The Science of Relationships

Understanding Anxious Attachment Styles

At its core, anxious attachment styles involve amplification of stress behaviors in order to keep caregivers close and available.

Anxious/Entangled Attachment Style

  • Seek high levels of emotional closeness, approval, and responsiveness from others with a sense of urgency. Uncomfortable with distance from others.
  • Value emotional intimacy in relationships to an extent that they can become overly dependent on others to meet their needs while feeling own needs can never be met
  • Less positive views of themselves; oftentimes doubting their worth
  • High levels of emotional expressiveness, worry, and impulsiveness in relationships
  • Lessened awareness of the boundaries and differences between self and others

    At its core, anxious attachment involves amplification of stress behaviors in order to keep caregivers close and available.

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    In the strange situation experiment, the gold-standard protocol developed to measure attachment in infants, infants are exposed to a stressful separation from their caregiver and their behavior is carefully observed and classified into four attachment categories: secure, avoidant, anxious, and disorganized. These categories describe different relationship patterns that first emerge as adaptive survival strategies early in life. In the strange situation experiment, anxious infants are marked by behaviors that amplify displays of need for protection and caregiving.

    During the experiment, when caregivers leave the room the infant may loudly protest, or even panic, and is then unable to calm herself, or be soothed, even when the caregiver returns.

    Beyond the laboratory, this attachment pattern may involve frequent crying, angry protest, and frequent dysregulation. An infant with anxious attachment may seem difficult to soothe (as an enduring pattern, not as a result of illness or other extenuating circumstances) and may even have painful memories of being described as “difficult” or “dramatic.”

    In reality, this infant has not experienced consistent co-regulation with a caregiver and so may lack the capacity and “practice” of calming that comes with trustworthy and dependable care. Instead, the infant may have experienced a confusing dance of mutual co-dysregulation, leaving the infant with the experience of being dependent on but also unsure of her caregiver’s care. Because the caregiver may be responsive to only the loudest displays of need, or inconsistent with responses, maximizing calls for attention (attachment) seems to be the best way to keep the caregiver engaged and nearby, even if the experience is emotionally unsatisfying.

    Attachment Styles are Nuanced

    Attachment is complex, and we each have a unique story of developing nuanced relationship patterns inside our early caregiving constellations. However, it may be helpful to reflect on some of the early experiences connected with anxious attachment.

    Caregivers of anxiously attached infants may struggle to regulate themselves, and therefore, regulating an infant can be an overwhelming experience, one that may even feel impossible. The lack of regulation on the caregiver’s part is likely due to multi-layered experiences of prolonged stress and their own unmet needs (work, relationships, caregiver’s own attachment history, etc.). A caregiver may even be looking to an infant as a source of emotional satisfaction, rather than playing the role of the boundaried and co-regulating caregiver. In fact, in an anxious attachment relationship, the feeling may be more of being emotionally “entangled,” rather than a boundaried parent-child relationship. Thus, the infant may experience closeness and “sameness” with the caregiver at times, or a sense of shame and dysregulation when the caregiver is unavailable or “cannot handle” the bigger emotional needs of the child. It is almost as if the child is strapped into a roller coaster seat with their parent, riding the waves of co-dysregulation, with a focus on maintaining proximity and closeness no matter what.

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    Attachment patterns tend to be enduring across the lifespan unless we do the work of earning secure attachment.

    When the anxious infant grows up, patterns of amplifying emotion and need go with her. Because early attachment experiences were characterized by mutual need and co-dysregulation, anxious adults may experience intense, unstable, or “needy” relationships as familiar and even comfortable. The focus of relationships becomes on togetherness, and separateness may even be viewed as a source of threat. Thus, others may experience the anxiously adult as clingy or intrusive but also insecure. The anxious adult may struggle to trust a relationship, and it may be hard to have emotional needs met or emotions soothed no matter how hard another person may try.

    Paradoxically, because relationships and connections have been a sole source of identity and security, it is difficult for the anxiously attached adult to trust and depend on relationships without an almost-continuous need for assurance and closeness. Approval-seeking behavior and an others-focused approach to relationships become strategies for ensuring the relationship goes on. Of course, the trade-off here is that the anxious adult misses the opportunity to negotiate their own needs, desires, dreams, identity, and security, and as a result, many anxious adults may find themselves feeling angry or victimized. Without the skills of healthy self-regulation and autonomy, this may further complicate relationships and well-being in anxiously attached adults.

    Attachment Styles Are Adaptations

    Taking a compassionate approach to all attachment adaptations is important.

    Remember, anxious attachment is an adaptive survival strategy. It made sense as a way to keep caregivers close early on, and we can honor our young body and brain’s efforts to keep us safe. Anxiously attached infants’ needs and emotions were often in competition with the needs and emotions of caregivers. From a developmental perspective, this was too much to handle.

    The anxiously attached infant needed a “big, wise, kind, strong” attachment figure who could consistently detect and meet needs in an emotionally satisfying way. Honoring the pain and confusion of this attachment experience is one way to move toward security. Read more here about the work of earning security across the lifespan—it’s never too late to modify and re-adapt to more healthy, happy, and whole attachment strategies!

    About the author

    Kelley Munger

    PhD, LPC, NCC

    Kelley holds a BA in English from Auburn University, an MA in Teaching from Lee University, and an MA in Counseling Psychology from Covenant Seminary. She completed her PhD in Early Intervention and Special Education at the University of Oregon in 2019. Kelley is a researcher and licensed therapist working in the areas of trauma, adult attachment, special education, and human development. She is passionate about leveraging the power of relationships to promote developmental flourishing across the lifespan.

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