Clingy Vs. Attentive: How Can You Spot The Difference In A Relationship
It’s in the little things.
You’re dating someone and they seem perfect — they pay attention to you, don’t play games, and are available (emotionally and physically). But you sense that they seem a bit too available — and you begin to question how to tell if someone is clingy versus attentive. Maybe they text you nonstop. At first you think it’s sweet, but who has time to text all day? And if you don’t respond right away, they start to get suspicious. And then they break plans with their friends to see you. Also sweet, but they should see their friends. You think they’re being needy, but your friends tell you that you finally found a nice partner — they’re just more attentive than your ex and you’re not used to it. But something in your gut tells you something’s off. So how do you know for sure?
“The needy person mistakenly believes they ‘must,’ ‘have to,’ and ‘should’ be in the relationship in order to be OK with themselves,” Steven M. Sultanoff, PhD, clinical psychologist and professor at Pepperdine University, tells TZR in an email. “At an unconscious level, they believe they are unworthy, unlovable, bad, and flawed unless they are ‘needed’ by another.”
Dr. Joanne Frederick, licensed mental health counselor and author of Copeology, adds that a needy or clingy person can come off as obsessed with their partner in an unhealthy way, which can be a red flag. “They tend to make the relationship their only priority, which makes their significant other uncomfortable,” she tells TZR in an email. “However, an attentive person prioritizes the relationship while maintaining a healthy distinction between being interested and being obsessed.”
Ahead, Sultanoff and Frederick elaborate on how to distinguish between clingy and attentive behaviors, which can sometimes be confusing.
Signs Someone Is Clingy
Although we probably all like attention from our partner or the person we just started dating, unhealthy attention can signify neediness. When someone is clingy, they tend to exhibit certain behaviors, Frederick explains. These include: demanding their partner be by their side 24/7 or be in constant communication; they start arguments over little things, always doubting their partner's loyalty; they seem desperate for their partner's approval and feel like nothing's ever enough; and/or they have anxiety attacks (or symptoms that mimic anxiety attacks) at the thought of doing something alone or without their partner.
Aside from wanting to constantly communicate, texting nonstop, and obsessively following your social media accounts (and paying great attention to where you are and who you’re with), another sign of clinginess is the words they use. “Needy individuals will use the language of depowerment,” says Sultanoff. “They will say things like, ‘You have to…,’ ‘You must…,’ and ‘You should…’ ‘You have to tell me where you are,’ ‘You must call during the day,’ and ‘You should respond to my texts within 15 minutes,’ and so on.”
He adds that the clingy person also places demands on the other, such as “You must respond to me when I want you to,” “You have to make me your top priority,” and/or “You must call, text, or email me in a timely fashion” (they have a time frame within which the other must respond to them). If you take a few hours to respond to their text, for example, their response can reveal a lot — if they’re nonchalant about it, upset, or paranoid about the fact that you didn’t write back right away.
Signs Someone Is Attentive (And Not Needy)
Frederick says a good indicator that someone is not needy is that they have their own life, too, outside of the one you have together — it’s a healthy balance versus an obsession with you and putting their interests last. She says some signs are: they have several hobbies and their own social life, but make time for you (versus drop everything for you); they take into account what you have to say; they’re curious without becoming obsessive; and they make you feel safe rather than uncomfortable.
Sultanoff adds that the biggest distinction is that the non-needy person wants to be with their partner — they don’t feel the need to be. “They enjoy their time together and also accept that while it may be painful if they left, they are okay being by themselves and on their own,” he says. “The lack of response by the other does not activate the autopilot/unconscious thought that, ‘I am not worthy/valuable/OK if you are not there for me in my moment of need.’” In essence, the non-clingy person speaks in language of empowerment/requests: I want, I wish, I prefer, such as “I want to be with you,” “I wish you’d care for me (and unconsciously, I will be fine if you do not),” “I want you to love me (and, unconsciously, I will be fine if you do not),” and “While I can live without you, I would prefer that we’re in a relationship together.”
The Mind Of A Needy Person
Before dismissing a clingy partner altogether, it’s a good idea to understand how their mind works. “Emotionally, the needy person generally — when experiencing a lack of attention — feels depressed, desperate, devastated, angry, and so on, while the non-needy person is more likely to feel disappointed, sad, down, and so on,” Sultanoff says. “This differentiates the distressing emotions (depressed, anxious, angry, rageful) that evolve from desperation versus the ones that surface out of caring and desire (sad, disappointed, uneasy, frustrated).”
Behaviorally, the clingy individual may push for lots of time with the other person, he adds. “They will frequently (or constantly) text, email, and find ways to be in contact with (and check up) on the other. The non-needy will text and email, but not be desperately motivated to know where their partner is and will not react strongly when they’re not available.”
Being In A Relationship With A Clingy Person Can Be Challenging
You may think, OK, the person I’m seeing is a tad clingy — no big deal. It’s nice to be needed... But the more time that goes by, the worse it’s likely to get. The needy person may get jealous easily, causing the non-needy one to get stressed, Frederick explains. “It can make one feel smothered and cause them to feel like they don’t know who they are anymore,” she says. “Dating someone that is too needy can result in explosive arguments over nothing, spending far too much time together, and constant social media stalking.” Doesn’t sound too fun, right?
Sultanoff says it also places great demands on the non-needy partner and is very physically and emotionally depleting. “This is especially problematic if you’re a people-pleaser,” he says. “If so, you can become depleted in the relationship as you try to meet the other’s unattainable emotional and physical needs. And if you don’t meet their needs, then hostilities are likely to erupt in the relationship.”
Being In A Relationship With A Clingy Person Can Be Worked On
So is all hope lost if you find you’re dating a clingy person — or perhaps you realize you’re the one with the unhealthy attachment issues? Frederick says the relationship can be saved. “A healthy relationship relies on trust, and if a needy partner is insecure about certain aspects, it can be fixed,” she explains. “The non-needy person can talk to their partner and explain why they feel overwhelmed and how it can be fixed. With open and honest communication, they can find out why their significant other may be insecure about the relationship and what sort of reassurance can make them feel heard. The couple can also take a social media break and reconnect.”
Boundary-setting also comes into play here. Behaviorally, one can set limits and boundaries on what they will and will not do in the relationship, Sultanoff says. “If the other [clingy] person is not satisfied with this, then the relationship is likely to end — and that is likely a good outcome,” he says.
But before getting to this point, emotionally, one can look to ways to manage their own emotional reactions to the other’s neediness. This may be to engage stress relievers outside of the relationship. “These self-care-taking stress relievers can reduce the tension,” he says. “They can include engaging in physical activity (sports, bike riding, walking), engaging in hobbies (sewing, gaming, collecting), or engaging in personal activities (playing a musical instrument, listening to music, reading, meditating). And, cognitively, the non-needy person can tell themselves things like, ‘This is the way my partner is and I accept that,’ or ‘This is part of my partner’s ‘charm.’”
Frederick adds that if you are the needy one, remember that your partner deserves trust and the freedom to have a healthy social life without constantly being by your side. Letting go also helps to live a happier life and improve mental health. If the relationship is serious enough, she suggests couples therapy.” However, if none of these solutions seem to work, she says you may have to consider whether or not this relationship is right for either of you. “By trying to force it to work, it can become a psychologically abusive relationship that will do more harm than good,” she adds.