By Arlen Leight, PhD
I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked, “Why does it seem that as soon as I get close to someone, they seem to back away?,” and “Why are many of the men I date so clingy or needy?” The answers to these questions can be varied and complex, but I hope to provide a basic understanding of approach and avoidance in intimate connections.
There has been a tremendous amount of research in the field of Attachment Theory over the past 50 years. Dr. Mary Ainsworth, a leader in this work, was doing much groundbreaking at Johns Hopkins when I was there studying psychology in the 1970s. Her work, combined with other long term studies, shows that attachment patterns tend to run in families, and watching the interactions of mother and child can reliably predict the types of attachments the child will experience in adult relationships.
Very simply, there are secure and insecure attachments. There are three types of insecure attachments. The first type is characterized by a need to be with the loved one, know their whereabouts, and feel connected. This is often seen as the “clingy” or “needy” partner, and is sometimes referred to as the “love pursuant.” In childhood, this person’s mother was likely anxious about her own relationships and provided considerably more emotional attention than the child required for adequate security and love.
The mother’s enmeshment with the child modeled a type of attachment that follows into adulthood. (I refer to the mother, because research suggests she is the strongest object of attachment, but this can also be a father or other caregiver.) The adult is often plagued with conscious fears of abandonment, but underlying this is an unconscious fear of intimacy or emotional vulnerability. There is usually denial about this, with this type insisting that a relationship is all he really wants in his life. The second type is characterized by detachment and ambivalence. This is the person who gets uncomfortable when someone is getting too close. The so-called “love avoidant” grew up with a mother whose anxiety about closeness resulted in giving less emotional attention than required for the development of trust and love. Often, children who are emotionally or physically abandoned, or neglected by the mother, are the subject to this sort of insecurity.
The adult deals with somewhat conscious fears of engulfment and intimacy, but often adamantly denies a fear of abandonment, which in this adult actually can be greater than for the so-called love pursuant.
The third type of insecure attachment can develop when there is major trauma and/or abuse for the child. I will not get into this type in depth, but these adults can be severely limited in their ability to create or maintain relationships.
A major irony of human connection is that passionate relationships often form between the love pursuant and the love avoidant types. When they occur, it is likely each will blame the other for the struggle, as one feels neglected and the other engulfed.
Each insecure type has his individual way of dealing with the resultant anxiety. The love avoidant may find a multitude of ways to preoccupy and distract himself—computer, phone, TV, or being busy in general. He may create a sense of distance and autonomy by being secretive, or having other sexual encounters. These all have the potential of leaving the love pursuant feeling abandoned. The love pursuant then may attempt connection through physical touch and closeness, heightened conversation and inquiry, initiation of sex, or attempting to increase time together. He also may simply withdraw or close down, out of fear of agitating the alreadydistancing partner. The result is the love avoidant feels his partner is clingy or needy. Indeed, the love avoidant will often accuse the love pursuant of being insecure, but this is actually an ego projection of his personal, unconscious feelings of insecurity.
Until and unless there is awareness of the dynamic, and a desire to get some professional assistance to deal with it, the relationship will remain under duress, or collapse.
A love pursuant man recently related to me how he and his love avoidant boyfriend of several months were sitting at home with the avoidant’s actual lap dog—Sammy—cuddled between them. The avoidant declared, “I think Sammy is getting too clingy because I haven’t been home as much lately.” Of course, the distancing boyfriend wasn’t talking about his dog—he was talking “through” his dog, and sending several simultaneous, unconscious messages to his boyfriend:
(1) I’m spending a lot of time with you.
(2) “Close” feels clingy.
(3) “Clingy” is bad, and feels uncomfortable (i.e., makes me anxious).
(4) Don’t get too close, or it will feel clingy.
Those fortunate enough to have grown up with a mother who was present—and who knew how much love and attention to give in order to satisfy the child’s emotional needs, without being overbearing or denying necessary connection—find a secure comfort zone in adult relationships much more easily.
A final word is required regarding addiction and attachment. When there is unresolved addiction in one or both partners, intimate attachment is not possible. Drugs and alcohol are inevitably the attachment of choice for an addict. This is in part the reason Alcoholics Anonymous recommends a minimum of one year in recovery before attempting intimate dating. The addiction itself may be the result of having had the need to reduce or deny anxiety associated with the individual’s history of insecure attachment.