Are You Too Clingy? Is Your Partner?

... and 3 tips to help turn things around.

Posted Mar 11, 2015

A and N photography/Shutterstock
Source: A and N photography/Shutterstock

Despite the cultural depictions of romantic love—from Romeo and Juliet to Fifty Shades of Grey—as all-consuming, obliterating the boundaries between yourself and the other, a healthy, sustaining, and truly intimate relationship depends on two people being at once both interdependent yet capable of autonomy.

There’s evidence that this interdependence isn’t just metaphoric or a matter of living lives that are intertwined on many practical levels. As Daniel Wegner and his co-authors write, “But on hearing even the simplest conversation between intimates, it becomes remarkably apparent that their thoughts, too, are interconnected. Together, they think about things in ways that they would not alone.” 

Yet, as research shows, our childhood experiences shape our capacities for both reliance on others and autonomy in meaningful and important ways. When it comes to healthy intimacy, the playing field is far from level. Securely attached people—those who grew up feeling loved and safe in their mother’s or father’s presence, who were listened to and heard, who had a person in their life who was attuned and caring—feel at home in intimate relationships, and don’t experience the need to either cling or distance themselves protectively from their partners. Like Goldilocks in the three bears' house—trying to navigate between too big and too small, too hot and too cold—they have the capacity to live “just right,” finding the balance between an integrated whole self and being an interdependent part of a twosome.

But many of us weren’t so lucky in childhood, and the models of attachment we’ve been bequeathed end up ruling our romantic roosts, often despite our conscious desires, unless we work actively to understand them. The mental images of relationships we acquire in childhood inform our unconscious patterns of behavior, getting in the way of satisfying connections unless we do the work of understanding and disarming them:

  • “I don’t want to be anxious in my relationships,” Gayle, 32, admits. “But every guy I’ve been with has complained about how much reassurance I need on the daily. They all say it wears them out.”
  • Tim, 45 and recently divorced, confided that, “I don’t think I’m good at intimacy. I need space. I don’t like sharing my thoughts particularly and my ex-wife drove me nuts with her endless confessionals and focus on feelings 24/7. All I wanted to do was be. She called me a cold fish and maybe I am." It turns out he is the only child of a couple that divorced when he was young, and he considers himself very self-reliant.

Depending on the circumstances of the individual household, insecurely attached children adapt in different ways. Absent a reliable and stable source of caring and attunement, some people will become anxiously attached—worrying and clinging by turns, plagued by feelings of not being good enough, on the lookout for signals that things are about to go south so that they can protect themselves. Others distance themselves from the uncaring caretaker in an effort to minimize the hurt; these are the “avoidantly attached.” They can be in relationships but stay walled-off or separate in important ways; their behaviors are often confusing to their partners because even though they look as if they’re “in” the relationship, in a real sense they’re not. Large parts of them are disengaged and off-limits. They prize their independence and self-sufficiency.

Keep in mind that these categories—anxious and avoidant—are broadly drawn and that humans are more nuanced and complicated than the labels might suggest. It’s entirely possible for someone to be clingy and needy in close relationships and relatively self-sufficient and successful in career endeavors. Similarly, an avoidant in intimate settings may do well in others that don’t make the same demands on him or her, or wake the sleeping dogs of childhood, such as work environments.

Needless to say, should these two types pair up—one intent on obliterating all boundaries and the other committed to putting them in place—a classic but toxic pattern of confrontation often emerges: demand/withdraw. In this scenario, the partner making the demand evokes a response of withdrawal or stonewalling from the other, putting the couple on an ever-turning carousel. Of course, if an anxious or avoidant is paired with a securely-based individual, the same pattern can also emerge.

If your partner has complained that you’re too clingy or distant, or it’s an observation you’ve heard from others, it’s important for you to consider whether the appraisal is correct. Confronting your own patterns of behavior isn’t always easy, but it will help you achieve what you want—a relationship with the right balance of interdependence and autonomy. The key is to disarm the automatic nature of your responses.

1. Examine your reactivity.

Because much of this behavior is largely conscious, you need to get a bead on whether your reactions are being actually being fueled by your experiences or your unconscious reading of those experiences. For example, a study by Lorne Campbell, Jeffry A. Simpson and others showed through a series of experiments that anxiously attached people were much more likely to perceive greater conflict in their relationships on a day-to-day basis; more likely to report feeling hurt or sensitivity; and more likely to be negative about the future of the relationship than those who were not anxiously attached. It would seem that the hypervigilance of the anxiously-attached causes them to read into situations, ascribe motives, and expand upon events in a way that others do not, and moreover to project their negative feelings onto their partner. 

The question you have to ask yourself is: Are your childhood scripts feeding your daily adult dialogue?

2. Attachment shapes responses and the outcomes of relationships.

Most of us assume that the immediate and ultimate deathblow to a relationship is one person’s deception, especially about something important, but research shows otherwise—only about 23% of relationships founder directly after the discovery of deception, and it turns out that attachment style plays a key role. That’s what a study conducted among college students by Su Ahm Jang, Sandi W. Smith and Timothy R. Levine set out to examine, using a narrow definition of deception—“a case in which a person produces a message with the intent to mislead a relational partner about a matter of some consequence to the partner or the relationship.” What they looked at is way beyond the white lie, and includes intentional activity as well.

It’ll surprise no one that in this crisis, securely attached individuals addressed the issue with their partners directly and, as a result of these communications, were unlikely to end the relationship on the spot. Talking is constructive. The anxiously attached talked around the issue but they too were unlikely to split that second. It was the avoidants—some 45% of them—who were saying au revoir immediately, leading the investigators to conclude that “avoidants terminate relationships most often, as they tend to avoid the personal after relational troubles. It seems that it is not important what exactly is said; it is important that couples not stop communication all together after the discovery of deception.”

So the question is: How does your attachment style shape your response to crisis or betrayal? How does it affect your ability to communicate with your partner?

While the study illuminates one aspect of how couples negotiate a crisis, it’s worth noting that while the avoidantly attached more likely bailed immediately (versus 14% of the securely attached and 23% of the anxious), in the end only 34% of those who continued the relationship after the discovery were still in it. (The 66% who did leave ultimately reported there were other reasons for the break-up.)

3. Being clingy or distant need not be permanent.

We are not doomed, thankfully, to have our childhood experiences determine all of our relationships and their outcomes. Mind you, this is less than an effortless stroll through the park; as researchers point out, your attachment style isn’t formed by a single encounter with your caretaker but many, many experiences over a long period of time so that a single intervention or moment in time is unlikely to change it. That said, researchers continue to look at what can be done to change the unconscious reactions of the anxiously and avoidantly attached. One is “earned” attachment, which describes what happens when a person is in a relationship—it could be with a love interest, a therapist or mentor, or some other close person—which effectively breaks down those older mental representations and replaces them with ones of secure connection.

An interesting study using primes appears provide clues to how the process works. While some experiments using primes—security and love-related words or scenarios—have changed participants’ reactions in laboratory settings, the changes have been short-lived, lasting only hours. That was not the case in an experiment conducted by Katherine B. Carnelley and Angela C. Rowe, which found the effects of secure priming to last for days. They primed the participants by having them visualize someone with whom they felt secure, had them write about these individuals on two separate occasions, and also had them imagine a scenario in which they were helped by sensitive people when they confronted a problem they couldn’t deal with on their own.

In their discussion, the researchers note that simply thinking about secure interpersonal experiences may help everyone, regardless of their attachment style, when they are under stress. (In my experience, that’s certainly true.)  For the anxious or avoidant, recalling people and interactions in their lives that belied their primary experiences may strengthen these secure mental representations and make them more accessible. The hope is that through repeated exposure, it’s the image of secure attachment that comes to mind when a person reacts to or assesses a situation. Finally, though, the researchers acknowledge that "although repetitive priming of attachment security may change people’s cognitions or thoughts about relationships and the self, it may be more difficult to change emotional reactions to attachment stimuli.” In blunt terms, that’s the unconscious hypervigilance of both the anxious and the avoidant, and their automatic ways of coping.

Wikipedia, public domain. Jessie Willcox Smith
Source: Wikipedia, public domain. Jessie Willcox Smith

Still, we can learn to live differently with effort, help, and support. I think it’s better to be a work-in-progress than set in stone, don’t you?

Wegner, Daniel, Toni Guiliani, and Paula Hertel,” Cognitive Interdependence in Close Relationships,” in W.J. Ickes, ed. Compatible and Incompatible Relationships.pp/ 253-276 New York: Springer Verlag, 1985.

Jang, Su Ahn, Sandi W. Smith, and Timothy R. Levine, “To Stay or to Leave? The Role of Attachment Styles in Communication Patterns and Potential Termination of Romantic Relationships Following Discovery of Deception,” Communication Monographs (September 2002), vol. 69, no.3, 236-252.

Gillath, Omri, Emre Selcuk, and Phillip R. Shaver, “Moving Towards A Secure Attachment Style: Can Repeated Security Priming Help?” Social and Personality Psychology Compass(2008_. Vol.2, no. 3, 1651-1666

Gillath, Omri and Phillip R. Shaver,” Effects of attachment and relationship context on selection among relational strategies,” Journal of Research in Personality, (2007), 31, 968-976.

Carnelley. Katherine B. and Angela C. Rowe, “Repeated priming of attachment security influences later views of self and relationship,” Personal Relationships (2007), 14, 307-320.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2015