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.