All superheroes have weaknesses that can cripple them. Like Superman’s kryptonite, my clingy insecurity in my relationship five years ago brought me to my knees.
When I met Crystal, I fell head over heels instantly. She gave me just enough to show she was interested, but not enough to show that she was as invested as I was in our relationship. The mixed signals drove me crazy.
As weeks turned into months, I found myself addicted to thoughts of her and ways to keep her interested in me. At work, I struggled to focus and would freak out if she didn’t respond to my text messages within a few hours. I would look up what to text her and buy “How to be Funny and Keep Her Interested” types of books and devour them because I was starving for love
I would hang out at places I knew she frequented in hopes of “accidentally” running into her.
I was obsessed.
I was crazy.
The Kryptonite of Security is Inconsistency
Ken Page, author of Deeper Dating,claims, “All of us are attracted to certain types that can knock us off balance: a physical type, an emotional type, and personality type. These ‘iconic’ attractions can make us weak in the knees, and they trigger our insecurities.”
These insecurities can stem from painful experiences from childhood caregiving relationships or prior adult relationships.
My prior experiences of unpredictable caregiving and being cheated on in prior relationships heightened my clingy insecurity and sensitivity to abandonment and rejection. I had internalized the feelings of frustrated and at times unavailable parents and romantic partners, which led me to exhibit a clingy attachment style in my adult relationships.
This attachment style and the internal beliefs I had about myself as unlovable lead me to be attracted to someone who validated that belief system. Becker-Phelps, author of Insecure in Love, proposes that people seek to validate their self-views, especially their unworthiness around love.
At the time, I was unaware of the “magnetic allure” of my partner’s inconsistency and how it reinforced my belief of being too needy to be loved.1 Research has discovered that clingy lovers are more likely to date distant lovers, which reinforces this insecurity.2
Since I felt a drive to prove my worth to Crystal, I invested more in the relationship than she did and saw her emotional unavailability as a problem with me, rather than our opposing intimacy blocks colliding.
Blame Your Ancestors
“Our feelings and behaviors in relationships today are not very different from those of our early ancestors.” – Levine and Heller, authors of Attached.
Our ancestors, cavemen Cee-Cee and Bam-Bam, survived in the shelter of one another. They fought off predators, famine, and natural disasters together. Remaining close to one another increased chances of survival.
As a result, you and I inherited an attachment system that is designed to protect each of us from danger by maintaining proximity to caring and supportive others, such as parents during childhood or a romantic partner as an adult.3 Clingy insecurity creates a compelling urge to seek out these important individuals. Essentially, insecurity is an advantageous survival tool.
When you become attached to someone, your attachment system constantly monitors their availability and the security of your connection with them. The moment you sense a threat in your personal life or in the relationship, real or imagined, your attachment alarm goes off and motivates you to seek out your romantic partner for safety and comfort.
When your partner is distant, unavailable, or hostile in response to your insecurity, the evolutionarily and neurologically hardwired attachment alarm fills your head, unconsciously, with the fear that you will be abandoned unless you reconnect. For our ancestors, abandonment meant death.
Clingy Thoughts, Emotions, and Behaviors
When my partner dismissed my insecure feelings or blamed me for having them, my attachment alarm went into hyperactive mode and hijacked my brain, filling it with thoughts and feelings to seek closeness, including:
- Obsessively thinking about my partner’s unavailability, making it difficult to focus on other things. When I was at work or even out with friends, I would check my phone every 3–5 minutes to see if my partner had responded to my messages. My mind was addicted to seeking closeness because I rarely got the reassurance I needed.
- Highlighting my partner’s good traits and neglecting to take note of her negative ones. My friends who talked with me about my relationship problems often responded to my complaints with, “Why are you with her? What she did was messed up!” I would respond with, “I know but she’s so interesting and attractive.” My activated attachment system prevented me from seeing a realistic picture of my partner, and my low self-esteem (common in clingy lovers) prevented me from creating and enforcing healthy boundaries to create a relationship that met my needs.
- A feeling of anxiety that goes away when I am around my partner. 4
- Ruminating thoughts about being too needy or focusing on my inadequacies. During this relationship, my self-talk was abusive. I hated my body (it wasn’t fit enough and my muscles weren’t big enough), I hated my finances (I actually went into debt trying to impress this partner), I wasn’t funny enough (I bought a handful of books on how to be funny). 5 Brene Brown says, “We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”
- Believing this is my only chance for love.6 The kinds of thoughts that went through my head included: “This is the most interesting and attractive person I’ve ever dated. If we break up, I’ll never be able to date someone like her again,” or, “If I leave, she’ll be the partner I wanted with some other guy. I have to stick it out.”
- Blaming myself for my partner’s unavailability and lack of care.7I used to tell myself that the reason my partner didn’t want to spend time with me was because I wasn’t fun to be around. This mistaken belief reinforced my unlovable self-image and created more doubt about what I deserve in my relationships. 8
These thoughts and emotions became worse the less responsive my partner was. While the attachment system is designed to keep you close to others, it also has a dark side that leads you to beat yourself up, because it cares more about your short-term survival by maintaining closeness to your romantic partner than about your long-term well-being. As Levine and Heller state in Attached, “Even if your rational mind knows you shouldn’t be with this person, your attachment system doesn’t always comply.” 9
Research on Adult Attachment claims that clingy lovers struggle to regulate their thoughts and can become tortured by overwhelming thoughts and feelings of negativity. 10 This includes bringing up old memories of your partner not being available or responsive and mixing them in with present problems, thus compounding distress.
As clingy lovers we react with more intensity to any thoughts of loss and simultaneously, struggle to calm ourselves. This can lead to reacting to our thoughts and feelings and an overdependence on our lover for soothing our emotions.
The worst my thoughts became, the crazier I behaved. Since I couldn’t achieve my goal of gaining the security I needed in my relationship, I resorted to Protest Behavior.11 Protests behavior unhealthily protest the relationships connection in hopes of getting your partner’s attention.
- Excessive Efforts to Reconnect. Such as calling, texting, emailing, desperately waiting for a phone call, or trying to “accidentally” run into your partner. I remember a day when I called my partner 9 times and texted her 22 times in the span of 5 hours during a work day in which she had meetings all day. She was mad, and I felt ashamed.
- Pretending to be preoccupied when you’re not. Such behaviors include saying you have plans when you don’t, acting busy or unapproachable even though you want to be approached, or ignoring phone calls because you want to “get back” at your partner.
- Keeping a Scorecard. People who keep score count the number of minutes it takes for their partner to return a text or call back, and then wait just as long to return the call or text. This also includes not leaving voice messages, or acting distant and waiting for your partner to make the first “make-up” move.
- Acting Hostile. Rolling eyes when your partner talks (AKA contempt), looking away for long periods of time, or getting up and leaving the room while the other person is talking (AKA Stonewalling).
- Threatening to leave. I would threaten to end my relationship in hopes that my partner would stop me from leaving and “prove” how much I mattered to her. The problem with this tactic is the other person may want to break up and so they may just end it.
- Trying to Make a Significant Other Jealous. This may include talking about someone hitting on you, attending a singles event, or making plans with someone else with the sole intention of making your partner jealous. For example, I intentionally missed my partner’s soccer game and made up a story about walking around with a woman I met in a coffee shop. This made my partner sick to her stomach and when I saw her reaction, I first thought, now you know what it feels like, and then as she started getting physically sick I felt disgusted with myself.
- Exaggerating the Problem and your distress, even unconsciously, to gain your partner’s attention.
- Behaving in Childish and Excessively Needy Ways to emphasize your vulnerabilities, helplessness, and dependence, in hopes of receiving support and care.
Not to mention, our deepest insecurities can motivate us to maintain emotional and/or physical closeness to our partner at all times. As a result, we often sacrifice our autonomy and can become intrusive of our romantic partner’s life, which can lead to more relationship problems.
While protest behaviors may get your partner’s attention from time to time, they encourage intrusive, coercive, and aggressive behavior towards a relationship partner leading to relationship dysfunction, dissatisfaction, and eventual rejection or abandonment. In other words, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I will tell you from experience, it’s terrible to feel so overwhelmed with the fear of being abandoned by your partner that you behave in these crazy ways only to have your fear become true because of how you behaved.
I felt shame for behaving in the ways I did in that relationship. It was completely out of character for me. And my insecure behavior became a big motivator for me to improve my relationships.
You’re Only As Insecure as the Relationship You’re In
For many of us, myself included, being unaware of how our clingy attachment system works prevents us from creating or finding a secure relationship. My attachment system was constantly activated in my relationship with Crystal because of her emotional unavailability and opposing attachment strategy.
When I felt insecure I sought to get closer to her. When Crystal felt insecure, she distanced herself from me, which lead to a roller coaster relationship. The closer I got, the more she distanced. As a result, we exacerbated our insecurities which lead to more clingy thoughts, feelings, and protest behavior on my part. This made the relationship worse for both of us.
This is much different than the relationship I’m in now. My partner and I cherish each other, support each other, and team up to work through our problems. We’re far from perfect, but I know without a doubt that she is there for me through thick and thin. The trust and security we have built makes it easier for me to reach out for reassurance in a calm way when I’m feeling insecure, and since my partner is responsive and caring, my attachment alarm goes silent and we reconnect. My clingy attachment alarm has actually brought us closer because I am able to express my needs in a productive way that gives my partner clear directions on how to calm me down and make me feel loved.
What I’ve come to learn is that my clingy attachment insecurity was a byproduct of two things: how I thought and behaved in a relationship, and how my partner chose to respond. By taking responsibility for improving on my end, I was able to, with difficulty, walk away from partners who did not value my needs and find partners who were responsive to my relationship needs.
As a result, I was able to transform my insecure thoughts, feelings, and behaviors into something that could strengthen my relationships.
7 Lessons to Transform Clingy Insecurity into a Superpower for Healthier Relationships
After four years of therapy, reading hundreds of relationship books, and creating a long-term healthy romantic relationship, I have come to view my insecurity as a superpower designed to strengthen my relationship. Here are the 7 lessons I learned on my journey.
Find Secure Sidekicks.
Even superheroes need sidekicks to support them during difficult times. On your journey, I would recommend finding a sidekick, if not multiple, who will give you positive experiences to help you with building strong relationships.
As the research highlights, a secure attachment style is a result of internalizing multiple experiences of comforting individuals who help foster a sense of security, positive self-esteem, and the ability to calm oneself in order to reach out in a healthy way.13
Lucky for clingy folks like me, our current relationships can support us in earning security and rewiring our brain in such a way that we can regulate our emotions and be direct about what we need to be happy in a relationship.
Therapist/Coach:Looking back, investing in a therapist has been the best decision I’ve made in the past five years. My psychoanalyst has help me develop a more balanced perspective on my relationships and insecurity.
With his support, I took risks to assert my boundaries, left unhealthy romantic partners, and took ownership of what I needed in a relationship to be happy. All of this work was extremely difficult, but it’s changed my life for the better.
Secure Romantic Partner: A loving, caring, and emotionally available romantic partner will respond to insecurity with attentiveness and care. The trust built in that relationship will encourage you to be more direct about your feelings and needs rather than using protest behavior. If you are dating and find yourself attracted to potential partners who are unavailable, read this article.
If you are married and feel insecure on a regular basis, I’d recommend recruiting a couple’s therapist/coach who can guide your relationship to a more secure place. Three therapeutic models I trust include: The Gottman Method, Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy.
Secure Friend: After I read Attached, I reached out to a friend who I knew was secure and started spending time with her. When I texted, called, or requested something she was responsive, direct, and clear about what she could and couldn’t do. I could tell she valued our relationship and me.
Over time I internalized these experiences and was able to replicate these secure thoughts and behaviors in other relationships.
Turn Insecurity into a Superpower.
Clingy lovers have a hypersensitive attachment alarm and are often aware of subtle threats that others are not. The problem is this alarm can also be a false alarm and can lead to a person misjudging a situation or a partner which leads to hurt feelings and relationship problems.14
The research has discovered that if the clingy partner waited a little longer to react and gained more information about the situation or their partner’s intent, they then had an advantage of noticing when something is wrong and could constructively use that awareness to reconnect in a relationship. 15
Know Your Go-To Clingy Thoughts and Protest Behaviors.
By becoming aware of your clingy thoughts and protest behavior, you can then pause, and ask yourself what would be a better way to respond to this situation to get what I need?
Ask What Would Super Secure (Wo)Man Do?
Attachment research highlights that all of us have experiences of people who are secure. Whether that is a friend, a distant relative, etc. When I’m working with insecure clients, I often ask them, “How would your super secure [aunt]16 respond to this?”
Doing this flips the internal script on how to think and behave. 17 at any given moment that determines how people are likely to think about relationships or be motivated to act.” Source: Gillath, O., Mikulincer, M., Fitzsimons, G. M., Shaver, P. R., Schachner, D. A., & Bargh, J. A. (2016). Automatic activation of attachment-related goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(10), 1375-1388.http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0146167206290339]. The more times you ask this and act on it, the more you strengthen secure thoughts and behaviors, including those related to expressing feelings, asking for what you need, and being vulnerable about your fears.
Honor and Express Your Clingy Insecurity in a Positive, Actionable Way.
Clingy lovers often neglect their needs in relationships because they don’t believe they deserve to have them met. As Brene Brown puts it “if we want to fully experience love and belonging, we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging.” Learning to accept what I deserved, putting up boundaries, and asking for what I needed in my romantic relationship was hard initially, but now it feels authentic and has actually improved my relationships.
The first step is to recognize your needs as valid. The next is learning how to transform them into a positive, actionable tool.
For example, if I fear my partner is going to abandon me, instead of trying to manipulate my partner, I might say “Hey babe, I’m feeling disconnected from you and would like to grab some ice cream with you later tonight and just talk. You in?”
I’m making a clear request and taking ownership of what I need in the relationship to be happy. If you notice, I’m also putting a plan in place so I can make that happen, making it much easier for my partner to say yes. For a framework on how to do this in your relationship, read this article.
Enhance Your Emotional Intelligence.
As Justin Bariso states, “Emotional intelligence is the ability to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.” While clingy lovers tend to be aware of their emotions, they often struggle to manage their emotions in a way that achieves their goal of closeness and emotional connection. Not to mention clingy lovers struggling to manage their relationship in a way to get the most out of their connection.
Improving the two pillars of emotional intelligence, self-management and relationship-management, can greatly increase the security in your relationship. If you’re interested in exploring this further, I’d recommend checking out Emotional Agility, EQ Applied, and Emotional Intelligence 2.0.
Improve Self-Compassion and Self-Care.
Clingy lovers tend to internalize criticism from others and talk to themselves in the same way. I used to beat myself up ruthlessly. But beating yourself up is never a fair fight. That’s why practicing self-compassion will help improve your self-worth, which will improve how you express your emotions and honor your needs. For exercises and lessons on how to increase self-compassion check out Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.
When I used to be clingy, I did not take care of myself well. I rarely got enough sleep. I overworked myself (100-hour work weeks). I drank alcohol practically every night and so much more. As I started to become more secure in response to therapy, I began eating healthier, making a consistent bedtime for myself, and giving myself healthy amounts of exercise.
Our self-worth is often reflected in how we care for ourselves.
By improving the various ways you care for your body and mind, you’ll start to feel more loving towards yourself.
As I’ve come to hone my insecurity into a superpower, I’ve noticed dramatic differences in my relationships and personal life. My current relationship is secure, emotionally connected, and fulfilling for both my partner and me.
Comparing who I was five years ago in a relationship with Crystal to who I am now with my current partner is like comparing Mars to Earth. It wasn’t easy to get here. In fact, I suffered a lot of pain to grow and heal. I had to confront myself. To challenge myself. To reach out for support. To try things that were unfamiliar and difficult.
The reason I did it was because I realized I had two choices. The choice of suffering in an insecure relationship or the choice of suffering to improve myself and my relationships. I took the latter route and looking back, I’m glad I did.
Recommended Articles to Read:
- 6 Telltale Signs of the Most Toxic Relationship of All
- 5 Reasons Needy Romantic Partners Remain Insecure
- Understanding the Attachment Styles in Your Relationship with Stan Tatkin
- Small Things Often Create Secure Attachments: An Interview with Amir Levine
- Attachment Theory Explains Why Your Relationships Fail
- Karen talks about this in his book Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love, p. 401. ↩
- Simpson, J. A., W. Ickes, and T. Blackstone. “When the Head Protects the Heart: Empathic Accuracy in Dating Relationships.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69: 629-41. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1689 ↩
- Here is a summary from Adult Attachmentof the hormones the attachment system uses to motivate us to seek closeness: “We now know that the action of these genes is mediated by neuroendocrine hormones and physiological systems, such as the neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin, the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, the amygdala, and the HPA axis that connects the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands in a bodily system that responds to threats and stressors.” [Kindle edition. ↩
- As cited in Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love, by Levine and Heller. Kindle edition, location 794. ↩
- Ironically, this made me less funny. The pressure to be someone you are not paradoxically makes you less enjoyable to be around. When I work with clients who have this similar fear, we get them (back) in touch with what they find funny and help them express that to others, rather than encouraging them to try to be funny on behalf of others. This leads to more authentic relationships. ↩
- As cited in Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love by Levine and Heller. Kindle edition, location 794. ↩
- As referenced in Adult Attachment ↩
- The meaning clingy, attached individuals ascribe to the uncertainty of emotional support, rejection, and abandonment in childhood and adult relationships creates an internal belief system that amplifies their inadequacies and tendency to cling to dysfunctional relationships as a way to reinforce perceptions of being flawed and unlovable. ↩
- What’s interesting about the attachment system is it can lead one to confuse constant anxiety, an always-activated attachment alarm, with passion. So when you meet someone who makes you feel insecure, you may think that overwhelming feeling is love when actually it’s insecurity. ↩
- Research discovered that the brains of people with a clingy attachment style become more “lit up” than people with other styles when asked to think about negative events such as conflict or breaking up. Source: Gillath, O., Mikulincer, M., Fitzsimons, G. M., Shaver, P. R., Schachner, D. A., & Bargh, J. A. (2016). Automatic activation of attachment-related goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(10), 1375-1388. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0146167206290339 ↩
- As cited in Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love, by Levine and Heller. Kindle edition, location 840. ↩
- The following protest behaviors were mentioned in Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love, by Levine and Heller. Kindle edition, location 794. ↩
- Prior experiences offer a person tangible evidence that a someone is willing and able to be available in times of need, allowing the individual to develop an internal belief that they are worthy of love and care, a sign of a secure attachment style. When faced with a physically or psychologically threatening event, a securely attached individual uses a direct and vulnerable approach to seeking closeness to an attachment figure. This is achieved by asking for comfort and soothing from an attachment figure such as a romantic partner in adulthood. Even when this romantic partner is not available, a secure person is able to use an internalized representation of the attachment figure to help self-soothe. Despite the difficult events, the primary strategy used by a secure attachment style enables an individual to absorb distressful events in a healthy way that maintains a stable sense of self and enables the person to activate nonattachment behaviors such as exploring, socializing, and focusing on activities outside of the relationship. ↩
- Insecurity is a biological suggestion, not a commandment for change. Insecurity is often a call to action, but it’s not always accurate. I don’t find it helpful to trust my initial gut reactions all the time, but rather to sit with my insecurity for a little bit and think about what I need. If I’m not sure about the meaning of something my partner might have done, I ask my partner for clarity, rather than assuming negative intent and reacting with protest behavior. ↩
- Fraley, R. C., P. M. Niedenthal, M. J. Marks, C. C. Brumbaugh, and A. Vicary. “Adult Attachment and the Perception of Facial Expressions of Emotion: Probing the Hyperactivating Strategies Underlying Anxious Attachment.” Journal of Personality,74(2006): 1163-90. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1249 ↩
- The person who they believe is secure in their thinking and behavior. ↩
- The more a person primes their brain to use a secure model for engaging in their relationships, the more they will start to think and behave securely in present interactions. As Gillath, et. al., (2016) argue, it is the “relative availability and accessibility of this knowledge [mental model ↩