Clinginess in Relationships: An Attachment Perspective

Clinginess in Relationships: An Attachment Perspective

The term “clingy” has undeniable negative undertones as it’s often used to describe a partner who is perceived as overly dependent, jealous, obsessive, and suffocating. But despite this negative understanding of clinginess, it actually comes from a place of insecurity and wanting to love and be loved.

Research has found that clinginess and lack of personal time and space are some of the main causes of strain on relationships. This finding suggests that clinginess is a common issue, but it also shows that it’s an important behavior to work on if you want to have more satisfying and healthy relationships.

But before we can work on it, we have to understand the root causes behind how clingy behavior develops in the first place – including the role of attachment theory. What’s more, if you have a clingy partner and want to help them, it’s essential to understand why your partner behaves in this way.

To get a better understanding of clinginess and how to deal with it, this article will cover the following:

  • What being clingy means in relationships
  • Causes of clinginess
  • The relationship between attachment and clinginess

If you would like to learn more about how to manage clingy behaviors (your own and others’) in a relationship, check out our article “How to Deal With a Clingy Partner”.

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Understanding the Causes of Clinginess

The image that might come to mind when thinking about the term “clingy” or “clinginess” is of someone holding tightly onto the leg or arm of another person; a desperate, frantic effort to ensure the other person stays close. Yet, this is clearly an extreme example of what could be considered clingy. The following are more commonplace examples of clingy behavior:

  • Calling or texting your partner many times a day
  • Becoming angry or upset if they don’t respond immediately
  • Imagining the worst-case scenario if you don’t hear from your partner – even for short periods
  • Wanting to spend all of your time with your partner
  • Stalking their activity on social media and/or looking through their phone
  • Experiencing intense jealousy
  • Not wanting your partner to do anything without you
  • Moving very fast in new relationships, e.g. wanting to determine the status of the relationship within a few days

Psychologically, clinginess is about wanting to feel safe by reducing the emotional and physical distance between another person. It could be because someone is jealous, controlling, overprotective, or dependent. But why would someone have these traits? 

In essence, clinginess is driven by a fear of what might happen if we let go of control. If we depend on someone else for emotional support, safety, and reassurance, then we can’t imagine our world without them. Let’s take a closer look at some of the causes of clinginess.

Insecurity and Low Self-Esteem

Self-esteem refers to someone’s perception of their own value and worth. The roots of self-esteem are usually established in childhood. For example, a child whose needs are not met often learns that they, and their needs, don’t matter; that they are not valuable as a person.

As a result of how their needs were met in childhood, later in life, these individuals feel unworthy of love and healthy relationships. Although they want to be valued and loved, they expect that other people will eventually abandon or reject them. This leads to clinging and obsessively looking for signs that confirm their fears. Symptoms of low self-esteem include:

  • Lack of boundaries
  • Frequent apologizing
  • Neediness (clinginess)
  • Feeling like a burden
  • Controlling behavior
  • Allowing others to control them
  • Feeling indebted to others
  • Experiencing shame for no apparent reason
  • Constantly feeling like there’s something wrong with you
  • Not wanting to be seen or take up space (wanting to fade into the background)

Fear of Abandonment and Rejection

The intense fear of being emotionally or physically abandoned or rejected by a loved one also stems from negative experiences in childhood. Caregivers may have been unresponsive, preoccupied, uncaring, or even may have physically abandoned and rejected the child. Whatever the individual case, the child (subconsciously) feels that they are not lovable or precious and that others will eventually leave them.

This underlying fear continues into adulthood. Thus, adults with this fear work very hard to please their partners, to the extent of often neglecting their own needs, feelings, and desires. If they sense abandonment or rejection, they experience intense emotional distress. Conflict, violations of trust, and inconsistent communication are examples of things that might be perceived as signs that the other person will leave.

If someone with a fear of abandonment and rejection’s partner actually leaves, it confirms their belief that they’re not worthy of love. As a result, they attempt everything in their power to prevent them from going – such as clinging, or becoming controlling and very emotional. But these are clearly unhealthy and unhelpful behaviors. 

Ironically, such behaviors that are designed to make a partner stay often become the reasons why they leave. Thus, the person with the fear of abandonment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – their actions drive their worst fears into reality and confirm their belief that people will leave them. 

Lack of Personal Boundaries

People who have a strong sense of self and knowledge of their self-worth are able to build strong personal boundaries – and respect for others’. However, trauma and mistreatment in early life lead to both low self-esteem and a confused or under-formed sense of self. Therefore, saying “no,” assertively disagreeing with others, asking for space, and having confidence in decision-making becomes difficult. 

A lack of personal boundaries also means not understanding those of other people. So, excessively calling, stalking, looking through phones, or not allowing others personal space and time may become routine. In other words, clingy behavior becomes commonplace. 

Furthermore, weak boundaries also make people more likely to put others first and prioritize their feelings, needs, and interests. So, if a partner isn’t happy, an individual with weak boundaries assumes that it must be something to do with them and potentially triggers the fear of being abandoned and rejected.

Dependence on the Relationship for Emotional Fulfilment

Because of their upbringing, clingy people haven’t mastered the skills for self-soothing their distress. They also have, in one way or another, learned that they are flawed and not worthy of the love of others. In comparison to people who are able to feel internally emotionally fulfilled,  a dependent or clingy person often senses a void. So, they believe that the cure for this emptiness is the approval and love of others, and look to loved ones to soothe their distress. In other words, they’re emotionally dependent on other people for their happiness. 

But regardless of how much love their partner pours into them, the inner insecurity remains. The only thing that would fill the void is developing self-love and self-worth – independent of relationships and other people.

Clingy Behavior in the Context of
Attachment Theory

Taking into account the causes of clinginess, it becomes clear that this behavior is often the result of attachment trauma – not receiving the closeness, comfort, and security a child needs to feel safe. This perceived lack of safety expresses itself in all areas of life, but especially in romantic relationships. Thus, to understand clingy behavior, partner, it’s essential to place it in the context of attachment theory.

What Is the Attachment System?

Evolutionarily, we are innately driven to bond with our caregivers and significant others to ensure our survival as individuals and as a species. Especially in times of stress, we seek the closeness of our attachment figures as a way to reduce fear, anxiety, and any other form of distress. When we are motivated to seek closeness and safety, it means our attachment system is switched on.

As children, once we found the security we were seeking, the attachment system switched off and we could explore the world and go about our day. But if this security is not achieved, the attachment system remains switched on. Plus, if our caregivers were chronically unresponsive to our needs and fears, the attachment system becomes hyperactive.

The child learns to deal with this constant feeling of insecurity by developing certain behaviors and beliefs – otherwise known as their attachment style. The specific attachment style the child develops (secure, anxious, avoidant, or disorganized) depends on their environment, caregiver behaviors, temperament, and genetics. For example, some children will cope with their insecurity by leaning more towards either the anxious or avoidant dimensions of attachment, while others may alternate between both. 

Attachment Anxiety and Clinginess

The causes of clinginess described above (low self-esteem, fear of abandonment, lack of boundaries, emotional dependence) are also some key features of the anxious attachment style.

A child who constantly has to monitor the availability of an inconsistent caregiver is prevented from safely exploring the world. This constant monitoring obstructs the healthy development of a sense of self-worth and autonomy. As a result, closeness and approval from significant others become the only available sources of self-esteem. In the end, the child becomes so dependent on their loved ones and terrified of being abandoned by them that they constantly look for signs that it might be happening (also called “hypervigilance”).  

This hypervigilance towards abandonment and rejection continues into adulthood. So, to feel safe, anxiously attached individuals become very invested in their relationships and want to be as physically and emotionally close to their partners as possible. Their low self-esteem and negative self-view mean they are apprehensive (but hopeful) about their partner providing safety, closeness, and comfort. 

Whereas there isn’t anything technically wrong with the ways in which people with anxious attachment invest time and effort into relationships, their more dysfunctional behaviors are triggered when they believe that their relationships are under threat. During stressful situations such as conflict or outside interference, someone with an anxious attachment style will likely rely on their partner for reassurance and use “emotion-focused and hyperactivating” coping strategies (see below).

Clinginess as a Coping Strategy

Clinginess is a strategy for coping with severe anxiety in relationships. It is deemed an “emotion-focused” coping strategy because it involves an emotional response for responding to distress, rather than more logical, problem-solving methods. Emotion-focused strategies such as clinginess lead to more unhealthy methods of coping, such as rumination (repeatedly going over worries in our minds), and, consequently, keeps the attachment system in overdrive. 
Clinginess is also considered a “hyperactivating” coping strategy as it includes actions designed to reestablish a sense of “one-ness” with a partner. Hyperactivating strategies also include controlling and aggressive behaviors. For someone with an anxious attachment style, the aim of acting clingy is to ensure that they remain close to their partner – and therefore not abandoned or rejected. Yet, unfortunately, the result is often the opposite of what they desire, as the partners of anxious individuals often become tired and irritated by such behaviors, as well as having to constantly provide reassurance and support.

When a partner responds to attempts at closeness by becoming irritated, the anxious attacher interprets this as a sign of rejection and abandonment. Which, in turn, increases their insecurities and consequently, their clinging behavior. For that reason, managing clinginess needs to be a dynamic process in which the anxious individual and their partner work together to establish trust, communication, and boundaries.

If you would like to understand more about how to manage clingy behaviors in yourself or your partner, check out our article “How to Deal With a Clingy Partner.”.

Final Thoughts on Clinginess in Relationships

Although dealing with clinginess in relationships can be a challenge, it’s important to remember that such behaviors come from a place of severe anxiety – and insecure early years. Clingy behavior comes from somewhere, and identifying the root cause will help with managing the problematic actions. Focusing on the cause, and building confidence, self-worth, and trust can help in forging balanced, loving, and healthy relationships.

“Anxiety is love’s greatest killer. It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you: you want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic.”
-Anais Nin

Civilotti, C., Dennis, J. L., Acquadro Maran, D., & Margola, D. (2021). When Love Just Ends: An Investigation of the Relationship Between Dysfunctional Behaviors, Attachment Styles, Gender, and Education Shortly After a Relationship Dissolution. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.

Lyons, M., Brewer, G., Hartley, A.M. & Blinkhorn, V. “Never learned to love properly”: A qualitative study exploring romantic relationship experiences in adult children of narcissistic parents.

Simpson, J.A. & Rholes, S.W. (2017). Adult Attachment, Stress, and Romantic Relationships. Current Opinions in Psychology, 13, 19-24.

Slade, Rachel (2019) “Relationship Sabotage in Adults with Low Self-Esteem from Attachment Trauma in Childhood,” Family Perspectives, 1 (1), 11.

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