What is Ambivalent Attachment?

Updated January 31, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Children are born into this world with an intrinsic need for love, affection, and safety from their caregivers. 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. It can also cause them to have a different type of attachment style. With ambivalent attachment, a type of insecure attachment, the child may receive love, affection, and safety, but not in a way that develops healthy relationships. 

You may wonder how the way you were treated as a baby can affect you now as an adult. You could also wonder why this is important.  To answer these questions, we must first look at ambivalent attachment and what it is.

Past Relationships Can Influence Future Ones

What Is Ambivalent Attachment?

When infants or children receive love and affection sporadically in infancy and childhood from their mother, father, or caregiver, it can result in long-lasting problems for the infant and child. This could include an anxious-ambivalent attachment pattern. When the parent is inconsistent in their behavior and attitude towards a child, the child may struggle to understand why love and affection get taken away or dished out randomly. This unpredictability can create fear and confusion because they don't know when they'll get love and when they'll be neglected. They are not safe in their environment in the way that securely attached children are, and thus, they become insecurely attached.

As the ambivalent, insecurely attached child grows up, the belief that love and affection are fleeting, sporadic sentiments may continue into adulthood. Their childhood trauma, which prevented them from becoming securely attached to their primary caregiver or attachment figure as a young child, may result in them feeling anxious, hesitant, nervous, or shy as an adult (thus the term anxious-ambivalent or simply ambivalent). They may cry, feel emotional separation from their mom or dad, or be afraid of touch, even in later romantic relationships.

Children with ambivalent attachment tend 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 may desire to love, strive for affection, and crave attention, but they are terrified those things will be fleeting. 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 and repeated insecure attachment patterns.

A child in this type of family dynamic will come to believe they are the problem, as is the case for most types of insecure attachments. Because they cannot see any situational reasons for the change in feelings, they start to believe it must be their fault—that their behavior, personality, or even appearance are the cause for their parents' inconsistent affection. They may 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 their relationships with others.

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. Attachment parenting patterns give love, instill values, and provide boundaries. This can significantly impact what kind of adults these children will become and what kind of relationships they will form. 

According to studies in psychology, attachment theory, and the work of psychologist Mary Ainsworth, there are four styles of attachment:

  1. Secure Attachment: Approximately 60% of the population falls within this style of attachment. They tend to have a safe 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 safe in their relationships, connected to their partners, and confident in their love and support. Yet, they still feel free and independent.

  2. Ambivalent / Anxious Preoccupied Attachment: An ambivalent attachment style or anxious-preoccupied attachment style develops in children who inconsistently receive love and affection and can never rely on whether their parents will be available to them or not. This is also referred to as an anxious attachment. This insecure attachment style may lead to feelings of anger or jealousy in some people, and passive acceptance for others. It can also result in a child who is filled with insecurity and constantly looking to fill the void left by inattentive parents. People with this anxious-preoccupied attachment style tend to need their partners to rescue them, or they may need their partners to make them feel complete. Even though they are constantly looking for safety and stability, their behavior often yields the opposite effect. To make sure their partner is always around, they may become clingy and overly dependent, which can serve to drive the partner away.

  3. Dismissive Avoidant Attachment: People who fall within the category of an avoidant attachment style deliberately distance themselves from their partners emotionally. They prefer being isolated and not relying on anyone. They are very independent and can be dismissive of the idea of needing anyone. They often choose to remain detached and unemotional.

  4. Fearful Avoidant Attachment: People in this category, which is sometimes called disorganized attachment, live in limbo. They may be scared of getting too close to someone, but they may also be scared of becoming too distant and being alone. This leads to an unpredictable and reactive emotional state, and their relationships tend to be overly dramatic and erratic.

Ambivalent Attachment Concerns

An ambivalent attachment is a type of insecure attachment. According to attachment theory, it’s characterized by a child’s feelings of preoccupation and anxiety regarding their caregiver’s availability and typically results from inconsistent responses from the caregiver. In contrast, a child with a secure attachment style doesn’t have the same anxiety and preoccupation because they know their caregiver is consistently there to provide them with the love, attention, and affection they need.

An ambivalent attachment is sometimes referred to as an anxious-ambivalent attachment, insecure-ambivalent attachment, or anxious attachment.

Children who grow up in ambivalent homes tend to feel extremely emotional. Those with an ambivalent attachment have difficulty being alone and struggle with a fear of abandonment. Children and adults with an anxious-ambivalent attachment tend to be clingy when they are in relationships, often to the extent that their partner may have problems with it. These individuals may also become insecure in their friendships.

Although those with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style want intimate relationships and yearn for increased intimacy at all times, they may struggle to form these types of relationships as a result of their insecurities. People who have an ambivalent attachment style may be overly concerned about being rejected by others and often seek out support from others when they feel distress. 

Past Relationships Can Influence Future Ones

Individuals who have an ambivalent attachment style are constantly seeking out love and affection but may require proof of these feelings as well. They have difficulty trusting others, and they may even put their relationship in jeopardy because of their constant attempts to get their partner to prove their feelings. People with an ambivalent attachment style or anxious attachment style 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 real or perceived problems. When that happens, it only serves to confirm, in the mind of a child or adult with an ambivalent attachment style, that they were right to be doubtful all along.

Moving Forward

If your upbringing caused you to have an anxious-ambivalent attachment style, you may have gone through life holding on to insecurities and struggling to find unconditional love and acceptance in your relationships—whether it's in your friendships, your romantic partnerships, or even in the workplace. You may not have realized that your lack of a secure attachment style caused many of your relationship struggles.

You may wonder if this means you are doomed to feel unhappy for the rest of your life. A big first step towards healing from anything is understanding there is something to heal. By reading this article or trying to understand your actions, you have taken that first critical step. It is possible to gain attachment security, work through attachment issues, and develop more secure attachments.

Perhaps the best way to develop positive coping strategies for the future is to connect with a therapist who specializes in attachment issues. Often, our attachment styles intersect with other mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Therapy can help you uncover your anxious attachment pattern, identify the way your attachment figures early in life affected your attachment security, and actively work to change your attachment behavior.

If you seek therapy to learn more information about your attachment style or attachment issues to heal your inner child, you may discover that your attachment style and mental health are more closely linked than you realize. A therapist can help you unpack your feelings and attachment behaviors and provide you with valuable insights into your attachment style and its impact on your life. And as you work through these struggles with your anxious attachment pattern, you may learn a lot of unexpected things about your mental health.

Understanding Attachment Theory With Online Therapy

Research shows that online therapy is a useful tool for those dealing with the 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 can 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 can be an effective way of working through attachment issues and experiences 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 due to your insecure attachment, consider connecting with a therapist through BetterHelp. They have licensed professionals who can assist you from the comfort of your own home. You can even participate in counseling completely unidentified. 

Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people who experience 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 enjoyed my sessions with Dr. Anstadt. He helped me see how one issue was affecting multiple aspects of my life. He has greatly improved 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. I cannot express how thankful I am to Dr. I Anstadt!"

Takeaway

People who have had difficult childhoods may grow up craving intimacy, trust, support, and love. It can be difficult for them to get those things, especially when they have a difficult time believing they deserve them. It is not at all unusual for these individuals to sabotage their relationships. By seeking out professional help, 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  your relationships and come to peace with your past. Truly fulfilling relationships are possible—all you need are the right tools to begin the process. Take the first step today.

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