As our readers may remember, we are doing a series on attachment styles. However, if you are reading our blog for the first time, I will do a little bit of review of what attachment styles are, and why knowing yours vital to your adult relationships.
John Bowlby and Attachment Theory
John Bowlby was a psychoanalyst who lived in Britain and spent his life observing infants separated from their caregivers (from now on I will refer to the caregiver as a mother although caregiver can mean any other adult who is at the center of a child’s life).
His research centered around trying to understand the distress experienced by very young children upon separation from their mothers. He also studied the lengths to which these babies would resort to prevent separation from their mother or to reestablish being close to her when she had been gone.
Bowlby’s research revealed that the same expressions and behaviors of human infants were found in a variety of mammals and thought that these behaviors serve an evolutionary function. Bowlby postulated that what was he was observing were attachment behaviors and that they were adaptive. He believed these behaviors were to prevent separation from the mother who provides support and protection to infants who were helpless and dependent on her for life.
Mary Ainsworth, The Strange Situation and Attachment Styles
Although Bowlby’s attachment theory was strong, when his colleague Mary Ainsworth, a Psychologist, began working by his side, the theory took on a new life.
Ainsworth developed a laboratory experiment called the Strange Situation. With this new technique, Ainsworth studied infants in several different scenarios where infants of different types of mothering styles were separated from their moms and then reunited.
Mary Ainsworth and her students focused on the way the children behaved when their mothers returned into the room. They systematically separated 12-month-old children from their parents, and to Ainsworth’s fascination, she found some impressive results.
In the strange situation experiment, about 60% of the children behaved the way Bowlby had predicted. They responded by greeting their mothers with tears and were easily comforted by them after a few minutes of holding.
To these children, she gave the title securely attached.
About 20% of the children Ainsworth experimented with behaved as though they were uncomfortable being with mom but showed extremely distressed responses upon mother leaving the room. However, what caught Ainsworth’s eye the most was what happened when mom returned.
Upon mom’s return, these infants had a tough time accepting soothing and exhibited conflicting behaviors of wanting comfort but also wanting to punish mom for leaving.
Ainsworth gave these children the title of anxious/ambivalent attachment.
A third pattern emerged in Mary Ainsworth’s experiments in 20% of the children she examined. These children do not appear to be distressed by their mother leaving them and actively avoided her when she returned. Instead, they would turn their attention away from mom to play with objects on the laboratory floor.
These children Ainsworth labeled with avoidant attachment style.
In 1986, another psychologist Mary Main working with Judith Solomon gave a new understanding to the odd behavior of the children Mary Ainsworth had examined had exhibited.
While children are hardwired to seek protection from mom, if she was the source of the alarm herself, they are left trying to deal with a quandary. If the mother was frightening, to whom do they turn when they are afraid?
The two researchers, working beside Erik Hesse, realized that these children were caught up in an evolutionary paradox. They need their mother for protection, but she herself is a source of danger. So, the children develop what the researchers called a disorganized attachment style.
The Root Cause of Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment Style
Children whose mothers are out of tune with the physical and emotional needs of their infants create children who form anxious attachment styles. The moms of these kids are inconsistent in how they react and respond to the needs of their babies.
The mother may exhibit times when she is paying close attention to her child, but then turn around and ignore their attempts to get the mother to interact with them. There is a constant “come here,” “go away” scenario given to the child by the mother.
For instance, the baby awakens from her nap and cries to be picked up. Her mother picks her up and soothes her but soon after lies the baby back down in her crib. The infant decides she wants more time with mom and cries once more, but this time her cries go unheard. Mom is nearby, but she is ignoring the calls from her child to interact.
In another case, the mother will play with her infant, but when the baby tries to interact with her mom again, the mother either ignores her or places her in her crib.
This infant soon learns that the mother is interested in her some of the time, but she cannot rely on mom to respond to her needs for interactions. The baby is left not knowing if her essential needs like food and safety will be met.
When these children grow older, they often will go to extremes trying to win their mother’s attention.
How Do Those with Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment Style See Themselves?
The turmoil of having an anxious/ambivalent attachment style is in some ways worse than those these folks have in their relationship with others. The internal conflicts involving panic that a partner will leave them and fighting to contain the behaviors that ensue from that panic are horrendous.
They have an inner conflict going on all the time. Trapped in anxiety, the person often does things that are excessive in the presence of other people and come across as demanding and clingy. They find themselves trapped between wanting independence and having difficulty completing tasks alone.
In the absence of constant reassurance, people with this attachment style find they are lack motivation to form an independent life outside of their relationships with others. They find themselves caught between desperately wanting intimacy and responding inappropriately when someone offers it to them.
The behaviors mentioned above leave the person with this type of attachment style feeling ashamed and alone. They are often overwhelmed with the fear that they will be left without a partner but are terrified to commit.
How Does Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment Style Affect Adult Relationships with Partners?
Adults who have an anxious/ambivalent attachment style often rely on others to help them regulate their emotions. When they do find a relationship, they can feel intense emotions such as rejection, abandonment or anger because their partner does not live up to their preconceived notions of how they should behave.
These adults feel highly attuned to any move that they think hints at their partner is leaving. This attunement causes them to behave in ways that they feel will make their partner care for them such as using guilt or blame to make their partner submit to their will. They will argue with their partner because being angry feels better to them than their fear of no connection at all.
Their preoccupation with forcing their partner into reacting, even when their fears of abandonment are unfounded, can push their love away becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Signs of Someone with Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment Style
There are many signs that you or someone you love is exhibiting this difficult to handle attachment style. Here is a general list of these signals as outlined in an article on the Life Advancer website:
- Needs constant reassurance that they are loved.
- Feels insecure within the relationship.
- Is always worried that they are going to be rejected.
- Always preoccupied with the relationship.
- Thinks their partner is going to abandon them.
- Displays clingy behavior like constant public displays of affection.
- Very needy and childlike in their affections.
- Has very poor personal boundaries.
- Spends much time worrying about what the other person wants.
- Cannot understand why their partner might need personal space.
- Is always bringing up past family issues of rejection.
- Moody and hard to deal with, highly emotional, often storms out and has tantrums.
- Takes offense at the slightest little thing and blows it out of proportion.
- Takes the partner’s behavior too personally.
- Communicates through arguing or conflict, will wind their partner up.
- Always blames others, takes no responsibility.
- If they do not get the love, they need they are more likely to be unfaithful to their partner.
- They will quickly change from feeling strongly in love to craving independence.
- Ways they trap people in a relationship
As if the above list were not bad enough, those with an anxious attachment style want to spend 24 hours a day with their partner and check up on them when they are away. They also exhibit extreme jealousy when their love goes out on their own with friends and will see their partner’s acquaintances as rivals.
Mate Retention Behavior
The greatest fear those with anxious/ambivalent attachment styles have is that their partner will cheat on them. Any sign, however small or unreal, will make them change to keep their partner. This set of behaviors is called mate retention behavior and are different for each gender.
Men who fear their partner may leave them will do many of the following retention behaviors:
- Show obvious signs of possession
- Constantly observe their partners behavior
- Punish a partner’s infidelity threat, real or imaginary
- Monopolize their partner’s time
- Become and exhibit signs of jealousy
- Exhibit signs of being emotionally and manipulate their commitments
- Take derogatory action against their partner
- Commit violence against rivals real or imaginary
- Become submissive and debased
Women who fear abandonment from their partners may show the following retention behaviors:
- Enhance their appearance, sometimes going to extremes
- Make extreme displays of affection toward their partners
- Become overtly sexual in their behaviors toward their partners
- Show caring behaviors sometimes going to extremes
It is not hard to see that being in a relationship with someone with an anxious/ambivalent attachment style would be extremely difficult. It would be nearly impossible to have a life outside your relationship with that person, and their behaviors could border on bizarre.
The Unfortunate Passing of Attachment Behaviors from Generation to Generation
There is research that shows that children of parent(s) who exhibit an anxious/ambivalent attachment style will inevitably use that same style when raising their children. Many parents with this type of attachment experience powerful emotional hunger toward their kids, as though they are trying to fill the gap left from their childhoods.
This behavior means that a mother who was raised by an anxious and ambivalent mother will often try to live their lives vicariously through their children. They become insensitive and intrusive confusing their emotional hunger for what it means to show genuine love for their kids.
If the children who are raised by anxious/ambivalent parents do not break the cycle and learn to parent themselves, they will pass down to yet another generation this attachment style. This means learning how to be one’s own mother and is can be a difficult process.
Ways to Change From Anxious/Ambivalent to Secure Attachment Style
Although therapists and theorists once believed that your attachment style becomes set and unchangeable in infancy, we now know differently.
Thankfully, the brain and the mind are plastic, that is, they are changeable in their abilities through learning new skills.
.Like with any life change, the first step is understanding that your style of attachment is not the only kind there is and that it may not be the most desirable. Learning about the fact that there is such a thing as a secure attachment style usually kicks off the quest for creating a better life for oneself.
You can begin by exploring and getting to know your critical inner voice that you filter how you see the world and others. This inner voice is the language we use internally to describe our relationships and how we interact socially with others.
Our inner voice controls our behavior by causing us to project treatment we received in our past onto people who are in our lives today. Once we understand how this inner voice colors our perception of ourselves and others we can begin to take steps to change what it is saying.
There are two primary ways of changing what your inner voice is telling you.
One, create a cohesive narrative. This process requires writing down what you remember of your childhood and trying to see how those events shaped how you experience life today. By writing out a cohesive narrative, you are rewiring your brain by cultivating within yourself a deeper understanding of where your unhealthy attachment style began. By doing this, you learn to feel self-compassion that will spill over into your relationships with others as well.
Two, enter psychotherapy. By attending therapy sessions, you will have help dealing with the emotional landmines that may lie waiting for you to discover. The therapist will help you challenge the messages of your critical inner voice and give you and help in replacing them with healthy ones. A therapist will also help you explore your history and reinforce the fact that you as a little child deserved the treatment that was full of compassion and love.
A psychotherapist may wish to perform both a cohesive narrative and therapy with you. This combination is a powerful tool to recreate your attachment style and gain healthy relationships both within yourself and with others.
There is no one single way to change your attachment style. It requires much inner thought and insight to find what will work best for you.
It Is Never Too Late
No human being can ever truthfully say they have a perfect life without any personality conflicts. We are all flawed, and that is what makes humanity beautiful. Learning to change an anxious/ambivalent attachment style and leave behind the chaos it brings will take time, but it will be worth it.
The bottom line is this. It is never too late to remake yourself. No matter how old you get, there is always room to seek out flaws, improve them and have better relationships.
We hope you are enjoying this series of articles on attachment styles. Please, be sure to check out the articles on Secure and Avoidant attachment styles and watch out for next week’s article on disorganized attachment.
My name is Shirley Davis and I am a freelance writer with over 40-years- experience writing short stories and poetry. Living as I do among the corn and bean fields of Illinois (USA), working from home using the Internet has become the best way to communicate with the world. My interests are wide and varied. I love any kind of science and read several research papers per week to satisfy my curiosity. I have earned an Associate Degree in Psychology and enjoy writing books on the subjects that most interest me.
Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment Style: After a serious breakup with my lady friend, I couldn’t understand all the crap that was going on ; (“What I call, between my ear’s). I reached out to a local company that have Area Mental Health Services. I currently am a client of theirs. In my life throughout the years of college, courses with psychology, sociology, mental health course, I never thought that I have an anxious/ambivalent attachment style. And this scare’s the crap out of me. I have been going through counseling, reading information, using a book on Dialectic Behavioral Therapy. So after reading this article it show’s many characteristic’s that I have. I really want this to change. I do not want this, and the only way that I can change is to do the homework. I have loved and lost, and it has really screwed my way of thinking, and cost me some serious relationships, not knowing what / why it was happening.
Your information is and will be a great asset to me.
Thank you for your information.
I am so glad you were helped by this article. That makes it worth writing. We wish you all the best!
Excellent article! Thank you for this. It was very through and informative.
Thank you. I appreciate your kind comment. Shirley Davis
This has helped me a lot in understanding myself as a person. I didn’t have the greatest relationship with my mother as an infant as she would love me but then also choose her abusive boyfriend over me and it eventually got so bad that social services got involved and I was taken away. I guess the difficult relationship, trauma and being torn away from my mother brought me to this. 14 years later and I still exhibit all of these signs and find it hard to stop what I’m doing. I have a best friend and she has severe depression along with many other mental illnesses and I hate myself when I find myself getting angry and jealous when she even so much as pays the slightest more attention to someone other than me. And it’s horrible because I can’t stop myself from getting angry and lashing out at her for the smallest of things. Lets say she dismissed my question, my mind instantly turns into “oh, she doesn’t like me anymore. Thats it.” And it’s defensive mode all over again. It’s been like this for years and it hurts her and I don’t want to keep doing that. I feel disgusted to know that I’m causing her pain but at the same time it also makes me happy to see her upset at my action…I don’t know…because it shows she cares? Or maybe it’s more the satisfaction at getting back at someone who I feel has hurt me? It’s gotten to the point where I start to feel hatred and jealousy watching her getting along with her family, I guess because I never had that and still don’t. My whole demeanour changes if I just pick up on one little movements that makes me believe she’s going to leave and it’s really not okay. But I thank you for writing this as it’s help me understand the condition more and my behaviour to people. I don’t want to be like this anymore and should probably get some help :”)
I’m grateful I could help in some small way you to understand yourself better. Shirley
Hi! I could have sworn I’ve been to this website before but after browsing through some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Nonetheless, I’m definitely delighted I found it and I’ll be book-marking and checking back often!
Thank you! Shirley
Hi I have always known I’ve had attachment issues from my mum emotionally neglecting me and I ticked pretty much every box there. I have known it was ambivalent but it’s a relief that I am not the only one and by having other things out there really emphasises that I’m not. I’m far more stable then I used to be but it still gets to me especially this hunger. It’s like I’m desperate to be a mum but I know it’s for the wrong reason, to have my needs met but I know it will destroy my kids life as it has pretty much destroyed mine. I have promised myself to break the cycle and I will not have my child feeling like I have. I think the worst thing with my mum is she will not admit and take responsibility I understand why just I need closure and not blame like I have my whole life. Thank you ever so much for putting this on it will help a lot of peopl
Hey Shirley I have a question. With this form of attachment style, is it common to create situations of having been victimized, such as stating a person has been robbed, hurt, or has car troubles, that in actuality are not supported by any evidence?
What you are describing is mythomania now called fictitious disorder. It usually comes from extreme trauma in childhood. I’m not certain if this style fits but most likely it does. One thing to remember is the things that are made up by someone like you describe are real to them. In their mind they truly happened. Thank you for reading our blog! Shirley
Thank you for the reply Shirley. I was thinking perhaps it was related to Munchhausen syndrome. Not the technical definition however but more so a milder form like malingering for factious disorder.
The person in question put bruises on her arm and told her son that someone did it to her just as a test to see if he cared about her. He was 6 at the time. She told me about it, and said that she had lied and knew that it wasn’t true but manipulated the situation to get a emotional reaction from him. Later she sent me a picture of her hand that looked crushed, and told me that the window fell on it at home. I played along, and was honestly taken aback by it, however I believe that she deliberately smashed her own hand in the window as vinyl windows wouldn’t don’t necessarily fall so hard that they break fingers and rip off finger nails. It was told to me in a mater of fact way, not in a dramatic way. I was wondering if this could be a coping mechanism of sorts to seek protection and care from someone in an indirect but manipulative way without it being Mythomania?
Interesting article, I always felt I were Avoidant. However my therapist says I’m Ambivalent, I’m confused as I go towards another for validation, feel not good enough, if another person really knew me, argue with partner if I feel they are pulling away. However I pull away when I feel emotionally intimate as I feel trapped with high anxiety/ panic attacks
Is that really Ambivalent attachment?
I am not a mental health professional, but yes, it sounds like it. However, it is something you can change and I hope you keep working with your therapist. Shirley
Hi! I am a Mental Health Professional in route! I’m a Grad Student for Clinical Social Work from Simmons School of Social Work. I will not tell you that your therapist is right or wrong. I strongly believe that building a good, healthy rapport with trust is about connection and understanding. Ask yourself these following questions Bernie: 1) Who told you that you are an avoidant relatable individual? 2) Is this a self-perception through research? 3) Someone told you this? 4) What sounds convincing of it? 5) Have you discussed this with your therapist? 6) Are you seeking validation to prove a point or are you looking for understanding? 7) Are you in-tuned with the definition of this attachment? 8) What is it that you are trying to prove and to whom?
These questions are super important because you don’t need to agree with your therapist but, you need to communicate. Expressing doubts do not make you defiant but, looking for a second opinion seems like “lack of trust” and a lot of individuals with Ambivalent relational behaviors tend to manifest these set of cognitive processes. You receive but, you do not accept. You seek answers but, also need validation for X. That’s normal and is a tough process.
Are you aware that Ambivalent is just another work for “anxious” and “resistant”? You just proved your therapist’s point accurate. I only wish for you a lot of success and a fast recovery. I hope your panic attacks reduce in time and you find the peace that you need in your life.
Thank you for your reply. I’m sure it was very helpful to the person you were answering. Shirley
Thank you for this article, I always remind myself that the first step to changing is awareness and education. I definitely exhibit these characteristics, but I always considered my relationship with my mother to be pretty good. However, my father showed ambivalence toward me. Can attachment issues with the father have the same effect, or is this exclusively with the mother?
Absolutely. Attachment style comes from all caregivers. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Shirley
Oh yes! Attachment styles develop with ANY caregiver. This is why the literature has modeling towards “caregivers” and no longer the word “mother” or “father” or even “parents”. The word caregiver stands for foster parents, adoptive grandparents or just grandparents, even surrogate mothers that claim the child to be theirs.
This new development in the caregiver…. research is finally paying attention to this word, and is actually amplifying the way attachment styles develop and why the disorganized style is not the end of research.
You know? What about the kids in custody of the State, that are incarcerated? Many of our incarcerated youth in the USA has been “given out”, “released” by their parents/caregivers to the State! It is amazing that our youth is so resilient and so strong block this trauma, compartmentalize, and they still think they have caregivers instead of understanding that their correctional institution has become the real “Caregiver”… yes, it is sad, tragic and traumatic. But I strongly believe, research will continue. If not by others, by me 🙂
Be well, be strong, be resilient my friends.
I feel very identified with this behavior. I feel like I checked most of the things on this list, but the thing is I don’t remember having a bad relationship with my mom in my childhood. Me, my dad and my mom were very close when I was younger. Then, when I was 14 my dad died and that made me and my mom become even closer.
She is definitely an anxious person in general, but her relationship with me has always been loving. So, are there other factors that may contribute to the development of this type of attachment style?
Thank you for the article by the way. It was hard to read because it hit home very closely but it was very informative as well.
Your dad died before the age of 15 which is a crucial age for personality development. That event may have been the catalyst for your attachment style. Thank you for reading and commenting. Shirley Davis
I have an anxious ambivalent attachment style too, and also grew up in a loving household with a fantastic mom. In my childhood household of 3, my grandma (mom’s mom) died when I was 11, and my mom and I grew closer together in our grief.
Maybe a parental figure dying in our early adolescence has something to do with it. Hence the fear of abandonment.
It could be. You would need to consult a mental health professional to know for sure. Thank you for commenting. Shirley
Me to a T, past childhood trauma/abuse that was never resolved kept me at an childlike emotional level my whole life. It just blew up with someone that I had a long term relationship with, I sabotaged it on purpose because I latched on to her emotionally.
This information is spot on. I’m in therapy with my husband and this is my attachment style. We have two beautiful baby boys and I need to change so they don’t acquire this attachment style as well. This was very helpful; thank you for helping people from your desk between the corn and bean stalks. I truly appreciate it.
Do you have articles on the other attachment styles? My husband is avoidant and more information would be so helpful for our progress.
Thank you for your comment and I’m glad I could help. There is an article on Avoidant attachment style on this site. Here is the link.
Thank you so so much!
I’m interested in your books as well, do they have anything to do with attachment style or are they on another topic?
My books are mainly on dissociative identity disorder so I do not believe they touch on attachment styles. But thank you for your interest. Shirley
Could I get a link to your other blogs on attachment? This is well written and gives me some info I need.
I’m sorry I don’t have a list of attachment style blogs. However, if you put attachment style blogs into a search engine you should find what you need. Thanks for reading this blog! Shirley
Amazing article! Thank you… for the shared understanding.. for the hope given to us by your words too
Thank you for your comment. It made my day. Shirley
This article has been like a breakthrough for me. The list of signs of someone with anxious ambivalent attachment issues is me to a tee. I dont really remember having a bad relationship with my mother or father, but I do remember being like 10 years old and getting excruciating stomach aches from anxiety whenever my mom would go to work because she would leave me and my sister alone at home alone in the summer. They got so bad I had to go to the hospital to see what was wrong. I’ve always had attachment issues to her and now its affecting my relationships. Right now im dating this guy that i really like and i notice that my mood is constantly based on if ive seen him that day, or if hes said something nice and reassuring. And when those things dont happen, or he doesnt text me for a while, even though there are plausible explanations, my mood drastically changes, and I get so upset, to the point where its just not normal and i know i have a problem, so i just wanted to thank you for writing this.
You are so welcome. I hope you feel much better soon. Seek out support so you can get some peace and hold on to your relationships. Shirley
I’m working on my attachment style. I would like to recommend people who wish to get to secure space in their life. Seek out a therapist who can help you. Most therapists are covered through your insurance. I have a great one who was trained in this area. So you don’t have to spend lots of money on private people unless that works for you. I hate to see people not be able to heal because of cost. Interview a few of them and if you believe in God pray about it. He will lead you to the right one as he did for me. I couldn’t have been happier about my choice to heal. Great article it was helpful I can’t wait to see what direction my counselor will have me go in to heal.