Common Signs and Steps to Overcome Clinginess in Relationships
Clinginess is a strong indication of an insecure attachment style. Fortunately, these patterns of behavior can change.
Healthy relationships are a balancing act in multiple areas: you have to balance your needs with someone else’s needs, understand someone else’s point of view without betraying your own, love deeply and truly without smothering, and feel the fear of loss without becoming overly anxious. The practical embodiment of this balancing act isn’t easy.
One side of the imbalance are those who are cold or dismissive and avoid the anxious feelings that a close relationship can surface. On the other side are those who avoid self-regulation or time alone, and become clingy, or overly dependent, on someone else.
Many of us grow up with dysfunctional frameworks in our family life and know no better. Collectively, humanity is still developing emotional intelligence, and working toward healthier models of human relationships. This article will explore those models, through the lens of clinginess. How do you spot it? What causes it? How does it affect your relationships? And, most important, what can you do about it?
What Is Clinginess in a Relationship?
Clinginess is a colloquial term. It’s not recognized in psychology as an official category, although you will find scientific literature that uses the word. As the name implies, clinginess explains people who “cling”, or grasp onto, relationships. Clinginess surfaces due to anxiety or fears of abandonment. It’s an unhealthy mechanism that centers around the belief that the tighter you hold onto someone, the less likely they are to let go.
Because clinginess is colloquial, there are multiple ways to interpret its true meaning. Clingy behavior may be referred to as being needy, being suffocating. In psychology, clinginess overlaps with engulfment, enmeshment (both explaining types of excessive “love”), or codependency. Not everyone uses the word in the same manner, although generally, it has negative connotations. No one wants to be accused of being a clingy friend or lover.
Signs of Clinginess in Relationships
It’s tempting to do a quick Google search, and look at a checklist of behaviors, to see if you fit the criteria. It’s worth keeping in mind that, although there are common traits or behaviors, the nature of clinginess is much more complex than any list can explain. Above all else, it’s a matter of emotional regulation, intimacy, relationship quality, and self-awareness. Clingy behaviors include:
- Always looking to others for emotional support, unable to self-soothe or work through problems alone.
- Requiring constant communication in order to feel loved or valued. Or feel upset if not hearing from someone.
- Needing constant reassurance in various areas, from being “enough” to needing to hear they are loved or valued.
People who are clingy may struggle to spend time alone, outsourcing a lot of their problems into their relationships. While some people may be mostly clingy in their romantic relationships, others will demonstrate these types of behaviors in various areas.
The issue with clingy behavior is that many people will attempt to mask the true nature of their neediness. Because clinginess is a dysfunctional way of relating linked to early childhood experiences, it may be channeled through passive aggression, feeling entitled to someone’s time or attention, or getting angry when others fail to meet their desires or expectations.
Attachment Styles and Clinginess
Clinginess relates to childhood development. At a certain stage of growth, children have to “cling” to their parents. An element of clinging is essential for survival. However, as children grow up, they should become increasingly independent. If a child continues to “cling” to their parent, by displaying anxiety when the parent leaves, or jealousy when the parent isn’t paying them attention, it’s a warning sign that there is excessive, or unbalanced, attachment.
The theory that early childhood experiences affect adult relationships stretches far back in the history of psychology, with Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual stages of development as one of the well-known foundations. Since then, many psychologists have built upon Freud’s work. John Bowlby’s attachment styles is one of the most credible modern theories. According to Bowlby, a person’s dominant style depends on their upbringing.
There are three main styles: secure attachment, anxious attachment, and avoidant attachment. Clingy or needy behavior is a common sign of anxious attachment, a type of insecure attachment. People who experience this attachment style fear abandonment or rejection. This type of attachment style is usually caused by inconsistent parenting. In his review of Bowlby’s theory, psychiatrist and author Jeremy Holmes writes:
“To feel attached is to feel safe and secure. By contrast, an insecurely attached person may have a mixture of feelings towards their attachment figure: intense love and dependency, fear of rejection, irritability and vigilance. One may theorize that their lack of security has aroused a simultaneous wish to be close and the angry determination to punish their attachment figure for the minutest sign of abandonment. It is though the insecurely attached person is saying to themselves: ‘cling as hard as you can to people – they are likely to abandon you; hang on to them and hurt them if they show signs of going away, then they may be less likely to do so’.”
The Role of Avoidant Attachment Style
Anxious attachment styles are painful for both the person experiencing the anxiety and the object of their attachment. It’s a dysfunctional and disruptive way of relating, which requires a lot of self-awareness, inner work, and potential therapy to overcome. Of course, it’s not that each person fits a specific attachment style perfectly; each person has a unique blend.
While avoidant attachment styles cause clinginess and require work to find a better balance, the role of avoidant attachment has to be taken into consideration. Who defines what behavior is clingy, and what isn’t? Someone who experiences avoidant attachment may demonstrate hyper-independence, and fears of intimacy. As a result, interdependence may feel intrusive or threatening. If the person defining clingy behavior is themselves avoidant, their perspective may also be imbalanced.
This is important to keep in mind because most people use their own relationships as the barometer for identifying if their attachment styles, or “ways of loving,” are healthy. If two people with contrasting styles are together, each will feel the contrast. To find a genuine balance, it pays to take a broad and honest view.
Is Codependency the Same as Clinginess?
In a healthy adult relationship, both people are independent and fulfilled. There are deep levels of trust, care, support, and intimacy, but neither partner places excessive demands on the relationship to meet all their needs. A codependent relationship, however, occurs when two people become overly reliant on a relationship for their self-esteem, sense of worth, or happiness. Traits of codependency are linked to needy or clingy behavior.
People with an anxious attachment style are most likely to become codependent. Through fear of losing the other person, they may neglect their boundaries, overgive, or neglect their own wants and needs in order to appease. Their partner, benefitting from excessive giving, may become dependent on their needs being met, meaning they don’t have to take full responsibility for their lives.
Codependency is most likely to occur in romantic relationships, but can occur in friendships, families, or even work relationships. In Facing Codependency, psychologist and leading expert in relational styles, Pia Mellody highlights the imbalanced nature of codependency:
“Codependents simply don’t appear to understand what moderation is. They are either totally involved or totally detached, totally happy or absolutely miserable, etc. The codependent believes a moderate response to a situation isn’t ‘enough’. Only too much is enough.”
How to Deal With Clinginess in Relationships
Clinginess is a deal breaker in relationships. A 2021 study in Evolutionary Psychology even found that clinginess was one of the biggest causes of relationship dissatisfaction, alongside long working hours, a lack of time alone, or bad sex. With too much clinging, there’s not enough room to breathe and thrive — together or alone. In order to create space, and move towards healthier ways of relating, clinginess has to be approached from multiple areas.
1. Identify Underlying Issues
If you notice that you demonstrate clingy behavior, remember that these behaviors are symptoms of deep-rooted issues. An inability to self-regulate emotions, or the need for constant reassurance, may point to unresolved trauma or low self-esteem. Whilst some of this can be worked on and healed through relationships, there’s a need to also get support in overcoming limiting or narrow patterns of thinking and behaving.
As you identify underlying issues, you may want to consider reflecting on your past relationships. What are the common patterns you notice? A clear understanding of where you’re at is a platform to build upon.
2. Learn How to Express Needs Healthily
The risk of terms such as clinginess or neediness is that they imply “needing” other people is somehow a personality defect, something that needs fixing. We live in an already hyper-independent culture, where asking for help or support is borderline taboo. Finding a balance in relationships doesn’t mean swinging all the way from clinginess to hyper-independence, but understanding how to properly express and meet your needs.
For example, that may be working on your way of communicating. Rather than getting angry towards a friend for not responding, you may choose the approach of honesty, telling them you experience some anxiety, and would like to know if everything is okay in the relationship. Or create a better understanding of how other people wish to communicate.
3. Respect and Set Boundaries
One of the big reasons clinginess has such a negative connotation is because many people struggle to set boundaries. Someone on the receiving end of clingy behavior may be afraid of causing upset or being unkind, fail to express their boundaries, and feel overwhelmed. To some extent, the responsibility lies with a person who is overwhelmed to communicate clearly — many clingy people have never been told, and remain unaware of the impact of their actions.
Someone who is anxious in their relating style would benefit a lot from respecting other people’s boundaries. If you sense this may be you, you could ask your friends (or partner) if there are any ways you relate that are overwhelming, or not quite working. In other words, you can encourage people in your life to share their boundaries, and then do your best to respect them.
4. Develop Self-Confidence
The balance of love includes the balance between self-love and loving other people. Ultimately, the more confident you feel in your own skin, the higher the likelihood of healthier ways of relating. If you know you can regulate your emotions, or communicate in ways that are healthy, you’ll feel less inclined to excessively depend on others. Working on the most important relationship, the relationship with yourself, has huge repercussions on your attachment style.
Inner work can’t exist in a vacuum, though. As nice as it would be to meditate and journal your way to healthy attachment styles, it’s in the heat of the moment that true growth is made. When wounds appear, and you feel threatened or angry, how do you choose to respond?
Finding a healthy balance in relationships isn’t easy. Being able to express needs, acknowledge your insecurities, set boundaries, respect the boundaries of others, and enjoy the messy ride of trial and error, is all part of loving more skilfully. With dedication, self-compassion, and positive intentions, over time you will find healthier ways to relate. Not from a place of deficiency, desperation, or anxiety, but from a place of abundance and joy.