Have you ever felt insecure and anxious in a relationship? You yearned for someone’s approval and intimacy, yet their affection remained out of reach. You felt anxious about whether your friend, partner, or even parent truly cared for you. Clinging onto the few good moments when you felt accepted and loved, you hoped that something would change.

Sound familiar? Maybe I’m just projecting, but I think almost all of us have experienced a relationship like this. Although such relationships aren’t easy, there is some good news. It probably wasn’t your fault. I’ve always disliked the stereotype of clingy people who worry too much about whether other people care about them. In my experience, whether I feel insecure, neglected, or needy in a relationship depends entirely on the other person and how well I fit with them, how much I trust them, and how responsive they are. The good news then: If you feel insecure in a relationship, you’re not being clingy per se—you just need to find someone you feel more comfortable around.

Okay, now the bad news. Researchers, including one of the first female psychologists, Mary Ainsworth, discovered that having inconsistent, neglectful relationships can lead people to adopt an anxious approach to future relationships. Ainsworth and others, including John Bowlby, noted that children whose mothers were inconsistent in how they cared for their children—loved at one moment, dropped on your head in the next—had a harder time adjusting to social relationships. Specifically, these children sought close relationships but also expected their relationships to be unreliable in the future. A real catch-22.

Two quick caveats: First, inconsistent relationships can lead to relationship problems, but they don’t always do. There’s not a one-to-one link between inconsistent parenting and future social insecurity. Your parents may have treated you poorly, but you are A-Okay, happily married, and have five kids. On average though, past experiences of inconsistent care and chaotic affection will leave their mark. Second, these outcomes are not restricted to just parenting. Like inconsistent parents, a recent romantic relationship or friendship in which you received inconsistent affection is also likely to make you feel more anxious in future relationships.  

Here’s where things get really interesting. Inconsistent affection from close others (including romantic relationships, friendships, and familial relationships) may impact more than your approach to future relationships. It may also influence deeper, more basic psychological processes. Not only did your tumultuous affair with Ben or Becky last year lead you to approach future relationships with an abundance of caution, but it may also have changed how you judge not only social relationships but also the world in general.

In a series of studies with over 1,000 participants, Margaret Clark and I found that feeling anxious in social relationships—desiring affection but expecting relationships to be unreliable—leads people to dislike inconsistency even in non-social situations. As it turns out, inconsistent care may lead people to dislike anything in their environment that is irregular, unusual, or breaks the consistency and routines they are used to.

We documented this effect in a number of ways. For example, we found that people who approach social relationships in an anxious manner (presumably due to inconsistent affection in a previous relationship) dislike broken patterns of geometric shapes, such as a row of triangles with one triangle out of line, more than people who are secure in their relationships. Similarly, asking people to reflect on a time they experienced inconsistent care also made them dislike broken geometric patterns right afterwards. And, these findings occurred even when we took other relevant psychological variables, such as how much people disliked novelty and relationships in general, into account.

But why does experiencing inconsistent affection—whether from romantic partners, friends, or family members—lead people to dislike and shy away from irregularities in their environments, including even non-social inconsistencies? Bowlby and Ainsworth suggested that caring relationships allow us to go out and confidently explore the world. The world, as you know, is filled with inconsistent, irregular, and unexpected things—things that are likely to freak you out if you don’t have a secure social base you can return to (in my case, on the couch with my partner and her cat). For this reason, actions and objects that are irregular or inconsistent are perceived as more negative after experiencing a tumultuous relationship.

In fact, adopting a general dislike of broken patterns in response to inconsistent care and affection may be functional. Disliking people who break physical patterns (such as people who are ill) or social patterns (such has those who break social norms) may help vulnerable people avoid those who are unreliable or inconsistent. Similarly, disliking broken patterns may help people avoid inconsistent events and irregular objects, which increases their feelings of control and safety. Indeed, research shows that people will create illusory patterns in their minds—patterns that don’t actually exist—to regain feelings of control and security.

In the end, experiencing an anxious connection with a close other may have a larger impact on people’s emotions and behaviors than originally thought. Not only may experiencing inconsistent care lead you to approach relationships in a more anxious manner, it may also change your view of the world more generally. But, now that you’re aware of this, you may be able to control it. The next time you are struggling with a tumultuous relationship, you might want to embrace rather than shy away from the irregularities around you. Celebrate things that are weird and unusual. Choose to be open to new experiences, and recognize that, ultimately, there are many caring and warm-hearted companions out there.    

For Further Reading

Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1979). Infant–mother attachment. American Psychologist, 34, 932–937.

Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Volume 2. Separation: Anxiety and anger. New York: Basic Books.

Gollwitzer, A., & Clark, S. M. (2018). Anxious attachment as an antecedent of people’s aversion towards pattern deviancy. European Journal of Social Psychology, 49, 1206–1222.

Gollwitzer, A., Marshall, J., Wang, Y., & Bargh, J. A. (2017). Relating pattern deviancy aversion to stigma and prejudice. Nature Human Behaviour, 1, 920–927. 


Anton Gollwitzer is completing his Ph. D. in psychology at Yale University. His interests are perversely diverse and span across social psychology, clinical psychology, and human behavior more generally. See www.antongollwitzer.com for a peek at the projects he’s currently working on.