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Why Clingy Partners Cling

Expert explanations for bad, mad love.

Key points

  • Clingy partners are often anxiously attached, meaning they are oversensitive to cues that their partner may abandon them.
  • An anxiously attached person may experience a pattern of broken relationships due to their clinginess.
  • To avoid being clingy in relationships, it helps to learn ways to identify and cope with how one's anxious attachment style is triggered.

There’s nothing like the joy of a new relationship when the road ahead seems sunny and bright.

Your world becomes centered around this object of your latest passion, and you throw caution to the wind as you start to make serious plans. As Henry Alford wrote in the New York Times, it’s all too easy to become “heedlessly romantic,” ignoring the rules of etiquette, if not common sense, and get too close too fast. Sure, there are times when these passionate affairs become the basis for a long and beautiful relationship. However, when they come to a disastrous conclusion, we suffer inner torments at best, and outer humiliation at worst (think the Winona Forever tattoo on Johnny Depp's arm). Alford cautions his readers to avoid the fast lane on the romance highway. For that matter, if you want any relationship to last, there’s good evidence that taking it slow is the best way to ensure that the relationship will not only survive but maintain its quality.

Anxious attachment and relationships

Alford’s article made me wonder whether the tendency to get into what I would call “bad, mad” relationships varies by an individual’s personality. Some people seem able to make good relationship decisions fairly consistently, whereas others just go from one romantic hot mess to another. The most likely candidate among many possible personal qualities for this discrepancy is what social psychologists call adult attachment style. Based on research conducted a number of decades ago on babies and children, psychologists who study close relationships developed a scheme for classifying the way that adults relate to their intimate partners. The resulting body of literature is now the cornerstone for much of our understanding of adult relationships.

The way we interact with our adult romantic partners, the research maintains, carries vestiges from our earliest relationships with our parents. Adult attachment style, then, reflects the grown-up version of the way we mentally represent our caregivers when we are infants. The large majority of adults are capable of “secure attachment,” meaning that they value their close relationships but don’t feel overly distraught at being separated for a period of time. People who are insecurely attached, in contrast, may fall into one of two types:

  • If you are anxiously attached, you are overly sensitive to cues that your partner will abandon you. As a result, you become overly dependent on your romantic partners.
  • In contrast, people who are high on attachment avoidance don’t want to establish emotional bonds with their partners.

Building on Alford’s article with what we know about adult attachment style, it seems that people with an anxious attachment style should be particularly prone to bad, mad love. They push their partners to become too intimate too soon because they fear the love object will slip away. When these relationships come to an end, the anxiously attached are driven almost immediately into another one, which they similarly pursue until it reaches its own logical, unhappy conclusion.

So who is more prone to having these bad, mad relationships? An answer comes from a large-scale analysis by Tianyuan Li and Darius Change of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (2012). Looking at attachment style and relationship quality data from 73 studies covering more than 21,000 individuals, they reported that people who are high on avoidant attachment have poorer quality relationships overall. Whether it’s measures of satisfaction, general connectedness, or support, the avoidant comes out lower on nearly all measures of relationship quality. This is not surprising—the avoidant strive to avoid getting close to others. When they are in a relationship, they constantly seek to maintain their independence. But the anxiously attached, in contrast, are happiest when they are in a relationship. Their need for closeness and support may create frequent conflict and sow the seeds of their relationships’ undoing.

Looking more specifically within the anxiously attached’s relationships, University of Western Ontario psychologist Lorne Campbell and Brunel University’s Tara Marshall (2011) identified several reasons for their being most vulnerable to bad, mad love: Their self-esteem tends to be low, and although they feel positively toward their romantic partners, they fear becoming abandoned. As a result, they seek constant reassurance, emotional support, and closeness. Stress can make them emotionally needy and even obsessed with their partners.

The fear of abandonment that the anxiously attached may carry around can affect their thought processes as well: In a lab task where such individuals were asked to respond as quickly as possible to a set of names, the names of their partners brought about the most rapid reactions. People who are anxiously attached, it appeared, reacted to the names of their loved ones as if their loved ones were constantly on their minds.

A number of other authors, including University of Massachusetts psychologist Paula Pietromonaco, have shown that the anxiously attached have more highs and lows in their relationships. They may become distressed when partners withdraw from them—which they often do because of the pressure placed on them in the relationship. Their sex lives become less rewarding because they seem to use sex to boost their low feelings of self-esteem. Campbell and Marshall conclude that anxiously attached men and women constantly scan their relationships for signs of impending rejection by partners, seeing even relatively innocent events as posing an existential threat amid constant worry that their partners will become unavailable to them.

People who are anxiously attached don’t spend their entire waking lives possessed by the need to keep their loved ones close at hand, of course—it’s when they pick up on cues that a partner might leave them that their anxious attachment kicks into high gear. The process works two ways, Campbell and Marshall propose because their sensitivity rejection makes the anxiously attached more likely to cause partners to retreat.

This pattern of emotional neediness, instability, and ultra-sensitiveness to rejection could very well explain why it is that some people, under some conditions, become victims of bad, mad love. They may have a propensity to behave in a way that causes them to cling to partners who, in turn, become more likely to get up and leave.

For the rest of us, the lesson is clear: Since stress plays such an important role in the equation, the only way to avoid the descent into clinginess and desperation is to learn ways to identify and cope with the situations that trigger your anxious attachment tendencies.

3 ways to manage clinginess in a relationship

Here are the three ways to manage bad, mad love and turn it into a positive emotion that can enrich your life and that of your partners:

  1. Build a stable base of attachment. Use imagery to see yourself in a secure relationship, whether it’s with your current, previous, or possible future partner. Instead of imagining the worst, try imagining the best in your romantic relationships.
  2. Manage daily stress with constructive coping methods. When you’re feeling emotionally frazzled, you’re more likely to drill down into your own insecurities, which makes you more sensitive to possible rejection by a partner. Bolster your resilience by developing coping strategies that both make you feel better and help you tackle the situations that are stressing you out.
  3. Talk to your partner. Calmly discussing your feelings, rather than acting on them, will not only reassure you that your partner really does care about you—it will also help your partner gain insight into what sets you off. Anxiously attached individuals may have rockier relationships, but because they actually do care about their partners, they are just as capable of intimacy as people with a more secure attachment base.

People do change over their adult years, both as individuals and as couples. Starting with these steps, over time you’ll find that your mad love doesn’t have to end badly, or even at all.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012


Campbell, L., & Marshall, T. (2011). Anxious attachment and relationship processes: An interactionist perspective. Journal Of Personality, 79(6), 917-947. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2011.00723.x

Li, T., & Chan, D. S. (2012). How anxious and avoidant attachment affect romantic relationship quality differently: A meta‐analytic review. European Journal Of Social Psychology, 42(4), 406-419

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