- Excessive reassurance seeking in close relationships rarely works and can further damage a relationship.
- Closely monitoring a relationship partner contributes to a hypervigilant style that just makes people feel worse.
- Partners may become fatigued and pull away if you are unreasonably demanding in seeking reassurance. You can find a better way.
Forming and sustaining relationships can be tough. There are various points in a relationship when we might perceive that others are receiving some of the attention and closeness that we so desire but are not getting. Alternately, we may feel calm and happy but have a partner who continuously seeks excessive reassurance. They might worry about who our friends are, what we are up to when we aren’t with them, and who we are interacting with on social media. Whichever side of the coin you land on, the situation can be extremely frustrating. We might feel overly threatened and insecure. Or, we might be exasperated because nothing we do, short of cutting off all of our other social contacts, will meet our partner’s excessive need for reassurance.
As a lifelong theory of personality, attachment theory describes how we bond to significant others, how we (co-) regulate our emotions with them, and how we are or are not able to internalize a sense of security relative to the other person.
Our early childhood relationships with parents may set up the basic patterns that we will use to establish and maintain (or not) our connections with others across the lifespan. The four basic patterns, known as attachment styles, are secure, dismissing, preoccupied, and fearful.
People with secure attachment styles are not likely to feel overly jealous or insecure in their relationships. In childhood, they typically had parents who were consistent in providing them with love and support, where parental words matched their actions (congruence), and where connections were quickly and easily reestablished after periods of separation. Growing up in such contexts, securely attached people do not have a need to scan the social environment for threats or to protect themselves from disappointments by shutting down and going numb. Rather, when faced with social challenges, they can accurately gauge if they are at risk of harm, obtain support and reassurance in appropriate ways, and make difficult decisions when necessary.
In contrast, people who develop dismissing attachment styles start off having low expectations that emotional needs will be met in relationships. Having been raised by parents who were consistently unavailable, emotionally underresponsive, and not offering much in the way of comfort, they don’t expect anything else in their adult romantic relationships. As such, they do not tend to get jealous or excessively seek reassurance. On the contrary, if they perceive that their partners are at risk of going astray, they may simply turn and walk away or otherwise shut down and disengage.
Those with preoccupied styles are hypervigilant for things going wrong in relationships and, because they continuously scan the social horizon for signs of threat, are not likely to be calmed for long even when reassurance is provided. So, they quickly ask for more reassurance or find that the reassurance that is offered is sorely lacking. They, therefore, tend to press the issue to the point where partners may become exasperated and give up trying. Excessive reassurance seeking thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In childhood, the parents of those with preoccupied styles tended to be inconsistent in their availability and/or responsiveness. People with preoccupied styles, therefore, learned early that you cannot necessarily trust in the availability of relationship partners even when they offer reassurances. They also learned that phrases like “I love you” do not mean that the other person will not put themselves or others first and leave them feeling insecure and out there on their own. So, they tend to operate on the idea that, as long as you keep the relationship partner in your sights, you will know what they are up to. By extension, you might be able to prevent being abandoned or cheated on.
People with fearful attachment styles were often raised by parents who were frightened or frightening. Their parents tended to be very unpredictable and injurious. So, they similarly expect inconsistency and to be injured in their adult romantic relationships. Because of the chaotic nature of their early life environments, they may exhibit a mix of avoidant strategies (like the dismissing person) and anxious strategies (like the preoccupied person). They may initially ask for a great deal of reassurance when feeling jealous only to aggressively lash out or completely shut down and cut off contact. If you are in a relationship with a fearful person, you may get a sense of whiplash. If the pattern describes you, then you probably feel stuck without many good options.
Understanding the preoccupied pattern of threat detection, jealousy, and excessive reassurance seeking will probably bear the most fruit. Those with fearful and preoccupied attachment have high levels of attachment anxiety wherein the relationship threat detection machinery of the brain is stuck in the “on” position. It is like a highly sensitive radar that detects real threats (like a large warship) but also detects small blips (like a tugboat) that could be a threat but also may be nothing. The problem is that once the radar detects a threat, it activates all its weapon systems operating under the mantra, “better safe than sorry.”
What to Do Instead of Excessively Seeking Reassurance
If you respond to every threat, regardless of size, you will become exhausted, and no amount of reassurance will ever suffice to make you feel secure. Instead, you could do the following:
- Get a second opinion before acting. Bounce things off a trusted friend or therapist before making unnecessary accusations or asking for too much reassurance.
- Delay making jealous statements or acting out on strong emotions in the moment. Wait at least 24 to 48 hours. It might be painful, but taking a relationship hit is not the same as taking a bullet.
- Have a calm conversation that is not in response to a perceived threat. Tell your partner what you would like in the relationship and see if they can join you in that vision. If they tell you that you are asking too much or wanting too much control, then you may need to decide to step back or out of the relationship.
- Stop intentionally monitoring. If you have a high level of anxious attachment, your radar is so sensitive that you will always detect a threat if you look hard enough. That is a very painful way to live.
- Remember the last time you were not in a romantic relationship. You may have been lonely but your radar was probably not online. Remember how you felt. Bring that calm feeling back into your body…and get back to your baseline.
Wegner, R., Roy, A. R. K., Gorman, K. R., & Ferguson, K. (2018). Attachment, relationship communication style and the use of jealousy induction techniques in romantic relationships. Personality and Individual Differences, 129, 6–11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2018.02.033
Lyndsay Elizabeth Evraire, David John Andrew Dozois, & Jesse Lee Wilde. (2022). The Contribution of Attachment Styles and Reassurance Seeking to Trust in Romantic Couples. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 18(1), 19–39. https://doi.org/10.5964/ejop.3059
GUERRERO, L. K. (1998). Attachment-style differences in the experience and expression of romantic jealousy. Personal Relationships, 5(3), 273–291. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.1998.tb00172.x