We are all familiar with the classic “needy” girlfriend or boyfriend. He won’t stop texting when you are out with your friends and needs constant affirmation to assure him of your feelings. He is great in every other way, but you just need some space. Before you write your guy off as a stage-five clinger, it might help to learn a few things about his attachment style.
Our attachment system is an innate evolutionary mechanism in our brain responsible for keeping infants close to their mother until they are mature enough to survive on their own. Attachment theory takes this a step further and attempts to describe the influence this evolutionary bond has on our interpersonal relationships—specifically, the dynamics of how we respond within relationships when hurt, separated from loved ones, or when we perceive a threat.
Many attachment theorists believe that by the age of five, we develop a primary attachment style that will more or less define the way we emotionally bond and attach to others in our adult lives. There are three primary attachment styles:
Secure: People with a secure attachment style are not afraid of intimacy and are also not codependent.
Avoidant: Those with an avoidant attachment style subconsciously suppress their attachment system and have a tendency to push people away when someone gets too close.
Anxious: People with an anxious attachment style usually experienced inconsistent caregiving as a child. They fear rejection and abandonment, do not feel safe, and have a hard time trusting their partner.
A needy partner might just have an anxious attachment style. Anxious attachment doesn't mean that relationship bliss is necessarily doomed. You just have to understand that their wiring is different from yours and that they require higher levels of intimacy and closeness than people with secure attachment styles.
When anxious attachers sense that their romantic connection is threatened, their attachment system goes haywire. They desperately try to reestablish connection by calling or texting repeatedly, or they’ll try to punish their partner by withdrawing or resorting to some sort of destructive behavior. Rather than getting exasperated, you can learn what their triggers are and how to best respond to make them feel loved and supported.
Does this sound like your boyfriend? Or maybe it's you, and your S.O. could use some guidance on how to best support you. Here are some tips on how to date someone with an anxious attachment style:
01. Be consistent.
Lack of safety is the underlying issue that subconsciously rules an anxious’s way of perceiving their relationships. Many theorists attribute an anxious attachment style to inconsistent caregiving, where the baby/child never knew if they would have their needs met. Being hot and cold and mirroring the inconsistency they received as children will be one of their greatest triggers and cause them to react in a destructive way—so be consistent and opt for balance versus extreme peaks and valleys in your attention and energy.
Let them know how you feel on a regular basis. Anxious types have difficulty believing that you actually like them and without clear signs indicating your interest, they will convince themselves that you don’t. They need reassurance that you care about them, that you’re sticking around and won’t abandon them. Sounds exhausting, but it’s really not that hard. A simple “I’m thinking of you” text or a phone call to check in can go a long way. If you assume they know how you feel, think twice. They don’t. Proactively tell them how you feel instead of holding it in.
03. Find out their love language.
There’s a great book, The 5 Love Languages, that explains how we all have a primary way we receive and give love. The categories are broken down into: words of affirmation, gifts, quality time, physical touch, and acts of service. You may run into frustrations if you are trying assure your anxious partner that you love them with words, but they need physical touch. Find out what your partner’s love language is and make an effort to love them in the language they understand.
04. When in a fight, reassure that you’re not leaving them.
Studies show that people with an anxious attachment style are more sensitive and quicker to perceive offset emotions. They have a unique ability to sense when their relationship is being threatened. They have a tendency to think worst-case scenario because unconsciously, they deeply fear rejection and abandonment. When in a fight, they’re instinctive reaction is to think that the relationship is over. Their heightened alert system will make them think you’re going to leave them, so they will prepare for rejection and may even try to break up with you first. It’s important that you assure them that just because you’re in a fight, it doesn’t detract from how much you love and care about them and that a disagreement doesn’t mean the end.
05. Follow through on the little things.
If you say you’ll call, do it. If you say you want to go out, make it happen. Follow through on promises—small or large. It’s extremely important to build trust with anxious types, who are used to being let down or disappointed. Since anxious types are more sensitive to cues, they pay more attention to the things you say and will remember the promises you make.
While it may sound challenging to date someone with an anxious attachment style, the good news is, through support from their partner and their own self-work, they can move from anxious to secure. Once they realize that they are safe, a healthier narrative becomes reaffirmed through time and experience, and they gradually rewire their baseline—reduced texting optional.