Am I Too Clingy?

Attachment theory is a useful branch of psychology

“Hold on loosely,but don’t let go
If you cling tootightly, you’re gonna’ lose control”

~ Peterik,Carlisi & Barnes

These lyrics from an old country rock song are spot-on with respect to a key maxim of the psychology of relationships. That is, any person (or partner) is fundamentally “wired” to desire a certain level of human attachment. If you match that person with someone who needs to be attached to a partner in similar ways, you’ve got a relationship that stands a decent chance to succeed. But if there’s a profound mismatch in this regard, the couple in question may be in for a bumpy ride.

Attachment theory is a useful branch of psychology for analyzing the dance of movement between closeness and distance in relationships. The grandfather of attachment theory is the British pediatrician Donald Winnicott, who, in the 1940s and 1950s, observed lots of mothers and infants to try and understand the impacts of early caregiving on a child’s personality development. Usefully, he concluded that “good enough mothering” would produce a good enough child, in terms of emotional well-being.

Two other psychological theorists, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, laid the groundwork for understanding the experiences of a securely attached child whose mother (then considered to be the typical primary caregiver) provided affection and distance in proper doses, more or less. When such children grow to become securely attached adults they love to be close to their partners, and are also generally fine when apart from them – because they’ve come to trust that closeness will return again, and return on a regular basis.

Not coincidentally, we don’t often see securely attached clients in couples therapy. After all, what can we teach these people about relationships that they don’t already know?

But Ainsworth observed other “insecure” attachment styles that seemed to derive from certain suboptimal child-caregiver interactions. For one thing, she observed that primary caregivers who provided only the basics in terms of meeting their child’s needs, while perhaps also belittling the child for being needy in the first place, raised children who learned to keep their distance, keep their emotions to themselves, and reject overtures toward closeness.

If such a child grows up without proper therapeutic care, they might turn into an avoidantly attached adult – someone who is wary of closeness and may “lean out” of relationships for fear of someone getting too close.

A different kind of attachment style can develop in babies for whom cuddling or other kinds of close attention are offered inconsistently, or largely to satisfy the caregiver’s own needs. In the absence of effective treatment, these kinds of babies may grow up with an anxious attachment style. In other words, they may become hyper-vigilant about potential problems in relationships. As a consequence, they may also cling to their partners excessively, even when those partners are actually trying to soothe them.

Again, we seldom see securely-attached couples in our practice. But often times, we see couples where one partner is clinging, or “leaning into” the relationship… at the very same time the other partner feels cramped and crowded by this, and begins to “lean out.”

Two partners who are caught up in this kind of pursue-and-flee cycle need a bit of recalibration. In my practice, I find that it’s often useful to assess each partner in a couple early-on for their attachment style, their tendency to be an introvert or extrovert, and their preferred “love languages,” or ways in which they like to receive attention.

Whether a person is anxious and clingy, or avoidant and distant, the key to learning how to be a better loving partner lies in finding a therapist who knows how to identify these traits and then help both partners learn how to meet somewhere closer to the middle. It seems important for both partners to try and become sufficiently distinctive from each other and, at the same time, more comfortable in their own skin –a process that takes commitment, practice and patience.

Our skilled therapists can help loving partners to assess their own positions on all of the personality and relationship traits noted above, and then learn how to find the right balance between closeness and distance with respect to their significant other.

When one partner seems too clingy, this can often be addressed (at least in part) by helping that person learn how to find more social support – in other words, to help spread their need for closeness around to a group of other friends or family members, instead of focusing all of their energy on their one-and-only love.

If you’re in a relationship where you feel extra needy for attention, or sometimes feel the need to run away from your partner (at least for an evening), our skilled individual and couples therapists can help. Come and see us for an analysis of the ways in which you behave in relationships, and for clues about the first steps you might take in order to become a better citizen of the relational world.

Mike McCauley
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