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What does unhealthy attachment look like?

Attachment refers to the emotional bond formed between a child and their primary caregiver. This attachment style established in childhood goes on to influence how we form relationships throughout our lives. When attachment goes wrong in childhood, it can lead to unhealthy attachment styles in adulthood that negatively impact relationships. So what are some signs of unhealthy attachment and how can it be addressed?

What is attachment theory?

Attachment theory originated with psychologist John Bowlby in the 1960s. He proposed that the attachment system is an evolutionary mechanism where infants seek proximity to a protective caregiver (attachment figure) when feeling vulnerable or unsafe.

When the attachment figure responds sensitively and consistently meets the child’s needs, the child develops a sense of security that their caregiver will be there when needed. This leads to the development of a secure attachment style.

However, if the caregiver is inconsistent, unreliable, rejecting, or negligent, the child learns that the world and other people cannot be depended on for safety and comfort. This leads to the development of insecure attachment styles – anxious/preoccupied or avoidant.

Types of insecure attachment styles

There are two main types of insecure attachment:


Children with an anxious/preoccupied attachment style do not have confidence that their caregiver will meet their needs. They become preoccupied with their relationships and worried about abandonment.

As adults, they may:

– Appear clingy and dependent on partners
– Constantly seek reassurance about being loved
– Feel jealous and insecure in relationships
– Have trouble being alone or single


Children with an avoidant attachment style learn to avoid relying on others and don’t fully trust caregivers.

As adults, they may:

– Appear very independent and self-reliant
– Dislike intimacy and avoid closeness with partners
– Suppress emotions or deny needing comfort or support
– Have difficulty trusting partners fully

Signs of unhealthy attachment

People with unhealthy attachment styles tend to have relationships that are marked by instability and insecurity. Here are some signs of unhealthy attachment:

1. Jealousy and possessiveness

Excessive jealousy over friends, activities, or time apart from the partner is common. There may be unhealthy clinginess, deception, and attempts to isolate the partner from outside relationships.

2. Love-hate relationships

There is a push-pull dynamic – wanting extreme closeness followed by feeling smothered and needing excessive space. Relationships start off intense before declining into detachment.

3. Lack of relationship satisfaction

High drama, breakups and reunifications, anxiety, anger problems, and an undercurrent feeling of insecurity about the relationship may lead to overall dissatisfaction.

4. Undermining intimacy

Though craving intimacy initially, unhealthy attachment can lead to sexual dysfunction, lack of empathy, poor communication, defensiveness, and failure to support a partner’s personal growth and freedom.

5. Abandonment fears

This may manifest as constant needs for reassurance due to abandonment fears or unrealistic expectations of a partner to fulfill all needs. On the other hand, there may be counter-dependency and suppression of needs.

6. Emotional volatility

Unhealthy attachment can lead to difficulty regulating emotions. Mood swings, impulsiveness, and inappropriate or extreme emotional reactions are common.

7. Distrust

Inability to depend on others and lack of faith in a partner’s good intentions can lead to distrust, suspicion, and jealousy. There may also be an expectation of betrayal.

8. Verbally or physically abusive behavior

Insecurely attached individuals may lash out with angry accusations, insults, criticism and even physical aggression when feeling rejected or abandoned.

9. Feeling invalidated

Their partner may complain that their feelings are minimized, dismissed, or not taken seriously. Communication shuts down.

10. Lack of support

Their partner doesn’t feel safe to express their own needs and explore personal growth. Their interests, friendships, and freedom can be discouraged or dismissed.

Causes of unhealthy attachment

The following experiences in childhood are linked to developing unhealthy attachment styles later in life:

Cause Details
Insensitive parenting Lack of emotional nurturing or pairing affection with conditional approval leads to insecurity.
Neglect Having basic needs unmet prevents forming trust.
Abuse Physical, emotional or sexual abuse damages a child’s sense of security.
Separation Divorce, death of a parent, or separation prevents stable bonding.
Trauma Witnessing violence or other trauma shakes one’s belief in the safety of relationships.
Inconsistent parenting Unpredictable caregiver responses or mixed messages lead to anxiety.
Unresolved trauma of parents Parents’ own unresolved issues impair their responsiveness.

Other factors like temperament or adverse childhood experiences can also contribute to attachment difficulties.

Overcoming unhealthy attachment

The good news is that unhealthy attachment styles developed in childhood can be overcome, even if they feel ingrained. Here are some tips:

Seek counseling

psychotherapy is very effective at improving attachment, especially with approaches like Emotionally Focused Therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and schema therapy.

Practice self-awareness

Becoming aware of your own attachment style, needs, and relationship patterns is an important first step. Journaling can help increase insight.

Work on emotional regulation

Managing difficult emotions through mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises, or yoga can help you react to relationship stressors in healthier ways.

Communicate constructively

Learning to express your feelings and needs calmly, directly, honestly and respectfully during conflict prevents defensive reactions.

Challenge cognitive distortions

Train yourself to identify catastrophizing thoughts about your partner or relationship and replace them with more realistic perspectives.

Set boundaries

Getting clear on what behavior you will and won’t accept from a partner and sticking to those limits boosts self-esteem and models healthy relating.

Take things slowly

When dating, allow relationships to build gradually so your attachment system isn’t triggered. Resist overdependence early on.

Work on personal growth

Developing your own interests, friendships, values and life outside of the relationship helps you relate in a healthier way.

Learn to self-soothe

Soothe anxiety or sadness on your own through relaxation skills, physical activity, reading, hot baths, or connecting with friends. Don’t make your partner solely responsible for making you feel secure.

Earn secure attachment

With time, a healthy relationship with someone attuned to your needs can reshape unhealthy attachment patterns and provide corrective experiences.

Professional help for attachment issues

If you are struggling with attachment issues, seeing an experienced therapist can make a big difference. Some options to consider include:

– Marriage and family therapists
– Psychologists and clinical social workers
– Counselors trained in attachment therapy or emotionally focused therapy
– Support groups like Attachment Healing Therapy Groups

Therapy provides a safe space to understand your attachment style, grieve childhood wounds, overcome relational fears and defenses, and develop new, healthy relating skills. Medications may also help stabilize intense emotions and mood swings.

Outlook for unhealthy attachment

Unhealthy attachment styles and their effects can be improved and resolved. The key is becoming aware of your attachment patterns and how they affect your relationships. From there, you can work on communication and relating skills while addressing emotional issues maintaining insecure attachment.

With commitment to personal and relationship growth through counseling, reading, workshops, or other means, even long-standing attachment issues can be overcome. This allows you to build the satisfying, lasting bonds you desire.


Unhealthy attachmentstyles that develop in childhood tend to persist into adulthood, where they negatively impact our intimate relationships. Signs like jealousy, emotional volatility, abandonment fears, lack of intimacy, and communication issues can arise. But with insight into your attachment style and concerted effort, you can challenge engrained patterns. Seeking professional counseling is advised to help modify unhealthy attachment and cultivate secure, enduring bonds.