Partner Series

credit: alexandrenunes  dreamstime
credit: alexandrenunes dreamstime

Anyone who has dated someone who calls too often, sends text messages obsessively and demands to know your whereabouts at all times knows just how annoying clingy behavior can be. And though it's often grounds for dumping, psychiatrists say clingy behavior actually serves an important evolutionary purpose.

"This so-called 'clinginess' the need to check in with your partner was handed down to us from our ancestors," Amir Levine, a Columbia University psychiatrist and neuroscientist, told Life's Little Mysteries. "In prehistoric times, those who went off on their own often ended up as prey, so always having a partner to watch over them and warn them of any danger was very beneficial."

Lions don't pose much of a threat these days, so humans have adapted the behavior to establish feelings of safety with their significant other by making sure their relationship is secure, Levine and Rachel S. F. Heller, a clinical psychologist, write in the new book "Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Findand KeepLove." The authors will present their research and discuss the book today (Feb. 10) at the New York Academy of Sciences.

According to Levine and Heller, people generally fall into three attachment styles: anxious, avoidant and secure. As you can probably guess, those with an anxious attachment style tend to act clingy, avoidant types try to push their partners away, and secure types are extremely comfortable with emotional and physical closeness .

How people of various types match up can influence the success of a relationship . Anxious types feel a strong need to know that nothing is threatening their relationship and that they have a stable connection with their partner, according to the attachment-style theory pioneered by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s. The openness of someone with a secure attachment style soothes the worries of an anxious attachment-style partner, but the distant and withdrawn demeanor of avoidant types only serves to make an anxious type's perceived neediness even more, well, needy.

"When an anxious person perceives a threat to their relationship, such as their partner beginning to pull away, they feel a strong need to engage in 'protest behaviors' in an effort to re-establish contact with them," Levine said. These behaviors include incessantly calling, texting and even waiting outside of the person's work place just to talk with them. Unless the other person responds to protest behaviors with reassurance right off the bat, they snowball into deeper feelings of worry and a deeper sense of dread in the anxious attachment-style partner.

Thankfully, if the anxious type is in a relationship with a secure type who will assure them of their relationship's stability, their clingy and needy protest behavior will dissolve as their feelings of a threat die down.

"We're only as needy as our unmet needs," Levine said. "We need safety and security, and if we have it, we don't freak out anymore."

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