What is ambivalent attachment?

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis
Updated February 28, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Children are born into this world with an intrinsic need for love, affection, and safety from their caregivers. When they get these things, the child may feel a secure attachment to their caregiver. However, when these fundamentals are missing, it may result in early childhood trauma. It may also cause them to have a different attachment style. With ambivalent attachment, a kind of insecure attachment, the child may receive love, affection, and safety, but not in a way that develops healthy relationships. 

You may wonder how how you were treated as a baby can affect you as an adult. You could also wonder why this matters. To answer these questions, let’s examine the ambivalent attachment style to understand how it works.

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Past relationships can influence future ones

What is ambivalent attachment?

When infants or children receive love and affection sporadically from their parents or caregivers in infancy and childhood, it can result in long-lasting challenges. This may include an anxious-ambivalent attachment pattern. When the parent is inconsistent in their behavior and attitude towards a child, they may struggle to understand why love and affection are randomly given or taken away. 

This unpredictability may create fear and confusion because they don't know when they'll receive love or be neglected. They may not feel safe in their environment as securely attached children do, and thus, they can become insecurely attached.

This anxious-ambivalent attachment may follow children as they become adults, and it can show up in their beliefs that love and affection are fleeting and sporadic sentiments. This kind of childhood trauma, which may have prevented them from becoming securely attached to their primary caregiver or attachment figure as a young child, may make them feel anxious, hesitant, nervous, or shy as an adult. They may cry, feel emotional separation from their parents, or be afraid of touch in later romantic relationships.

Children with an ambivalent attachment may believe they’re loved one day and may not be loved the next. As a result, they can develop a fear of abandonment and loss of love. They may desire love, strive for affection, and crave attention, but it can be terrifying if those things are fleeting. They may feel unsafe in their romantic or social relationships since they don't know if their significant other or friend will want them around in a week, a month, or a year. 

These insecure feelings may lead them to look for concerns that may or may not exist, and as time goes on, it can result in an internalization of the contentions and repeated insecure attachment patterns.

A child in this family dynamic may believe they’re the cause. Because they may not see any situational reasons for the change in feelings, it can be easy to believe they did something wrong, that their behavior, personality, or, in some cases, appearance are the cause for their attachment figure’s inconsistent affection. They may become convinced they’re not good enough to receive the love and attention they need, or they’re not adequately communicating their needs. They might grow up having difficulties navigating their relationships with others.

Attachment styles

It has become increasingly evident how significant the early, formative years are for a child.

Raising a child goes beyond providing food and shelter. Attachment parenting patterns offer ways to give love, instill values, and provide boundaries. This can significantly impact how children grow and learn, what kind of adults they can become,  and what kind of relationships they may form.

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

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Secure attachment

Approximately 60% of the population has this attachment style. They may have had a safe childhood where they could rely on their parents to have the courage and confidence to venture out independently. When they grow up, they tend to feel safe in their relationships, connected to their partners, and confident in their love and support. They often feel free and independent.

Ambivalent attachment

Ambivalent attachment – also known as anxious, anxious-ambivalent, or preoccupied attachment – may develop in children who tend to receive love and affection inconsistently or can’t rely on their parents being available. This is also referred to as anxious attachment. 

This insecure attachment style may lead to anger or jealousy in some people and passive acceptance for others. It can also result in a child feeling insecure and looking to fill the void left by inattentive parents. People with this anxious-preoccupied attachment style might feel like they need their partners to rescue them or may believe they need their partners to feel “complete.” 

They may seek safety and stability, but their behavior might yield the opposite effect. They might become clingy and dependent to ensure their partner is always around, which can drive their partner away.

Avoidant attachment

People with an avoidant attachment style – also known as dismissive or anxious-avoidant – may distance themselves from their partners emotionally. They might prefer being isolated and not relying on anyone. They can be independent and dismissive of the idea of needing anyone. They often remain detached and unemotional in romantic and social relationships.

Disorganized attachment 

People with a disorganized attachment style – also known as a fearful-avoidant attachment – may feel like they live in limbo. They may be scared of getting too close to someone, but they may also fear becoming too distant and being alone. This may lead to an unpredictable and reactive emotional state, and their relationships can be erratic.

Ambivalent attachment concerns

Children growing up in ambivalent homes may feel emotional and highly sensitive. They may have difficulty being alone and struggle with a fear of abandonment. Children and adults with anxious-ambivalent attachments can be clingy or insecure in their social and romantic relationships, which may create challenges in maintaining those connections.

People with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style may desire intimate relationships and yearn for increased intimacy but may struggle with these needs because of their insecurities. Additionally, they may be concerned about rejection and seek support from others when distressed. 

They may require proof of love and affection from their friends and partners but struggle with trusting them. This experience might jeopardize those relationships because they may attempt to get others to prove their feelings. People with ambivalent or anxious attachment styles may have relationships breaking down over time from insecurities. If this happens, it can confirm they were right to be doubtful and create a repeating pattern of behavior.

Moving forward

If you feel like you relate to the ambivalent attachment style, you may have spent your life with insecurities around or finding unconditional love and acceptance in your relationships. This may be true whether it's in your friendships, romantic partners, or peers in the workplace.

A big first step towards breaking cycles can be understanding what cycles are present. Reading this article and trying to understand your potential patterns means you’ve already taken the first step. Attachment styles aren’t life sentences, though. 

Many people can work through their attachment styles and develop more secure attachments with themselves and others. Attachment-based therapy may help in addressing attachment disorders. Meditation and non-attachment techniques from a qualified therapist specializing in attachment styles may be beneficial. 

Our attachment styles may intersect with other mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. Therapy can help you uncover your anxious attachment pattern, identify how your attachment figures may have affected your attachment security as a child, address any mental health conditions resulting from these interactions, and actively work through these mental health challenges.

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Past relationships can influence future ones

Understanding attachment theory with online therapy

Research shows that online therapy is a valuable tool for those struggling with the fear of rejection or other emotions that may have arisen from their attachment style. One study found that internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) effectively helped manage feelings of loneliness, 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 dissatisfaction and unhealthy behaviors in a relationship, allowing them to understand the source of feelings of rejection, loneliness, or fear of loss. 

Online therapy can offer an effective way of working through challenges with attachment styles 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 because of insecurities, consider connecting with a therapist through BetterHelp. They have licensed professionals who can assist you from the comfort of your own home. 

Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people who experience similar struggles.

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

Those who have had difficult childhoods may grow up craving intimacy, trust, support, and love. It can be difficult for them to have those needs met, especially when they struggle to believe they deserve them. This can lead to unhealthy relationship patterns that make it more of a challenge to feel deserving of trust and intimacy. 

By seeking out the help of a mental health professional, it can be possible to work through the trauma, insecurity, and fear. With time and effort, you can change how you approach your relationships and make peace with your past. Fulfilling relationships can be possible with the right tools to begin the process. Take the first step.

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