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Type: Anxious-Preoccupied

What is the Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment Type?

People of the anxious-preoccupied type (who we will call the Preoccupied) are the second largest attachment type group, at about 20% of the population. Because their early attachment needs were unsatisfied or inconsistently satisfied, they crave intimacy but tend to feel doubtful about their own worth, making it harder for them to trust that they are loved and cared for. At the extremes, and with a more secure or dismissive partner, they are viewed as “needy” or “clingy,” and can drive others away by their demands for attention. Many have never been able to come to terms with memories of parental failures:

Often they spoke as if the feelings of hurt and anger they had as children were as alive in them today as they had been twenty or thirty years before. The childhoods they described were often characterized by intense efforts to please their parents, considerable anger and disappointment, and by role reversals in which the child had tried to parent the adult. But these memories were expressed in a confused and incoherent manner, as if they had never been able to get a grip on what happened to them and integrate it into a comprehensible picture. They seemed still so enmeshed with their parents that infantile feelings flooded and bewildered them as they recalled the past. –Karen, p. 386

This insecurity is often the result of an insecure parental figure who is herself too needy to allow her child independence with assurance:

A mother who has never worked through her own ambivalent attachment has probably been struggling all her life to find stable love. When she was a child, she may have been pained by the competent, steady caring that she saw friends’ parents give to them. As an adult she may be prone to a nagging, uncontrollable jealousy in any close relationships, where she feels cause for doubt. She may want to love deeply and steadily, but it is hard for her because she’s never been filled up enough with patient, reliable love to be in a position to give it…. Some preoccupied mothers frequently intrude when the baby is happily exploring on his own and push for interaction even when the baby resists it…. For if a  mother unconsciously wishes to keep a baby addicted to her, there is no better strategy than being inconsistently available. Nothing makes a laboratory rat push a pedal more furiously than an inconsistent reward. –Karen, p. 375

As preoccupied children grow up, others notice they are too self-centered to quietly listen to emotional messages sent by others, and likely to be unreliable partners in games or work, as in this assessment by fellow students:

The preoccupied students—embroiled, angry, and incoherent when speaking about their parents—“were seen by their peers as more anxious, introspective, ruminative.” –Karen, p. 383

Since they require constant messages of reassurance, the preoccupied find it hard to venture away from their partners or loved ones to accomplish goals, and will undermine their partners if necessary to keep their attention for themselves. The classic clingy child or parent or partner is acting out their anxiety about abandonment:

[The preoccupied] are hypervigilant about separations, likely to become anxious or even panicky when left, and to be overcome by feelings of clinginess and impotent rage. They do not readily venture forth or take chances, for they do not believe their attachment needs will ever be met. They cling tenaciously to what they have, often using guilt and blame to keep their attachment figures on a short leash. –Karen, p. 385

Anxious [preoccupied] children learn to manipulate to get their needs met, and invariably their manipulations get carried over into adulthood. The child may become seductive or cute, act fretful, or make others feel guilty for not giving him the attention he wants, all depending on the what strategic styles are modeled or succeed in the family. –Karen, p. 399

In Hazan and Shaver’s study, preoccupied adults in a work setting “tended to procrastinate, had difficulty concentrating, and were most distracted by interpersonal concerns. They also had the lowest average income.” This inability to concentrate on anything but relationships handicaps the preoccupied, and makes them trouble for teams where they will put their need for reassurance ahead of the task at hand. As a team member, the preoccupied require more management time and attention, and produce less work.

In dating, the preoccupied put their best foot forward and try too hard, sometimes missing the subtle cues that would allow them to listen better to understand their partner’s feelings. They feel they must always prove themselves and act to keep your interest—they want constant interaction, constant touch and reassurance, which other types can find maddening. As long as they are getting the attention they want, they will let their partner get away with being difficult in other ways—even negative attention is keeping the touch game going. If their relationships last, it is often because they have found a partner whose insecurities dovetail with theirs, who will participate in a dysfunctional game similar to what they were raised with. While the preoccupied have strong feelings and can discuss them when calm, their feelings are centered around their needs for attention and the failures of others to provide it on demand. They commonly blame others for not understanding their feelings and needs while not feeling safe enough in the relationship to describe them openly. They want to merge with their partner, so this type is prone to codependence—a dysfunctional mutual dependence where neither partner matures further. They are profoundly disturbed by and resist even short separations. The single Preoccupied badly wants a partner and spends a lot of time feeling lonely.

The key to happier relationships for the anxious-preoccupied is working toward an inner feeling of security and independence. This is easier when a Secure partner is present — the reliability of the partner’s signalling and response reassures, letting inner security grow. But even the single Preoccupied can take a clue from their type label — they are preoccupied with the idea of a relationship. Getting involved with absorbing activities and friendships with others can take their mind off the problem of partner relationships. And self-coaching can help — replacing inner dialog about failings and worries about what others think of you with reassuring self-talk can help prevent overly-clingy and paranoid behavior that drives away significant others. Build confidence in yourself and your value by accomplishing real tasks, and try harder to see things from others’ point of view before acting on fears and anger about how they treat you. Soothe your own worries before they trouble others, and have more faith in their goodwill before you assume the worst.

My book, Bad Boyfriends: Using Attachment Theory to Avoid Mr. (or Ms.) Wrong and Make You a Better Partner, is more of an overview of attachment theory and its application to finding a good partner. The older popular book on the topic, Levine and Heller’s Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love, is an excellent self-help guide focused more on case studies, and especially on the problems of the anxious-preoccupied who are more likely than the other types to seek out self-help books.

One of the topics they discuss in detail is hypervigilance — the anxious-preoccupied are intensely focused on keeping track of the emotional state of desired partners:

[A study found that people] with an anxious attachment style are indeed more vigilant to changes in others’ emotional expression and can have a higher degree of accuracy and sensitivity to other people’s cues. However, this finding comes with a caveat. The study showed that people with an anxious attachment style tend to jump to conclusions very quickly, and when they do, they tend to misinterpret people’s emotional state. Only when the experiment was designed in such a way that anxious participants had to wait a little longer— they couldn’t react immediately when they spotted a change, but had to wait a little longer— and get more information before making a judgment did they have an advantage over other participants.

Hair-trigger misjudgments and mistakes are more likely with this group and can get them into trouble. The anxious-preoccupied should work toward taking the time to consider all the evidence before reacting negatively, so their fine sensitivity to others’ emotional states will serve them better.

The anxious-preoccupied will sometimes explain that they feel very strongly and so can’t help themselves when overreacting to perceived threats to their relationships. The real explanation for their paranoia is not so much the intensity of feeling, however, as it is their insecurity and lack of understanding and trust in others’ good intentions. Because they are so wrapped up in the fear of losing attention or affection, they don’t take the time to see matters from the point of view of their significant other and so blunder into misunderstandings and attempts to control their partner through protest behavior.

Levine and Heller describe this behavior well:

Once activated, they are often consumed with thoughts that have a single purpose: to reestablish closeness with their partner. These thoughts are called activating strategies. Activating strategies are any thoughts or feelings that compel you to get close, physically or emotionally, to your partner. Once he or she responds to you in a way that reestablishes security, you can revert back to your calm, normal self. Activating Strategies:

• Thinking about your mate, difficulty concentrating on other things.
• Remembering only their good qualities.
• Putting them on a pedestal: underestimating your talents and abilities and overestimating theirs.
• An anxious feeling that goes away only when you are in contact with them.
• Believing this is your only chance for love, as in: “I’m only compatible with very few people—what are the chances I’ll find another person like him/ her?,” or “It takes years to meet someone new; I’ll end up alone.”
• Believing that even though you’re unhappy, you’d better not let go, as in: “If she leaves me, she’ll turn into a great partner—for someone else,, or “He can change,” or “All couples have problems—we’re not special in that regard.”

Protest behavior is a term originally coined to describe children’s screams and cries when separated from their caregiver, now applied by analogy to adult attempts to display unhappiness with a lack of attention or responsiveness from partners. Some protest behavior is part of every relationship — “Hey! You said you’d text me when you got home.” But the clingy, insecure anxious-preoccupied protest so frequently they run the risk of turning off and driving away their partners. When someone is said to be “high maintenance,” that means they are excessively needy and need more communication and reassurance than is reasonable. Protest behaviors are intended to force a reassuring response from the partner — and resorting to them frequently is bad for any relationship.

Levine and Heller have a good list of Protest Behaviors:

• Calling, texting, or e-mailing many times, waiting for a phone call, loitering by your partner’s workplace in hopes of running into him/ her.
• Withdrawing: Sitting silently “engrossed” in the paper, literally turning your back on your partner, not speaking, talking with other people on the phone and ignoring him/her.
• Keeping score: Paying attention to how long it took them to return your phone call and waiting just as long to return theirs; waiting for them to make the first “make-up” move and acting distant until such time.
• Acting hostile: Rolling your eyes when they speak, looking away, getting up and leaving the room while they’re talking (acting hostile can transgress to outright violence at times).
• Threatening to leave: Making threats—“ We’re not getting along, I don’t think I can do this anymore,” “I knew we weren’t really right for each other,” “I’ll be better off without you”—all the while hoping [partner] will stop you from leaving.
• Manipulations: Acting busy or unapproachable. Ignoring phone calls, saying you have plans when you don’t.
• Making him/ her feel jealous: Making plans to get together with an ex for lunch, going out with friends to a singles bar, telling your partner about someone who hit on you today.

If you’re anxious-preoccupied and having trouble coping with a dismissive- or fearful-avoidant spouse, I’ve just published a book on the topic: Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) a Dismissive Partner. Right now available from Amazon Kindle for $3.99, and a trade paperback is also available.


The Latest from Jeb Kinnison:


Other posts of interest:

Changing Your Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment Style or Type
Why We Are Attracted to Bad Partners (Who Resemble a Parent)
Anxious-Preoccupied / Dismissive-Avoidant Couples: the Silent Treatment
Anxious-Preoccupied: Stuck on the Dismissive?
Limerence vs. Love
Anxious-Preoccupied: Clingy and Insecure Relationship Example
“Bad Boyfriends” – Useful for Improving Current Relationships
Controlling Your Inner Critic
Stable is Boring? “Psychology Today” Article on Bad Boyfriends
Do the Anxious-Preoccupied Dream (More) of Love?
Attachment Type Combinations in Relationships

Kate and Anna McGarrigle with Linda Ronstadt — “Heart Like a Wheel”

For more on the other attachment types:

Type: Secure
Next: Type: Dismissive-Avoidant
Type: Fearful-Avoidant

Further Reading

My book, Bad Boyfriends: Using Attachment Theory to Avoid Mr. (or Ms.) Wrong and Make You a Better Partner, goes into greater detail on how the anxious-preoccupied can find more security and avoid driving away good partners.

I haven’t finished reading it, but the new book Insecure in Love: How Anxious Attachment Can Make You Feel Jealous, Needy, and Worried and What You Can Do About It appears to be a good resource for the anxious-preoccupied.

Dr. John Gottman’s book (The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work) is a great guide on how to strive for secure attachment with your partner when you are insecure.

Love and Addiction by Peele and Brodsky is an older but still valuable self-help book for those who have an unhealthy addiction to the idea of being “in love.” For hints on how to look for a healthy relationship if you tend to be anxious-preoccupied, this blog post by Shepell is valuable: “Forming Healthy Relationships with an Anxious Attachment Style.” Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love by Levine and Heller has a lot of good advice for the preoccupied.

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