- Different sources of anxiety can be at the root of clingy or needy behavior.
- Developing new coping skills, such as meditation or cognitive behavioral techniques, can reduce this behavior.
- In some cases, there may be a real relationship problem to address, such as an affair or undiscussed mental health condition.
When she looks back on it, Cary has always been someone who worries (and at times micromanages) her intimate relationships. She fears that her partner will suddenly break off the relationship, or that she will say or do the wrong thing and he’ll leave. If she sends him a text and he takes his time responding, she'll begin to spiral. What often happens is that her partner starts to complain that she is too needy or he feels too controlled and does leave—which only reinforces her fears.
This is a common problem in which anxiety creates its self-fulfilling prophecy. Why does this happen?
Sources of Anxiety in Relationships
1. Generalized anxiety. It’s not only the relationship that Cary worries about but about other aspects of her life—her job, her health, her friends. Her mind is always running, going down rabbit holes of worst-case scenarios. This is the type of anxiety that often runs in families, or is hypervigilance created from growing up in an unstable or volatile environment that left you feeling always on edge, always on guard.
Unfortunately, this can continue into adulthood; even though you’re in a safer environment, you may have a hard time turning it off.
2. Anxious attachment. Attachment theory is another lens that we can look through. Here, your first couple of years of life are critical in laying down the wiring of your brain and establishing your view of relationships. If you had nurturing and consistent care, you likely develop a secure attachment. But if that care was inconsistent—sometimes you felt safe and nurtured but other times you felt neglected or mistreated—your brain may become predisposed for anxiety, developing an insecure, anxious attachment.
Like hypervigilance, this sometimes carries forward into adult life. When people you are emotionally attached to seem to pull away, your impulse is to do whatever you need to do to close the gap. This is when Cary texts her boyfriend again or thinks she did something wrong and apologizes or scrambles to fix whatever problem she imagines that causes his seeming withdrawal. Or she demands reassurance, that exhausts her partners.
3. Past experience. Maybe in the past few years, Cary's experiences with partners have been difficult. Perhaps she had boyfriends who have had affairs that deeply hurt her or boyfriends who ghosted her, or who she realized were emotionally closed off and not sensitive to her needs.
What she’s left with are wounds that understandably cause her to be hyperalert, cautious, and worried that history will repeat itself. As a result of these wounds, she is easily triggered, always checking her phone, worrying that the relationship is going off course in some way.
The theme here is that what is driving these behaviors is anxiety, from several and often overlapping sources, which results in reaching out, clinging, and scrambling to close the relationship gap.
How to Address These Problems and Become Less Clingy
Despite hypervigilance that never seems to never go away, this problem is fixable. You can shift your patterns and emotions by tackling the underlying challenge and changing how you act. Here are some suggestions:
1. Generalized anxiety. Managing anxiety involves learning to calm your anxious mind across the board. Yes, the big worry of the day or week may be your relationship, but what’s often on the front burner seems to be a moving target. This shifting is a good clue that today’s topic isn’t as monumental as you think, but merely the topic of the day; the real problem is your ramped-up anxiety. Skip the topic and tackle the overall anxiety instead.
This is about learning ways to recognize when your anxious mind is taking over and then having concrete ways to knock it down—meditation, medication, deep breathing, cognitive-behavioral therapy tools—to prevent you from going down today’s rabbit hole.
2. Anxious attachment. Here the key is to recognize when these little-kid feelings are kicking up and then label them as from the past. This is about mentally learning to separate the past from the present. Next, it helps to be around people who can provide that solid, compassionate consistency so you learn to trust them, and through them, the world. Finally, it involves consciously resisting falling into old, scared, do-whatever-it-takes behaviors to make the situation feel better.
Here Cary could resist texting her boyfriend again; she doesn’t badger him with questions about what is wrong; rather than pushing on him to reassure and calm her, she finds ways to calm herself down.
This isn’t about the other person but about creating new adult patterns to replace the old fearful ones.
3. Past experiences. Time to get closure and separate the past from the present: Step up and have that awkward but important conversation with the person who hurt you. Or if that is too hard, send an email or write a letter that you will or won’t send. It's about getting things off your chest, saying now what you couldn’t or didn’t say before.
The second step is learning to identify your triggers, know in advance what you are most susceptible to that can set off jealousy or fear of loss, and then stepping up and letting your partner know—not to be critical or micromanaging—but to be more vulnerable so he or she can give you what you need.
4. Solve a real problem. While you may be sensitive, there may also be real problems to tackle—your partner really is easily scattered because he has ADHD, or is withdrawn because he is depressed but it’s not talked about, or you’re anxious because you’re not sure if you are on the same page about where the relationship is going and haven’t had that conversation.
This is the time to step back, sort out what may be coming from you and what may be coming from them, and solve a real problem—a larger behavioral or emotional pattern that is not working for you, that is troubling you—and then step up and have an adult conversation about your feelings and your needs.
That is the best you can do, and by doing this you can heal your old wounds and move forward.
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