When Attachment Anxious People Experience Relationship Conflicts

Are they more likely to be depressed? If so, what to do next?

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What is Attachment Anxiety?

This is driven by their deep desire for closeness and intimacy but, at the same time, the fear that they cannot avoid being rejected or abandoned regardless of their attempts to strengthen the relationship.

Attachment anxiety has been studied in a wide range of studies where it is predominantly characterized as low self-efficacy and negative self-view (Overall, Girme, Lemay, & Hammond, 2014; Campbell, Simpson, Boldry, & Kashy, 2005). Highly anxious individuals tend to hold a doubtful perception of themselves along with a self-protective nature, which determines their insecure behaviours and responses in their daily interaction with others. Their perception of others’ intention has been distorted in order to align with the negative view of themselves. As a result, they are more likely to deny, dismiss or discount positive gestures from close others (Overall, Girme, Lemay & Hammond, 2014) especially during conflictual and stressful situations. Individuals high in attachment anxiety are often found to have contradictory thoughts which result in their inconsistent responses. This is driven by their deep desire for closeness and intimacy but, at the same time, the fear that they cannot avoid being rejected or abandoned regardless of their attempts to strengthen the relationship (Overall, Fletcher, Simpson, & Fillo, 2015). The constant uncertainty highly anxious individuals experience and perceive has conditioned them to continuously seek the reassurance of their close others’ regard (Overall, Girme, Lemay & Hammond, 2014). Consequently, anxiously attached people possess the attributes of being dependent, needy and clingy in their close relationships.

What’s on their mind during conflicts?

Anxious people continuously seeking reassurance and testing hypotheses about whether their attachment figures truly care.

The attachment system is usually activated by threats which include individual experiencing threats, close other experiencing threats or relationship threats (Overall, 2019). Conflict is a type of relationship threats that can be notably frustrating to highly anxious individuals, which further increases the degree of uncertainty in the interaction. Insecure people are more likely to experience the sense of losing control in this situation, as they are highly dependent on the response from their partners. Increase in perceived insecurities preconsciously activated their attachment-related thoughts and action tendencies (Mikulincer & Shave, 2018). Attachment anxiety individuals would attempt to restore the closeness and acceptance that they yearn from close relationships. The need for closeness and proximity is combined with the fear of rejection which leads to their hyper-activating protest at the potential loss of the relationship.

In the context of relationship conflicts, the opposing motivations of preventing rejection and restoring connection trigger complex emotional as well as behavioural responses of highly anxious individuals. Attachment anxiety is found to be possessed with chronically negative perceptual bias (Campbell, Simpson, Boldry, & Kashy, 2005), which means that they have a higher chance of over-detecting potential cues as negativity in relationships. Consequently, highly anxious individuals perceive greater hurtful intent and lower relationship satisfaction during the conflict. The perception of greater conflict is usually responded by their hyper-activating strategies. Hyperactivation is characterized by the tendency of anxiously attached individuals to exaggerate the seriousness of threats as well as emphasize their vulnerabilities, helplessness and inability to cope with the distress (Mikulincer & Shave, 2018). Aiming for capturing close others’ attention and protection, extreme behavioural response and emotion-focused coping strategies with greater hostility and anger are often displayed (Campbell, Simpson, Boldry, & Kashy, 2005; Murphy, 2012). In addition, anxious people continuously seeking reassurance and testing hypotheses about whether their attachment figures truly care (Campbell, Simpson, Boldry, & Kashy, 2005). When their partners or close friends were perceived as unresponsive or unreliable, they would deploy guilt induction tactics with the purpose of manipulating the situation and coercing more closeness (Overall, Girme, Lemay & Hammond, 2014; Overall, Fletcher, Simpson, & Fillo, 2015).

Highly anxious individuals have formed a vicious cycle of negative emotional and behavioural reactions when facing conflicts in close relationships. There is a strong rationale behind this seemly unbreakable pattern of responses. Insecure people develop a pessimistic working model representing interaction with attachment figures, along with the mental representation of how they expect their attachment figures would behave in a certain context. Conflictual situations reactivate early unresolved attachment failures and hence trigger attachment-related thoughts and actions tendencies. Anxious individuals tend to imagine negative responses from their attachment figures, and these associative link between conflicts and negative responses are reinforced and consolidated every time they encountered a similar situation. Moreover, anxiously attached individuals are found to be associated with a self-defeating attributional style of appraising (Mikulincer & Shave, 2018). They deeply crave for intimacy, however, they are incapable of perceiving themselves as deserving the love from their partners. The nature of low self-worth determines their hyper-vigilance reactions of relationship-threatening cues, resulting in a distorted interpretation of information to confirm their negative expectations of attachment figures (Campbell, Simpson, Boldry, & Kashy, 2005). This chronically perceptual bias subsequently reinforce the retrieval of distressing memory, forming a hopeless “perceive-response” cycle.

Attachment anxiety activates the contradictory motivations of both the need for intimacy and fear of rejection, which determines the pattern of their extreme reactions in the conflictual context.

The perception of highly anxious individuals is often coloured and distorted by their negative self-view, resulting in destructive behavioural responses triggered by emotional and cognitive reactivity. Conflictual situations further activate their attachment system, resulting in more exaggerated reactions.

What happens to the psychological wellbeing of attachment anxious people?

More explanations regarding how these destructive behaviours undermine the psychological wellbeing of anxiously attached individuals will be included in the Discussion.

More profound decline in psychological wellbeing has been observed in high attachment anxiety individuals during high levels of relationship conflict.

This can be explained by the patterns of their emotional and behavioural responses. Firstly, their core belief of low self-esteem and low self-verification leads to a negative feedback-seeking pattern that causes more mental pain suffered. This pattern subsequently magnifies their vulnerability to negative self-evaluations and pervasively spreads across all life domains. As a result, their self-esteem and psychological wellbeing continue to undermine after relationship conflicts. Secondly, their self-defeating attributional style is regarded as major damage to psychological wellbeing. Series of distress experiences lead to a higher chance of perceiving themselves as incapable of altering the situations and hence may develop learned helplessness which serves as a major risk factor of depression. Thirdly, evidence from various researches suggests that anxiously attached people have poor emotional regulation and often engage in a maladaptive emotion-focused coping strategy. For instance, the hyper-activating strategy that is originally aiming for seeking attention and alleviating distress would usually result in higher frequency and intensity of dysfunctional emotions. Consequently, the distress intensifying appraisals would uncontrollably spread into other domains and form a self-amplifying flow of painful thoughts. Therefore, relationship threats, especially conflict, put anxious individuals at risk for emotional and adjustment problems such as anxiety and depression.

Additionally, their self-perception is largely anchored on their view of close others, since they continuously seek acceptance and reassurance from their attachment figures. Anxious individuals evaluate relationship qualities according to the vicissitudes of daily relationship events, which leads to more tumultuous and ambivalent feelings. Accordingly, they experience greater distress that damages psychological wellbeing.

According to Schmitt and Allik (2005), a negative association between attachment anxiety and self-esteem has been found in 49 out of 53 countries. The study conducted by Campbell et.al. (2005) additionally demonstrated that highly anxious individuals perceive greater daily relationship conflict than their dating partners. They also experience more emotional negativity and psychological distress during conflicts than secure people, which is due to constant ruminating on the source of distress. Moreover, Birnbaum et.al. (1997) examines the correlation between adult attachment style and how their reaction towards the crisis of divorce that can be regarded as an extreme case of relationship conflicts. The results showed that the crisis of divorce causes a greater degree of deterioration in the mental health of insecure people, especially anxious-ambivalent attached persons. More generally, attachment anxiety is associated with interpersonal aspects of depression. The overdependent, needy and doubtful nature of anxious people predicts increasing probability in suffering depression and anxiety disorder (Mikulincer & Shave, 2018).

So, what’s the next step?

Mindfulness assists anxious individuals in concentrating their thoughts on the present moment instead of ruminating on encountered distress and conflicts.

Anxious attachment style can have a significantly negative impact on both the quality of the relationships and the wellbeing of individuals. These negative effects can generate more dilemmas in the daily life of highly anxious individuals. Declines in self-esteem may further contribute to their self-perception of lack of ability in academic and interpersonal problems (Mikulincer & Shave, 2018). They may feel being trapped in a pessimistic thinking pattern throughout daily events. Their attachment figures such as partner and close friends will be directly influenced by their deteriorated psychological wellbeing, which may possibly lead to divorce, physical and verbal abuse. The psychological development of their family members, particularly children of highly anxious individuals, may suffer from their destructive emotions and behaviours. On the other side, this research has made us reconsider what are the possible solutions. Mindfulness has been found to be one of the effective buffering for attachment anxiety (Overall, 2019). This can be explained by our research outcomes. Mindfulness assists anxious individuals in concentrating their thoughts on the present moment instead of ruminating on encountered distress and conflicts. Addition to the practice of mindfulness, people high in attachment anxiety may resolve their insecurities by simply reenacting or imagining supportive interactions with their close others (Mikulincer & Shave, 2018). Instead of evaluating the quality of relationships based on daily perception, using long-term relationship goals and objectives as a reference would also reduce the emotional turbulence they suffered. More importantly, genuine supports received from their partner are crucial for their wellbeing.

Put more effort into understanding their deepest vulnerability and overcome it together with your patience and passion.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Take-Home Message

Conflicts activate the maladaptive and hyper-activating coping strategy of highly anxious individuals, resulting in more significant declines in psychological wellbeing. Not only can this negatively affect highly anxious people at the individual level but also it can influence the quality of their relationships and mental health of their family members. Therefore, it is essential for them to implement buffering techniques which include the practice of mindfulness, imaging positive interactions with close others and using long-term relationship objectives as a reference. Sweeten the bitterness and ease the pain with genuine love and support.

Thanks for reading :)

More Psychology Articles


Birnbaum, G. E., Orr, I., Mikulincer, M., & Florian, V. (1997). When marriage breaks up: Does attachment style contribute to coping and mental health? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 14, 643–654.

Campbell, L., Simpson, J. A., Boldry, J. & Kashy, D. A. (2005). Perceptions of Conflict and Support in Romantic Relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(3), 510–531.

Mikulincer, M., & Florian, V. (1998). The relationship between adult attachment styles and emotional and cognitive reactions to stressful events. In J. A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment theory and close relationships (pp. 143–165). New York: Guilford Press.

Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2018). Attachment in adulthood: structure, dynamics, and change. New York: Guilford Press.

Murphy, V. (2012). Understanding Attachment Anxiety and Paradoxical Reactions to Conflict with Romantic Partners: The Moderating Role of Attachment-Related Threat.

Overall, N. C. (2019). Module 1 Parts 3 and 4 Attachment and Assignment Lectures [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from the University of Auckland Canvas website, PSYCH 311 Advanced Topics in Social Psychology.

Overall, N. C., Fletcher, G. J., Simpson, J. A. & Fillo, J. (2015). Attachment Insecurity, Biased Perceptions of Romantic Partners’ Negative Emotions, and Hostile Relationship Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(5), 730–749. doi: 10.1037/a0038987.

Overall, N. C., Girme, Y. U., Lemay, E. P. & Hammond, M. D. (2014). Attachment Anxiety and Reactions to Relationship Threat: The Benefits and Costs of Inducing Guilt in Romantic Partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(2), 235–256. doi: 10.1037/a0034371.

Pietromonaco, P. R., Uchino, B., & Dunkel Schetter, C. (2013). Close relationship processes and health: Implications of attachment theory for health and disease. Health Psychology, 32(5), 499–513. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0029349

Schmitt, D. P., & Allik, J. (2005). Simultaneous Administration of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale in 53 Nations: Exploring the Universal and Culture-Specific Features of Global Self-Esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(4), 623–642. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.89.4.623

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