The "Crazy Ex": A Scientific Explanation


Sober Recovery Expert Author

We’re all familiar with the idea of the “crazy ex.” Chances are you probably know of or have even dated someone who falls in that category. The type of person who calls ten times in a row when you don’t immediately respond to a text, who just happens to be “in the neighborhood” every time you leave your house or who continuously plays ridiculous hot and cold jealousy games in a desperate attempt to get your attention.

Many would label this sort of irrational behavior as obsessive, but is there actually a scientific explanation as to why humans seem to get addicted to another person?

Learn about the science of adult attachment and what exactly causes the obsessive

The Science of Adult Attachment

Pioneered by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s, the science of the attachment theory categorizes all humans into three primary attachment style categories: the secure attachment style, the avoidant attachment style and the anxious attachment style [1].

These attachment styles are demonstrated in childhood and tend to carry over into adult relationships. A baby’s attachment style is determined using the Strange Situation test, which was devised by psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s to observe caregiver-child relationships. During this experiment, a child and mother enter a room full of toys with the observer. The child is put down to explore the room while the mother leaves. Shortly thereafter, the mother reenters the room to be reunited with the child. The child’s reaction throughout the process determines his or her attachment style.

The Secure Attachment Style

The secure attachment style baby will become visibly distressed when mother leaves the room but will become happy as soon as she reenters and will be eager to greet her. As an adult, the individual with a secure attachment style is confident and assured in the relationship, responds understandingly to their partner’s needs and is open to compromise.

The Avoidant Attachment Style

A child with an avoidant attachment style will act as if nothing has happened the entire time the mother is absent from the room and ignores her upon her return. An individual with an avoidant attachment style grows up to equating relationships with a loss of freedom. Their independence is of vital importance to them and although they may have high romantic hopes, they often end up being distant, pulling away from their partners and constantly minimizing closeness.

The Anxious Attachment Style

The anxious attachment style baby will become distressed when the mother leaves the room and then fluctuate between various emotions when she reenters the room. The child may eagerly and happily embrace the mother upon her initial return but then the child will fuss and push her away soon after. This child takes longer to calm down and is in need of further reassurance. In adulthood, someone with anxious attachment tends to be hypersensitive, crave intimacy, maintain an acute sense of danger within the relationship and would do anything to remedy the closeness. Typically, these individuals are often preoccupied with their relationship and worry about their partner’s ability to love them back.

An Evolutionary Coping Mechanism

“Out of all people in our society, just over 50 percent are secure,” explains Drs. Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, who co-authored the book Attached. The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love. “About 20 percent are anxious, 20 percent are avoidant and the remaining 3-5 percent fall into the fourth, least common category of combination anxious and avoidant.”

Thinking back to the idea of the obsessed and seemingly addicted “crazy ex,” the science of adult attachment brings in a different perspective: he or she may have anxious attachment.

Attachment styles are derived from a variety of factors, including genes and upbringing. However, for those classified with anxious attachment, there is also an evolutionary factor at play. When our ancestors were being hunted by predators and needed to fight for survival, their odds greatly increased when they formed bonds with a partner and endured harsh environments together. Meanwhile, those who were alone were easily picked off, so the humans who operated in teams were the ones who survived, reproduced and passed down their partnership survival instinct to their young. Today, when a person with anxious attachment senses emotional distance in a relationship, the danger instinct gets activated. They’re biologically wired to do whatever is needed to regain closeness with their partner because they instinctually think their survival depends on it.

Finding the Right Partner

As much as it is frowned upon in our society and viewed as codependence, when we choose a special someone as a mate, the attachment factor becomes very real. Levine states in his book, “Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood. We are no longer separate entities. The emphasis on differentiation that is held by most of today’s popular psychology approaches to adult relationships does not hold water from a biological perspective. Dependency is a fact; it is not a choice or a preference.”

If you feel you are unable to fulfill your partner’s needs, it’s best to communicate this clearly and earlier in the relationship so the anxious individual can work to deactivate their attachment system and you can both move on to someone better suited for each of you.

While there is no perfect formula for the perfect relationship, the key aspects to a harmonious one involves effective communication and understanding of each other’s attachment styles. Levine and Heller explain that having insight on one another’s patterns of attachment may help people find a higher sense of fulfillment in their romantic relationships. For example, an anxious attachment style individual’s needs may be effortlessly met by a secure attachment style partner. On the other hand, completely mismatched attachment styles can lead to a great deal of unhappiness in relationships, even for those who genuinely love each other.

If you have been labeled the “crazy ex” and feel that you have anxious attachment style, remember that this isn’t exactly a bad thing. With this anxiety comes the incredible capacity to love deeply and passionately as well as being hypersensitive and caring of your partner’s needs. It’s just a matter of finding the right person who wants to receive the type of love you give.

If you or someone you know is seeking for professional help, please visit our directory of counseling and therapy centers or call 866-606-0182 to start the path to recovery today.


[1] Levine, Amir, and Rachel Heller. Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2010. Print.

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