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If You Love Something, Set It Free

Get a leash on your anxious attachment style.

Key points

  • An avoidant attachment style will typically give rise to clingy behavior and a need to be with other people all the time.
  • Those with an anxious attachment style tend to control others' behavior in subtle or not-so-subtle ways.
  • People with anxious partners often tire of their partner's controlling behavior and want to end the relationship., used with permission
Source:, used with permission

“If you love something set it free. If it comes back it’s yours. If not, it was never meant to be.”

What is behind this old saying? Some interpret it as a description of fate. Only fate can determine whether a relationship was meant to be. So, if you let someone go, they will come back if that’s your destiny.

For those of us who don’t believe in determinism, this explanation does not ring true. A better interpretation is that you cannot force someone to love you. You have to give them the freedom to choose.

A more plausible interpretation turns on your behavior in relationships. Few people have a secure attachment style. Most are either anxious or avoidant, at least to some degree. Both types of insecure attachment styles are typically grounded in fear of abandonment, rejection, or criticism.

But the behavioral manifestation of an anxious attachment style is different from that of the avoidant attachment style. It will typically give rise to clingy behavior and a need to be with other people all the time. People with an anxious attachment style feel lonely and insecure when they have to spend time on their own. They are addicted to company and close friendships or relationships.

When in a relationship, the anxious type tends to control the other person’s behavior in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. For example, he or she may attempt to make the other person feel guilty for not spending enough time with them. They are quick to express jealousy, which is another way to attempt to make the other person spend more time with them.

Anxious types feel worse in less committed relationships than in committed relationships. But even a commitment is not enough to make them feel secure. They continue to be terrified that the other person will leave. They will want to know what their partner is doing 24/7. One way they accomplish this is via frequent phone calls or text messages. Some anxious types use verbal abuse or physical violence in an attempt to force the other person into staying with them.

The behavioral manifestations of the anxious attachment style are very similar to co-dependency, though I prefer to say that an anxious attachment style may give rise to co-dependency.

If the anxious and avoidant attachment styles are grounded in the same childhood neglect, what determines whether a person develops an anxious or an avoidant attachment style? Well, we don’t know that for sure. But one of the best theories is that the abandoned child will explore different ways to cope with the abandonment. If the child discovers that being completely independent and not sharing his feelings with anyone is the best way to bury the pain, he will normally continue that pattern. If he discovers that manipulating people into being his friend or into being there for him, he will normally continue this behavior. The first coping mechanism leads to an avoidant attachment style and the second leads to an anxious attachment style.

Though anxious types tend to form longer and more committed relationships compared to the avoidant types, their relationships rarely last a lifetime. They may even be quite short, as it’s only a matter of time before their partner will be sufficiently fed up with the controlling aspect of the anxious person’s behavior and will want out.

More from Berit Brogaard D.M.Sci., Ph.D
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