Why some people are 'cold' and others are 'clingy'

Dorian Minors

Attachment theory is one of the cruxes of interpersonal psychology. It’s extraordinarily important because it is thought to shape and influence every one of our relationships. Attachment theory is constantly used to explain the motivations and behaviours of people when they come together and feeds into many of the structures and models that are created to explain the human mind. So, if you’re planning on sticking around The Dirt Psychology for a while, we’re going to have to teach you this fundamental aspect of human relationships. We’ll keep it basic for now, but keep in mind that attachment theory goes much, much deeper. Lets go!

First of all, lets get the important names out of the way. We’ll tip our hats to John Bowlby, the founder of the theory in 1979, Mary Ainsworth (a huge influence on it’s later development) and Hazan and Shaver, two psychologists who expanded the role of the theory into its influences on our romances later in life. Basically, when children are infants they are given a certain amount of attention from their primary caregiver (usually a mother). This attention will shape their expectations of relationships, love and trust. There are three main attachment styles:

  • Secure Attachment: The caregiver will regularly, promptly and attentively respond to their infants’ cries and needs. Securely attached people develop the idea that they are ‘worth’ loving and people can be trusted to look out for them.
  • Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment: The caregiver irregularly responds to their infants’ cries and needs. Anxiously attached people develop a fearful view of love, believing that they are only worth loving infrequently. As a result, people are seen as unpredictable and anxiously attached people will seek to ‘cling’ to make sure they get what they need. Anxiously attached people are often described as ‘needy’.
    What it can feel like with an anxiously attached friend. Photo courtesy of Michelle Ette (Flickr)
    What it can feel like with an anxiously attached friend. Photo courtesy of Michelle Ette (Flickr)
  • Avoidant Attachment: The caregiver is harsh, or cold. They will rarely respond adequately to their child’s needs. As a result, these people become fiercely independent and have trouble trusting anyone. Love equals pain and is not worth it in their eyes. They’ll just take care of themselves.

“When a child is in infancy, the way we respond to it’s cries determines whether it will trust love or shun it; trust people, or avoid them.”

So, when children are in infancy they will develop a view of people that effects every one of their interpersonal relationships. These views are expectations (or schemas) of how other people will view them.  It’s easy to see how problems could arise from these thought patterns. Anxiously attached people are often pushed away, seen as too ‘intense’ at times. Romantic relationships can suffer, because partners can feel smothered.  This is obviously heartbreaking, because it reinforces the idea that love is unreliable. Avoidant people suffer from a host of emotional problems. Not being able to let others in means they can’t fully embrace the human experience. As social animals, close human contact is exceptionally important and Avoidant people often miss out on this. Also friends may drop these ‘distant’ people, thinking them cold and lovers can often feel rejected and alone in the partnership.
The good news. These perceptions can change. Obviously, psychological therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy can help. But it can be easier than that. Securely attached people can teach Secure attachment to others. Basically, rewriting those more unfortunate styles’ scripts on what characterises a relationship. Relearning ‘normal’. Trust and love can be seen a very positive and reliable things (from certain people). Unfortunately, those who have had a particularly troubled childhood, will often need professional guidance to help them re-adjust.
Look forward to next week’s article on attachment to find out what a ‘safe haven’ is and how it determines how successful you are in your personal growth. In the mean time, maybe you’d be interested in why some people think they are your friend even when they aren’tGiving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.
Thumbnail photo courtesy of Georgiiar (Flickr)


  1. What happens when you are both? On the surface i’m “cold” & independent, but sometimes, let my I guard down but can be very needy. There is never a balance. When someone rejects my neediness, instantly i’ll put the wall back up. And when this person partner then starts to give attention back, i’ll slowly start reintroducing the neediness. It’s a vicious cycle.

    • Yeah, this article is probably a bit too simplistic to describe the average person. But I think what you’re describing is pretty normal. It sounds like you really enjoy feeling close to the people you care about. But of course, different people have different ideas about what ‘close’ means. And when people reject us for wanting to feel close and connected, it often feels like they’re rejecting who we are as a person which can be really hurtful. So it’s not surprising that you put up a wall to guard yourself from that. It’s scary to be vulnerable at the best of times, never mind if you’ve been vulnerable and been rejected for it in the past. Now, it might be that you are a little anxiously attached to people, or it might not – I don’t know you. Regardless, it seems fair to me that you protect yourself with a wall. I think we all do to some degree. What’s important is doing exactly what you’ve identified here – trying to find the balance, but that can only be done by talking with the people we want to get close to. Letting down the wall slowly and in that process of trying to get close you communicate with your partner as much as you can (and encourage them to communicate as much as they can). In that way you might find that people are less likely to reject you – if they know what you need and what you are trying to do, and they know how it feels when you feel shut down, then hopefully they would be sensitive enough to be able to negotiate some middle ground where you both are satisfied.
      I will point out too, that sometimes when we are rejected for trying to get close to others, we start to become overly sensitive to signs of rejection in others – sometimes we start to see rejections when people don’t mean to hurt us and lash out or put our guard up to protect ourselves. Like I said, I don’t know you so I don’t know whether this would help you, but if that sounds like something you’d be interested in knowing about you might check out this article for more on that.
      Sorry to hear you’re having trouble with this and good luck!

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