- Excessive reassurance-seeking involves people repeatedly asking if they are loved and cared for and having difficulty feeling reassured.
- Partners of people who engage in excessive reassurance seeking tend to get frustrated and even choose to leave the relationship.
- With patience and effort, and ideally help from the partner, people who excessively seek reassurance can grow and relationships can flourish.
Jadon cannot understand why Georgia is so upset that he is 10 minutes late for their date. He apologized, but she is crying and can’t calm down. She tells him that she thought he was not coming at all and that she just needs to know he cares for her. Now Jadon does feel frustrated with Georgia.
Although Georgia sincerely cares for Jadon and is invested in making their relationship work, her behavior is pushing Jadon away. Why would she do that?
In their research on this topic, Thomas Joiner and colleagues coined a term for behavior like Georgia’s—excessive reassurance-seeking. Excessive reassurance-seeking can happen in any relationship, including with family and friends. However, reassurance-seeking is especially common in romantic relationships.
People who engage in excessive reassurance-seeking ask repeatedly if they are loved and cared for and have difficulty feeling reassured, despite their partners’ efforts to show care and commitment.
Common reassurance-seeking behaviors
- Being hypervigilant about a partner’s moods and actions, especially toward them
- Overreacting to small slights or conflicts
- Continuously asking if the partner is mad
- Showing hesitancy in expressing their feelings, especially during arguments, due to fear of losing their partner
- Repeatedly asking about their partner’s whereabouts
- Snooping in the partner’s phone, especially for any romantic or sexual communication with someone else
- Panicking if there really is an indication that their partner might leave them
These behaviors in small doses, or even in moderation, are not necessarily problematic. However, responding in many of these ways, strongly and repeatedly, can be critically damaging to a relationship.
How partners of excessive reassurance-seekers feel
- Unhappy about the consistent anxiety and negative energy in the relationship
- Frustrated at their partner’s inability to be comforted
- Offended by their partner not trusting them
- Like they need to walk on eggshells and carefully consider everything they say
- Annoyed by the aversive behavior
Reasons for excessive reassurance-seeking
Many people who behave in ways that are aversive or annoying don’t want to behave that way at all. Some people are not even aware that their behavior is aversive. However, stopping these behaviors can be very difficult because they are often fed by underlying psychological distress.
In fact, in the case of excessive reassurance-seeking, the need for reassurance can become obsessive, and requesting reassurance can become a compulsive behavior that is extremely difficult to inhibit.
Learning more about why some people have an intense need for reassurance can foster greater empathy for those who excessively seek reassurance, despite their difficult behavior. People who need a lot of reassurance are often perceived as needy and weak as if their need for reassurance is a personality flaw. However, these behaviors commonly stem from difficult early relationships or from traumatic experiences in later relationships.
The role of attachment in excessive reassurance-seeking
Research demonstrates a link between young children’s relationships with caregivers, especially mothers, and excessive reassurance-seeking.
Young children form different types of attachment relationships with caregivers. Children with secure attachments typically have parents who are warm and responsive to their needs, and they tend to grow up to have especially well-functioning relationships. In contrast, children with insecure attachments frequently grow up to have problems in close relationships.
One type of insecure attachment style is referred to as an anxious or preoccupied style. Children who develop an anxious or preoccupied attachment style typically have parents whose behavior toward them is inconsistent. Sometimes these parents are responsive, but sometimes they are disengaged or even negative. Importantly, the children’s behavior does not elicit consistent responses. Sometimes the children’s bids for attention may be met with warmth but other times they may be met with indifference or annoyance.
These experiences send two messages to children. The first is that they are not deserving of consistent warm and caring treatment. The second is that they are not able to elicit comfort from others when needed.
From this perspective, it is not particularly surprising that these children often become adults who have difficulty feeling secure in their close relationships and that these insecurities feed the need for reassurance that they are loved, cared for, and will not be rejected or abandoned.
Gaining a better understanding of why people engage in excessive reassurance-seeking can foster empathy, which is important. However, the behavior still can be challenging to tolerate.
Fortunately, with this information in mind, there are steps that can be taken—both by people who excessively seek reassurance and by their partners—to soften the impact on the relationship.
Important steps for people who seek reassurance excessively
- Evaluating the relationship with a clear mind. Is it important to honestly think through how much one's need for reassurance is due to one’s own insecurities versus being due to a partner’s actual detachment from the relationship. Unsurprisingly, the suggestions that follow work best when both partners are committed to making the relationship work.
- Having an honest talk with one's partner. The partner needs to hear that asking for more reassurance is not a criticism of the partner's behavior but rather is driven by one’s own feelings of insecurity in the relationship.
- Avoiding criticizing the partner or making passive-aggressive comments or subtle digs about the partner not being reassuring enough. This approach is never effective. Opting for honest conversations at calm moments is much more likely to bring about positive results.
- Practicing patience. Feeling rejected can elicit strong feelings of anxiety, even panic, in people who tend to seek reassurance. Plan for these moments. Taking deep breaths, exercising, or engaging in another activity can help alleviate anxieties. Afterward, securing more reassurance may not feel as necessary.
Helpful changes partners can make
- Recognizing that meeting each partner’s needs benefits the relationship. It may be hard to understand why the other partner needs so much reassurance. Still, the strongest relationships stem from partners trying to meet each other’s needs, even when they are different.
- Find out what expressions of care are most meaningful to the partner. Some people value explicit expressions of love and commitment the most. Other people especially appreciate notes, small gifts, or surprise outings. Whatever expression is most meaningful to the partner provides the most reassurance.
- Appreciate small changes. Partners may feel like they will never be able to provide enough reassurance to satisfy their partner, which is discouraging. Remember, though, that small changes are still changes. An act of care that is reassuring in the moment can become a more consistent feeling over time as those moments add up.
- Practice patience. Change is not going to happen overnight. But it can happen.
Relationships are not static, and people do change. If we are thoughtful and dedicate effort to the process, these changes can be for the better. In fact, even adults who have had insecure attachment styles for their whole lives can develop a more secure attachment style. Initially, excessive reassurance-seeking is something to “manage” in a relationship. If managed well, however, relationships can flourish and excessive reassurance-seeking can become a problem (literally) of the past.
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Starr, L. R., Santee, A. C., & Huang, M. (2023). Dependency and excessive reassurance seeking. In D. J. A. Dozois & K. S. Dobson (Eds.), Treatment of psychosocial risk factors in depression. (pp. 133–155). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/0000332-007
Shaver, P. R., Schachner, D. A., & Mikulincer, M. (2005). Attachment style, excessive reassurance seeking, relationship processes, and depression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(3), 343-359.