Dating is hard —it’s always been that way. But the current age of online dating has created fresh challenges and triggers. We’ve somehow normalized ghosting , the slow fade, catfishing, poor communication skills, and lack of clarity around relationships—all things that would make any single person wary about putting themselves out there. Throw in an anxious attachment style and it becomes even tougher.
You know the feeling, the one you get after finally hitting send on that well-crafted text to your new love interest, and an hour goes by, then two, then ten, and they still haven’t replied? The way your mind jumps to the conclusion that they aren’t interested in you anymore, or that they can’t text you because they are hanging out with someone else—even if things have been going great? If this sounds familiar, it’ll give you a sense of what it’s like to date with an anxious attachment style.
“Anxiously attached people are hungry for connection and will also be apprehensive of its reliability. They tend to amplify emotional signals as they seek evidence of other people’s responsiveness to them,” says Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD .
Attachment Theory in Dating
Attachment theory is a pretty buzzy concept these days and for good reason: it’s vital for understanding the ways in which you behave in relationships and relate to your partners. If you find the rest of this article relatable, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re anxiously attached, but the reality of dating in 2022 can make every interaction anxiety-provoking.
The process of merely getting to date number two with someone can be shockingly stressful, let alone the often fraught experience that is transitioning to being in an actual relationship. Insecurity is the name of the game because no one wants to commit when it feels like someone better is always one swipe away.
And if you do in fact have an anxious attachment style, dating apps can provide that quick fix of attention and validation, and allows you to avoid facing the perpetual insecurity that causes the craving for praise in the first place. Every new match or complement provides a little bit of dopamine which simply reinforces the cycle.
There is nothing wrong with you if you’re anxiously attached, but cultivating an awareness of it will help you feel more grounded and confident in your romantic pursuits.
Understanding Anxious Attachment
According to attachment theory, first proposed by British psychologist John Bowlby and later expanded upon by Mary Ainsworth , a person’s attachment style usually develops during childhood as a direct result of their interactions with a primary caregiver.
An anxious attachment style arises during childhood when parents are present and then suddenly absent, be it physically or emotionally. If someone doesn’t receive adequate emotional responsiveness as a child, it can lead them to be skeptical of dependability in adulthood.
“I went through a string of codependent relationships before learning I had an anxious attachment style. I was abandoned as a child and the evidence of that trauma has historically been very apparent in my romantic relationships," shares Kelsey, 32.
There are a number of traits characteristic of this attachment style that can manifest in both emotions and behaviors, “In adults, it manifests through the desire for intimacy while also experiencing difficulty trusting others, fear of emotional closeness, difficulty with boundaries, need for consistent reassurance, a tendency to be obsessive or clingy, or the experience of anxiety when away from one’s partner” says Romanoff.
Olivia, 27 shares, “I learned I have an anxious attachment style when I was dating someone and realized my heart rate would increase whenever his phone dinged, whenever he mentioned hanging out with another female, and whenever he would go work out at a certain place.”
I learned I have an anxious attachment style when I was dating someone and realized my heart rate would increase whenever his phone dinged, whenever he mentioned hanging out with another female, and whenever he would go workout at a certain place.
Digital communication and the way we can stay in constant contact with one another can be a real trigger for anxious types as well.
Madeline, 29, shares how texting can provoke feelings of insecurity, "My anxious thoughts tend to spiral when I'm not with the guy I'm dating. When we're together I usually feel fine because I have the reassurance that they want to spend time with me, so most of my anxiety happens with texting."
Madeline continues, "There was one time I was panicking over a boy not texting me to confirm the brunch plans we were supposed to have the next day. I let my friend write him a text, but she sent it without my approval and I nearly had a heart attack. Looking back, I was being so irrational. And that guy was someone that I didn't even want to be my boyfriend. But I cared so much about making him like me."
Because the anxiously attached individual has a fervent need for acceptance, it can easily lead to chronic people-pleasing behaviors. This can have real consequences for mental health when the fear of rejection overpowers the ability to love yourself or recognize your own needs.
"My patterns of people-pleasing extended to the point of self-abandonment, for the sake of avoiding suffering my partner's anger or contempt. I feel that I fit the bill to a tee; I never acknowledged my own needs (or even knew that I had any), I exhausted myself emotionally and physically to offer as much of myself as possible, and never reciprocated the criticism that was dealt to me," shares Erica, 41.
Anxious attachment can also develop as a result of early dating experiences. If someone cheated on you or you had multiple instances of rejection in your teens or early twenties, it could have a significant impact on how you connect with future partners.
What Does Anxious Attachment Look Like in a Relationship?
It’s not hard to imagine how these factors would add stress to someone’s dating life, and these feelings can come up at every stage of a relationship, regardless of how stable the relationship actually is.
"When it comes to romantic relationships, people with anxious attachment desire connection and love. However, at the same time, they find it difficult to trust people creating overwhelming insecurity about their relationships. As a result, behaviors such as jealousy, possessiveness, and constant need for reassurance become common in these individuals," says Yalda Safai, MD .
These feelings of suspicion and doubt can put a serious strain on a relationship, and it usually doesn't matter how many times the anxious partner is validated, deep down they'll still anticipate abandonment , and even be attracted to signs of it.
Yalda Safai, MD
When it comes to romantic relationships, people with anxious attachment desire connection and love. However, at the same time, they find it difficult to trust people creating overwhelming insecurity about their relationships.
One of the best-known books on attachment theory, Attached , by Rachel S.F. Heller and Amir Levine, explains that those with an anxious attachment style are often drawn to people with an avoidant attachment style .
This may seem counterintuitive, but the idea is that when an anxious person is innately wired to expect their partner to treat them poorly, they are subconsciously attracted to individuals who are unable to truly show up to the relationship. What's worse, an anxious person will work extra hard to convince an avoidant partner to stay with them, which inevitably leads to them being treated poorly. It’s a vicious cycle.
“I tend to date guys that also don't want to spend every night together but then I get anxious that they don't want to spend enough time with me. Then I spiral into thinking they don't like me, they're planning to dump me, etc," says Madeline, 29.
When these feelings go unchecked, it can put a ton of undue pressure on the other partner, and in many cases may have the unintended consequences of pushing them away. A huge part of being in a healthy relationship is being able to trust that your partner loves you and has your back, but a constant expression of doubt is a potential catalyst for decline.
What Helps Anxious Attachment Style in a Relationship
According to the experts, when it comes to addressing the thoughts and reactions caused by an anxious-attachment style, self-awareness and communication are key.
“For people who suffer from anxious attachment, in order to form healthy relationships, it is important to, first of all, become aware of your attachment style. Second, learning how to express your emotions is extremely important for any individual and in particular those who suffer from an anxious attachment personality style," says Safai.
It may also be helpful to date someone with a secure attachment style because, "it can help you understand what a stable and secure relationship is like," says Safai, and can encourage you to break possible patterns of dating avoidant individuals who could be reinforcing your expectations of abandonment.
If you suspect you may have this attachment style, it'll help to talk to a licensed therapist . They can offer strategies for coping and communication when intense emotions might be giving you a warped view of your partner's behavior.
Kelsey, 32 discusses what's worked for her, “Recently I’ve been working towards viewing conflict as a means to understanding my partner and learning how to support him instead of listening to the inner narrative that frames conflict as a threat to my relationship...yoga, therapy, and a lot of breathwork have been very healing and incredibly helpful in my ability to feel safe within myself and less reliant on those I’m in a relationship with.”
Recently I’ve been working towards viewing conflict as a means to understanding my partner and learning how to support him instead of listening to the inner narrative that frames conflict as a threat to my relationship.
“There is a healthy balance between recognizing when reassuring seeking is excessive and effectively asking to get your needs met by your partner. The reality is, you are more likely to find safety in a relationship if you are aware of your needs and explicitly share with your partner how to make you feel secure,” says Romanoff.
Your attachment style isn't something you can just get over—it's a part of your personality and something you'll always have to navigate. To reiterate, if you're prone to insecurity in your relationships, there is nothing wrong with you, but it helps to cultivate an understanding of how it influences the way you relate to others. And in the complex dating scene of 2022 and beyond, we can all benefit from the tips and tricks of managing anxious attachment.
Levine A, Heller R. Attached. New York, NY, Penguin Random House; 2010