Is It Your Anxious Attachment Style or Are You Dating Assholes?An investigation.
A few years ago, I took a hard look at my dating life. I desperately wanted a relationship, but the guys I was seeing made me feel insecure and anxious about myself and our potential future. At the time, “My anxious attachment style” wasn’t a transition you’d casually drop at brunch, so I blamed my fears on the fact that I was dating jerks—and (for the most part) I was.
But now that all of us and the entirety of TikTok are out here analyzing our relationship patterns like the, “I’m not a therapist, but…” humans that we are, I can confirm I do have an anxious attachment style, and I suspect it’s been very much at play.
“People are now recognizing the importance of understanding and addressing emotional and psychological barriers that show up in their dating lives,” says Emma Zucker, LMSW, an associate therapist at Manhattan Wellness, a psychotherapy practice that specializes in dating and relationships. And if you can relate, it’s time we break down the difference between, “It’s not you, it’s me and my anxious attachment style,” and, “It’s definitely you because you’re kind of the worst,” once and for all.
Below, you’ll find out what anxious attachment is, who it happens to, and how to deal if it’s becoming an issue.
What is an anxious attachment style?
ICYMI, attachment theory, or the umbrella under which the anxious attachment style lives, isn’t new. It was originally proposed in the 1980s by psychologist John Bowlby, who was trying to understand infants’ intense emotional responses when they were separated from their parents.
The idea is that how you felt in your earliest relationships (secure, cared for, abandoned, or forgotten) can impact your relationships throughout your life. For example, if someone consistently came quickly to make you feel better when you cried, you might be more likely to develop a secure attachment style, feel deserving of love, and know attention will be available when you need it.
But if your needs weren’t met or you felt like you couldn’t depend on comfort from your caregiver, you might be more likely to experience anxious attachment. Unfair, but true.
In my childhood, I experienced a lot of inconsistency. I had a parent who was loving and available one moment and the next wasn’t meeting my most basic needs. “When a parent is inconsistent in how they show up, it leaves the child confused and striving for love and affection,” says Michele Miller, LMSW, a lead therapist at Manhattan Wellness
While most mental health pros agree that an anxious attachment style begins in childhood, your ~romantic history~ could also impact your attachment style. “People who have had unstable relationships in which their partner showed up inconsistently can develop an anxious attachment,” says Miller. “This is often apparent in their next relationship, since their previous one set their expectations.”
And when your dating life has made you feel like there actually aren’t that many fish in this sea, that scarcity mindset could impact your attachment style too. You might start to believe that if your next relationship or the one you’re in now isn’t the one then there isn’t anyone else and you’ll be alone forever.
How can I tell if I have an anxious attachment style?
Though being single really isn’t a bad thing, it can feel extra scary if you have this attachment style. That’s because most people who have it fear being alone and base their self-worth on being attached, says Miller. Which, yeah, doesn’t usually translate well to how you act in a relationship. “With an anxious attachment style, someone is overly attentive, cautious, or insecure in their partner's actions” because they’re scared that their partner will create distance or leave the relationship, she adds.
People with this kind of attachment style need a lot of validation and consistency to feel like their partner cares about them, so they tend to over-analyze everything their partner does, says Zucker. And if you feel like you’re constantly interpreting what your S.O. (or last Bumble date) says or does as signs of rejection or abandonment, you might be dealing with some anxious attachment style issues.
Same goes if you find yourself seeking reassurance from your partner pretty often (“Are we good? Are you mad? Are you still into me? You’re not seeing other people, are you?”) or become jealous or possessive in close relationships (“You think they’re hot, don’t you?”).
An anxious attachment style can also manifest as behaviors that attempt to get some attention, aka protest behaviors, says Zucker. That can look like calling, texting, or emailing excessively, withdrawing, acting hostile, or threatening to leave—all while secretly hoping your partner will give you the attention and reassurance you’re seeking. Yep, sounds like fun for everyone involved…not really.
So am I anxiously attached or dating someone who doesn’t make me feel safe?
We can all agree that constant overthinking and reassurance-seeking isn’t really a good look (nor is it fun to experience). But it’s also a very valid response to dating someone who is inconsistent, up to no good, or just generally an asshole. So, how can you tell if it’s the person you’re dating or your attachment style that’s making you second guess every text?
It’s true that you may find yourself doing all those things above to figure out what their deal is in both situations. But the key to telling the difference lies in how they respond. If they listen to your concerns, meet your needs in a realistic way, are open, honest, and make you feel supported—yet you still feel anxious in the relationship—it could be your attachment style, says Zucker. If that’s the case, it might be worth reflecting on your self-esteem and general anxieties on your own or with them (or both).
But if you’re dating someone who is just not great at being a partner (i.e. they rarely check in with you or ignore you on purpose, keep you waiting when you had plans, make you feel disrespected or unwanted, disregard your needs even after you’ve clearly expressed them, give you legit reasons to feel jealous or question their faithfulness, etc.), the problem might be them. In this case, being anxious about the state of your relationship is a very reasonable reaction, says Miller, and not necessarily indicative of your attachment style.
Can I change my attachment style?
If you just realized that you probably have an anxious attachment style, don’t worry. You’re not doomed forever. “You can definitely work towards having a secure attachment style,” says Miller. “It starts with understanding what you need to feel comfortable and secure in a relationship and communicating those needs.”
Working on how you see yourself will also help you unlearn those anxiety-fueled behaviors. “A big component of anxious attachment comes from not seeing your worth, so by building your self-esteem you can recognize that you are worthy and that one person or relationship doesn't define you,” she says.
I can attest to this work. I spent—and still spend—a lot of time in therapy discussing anxieties about my current relationship and relationship history, and it’s helped me see my value overall. Now, I’m able to look at any issues that come up with my partner through the lens of whether they’re actually not meeting my needs or whether it’s an anxious attachment thing.
So, from one fellow anxiously attached person to another, I say unto thee: If your partner is making you feel heard, seen, and supported but you still exhibit anxious-attachment behaviors, you may want to seek out a licensed mental health professional to help you work through those deeply rooted feels. On the other hand, if your partner is inconsistent, makes you feel unsafe or unwanted, or disrespects you, they’re probably just an asshole.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.