If you’ve ever acted “clingy” in a relationship, you may have felt embarrassed or ashamed.
When you act clingy, it can also feel frustrating. You know your actions are driving your partner away, but you feel like there is nothing you can do to change your needy behavior.
Clinginess in relationships is a problem, but according to attachment theory, there is a very real and understandable reason that you act the way you do.
Discover what might be driving you to act clingy in a relationship and what you can do to tame your clingy behaviors.
Basics of Attachment Theory
Attachment theory is a psychological framework that can help explain why you act clingy in relationships. In the 1940s, psychologist John Bowlby published research that put out the idea that emotional and relational issues in adults are caused by attachment-related experiences in infancy and childhood.
Bowlby posited that infants attach to their caregivers to survive. Without attachment, a baby has no way of caring for itself.
This makes it vital for babies to attach to a caregiver, no matter how good or bad that caregiver is.
What Bowley also noticed was that people who had caregivers who were non-responsive, abusive, or needy experienced problems in their adult romantic partnerships.
Bowlby began working with a researcher named Mary Ainsworth, who conducted several experiments in the field of attachment.
Her research spawned what modern psychology calls attachment theory.
On a basic level, attachment theory says that depending on childhood experiences, people fall into one of four attachment types.
Each type relates to others, especially romantic partners, in predictable patterns. The four attachment types are avoidant, secure, anxious, and disorganized.
Secure attachment develops when a caregiver consistently meets the needs of a child.
The child knows what to expect from their caregiver. These children are allowed to try new things and fail, with the expectation that they will still be loved and supported. They are validated and cared for in a way that makes them feel seen and heard.
Avoidant attachment is created in children whose caregivers are distant, cold, or non-responsive to their needs.
Avoidant children may have their basic physical needs met, but emotionally they are left to deal with things alone.
Caregivers of avoidant children are unable to emotionally connect with their children or may physically abandon the child.
This leads the child to deal with their fear and hurt by shutting off their emotions and outwardly acting as if they do not need their caregiver.
Anxious attachment is created in children whose caregivers are insecure, needy, and inconsistent.
Caregivers of anxious children often turn to their child to meet their needs, requiring the child to “perform” to receive an emotional connection.
Conversely, the caregiver of an anxiously attached child may act passive-aggressively towards the child. They may also overreact to the child’s needs or be fearful or anxious if the child pulls away.
Disorganized attachment is the rarest type of attachment.
Disorganized is a combination of anxious and avoidant and is often found in people with a history of abuse or trauma.
With disorganized attachment, the child never knows what to expect from their caregiver or if their needs will be met.
Additionally, the child is forced to turn to the person who is harming them for care, which creates a cognitive dissonance that carries forward throughout their life.
For additional information about attachment styles and how they affect your relationships, watch the video below:
Why Are You So Clingy?
Many people who are clingy in relationships have an anxious attachment style.
Those with anxious attachment as adults experience romantic partnerships, and sometimes other relationships, through the lens of their attachment. This creates a dynamic that is fraught with fear, anxiety, and insecurity.
Characteristics of Anxious Attachment
The following are common characteristics found in adults with anxious attachment. If you see these characteristics in yourself, then you likely have an anxious attachment style that is influencing your clingy behavior.
- You have difficulty trusting others and question their underlying motives
- You are sentinel to perceived rejection from your partner
- You are sensitive to your partner’s moods and actions·
- You have low self-worth or self-esteem and seek the approval of your partner
- You worry that your partner is going to leave you
- You crave closeness with your partner
- You need frequent reassurance that your partner cares for you
- You are overly dependent on your partner
- You are highly reactive, emotional, and moody based on your partner’s perceived state
Why Does Anxious Attachment Make You Clingy?
You may still wonder why anxious attachment drives you to show clingy behavior as an adult. The answer goes back to the fundamentals of John Bowlby’s attachment research.
The need for attachment is so great that infants will attach to a caregiver even if that caregiver does not provide a secure, consistent connection. To a child, an intermittent connection is better than being left alone. The pain of neglect is so great that an infant will do anything to avoid it.
As an adult, your attachment style continues to regulate your connection with others, especially in romantic relationships.
Just as you did with your caregiver, you look for the slightest sign of rejection or disappointment that signals that your partner is going to abandon you.
This causes you to act out in ways to draw them back in connection with you to help you meet your attachment needs.
These behaviors include calling or texting too often, not allowing them to go out without you, or always needing to be in close physical contact.
What’s important for you to understand is that you aren’t crazy or broken when you act out this way.
Even though you are an adult who will not be in danger if your partner leaves you, you instinctively feel threatened when you perceive the loss of affection.
Under the framework of attachment theory, your behavior makes perfect sense - when you perceive rejection by your partner, your mind and body react as if you are in actual danger.
You may experience an increased heart rate, heightened cortisol levels, and overwhelming psychological stress.
To stop your body’s troubling physical reactions and mental stress, you automatically revert to clingy behavior in an attempt to bring your partner back and calm your system.
What Can You Do to Stop Being So Clingy?
Understanding what makes you act clingy in relationships can help you change your behavior.
Below are several additional actions you can take to stop being so clingy and engage in a healthier way with your significant other.
1. Read about attachment theory
One of the best things you can do to stop being clingy is to read about attachment theory to gain a deeper understanding of why you are acting clingy.
This will help you realize that clinginess is not a failing on your part or a sign that you are a bad or annoying person.
Understanding attachment theory and anxious attachment, in particular, will help you realize that your behavior is driven by an intuitive need for safety that has was established in childhood.
2. Enlist the help of your partner
If your partner is a safe person with a secure attachment style, consider asking if they are willing to help you work through your attachment issues.
If they are, they can help bring awareness to the types of behaviors you exhibit and what might trigger these reactions.
If they are especially patient and kind, they can help reassure you when your anxiety takes over, which can reinforce a healthy, secure attachment.
You may also consider reading self-help relationship books together to deepen your relationship and meet your attachment needs.
3. Develop self-awareness
To stop any unwanted behavior you have to have self-awareness. Work to develop self-awareness around your clingy behavior.
Keep a journal of your feelings and note what types of behaviors trigger your attachment anxiety to occur.
Examine your clingy behavior in past relationships to help identify potential patterns. This will help you predict when you may start acting clingy and choose a different type of behavior.
4. Avoid avoidant partners
Anxiously attached adults often partner with avoidantly attached people.
This creates an unhealthy back and forth that reinforces your anxious attachment.
Avoidant partners are always running away from intimacy due to their attachment issues, while you end up chasing them to calm your anxious attachment.
If possible, avoid romantic relationships with avoidant partners as your clingy behavior is likely worse in these relationships.
5. Work with a therapist
Working with a qualified therapist is one of the best ways to stop clingy behavior.
Through therapy you can explore where your clingy behavior comes from and ways to let go of the past and cope with heightened attachment anxiety.
A therapist can help you substitute healthy behaviors for clingy behaviors so that you can connect with your partner and get your needs met without resorting to clingy or needy behavior.
Take It One Step at a Time
As with any type of personal growth, take things one day at a time.
You are working to change a longstanding and almost instinctual way of being, so don’t expect things to change overnight.
Continued research, awareness, and professional help are key when working to overcome clinginess caused by anxious attachment.
With time and effort, you will succeed in changing your attachment style and reducing clinginess that may be hurting your relationship.