In ambivalent attachment, difficulty trusting others can create relationship challenges.
By Alex Bachert
Clinically reviewed by Micaela Gonzalez, LMFT●November 29, 2023
Ambivalent attachment is characterized by emotional reactivity, fear of abandonment, and intensively seeking reassurance from loved ones.
During early childhood, people with ambivalent attachment may not have received consistent care, attention, and responsiveness from their caregivers.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and attachment-based therapy are two types of psychotherapy that can help people with insecure attachment styles to build and maintain healthy and meaningful relationships
Attachment theory states that people’s early interactions with caregivers affect how they connect with others as an adult. For some people, this may mean developing an ambivalent attachment style in many, or all, of their relationships throughout their lives.
The word ambivalent is defined as having mixed feelings or conflicting thoughts about someone or something. For someone with ambivalent attachment, it may mean wanting a serious relationship but having trouble trusting other people. If this sounds familiar, know that there are tools and coping mechanisms to help you cultivate healthy, balanced relationships.
What is ambivalent attachment?
Attachment theory focuses on the emotional connection that develops between babies and their caregivers. Attachment theory states that people’s early interactions with their primary caregivers impact their ability to have healthy relationships later in life. The theory suggests that children’s attachment behaviors are part of an evolved behavioral system and that having a secure attachment can help them feel safe, secure, and protected.
According to attachment theory, there are four different attachment styles:
People with a secure attachment style are likely to be emotionally available and trusting of others, while the remaining three attachment styles may impact people’s ability to form and maintain long-lasting and healthy relationships.
The anxious-ambivalent attachment style is characterized by “a child’s experiences of anxiety and preoccupation about their caregiver’s availability, accessibility, and responsiveness during times of distress.”
People with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style, also called ambivalent attachment or anxious attachment, may have received inconsistent care as a child, causing them to feel anxious or uncertain in their relationships as adults. Three defining characteristics of ambivalent attachment style include a fear of abandonment, intensively seeking reassurance, and strong emotional reactions.
Signs of ambivalent attachment
Ambivalent attachment often originates in childhood but symptoms can continue throughout adulthood. People with ambivalent attachment crave love and attention but struggle with fears of rejection and abandonment. Understanding how to recognize the signs of ambivalent attachment can help both children and adults receive the care they need to effectively manage symptoms and heal from past trauma.
Signs of ambivalent attachment in childhood
1. Separation anxiety
Children with ambivalent attachment may become upset or inconsolable when their caregiver leaves. They have trouble regulating negative emotions like anger and worry, and they may struggle to calm down even when their attachment figure returns.
Children with ambivalent attachment have a strong desire for closeness and a fear of rejection. They may come across as clingy or needy because they’re anxious about receiving care and attention.
3. Less curious or interested in others
When children are so fixated on their attachment figure, they may be less likely to interact with strangers or explore their environment. In fact, children with ambivalent attachment are prone to social isolation.
Signs of ambivalent attachment in adulthood
1. Fear of intimacy
Adults with anxious–ambivalent attachment may desire commitment but struggle with creating intimacy in relationships. Even though they want to be close with others, they have trouble opening up.
2. Jealousy and possessiveness
They’re also prone to jealousy, possessiveness, and other unhealthy relationship habits. They may have trouble respecting boundaries and use controlling behaviors, like guilt-tripping, to keep their partner close.
3. Need for ongoing validation
Because of their jealous tendencies, people with an ambivalent attachment style tend to require ongoing reassurance or proof of their partner’s commitment. They associate their self-worth with the relationship, so they may come off as needy or anxious if they don’t feel like they’re being treated well.
What causes ambivalent attachment?
Research shows that children whose caregivers consistently care for their needs tend to be more independent, self-reliant, and securely attached. But when children don’t receive consistent care, it can lead to anxiety, distress, and relationship issues later in life. Folks with ambivalent attachment may not have had caregivers who were always emotionally available or responsive to their needs.
So why does this happen? Sometimes, it results from behavior patterns passed through generations. If a person receives inconsistent attention from their caregivers, this may lead to ambivalent attachment in their own children. Other times, it may be that something is interfering with their caregiver’s ability to offer consistent attention like major life stressors, substance misuse issues, or mental illness.
The effects of ambivalent attachment
Without the proper coping methods, ambivalent attachment can affect people’s mental health and well-being and their ability to meaningfully connect with others. For example, people with anxious ambivalent attachment may struggle with low self-esteem, have difficulty regulating their emotions, and even have an increased risk of mental health issues like depression.
Ambivalent attachment can cause relationship challenges as well, starting with communication struggles. People with this attachment style may have trouble discussing boundaries, navigating conflict, or trusting their partners’ commitment. They’re prone to co-dependency and rely on relationships for their self-worth, yet they may seek additional validation outside the relationship.
Three tips to overcome ambivalent attachment
1. Practice self-awareness
One of the first steps in overcoming symptoms of ambivalent attachment is understanding how it impacts your life. To start, try journaling to help you identify behavior patterns and emotional triggers.
Here are a few questions to consider:
How do you seek validation from your partner?
Have you ever been referred to as clingy?
Do you feel anxious in your relationship, even without reason?
Do you find it challenging to navigate conflict with your partner?
Do you often worry about losing important people in your life?
2. Build secure attachments
Having an ambivalent attachment style can make it difficult to be emotionally vulnerable or trust others. However, there are ways to improve your communication skills and strengthen your relationships.
Healthy relationships start with honest communication, so do your best to openly and honestly share your thoughts, feelings, and needs with your partner. And encourage them to do the same!
Whether it’s a friendship, romance, or work relationship, remember to respect other people’s boundaries and needs.
Try to understand other people’s perspectives, and show them empathy and kindness in return.
3. Seek professional support
Greater self-awareness and meaningful relationships can have a positive impact on your mental health, but some situations require professional support. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one type of psychotherapy that’s used to manage symptoms of insecure attachment styles. CBT helps people to identify and change negative thought patterns, emotions, and behaviors.
Attachment-based therapy is another type of talk therapy that helps people heal from past trauma and focus on developing meaningful relationships moving forward.
Attachment-based therapy might be an effective form of treatment if you:
Struggle with emotional vulnerability
Question your self-worth
Worry about your partner’s level of commitment
Find mental health support with Rula
If a fear of intimacy or constant need for reassurance are interfering with your ability to build meaningful relationships, it might be time to consider mental health support.
Rula’s diverse network of more than 8,000 licensed professionals makes it easy to find a behavioral therapist who understands ambivalent attachment and has experience practicing attachment-based therapy. Plus, Rula takes care of the practical matters, like connecting you with a therapist who accepts your insurance and is currently taking new clients.