What is Ambivalent Attachment And How Does it Affect Me?

By: Nadia Khan

Updated March 08, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Stephanie Chupein

Children are born into this world with an intrinsic need to have love, affection, and security from their caregiver. When they get these things, the result is a secure attachment between the child and the caregiver. However, when these fundamentals are missing, it can result in trauma to the child, beginning at an early age.

With ambivalent attachment, the child may receive love, affection, and security, but not in a way that develops healthy relationships and attachments. But how can the way you were treated as a baby affect you now as an adult? Why is this important? To answer these questions, we must first take a closer look at ambivalent attachment and what it is. 

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What Is Ambivalent Attachment?

When a child receives love and affection sporadically, it can result in long lasting problems for the child. When the parent is inconsistent in their behavior and attitude towards a child, the child cannot understand why love and affection get taken away or dished out randomly. This unpredictability creates fear and confusion within them because they don't know when they'll get love and when they'll get neglect. They are not secure. As they grow up, this fear and belief that love and affection are fleeting, sporadic sentiments continue on into adulthood.

The child comes to believe that just because they are loved one day, does not mean they will still be loved the next. As a result, they develop a fear that those they love will leave them. They desire to love, strive for affection, and crave attention, but they are terrified those things will not stay. They feel unsafe in their relationships—romantic or social—since they don't know if their significant other or friend will continue to want them around in a week, a month, or a year from now. This insecurity leads them to look for problems even if there are none, and as time goes on, it results in an internalization of the problem.

A child in this type of family dynamic will come to believe they are the problem. Because they cannot understand specific situational reasons for the change in feelings, they start to believe it must be their fault—that their behavior, personality, or looks are the cause for their parents' inconsistent affections. They start to feel and become convinced they are not good enough to receive the love and attention they want, or that they are not properly communicating their needs. As a result, they tend to have difficulty navigating many things within their relationships with others—the types of things most people don't even think twice about.

Attachment Styles

It is becoming increasingly evident just how important the early, formative years are for a child. Raising a child goes beyond providing food and shelter. The ways in which parents give love and instill values and discipline significantly impact what kind of adults these children will become, and what kind of relationships they will form.

According to studies, there are four styles of attachment, discussed below.


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  1. Secure Attachment: Approximately 60% of the population falls within this style of attachment. They tend to have a secure childhood; they were able to rely on their parents and had the courage and confidence to venture out on their own. When they grow up, they tend to feel secure in their relationships, connected to their partners, confidant of their love and support, yet they still feel free and independent.
  2. Ambivalent / Pre-occupied Attachment: This happens to children who receive love and affection in an inconsistent manner, and they can never rely on whether their parents will be available to them or not. This leads to feelings of anger in some people, and passive acceptance for others; and it results in a child who is filled with insecurity and constantly looking to fill the void left by inattentive parents. They tend to need their partners to rescue them, or they need their partners to make them feel complete. Even though they are constantly looking for safety and stability, their behavior yields the opposite effect. In order to make sure their partner is always around, they may become clingy and overly dependent, which in turn serves to drive the partner away.
  3. Dismissive Avoidant Attachment: People who fall within this category deliberately distance themselves from their partners emotionally. They prefer being isolated and not relying on anyone. They are very independent and are dismissive of the idea of needing anyone. They choose to remain detached and unemotional.
  4. Fearful Avoidant Attachment: People in this category basically live in limbo. They are scared of getting too close to someone, and they are also scared of becoming too distant and being alone. This leads to an unpredictable emotional state, and their relationships tend to be overly dramatic and very up and down.

Ambivalent Attachment Concerns

These children tend to feel extremely emotional. They have difficulty being alone and struggle with a fear of being abandoned. They tend to be very clingy when they are in relationships, to an extent where their partner may have problems with it; and they are even insecure in their friendships. They want intimate relationships and yearn for increased intimacy at all times; however, they may struggle to form these types of relationships as a result of their insecurities. They are very concerned about being rejected by others and seek out support at times when they feel stressed. In their eyes, personal achievement and success are not as important or significant as finding and maintaining close relationships with others.

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These individuals are constantly seeking out love and affection but require proof of these feelings as well. They have difficulty trusting others, and they may even put their relationship in jeopardy because of their behaviors and attempts to get their partner to prove their feelings. They may become overly obsessed with the relationship, which results in self-sabotage over time. Their relationships tend to break down as a result of their clinginess and their over-fixation on all aspects of it. And when that happens, it only serves to confirm, in their minds, they were right to be doubtful all along.

Moving Forward

If you were raised in a household where ambivalent attachment was created, it is entirely possible that you've gone through life holding on to insecurities and struggling to get unconditional love and acceptance from those around you—whether it's in your friendships, your relationships, or even in the workplace.

Does this mean you are doomed for unhappiness for the rest of your life? Not at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. A big first step towards healing from anything is understanding there is something to heal. By reading this article or trying to understand your own actions, you have taken that first critical step.

Another key thing to keep in mind is that you are not the first one to be going through this, and it is very possible to move past what happened in your childhood and develop healthier habits. This is absolutely critical if you want to find success in your friendships and intimate relationships.

Unless you are suffering from any additional mental issues, such as depression or anxiety disorder, the best way of facing and changing your childhood issues is through therapy. Finding someone that you can talk to about what you're going through and what you've experienced is extremely important.

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Understanding Your Attachment Style Through BetterHelp

Research shows that online therapy is a useful tool for those dealing with fear of rejection, or other emotions that may have arisen out of their attachment style. One study found that internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) was effective in dealing with feelings of loneliness (along with social anxiety and depression), which researchers note can be due to a fear of rejection. With CBT, the individual is able to target the negative thoughts that may lead to self-sabotage in a relationship, allowing them to understand the source of feelings of rejection, loneliness, or fear of loss. Online therapy is also widely considered a more accessible mode of treatment than most traditional therapy methods, as there are no geographical restrictions, scheduling is often more flexible, and costs are generally lower.

As discussed above, online therapy can be an effective way of working through issues related to ambivalent attachment. If the idea of walking into a therapist's office makes you uncomfortable or you fear judgment and a lack of understanding from others, consider seeking help through BetterHelp. BetterHelp is a site dedicated to providing you with resources and information on mental health and mental well-being. They have licensed professionals who are able to assist you from the comfort and privacy of your own home. You can even participate in counseling completely anonymously. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Natasha is a very insightful, kind and compassionate counselor. Her gentle, professional approach to guiding you through a problem shows her empathy and understanding. She helped me see some childhood issues that I hadn't addressed in years."

"I really enjoyed my sessions with Dr. Anstadt. He helped me see how one issue was affecting multiple aspects of my life. He has greatly improve my relationships with the people I'm closest to and even the way I approach work. I have seen a huge difference in my relationships already, and I have several tools to help me manage the issues I started seeking therapy for. I cannot express how thankful I am to Dr. I Anstadt!"

Conclusion

People who have had difficult or unusual childhoods tend to grow up craving intimacy, trust, support, and love. It can be difficult for them to get those things, especially when they have a hard time believing they deserve it. It is not at all unusual for these individuals to sabotage their relationships. If this sounds like you, and if you are tired of living life in this way and are ready for a change, then do it today. By seeking out professional help and going through counseling, it is possible to work through the trauma, the insecurity, and the fear. With some time and effort on your part, you can change the way you approach all your relationships and come to peace with your past. Truly fulfilling relationships are possible—all you need are the right tools. Take the first step today.


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