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Anxiously Attached and Online Dating

Why anxiously attached people use online dating apps most but enjoy them least.

Key points

  • People with anxious attachment styles struggle to get their needs met in ways that protect them psychologically in online dating.
  • Although those with anxious styles swipe the most, they tend to get hurt more and like online dating the least of all the attachment styles.
  • Those with anxious attachment styles might want to consider getting offline and developing other ways to meet potential dating partners.

If you are single, you are probably using an online dating app. But many people continue to struggle and, in many cases, suffer more psychologically for their online dating efforts.

Anxious Attachment Styles

People with anxious attachment styles, in particular, struggle to get their needs met in a way that protects them psychologically in online dating. Attachment styles are stable personality dispositions that dictate how people process emotions, perceive the social world, and interact with others. The secure attachment style is most representative of healthy development and is characterized by people believing that the world is safe and predictable, they are worthy of love, and other people are trustworthy. They have strong abilities to stay emotionally balanced and know when to ask for reassurance, when to make themselves feel better, and when to walk away in dating contexts.

People with one of the three insecure attachment styles, in contrast, can be unbalanced in how they perceive others, cope with stress, and behave in dating situations. Those with dismissing attachment styles view the world as uncaring, themselves as independent and strong, and other people as either weak and needy or indifferent. Because they have learned that they cannot trust others emotionally, they avoid getting close and opening up early in dating situations. They can come across as charismatic and socially engaging until you realize that they are not actually open to being close. Being avoidant, they tend to underinvest in dating partners...especially those met online.

Compared to those with dismissing styles, people who are fearfully attached may be a bit more unpredictable. They have an anxious side that leads them to open up interpersonally. But, they learned early in life that those you connect with are the same people who can hurt you the most. They tend to view the world as scary and unpredictable, themselves as somehow damaged and unworthy of love, and others as untrustworthy and interpersonally dangerous. So, when a fearfully attached person warms up on a date, you may think they are interested, but that does not mean that they won’t get scared and ghost you the next day.

When it comes to online dating, however, those with preoccupied/anxious attachment styles have some of the worst experiences. They want love and relationships and may feel particularly lonely when they don’t have them. Preoccupied people were typically raised by parents who were unpredictable in how they responded to them as children. There was enough love to keep them coming back to their parents for more, but the threat of distancing and rejection was always there. As adults, they view the world as unpredictable, themselves as somehow wanting, and others as having love available but, for some reason, withholding it. Because of these perceptions and relationship histories, they become hypervigilant for rejection cues (somewhat paranoid) and struggle to cope with the uncertainty of online dating.

Dating Apps

Dating apps use algorithms that are not designed to yield long-lasting relationships (Narr & Luong, 2023). If everyone found love on their first match, the apps would all go out of business. Most online apps are designed to reward you on a variable-ratio (unpredictable) reinforcement schedule. They literally get you hooked using a combination of rewards and attempts to avoid rejection and anxiety. If you knew what you were going to get each time you got on the app, it wouldn’t be that exciting, would it?

People with preoccupied styles are likely to be particularly susceptible to social rewards and sensitive to punishment. It should come as no surprise that they are some of the most voracious users of dating apps (Coffey et al., 2022; Chin, Edelstein, & Vernon, 2019). But what happens once they get on the apps and start dating? Because they engage in excessive swiping, research by Thomas et al. (2023) indicates that they are likely to compare themselves to others who they think are doing better than them, have an increased fear of being single, and be overwhelmed by too many dating partner options.

Consistent with this research, a survey posted on this blog in 2019 indicated that, of all the attachment styles, those who were preoccupied were the most frequent weekly users of the apps and were most likely to be looking for long-term relationships. At the same time, they dislike using the apps more than those with the other attachment styles and are the most bothered if they are ghosted during text exchanges or other correspondences. In short, they appear to want more but get less.

Research by Coffey et al. (2022) also revealed that those with preoccupied styles use dating apps the most and had more negative experiences after having sex with dating partners met online relative to those with avoidant styles. Avoidant individuals, in contrast, did not have more negative experiences after having sex with partners met online.

Given these findings, those with preoccupied/anxious attachment styles might want to reconsider whether online dating apps are the best option for them to meet people. Here are other things to consider:

  1. Don’t take it so seriously. View people met online as just practice for the real thing.
  2. Realize that if an online dating match doesn’t work, you didn’t lose anything because you didn’t really know that person and didn’t have anything to lose in the first place.
  3. Know the difference between your dream of who someone might be and who they really are.
  4. Learn to have relationships with people generally. Don’t interact differently depending on whether someone is a man or woman.
  5. Find a good self-help group so you can learn to have healthy relationships with people without the pressure of dating.
  6. Get off the apps and meet people in the flesh: Join a mixed-gender workout or sports group. Find a singles' group for dinner, biking, a hike…or whatever! Make yourself available by going to the same locations (like a coffee shop) frequently so that people can get used to seeing you (and know where you can be found).
  7. Get busy living your life independent of who shows up romantically. That way, when someone does show up, you will have an interesting life to share with them.


Coffey, J. K., Bond, D. K., Stern, J. A., & Van Why, N. (2022). Sexual Experiences and Attachment Styles in Online and Offline Dating Contexts. International Journal of Sexual Health, 34(4), 665–678.

Chin, K., Edelstein, R. S., & Vernon, P. A. (2019). Attached to dating apps: Attachment orientations and preferences for dating apps. Mobile Media & Communication, 7(1), 41–59.

Narr, G., & Luong, A. (2023). Bored ghosts in the dating app assemblage: How dating app algorithms couple ghosting behaviors with a mood of boredom. Communication Review, 26(1), 1–23.

Thomas, M. F., Binder, A., Stevic, A., & Matthes, J. (2023). 99 + matches but a spark ain’t one: Adverse psychological effects of excessive swiping on dating apps. Telematics & Informatics, 78, N.PAG.

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