you well in the past. Then, we will look compassionately at how they show up in your current relationship and create a disconnection between yourself and your loved one. A great way to jumpstart your path to relationship security is through couples therapy. 

If you would like to know more about EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) and working with me, please do not hesitate to reach out. I am working online globally and from my office in Hove.

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