Anxious Attachment: What It Is and How It Affects Adulthood

The anxious attachment style is characterized by interpersonal experiences associated with distress. Find out everything you need to know.
Anxious Attachment: What It Is and How It Affects Adulthood
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Reviewed and approved by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 02 February, 2023

The anxious attachment style is one of the four main types of attachment that develops during childhood. It manifests itself as a consequence of an inconsistent relationship with parents or caregivers during the critical stage of early childhood. It has multiple implications in adult life, mainly regarding the closest interpersonal relationships (such as the relationship with a partner).

In general, attachment styles can be classified into two aspects: Secure and insecure. Anxious attachment is a type of insecure attachment, which is part of what’s known as the attachment theory. In summary, it suggests that emotional and social dynamics are marked by bonding experiences during childhood.

The characteristics of anxious attachment

Anxious attachment, also known as ambivalent attachment or anxious-preoccupied attachment, is characterized by experiences of distress, fear, restlessness, and uncertainty in relation to a child’s bond with their parent or caregiver. It arises during childhood, in principle, during a period that extends from 6 months of age to 3 years.

Babies who develop an ambivalent attachment type have difficulty using the caregiver as a secure base. That is, as a pillar they can trust, lean on, and turn to when exploring new environments.

A striking feature of this attachment style is that babies seek contact with parents or caregivers after separation, although they later resist it. We highlight other features:

  • Crying that isn’t easily consoled
  • Withdrawal or rejection when interacting with strangers
  • Tendency to avoid exploring or enjoying new experiences
  • Anguish and fear when the parent or caregiver isn’t present
  • Problems when controlling negative emotions
  • Difficulty when trusting others
  • Low self-esteem

All these traits manifest themselves progressively, and they do so in response to the bond that has been created with the parents or their caregiver. They not only remain during childhood but extend throughout adolescence and adulthood. The experiences that occur in these stages can help solidify the attachment.

The causes of anxious attachment

A shy child clinging to his father.
The different types of attachment appear as a result of the relationship between parents and children, in addition to the influence of the environment.

As with other types of insecure (avoidant and disorganized) attachment, anxious attachment is the result of an inconsistent relationship or bond with the parent or caregiver.

When the baby experiences fear or danger, they immediately seek proximity to the parent or caregiver for safety and comfort. This is a natural trait, one that’s shaped by their response.

Indeed, if the response of the parent or caregiver in these moments is positive, a secure attachment style will be created. That is, as experiences of this type accumulate, the little one consolidates the trust, support, security, and comfort that they have toward their closest intimate circle (parents or caregivers) in the face of a situation that causes them anxiety.

Attachment theory suggests that the accumulation of these reaction-response interactions, as well as other experiences with the caregiver, provides the infant with information that they use to organize their expectations of others and their understanding of how interpersonal relationships work.

When the reaction-response interaction is inconsistent, and is also accompanied by a deficit of affection, the anxious attachment style may arise.

Therefore, it’s the experiences in the relationship with parents or caregivers during early childhood (between 6 months and 3 years of age) that lead to this type of attachment. It’s very important to understand the idea of inconsistency.

Therein lies the key to this style of attachment, as it’s as a consequence of this inconsistency that the baby’s unable to predict what type of response there will be in the face of a certain reaction. Let’s see some examples:

  • Parents who are loving and caring in certain contexts, but distant and cold in others
  • Varied reaction times when responding to crying (some parents do it to avoid “spoiling” their children)
  • A tendency to endorse certain emotions or behaviors at certain times, but to recriminate and repress them at others

These are just three examples of how ambivalence or inconsistency in a parent-child relationship can lead to anxious attachment. As a consequence, little ones classify the bond with their closest intimate circle as unreliable.

Therefore, feelings of anguish, fear, anxiety, restlessness, and others arise that continue in all kinds of interpersonal relationships that have been created since then.

The consequences of anxious attachment in adulthood

Having presented the traits and causes of the anxious attachment style, it’s now time to review its consequences during adulthood. As has already been made clear, the sequelae of attachment types operate in interpersonal relationships.

These are more intense when the bond is closer, meaning that close relationships are the most affected. Even so, we’ll present other contexts in which this attachment style is felt in adulthood.

Dysfunctional attitudes and low self-esteem

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology in 2009 found that the anxious attachment style translates into dysfunctional attitudes and low self-esteem during adolescence and adulthood.

In turn, these are risk factors for the development of anxiety disorders and depressive disorders. Those who’ve developed this type of attachment are more likely to manifest affective disorders.

Jealousy, psychological abuse, and physical abuse in the relationship

A study published in Partner Abuse in 2017 suggested that attachment anxiety moderates the association between trust and jealousy. In this way, people with this attachment style experience higher levels of cognitive and behavioral jealousy toward their partners. In these contexts, attitudes of psychological abuse and physical abuse may appear.

An excessive search for security

Anxious attachment in adults.
The consequences of any type of attachment often extend into adulthood.

Anxious attachment is also known to be a predictor of an excessive search for security in a relationship. Very anxious people become excessively involved in their relationships, all with the aim of getting emotionally closer to their partners in order to feel more secure.

This translates into overwhelming or suffocating experiences for the other person, as they constantly have to reaffirm their affection and appreciation.

A tendency for materialistic expressions of endearment

Research has suggested that people with this type of attachment seek to reaffirm the bond they have with other people through material expressions of love and affection. That is, of gifts, presents, etc.

These are a confirmation of the words and actions that have been said or done to validate the affection and love that’s professed. In the absence of physical validation, words and actions don’t have the same value.

Disadvantages when manifesting social behaviors

An article published in PLoS One in 2018 suggested that anxious attachment style is a predictor of the manifestation of signs of social anxiety disorder. Therefore, some social behaviors such as public speaking, interacting with strangers, meeting new people, and dealing with a group of various subjects can be complicated.

Anxious attachment has multiple implications in the daily life of an adult person. When the traits prevent the development of healthy relationships with friends, partners, and family and affect the emotional well-being of the person, addressing it through psychological therapy should be considered. This one can help counteract all traits.

  • Lee A, Hankin BL. Insecure attachment, dysfunctional attitudes, and low self-esteem predicting prospective symptoms of depression and anxiety during adolescence. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol. 2009 Mar;38(2):219-31.
  • Norris, J. I., Lambert, N. M., DeWall, C. N., & Fincham, F. D. Can’t buy me love?: Anxious attachment and materialistic values. Personality and Individual Differences. 2012; 53(5): 666-669.
  • Read DL, Clark GI, Rock AJ, Coventry WL. Adult attachment and social anxiety: The mediating role of emotion regulation strategies. PLoS One. 2018 Dec 28;13(12):e0207514.
  • Rodriguez LM, DiBello AM, Øverup CS, Neighbors C. The Price of Distrust: Trust, Anxious Attachment, Jealousy, and Partner Abuse. Partner Abuse. 2015 Jul;6(3):298-319.
  • Shaver PR, Schachner DA, Mikulincer M. Attachment style, excessive reassurance seeking, relationship processes, and depression. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2005 Mar;31(3):343-59.

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