Preoccupied Attachment Style: How It Develops & How To Cope

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published June 21, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Preoccupied attachment describes an individual who feels insecure and anxious in their relationships with others. Preoccupied individuals may have a particularly strong need to belong, to fit in, or to feel accepted.

This stems from attachment theory, proposed by John Bowlby in the 1950s, who argued that childhood attachment to a primary caregiver can affect relationships in later life. Bowlby explained that the attachment style you develop as an infant will translate into the same attachment style as an adult. 

Intimate adult relationships differ greatly to those between infant and caregiver; however, the core principles of attachment theory can still be applied to these relationships.

Attachment styles as secure, anxious, avoidant or fearful outline diagram. Labeled educational axis scale with high or low avoidance and anxiety as influence to people relationship vector. Bartholomew and
Horowitz (1991) proposed four adult attachment styles based on
four quadrants of positive versus negative models of self and others, including secure (positive self and positive others), preoccupied (negative self and positive others), fearful (negative self and
negative others), and dismissing (positive self and negative others)
styles.

Anxious-preoccupied attachment is an adult attachment style (also called ambivalent when refering to infant attachment) based on a negative working model of self and a positive working model of others.

Such individuals crave intimacy but also remain anxious regarding whether other romantic partners will meet their emotional needs. They are hypervigilant to rejection, while relational autonomy and independence can make them feel anxious.

In addition, they can become distressed should they interpret recognition and value from others as being insincere or failing to meet an appropriate level of responsiveness.

Their attachment system is prone to hyperactivation during times of stress, emotions can become amplified, and overdependence on others is increased (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2003).

Preoccupied lovers characterize their most important romantic relationships by obsession, desire for reciprocation and union, emotional highs and lows, and extreme sexual attraction and jealousy.

Preoccupied lovers believe that it was easy for them to fall in love, yet they also claimed that unfading love was difficult to find.

Attachment styles in adult relationship

John Bowlby argued that one’s sense of security as a child is critical to their attachment style as an adult. 

It is generally accepted that there are four attachment styles (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978):

  • Anxious-preoccupied – an individual usually has low self-esteem and holds others in a higher regard. They seek intimacy and security from others, but they find it hard to trust and can worry about their partner’s behaviours and intentions. These individuals tend to be overly dependent on the relationship.

  • Dismissive-avoidant – this stems from the avoidant childhood attachment style. These individuals tend to have a positive self-view but view others more negatively. They value their independence and may become nervous if someone gets too close to them. A lot of the time, they may choose to avoid relationships altogether.

  • Secure – someone with this attachment style will usually have positive views of themselves and others. They are comfortable with close relationships and can trust their romantic partners.

  • Fearful-avoidant (Disorganized) – this usually stems from either the avoidant or disorganized attachment style in children. These individuals usually crave an intimate relationship but are uncomfortable with closeness and find it hard to trust others. They are often fearful of getting hurt if they get close to others so they may choose to avoid relationships instead.

The attachment style you develop in early childhood is thought to have a lifelong influence on your ability to communicate your emotions and needs, how you respond to conflict, and how you form expectations about your relationships.

Although the attachment style you were raised with does not explain everything about your relationships and who you become as an adult, understanding your style may help explain patterns you notice in relationships.

What are the traits of anxious preoccupied attachment in adults?

It may not be easy to spot an anxious preoccupied attachment style in adults. Some of the key traits of this attachment style include:

  • Constant need for closeness and intimacy

  • Negative self-worth

  • Overly dependent in relationships

  • Constant fear of rejection 

  • Fear of being abandoned 

  • Problems with trusting others

  • Constant need to please others

  • Needing constant reassurance

  • Hypersensitivity to other’s actions and needs 

  • Search for external validation

  • May be highly emotional 

  • Lack impulse control

  • Can be unpredictable and moody

Anxious preoccupied adults may have issues with regulating their emotions. They may show more intense reactions to perceived threats, see situations as more threatening than they are, and experience more distress. They may seek support through indirect ways such as crying. 

Thus, adults who have anxious preoccupied attachment may be at an increased risk of developing anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder. 

Those who suffer from panic attacks often have a history of childhood separation anxiety – the sudden arousal of social separation can result in panic attacks

What causes an anxious preoccupied attachment style?

While it may not always be clear why someone may develop an anxious preoccupied attachment style, it is often a result of the parenting by the caregivers as a child.

Some of the possible ways in which parenting styles can cause an anxious preoccupied attachment style include the following: 

Inconsistent parenting 

One of the main reasons for why a child may develop an anxious preoccupied attachment style is inconsistent parenting. 

Parenting is inconsistent when there are times of support and responsiveness to the child’s needs, but not at other times. At other times, the caregiver may be cold, insensitive, or emotionally unavailable. 

The child may become confused about their relationship with a caregiver who is always sending them mixed signals. 

This inconsistency can make it difficult for the child to predict what their parent’s behavior is going to be at any given time, resulting in elevated insecurity and anxiety. 

Emotional distance

A caregiver who is emotionally distant or neglectful can leave a child feeling insecure and unstable. If a caregiver is not meeting the emotional needs of the child, especially when they are distressed or anxious, these feelings are likely to worsen. 

If a caregiver is neglectful of a child’s needs, the child is likely to develop an insecure attachment style. 

Intrusive parenting

An intrusive caregiver is one where they give intrusive attention to their child. 

They have poor emotional boundaries, intrude on the child’s state of mind, and can be overbearing. The child may feel smothered by the caregiver and that they do not have enough room to grow or be themselves. 

Intrusive parenting can also include mirroring the child. This is where the caregiver reflects how the child is feeling, amplifying the child’s negative reaction rather than soothing it. For instance, if a child is anxious, the caregiver becomes anxious; when the child cries, the caregiver also cries. 

Caregiver’s ‘emotional hunger’

When caregivers seek emotional or physical closeness with the child for the purpose of satisfying their own needs, this is known as fulfilling their ‘emotional hunger’. 

If the caregiver is using the child to satisfy their own needs, they may be neglecting the child’s emotional and physical needs. These types of caregivers can also appear intrusive and preoccupied with their child’s life. They may also replace actual love and affection of their child with using the child to feed their own needs.

The child therefore does not get their needs met and may go on to put everyone else’s needs above their own as they get older, since this is what they have been used to doing.

Anxious preoccupied caregivers

It is likely that if a child has an anxious preoccupied attachment style, that their caregiver also has this attachment style. 

This is not likely due to genetic reasons, rather it is a continuation of behavioral patterns that are being repeated throughout generations. 

Without addressing the insecure attachment of the child, they may grow up to have their own child who is also anxious preoccupied. 

What are relationships with anxious preoccupied people like?

Romantic relationships with anxious preoccupied adults can be intense and stressful for both the anxious person and their partner. 

Often, it is not uncommon for people with an anxious attachment style to form relationships with those who have an avoidant attachment style. Those with an avoidant attachment struggle to commit and can feed into the anxieties that anxious preoccupied people have. 

Below are some ways in which an anxious preoccupied attachment can affect a relationship: 

Worried about the relationship

A person with an anxious preoccupied attachment may have a lot of difficulty feeling secure in their relationships. 

They may be constantly worried that the relationship is in trouble and be anxious that their partner will leave them at any time. 

They often have a strong fear of abandonment and rejection, catastrophizing situations to reinforce these fears. For instance, unresponsiveness from a partner such as not responding to texts straight away can increase worries of abandonment. 

Clinginess

Due to their deeply insecure feelings, someone with an anxious preoccupied attachment may behave in ways which appear clingy, controlling, possessive, or jealous. Acting in this way can have the opposite effect and can put a strain on the relationship. 

They may become very preoccupied with the relationship and fall in love very easily to the point where they become ‘obsessed’ with their partner. 

Moreover, they fear being apart from their partner which can be overbearing for their partner. For this reason, someone with an anxious preoccupied attachment would probably not cope well with a long-distance relationship. 

Attuned to partner’s needs

Someone with an anxious preoccupied attachment style tends to hold their partner in high regard. They may be very attuned to their partner’s needs and may put a lot of effort into making sure their partner’s needs are met. 

Emotional ups and downs

Being in a relationship with someone who has an anxious preoccupied attachment can feel like an emotional rollercoaster. Their partner may not know what to expect from one moment to another. 

The relationship can feel very unstable, with lots of anxiety, stress, and even unhappiness for both involved. A partner may have low relationship satisfaction if the anxious preoccupied partner is not able to offer them emotional stability. 

The anxious preoccupied person may act on their needs rather than communicating them. This can be displayed as intense emotions such as crying or shouting, requiring their partner to soothe them. This can become a vicious cycle of their partner feeling frustrated and exhausted. 

Conflicts 

Attachment styles can affect how someone deals with conflict. Conflicts for those with an anxious preoccupied attachment may arise due to feeling insecure, having negative beliefs, and being hypersensitive to a partner’s moods and actions. 

During a conflict, someone with an anxious preoccupied attachment may choose to continue arguments to elicit the response they want from their partner. They may feel unable to calm down until their partner has met their need for assurance. 

Combined with their tendency for high emotions, conflicts with a partner can become intense and cause a lot of upset. 

How to cope with preoccupied attachment style

While you cannot change your attachment style you developed as a child, you can learn to manage or overcome it. 

Understand your attachment style

It is useful to educate yourself on the different attachment styles and consider which one best suits you.

Consider how you behave in your relationships with others and how your relationship was with your primary caregiver as a child. Gaining an understanding of your attachment style can help you learn how to begin overcoming an insecure attachment. 

Practice self-awareness

Try to notice when you have automatic responses to negativity. If your partner tells you they want to do an activity alone, do you automatically believe that they are pulling away from you? Do you become jealous and possessive if your partner spends time with someone else?

Be aware of your automatic thoughts and try to give meaning to them. If you recognise that your thoughts may stem from your anxious preoccupied attachment, this can help with restructuring your thoughts. 

You can notice when these negative thoughts come up and consider a healthier way to respond. 

Learn healthy communication skills

Practice communicating in a manner which clearly expresses your needs in a healthy, non-confrontational way. In this way, there should be fewer misunderstandings in the relationship, and you can build a stronger relationship with your partner. 

Share your needs with loved ones and practice using your language to express when you are struggling. Approach the conversation with honesty and kindness so you can make requests without coming across as needy or controlling. 

Externalize your feelings

Externalizing your feelings means to take your thoughts and emotions and put them into something meaningful and healthy. 

For instance, feelings can be expressed through creating art, movement, or music. Likewise, keeping a journal can be a good way to get out strong emotions and work through your thoughts. This is also useful to help recognise unhelpful thought patterns. 

Reparent your inner child

Re-parenting yourself means to allow yourself the love, support, and kindness that you may have missed out on as a child. This is especially useful if you had a caregiver that was very inconsistent in their parenting.

Be compassionate with yourself, comfort yourself when you need it, and show kindness. You can think of this as treating yourself the same way you would show kindness to an innocent child.

Consider therapy

If you find you need extra support with managing your attachment style, you can consider therapeutic options. This can be especially helpful if there is a diagnosable mental health condition alongside the anxious preoccupied attachment style.

Through therapy, you can learn to recognise your attachment patterns, examine your feelings about yourself, and learn to approach relationships with others in a healthy way.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a therapy which aims to help identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. This can be useful for someone who has insecure feelings and unhealthy behaviors which stem from their anxious attachment. 

Another therapy is interpersonal therapy which helps individuals learn how to improve their interpersonal relationships and social interactions. Moreover, psychodynamic psychotherapy can help people with an anxious preoccupied attachment investigate how their attachment style as a child can impact their life now. 

How to help an anxious preoccupied partner

If you have a partner with an anxious preoccupied attachment, there are some things you can do to support them:

Understand their attachment style

Learning about attachment theory and getting to know your partner’s attachment style through research can be a good starting point for understanding them better. 

Express gratitude

Although you may show gratitude to your partner through your actions, your partner may not pick up on this. 

It may be better to explicitly tell them when you are appreciative of something, such as starting sentences with ‘I appreciate that you…’ and ‘Thank you for…’. 

Using clear and concise language about what you feel can help make your intentions known, which is something a person with anxious preoccupied attachment can struggle with.

Ensure they feel secure

A partner with an anxious preoccupied attachment may need ongoing assurance about how you feel about them. This can be expressed through actions as well as verbally telling them. 

Be consistent in the attention you give your partner. If there are times when you know you will not be available to spend time with them, clearly communicate this to avoid them feeling abandoned. 

You can also help them work on their insecurities by encouraging them to be self-aware in a way that does not feel like criticism. Together, you can help them overcome their anxieties by gently encouraging self-reflection. 

Stick to your word

Since a person with anxious preoccupied attachment has difficulty with trusting others and has a fear of abandonment, it is important to be a trustworthy person in their eyes.

Trust can be built by sticking to promises and commitments you make. Breaking these can fuel their lack of distrust and can bring out strong emotional reactions, so ensure you follow through with them to the best of your ability. 

This can also apply when setting your own healthy boundaries with your partner. Ensure your boundaries are clear and that they are reinforced.

A partner who acts as a reliable figure can restore a person’s sense of security and help them function more securely. 

Consider couple’s therapy

Couples therapy can be beneficial to strengthen any relationship. It can be especially helpful for couples where one has an anxious preoccupied attachment and the other has an avoidant attachment style. 

Therapy gives the opportunity to participate in a discussion with your partner with the help of a skilled moderator. 

They can help you and your partner to process any negative thoughts and feelings and help to break down barriers to communication which is affecting the relationship. Therapy can also provide the tools to effectively communicate with each other outside of the sessions.

Conditions associated with anxious preoccupied attachment

Although having an anxious preoccupied attachment does not mean someone will also have a mental health disorder, there have shown to be some associations between some disorders and this attachment style. 

Since this attachment style is coupled with a lot of anxious feelings, it makes sense that someone with this attachment may be more likely to develop an anxiety disorder. An individual may develop generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder because of their insecure attachment. 

Anxious preoccupied attachment may make someone more at risk of developing social anxiety disorder. This is a condition associated with an individual feeling intense anxiety that others are judging or thinking negatively of them. Research has found that emotional dysregulation, in social anxiety disorder is thought to derive from preoccupied attachment (Conrad et al., 2021). 

It has also been found that some individuals who meet the criteria for borderline personality disorder displayed higher preoccupied attachment styles in their close relationships (Hashworth et al., 2021). This suggests that someone with an anxious preoccupied attachment style may be at more of a risk of developing this disorder.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, June 21. Preoccupied Attachment Style: How It Develops & How To Cope. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/anxious-preoccupied-attachment.html

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