Home / Attachment / Understanding Anxious Attachment — Part 1: Ambivalent/Anxious Attachment

Understanding Anxious Attachment — Part 1: Ambivalent/Anxious Attachment

anxious ambivalent attachmentUnderstanding Anxious Attachment

Human beings are born with strong survival instincts. One of the strongest is based on an infant’s inability to survive on its own and its complete dependence on an adult for nurturance and protection. Babies have an innate drive to make sure that they get their basic needs met by a parent, caregiver or other significant person in their life. Different children develop different strategies for accomplishing this depending on the emotional environment and the kind of care available to them. Attachment theory is the study of this primitive instinct and researchers have organized the various strategies into four categories of attachment patterns: secure attachment and three types of insecure attachment, avoidant/anxious, ambivalent/anxious and disorganized.

Attachment researchers have identified attunement as being significant in the formation of an attachment. Attunement means being in harmony; being aware of and responsive to another. Emotional attunement involves being in harmony first with oneself, then with another and finally with circumstances. Attunement and attachment are related in that an adult, who is available, attuned and responsive to a child’s needs, beginning in infancy, establishes a secure attachment for that child.  This attunement creates a strong foundation from which that child can explore the world.

A lack of attunement or misattunement causes children to develop insecure attachment strategies. The previous article examines the avoidant/anxious attachment pattern that comes about when parents are cold, emotionally unavailable and distant, and children then try to shut down their primary needs. The following article will explain the disorganized attachment pattern, known as ambivalent/anxious attachment, adopted by children with physically and emotionally abusive parents.

What is Ambivalent/Anxious Attachment?

When parents or caregivers interact with their children in ways that are inconsistent and unpredictable, the children develop ambivalent/anxious attachment patterns. Attachment researchers describe the behavior of these adults, noting how at times they are nurturing, attuned and respond effectively to their child’s distress, while at other times they are intrusive, insensitive or emotionally unavailable. For example, they can be neglectful and then later try to make up for it by being overindulgent. When parents vacillate between two very different responses, their children become confused and distrustful, not knowing what kind of treatment to expect.

What behaviors are associated with an ambivalent/anxious attachment pattern?

Children with ambivalent/anxious attachment patterns exist in a state of being suspicious and distrustful while at the same time acting clingy and desperate. They tend to focus intensely on their parent and are hyper-vigilant regarding the parent’s availability or unavailability. They vacillate between over-dependent clinging and angry rejection of their parent or caregiver.

Mary Ainsworth, who assessed children’s attachment patterns at 12 to18 months, noted that when the children with ambivalent/anxious attachment were reunited with their mothers, they were confused, dazed or agitated; staring off into space and avoiding direct eye contact with her. They alternated between clinging to her and squirming away. At times, they actively resisted their mother’s comforting gestures or physically pushed her away. Others remained intensely focused on their mother, but did not seem to be satisfied or comforted. The narrow focus and limited responses of these children prevented any further play or exploratory behavior.

How does an anxious attachment pattern develop in children?

A number of factors contribute to the formation of an ambivalent/anxious attachment pattern between parent and child, including the child’s temperament, marital satisfaction of the parents, family support, the mother’s education and the consistency of a parent’s availability.

Studies have shown that the quality of the relationship between the parents plays a central role in the transmission of specific attachment patterns from one generation to the next. Therefore, a child imitates the ambivalent/anxious attachment strategies of their parent. In addition, research has also found that parents’ child-rearing practices tend to reflect the specific attachment pattern they developed as children with their parents. Thus, parents who grew up with an ambivalent/anxious attachment are inconsistent in how they relate to their children, which their children react to by forming their own ambivalent/anxious attachment patterns.

Many of these parents and caregivers, due to the unreliable and inconsistent parenting they received, experience powerful feelings of desperation and emotional hunger toward their child. They act in ways that are insensitive and intrusive when they confuse emotional hunger with genuine love for their child.  In Compassionate Child-Rearing, Robert Firestone describes how parents mistake their feelings of longing and the desire to get love from their child for actual love and concern for the child’s wellbeing. These parents can be over-protective, or try to live vicariously through their child, or be focused on their child’s appearance and performance. They often overstep the personal boundaries of their children by touching them excessively and by invading their privacy.

How does an ambivalent/anxious attachment manifest in adulthood? 

Children who have an ambivalent/anxious attachment often grow up to have preoccupied attachment patterns. As adults, they are self-critical and insecure. They seek approval and reassurance from others, yet this never relieves their self-doubt. In their relationships, deep-seated feelings that they are going to be rejected make them worried and not trusting. This drives them to act clingy and overly dependent with their partner. These people’s lives are not balanced: their insecurity leaves them turned against themselves and emotionally desperate in their relationships.

Adults with preoccupied attachment patterns are usually self-critical, insecure and desperate, often assuming the role of the “pursuer” in a relationship. They possess positive views of other people, especially their parents and their partner, and generally have a negative view of themselves. They rely heavily on their partner to validate their self-worth. Because they grew up distrustful of their inconsistent, unavailable caregivers, they are “rejection-sensitive.” They anticipate rejection or abandonment and look for signs that their partner is losing interest.

These people are often driven to engage in pre-emptive strategies in an attempt to avoid being rejected. However, their excessive dependency, demands and possessiveness tend to backfire and precipitate the very abandonment that they fear. Attachment theorists and researchers Shaver and Clark, (1994), have observed that “preoccupied” partners appear to be “perpetually vigilant and somewhat histrionic.”  They feel resentful and angry when their partner doesn’t provide the attention and reassurance they feel they need. They often believe that unless they dramatically express their anxiety and anger, it is unlikely that the other person will respond to them. Many of those with preoccupied attachments are reluctant to express their angry feelings toward a partner for fear of potential loss or rejection. When they try to suppress their anger, their behavior tends to vacillate between outbursts of anger and pleas for forgiveness and support. In some cases, the fears and anxieties can lead to more serious emotional disturbances, such as depression.

How are patterns of attachment supported by the critical inner voice?

The pessimistic beliefs and expectations associated with adult attachment patterns are regulated by destructive thoughts or critical inner voices about oneself, others, and the world in general. These critical voices strongly influence a person’s style of relating in an intimate relationship. People with a preoccupied adult attachment have “voices” that support their beliefs that the world is an emotionally unreliable place filled with uncertainty and the potential loss of those they love. Examples of their voice attacks are, “It’s obvious that he/she is losing interest in you.” “Why isn’t he/she more affectionate?”  “He/she always has an excuse for not wanting to make love.” “You’re so needy and dependent. No wonder she(he) doesn’t like you.” “He/she doesn’t love you as much as you love him/her.”

How can a person transform an anxious attachment into a secure one?

Fortunately, a person’s style of attachment can be revised through new experiences, through interacting with a partner who has a history of being securely attached and through psychotherapy. Another effective way to develop secure attachment in adulthood is by making sense of one’s story. According to Dr. Dan Siegel, attachment research demonstrates that “the best predictor of a child’s security of attachment is not what happened to his parents as children, but rather how his parents made sense of those childhood experiences.” The key to “making sense” of one’s life experiences is to write a coherent narrative, which helps them understand how their childhood experiences are still affecting them in their life today. In PsychAlive’s online course with Drs. Dan Siegel and Lisa Firestone, they will walk individuals through the process of creating a coherent narrative to help them to build healthier, more secure attachments and strengthen their own personal sense of emotional resilience.When one creates a coherent narrative, they actually rewire their brain to cultivate more security within themselves and their relationships.

In couples’ therapy, both partners can identify and challenge the critical inner voices that promote expectations of rejection and that fuel their feelings of anger. In their sessions, partners can “give away,” that is, expose their self-criticisms as well as their hostile, cynical attitudes toward the other person. Generally speaking, in an effective couples’ therapy, both partners expose and challenge their critical inner voices and come to understand the source of their destructive thoughts and attitudes in the context of their earliest attachments.  This approach provides the impetus for exploring new, more positive ways of relating, and frees people to experience genuine loving feelings and real security in their intimate relationships.

To learn more about how to write a coherent narrative and develop an earned secure attachment, join Dr. Lisa Firestone and Dr. Daniel Siegel for the online course “Making Sense of Your Life: Understanding Your Past to Liberate Your Present and Empower Your Future.”

Read Part 2 of this article Understanding Anxious/Avoidant Attachment

Read about how to Change Your Attachment Style to Have a Better Life

Read about How Your Attachment Style Impacts Your Relationship


  1. I’m really confused about the part of this entry discussing what adults with this attachment style can do to become secure because a person would have to be married to attend couples counseling, and the odds of being married to a secure adult are at best 1 in 4 (based on the four styles, and this guess is highly inaccurate). I don’t think this suggestion appreciates how difficult it is to be and remain attractive to adults within one’s age group when they have this attachment challenge. It is enormously difficult to do without faking, and faking security is a great way to put a death wish on the relationship. I’m certain none of this is news; isn’t there some other way to suggest recovering from this style of attaching for those of us who are single and would like to work toward developing a new style in order to date from a more secure place? Psychotherapy is an easy answer to suggest, but whats frustrating about that is how meaningless it is. If you have a heart problem, it’s recommended you see a cardiologist and that doctor will put you on a science based protocol. In therapy, there are no promises.

    • Joyce Catlett, M.A.

      Please see the next article to be posted soon on Avoidant/Anxious Attachment. I hope to provide some suggestions that might be useful for people who are not currently in therapy or counseling and who may not be in a relationship with a person who has a secure attachment style. Thanks for asking this question. Joyce

  2. I believe this to be extremely important. In fact, it’s crucial to learn more about it. I am going to bring this to my next therapy session.

  3. Hi!
    I teach sped preschool and have concerns about one of my students possibly having an attachment disorder of some kind. Is there a resource I can use that would give more specific behaviors to watch for- perhaps in a structured setting like a classroom?

    • Joyce Catlett, M.A.

      Hi Brittney, Try reading Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell. Mary is a preschool teacher. also Louis Cozolono’s Attachment based teaching; Creating the Tribal Classroom W.W. Norton. Thanks for writing. Joyce

  4. I have read a few articles on this site about style of attachment and the Anxiety Attachment unequivocally describes me. This is THE best explanation and description of why I am the way I am that I’ve come across. I am involved with someone at the moment who has lied to me in the past. We have only been together for a matter of months. I have become progressively needy and clingy convinced he is losing interest and pursuing someone else. I did recognize I was headed for disaster so have toned it down dramatically. He swings between being incredibly supportive emotionally to unavailable emotionally. I am trying to concentrate more on myself – running after him less. I am hoping he feels closer to me for me giving him some reasonable space but if it phases out, at least till then I am busy working on me so I wont fall apart if it ends. I really have some major work to do on myself. It is overwhelming.

    • Lisa,
      I am in your exact same boat.. I have only just realized I have this problem and battling to give my partner the fresh air he needs. But Everyday I am trying harder than before.
      Stay positive

    • Hi there, please consider the possibility you are attached to an Avoidant person. This is the worst thing for an Anxious person as Avoidant people actually send you mixed messages, they draw you in and then push you away – which triggers your Anxious attachment system. They actually play a part in your instability. Imagine standing on a bridge that is constantly shivvering – you can’t feel stable! And that’s how attaching to an Avoidant (inconsistent) person is. It’s not just you! I really recommend the book Attached (http://www.attachedthebook.com) – you will learn so much not only about your style, but also the style of your partner, and also how to effectively communicate your needs. I’m learning so much and just wanted to pass this on before you go blaming yourself entirely 🙂

  5. Hi, my grandson has Ambivalent attachment disorder and Is now living with me as his mother has mental health issues and they really clash.. he seems a lot happier with me but I know nothing about his disorder and I’ve asked his camhs worker for info on it but as of yet she hasn’t bothered.are there any books, website where I can learn more and how to help him…
    Thank you

    • PsychAlive

      Thank you for your question. We highly recommend you (and your daughter, if she is open to the idea) sign up for our parenting eCourse. We dedicate an entire week of the course to developing secure attachment. You can learn more about the course here. Dr. Dan Siegel’s book Parenting from the Inside Out is also a helpful resource.

  6. In this article it says the avoidant attachment is disorhanised. I thought that type A and C were organised attachement styles in that they are adaptive to getting attachment But still insecure. And that type D is disorganised . Have I miss understood? Can you have avoidant organised and avoidant dosorganised? I’m trying to write an Eassey an getting a by confused.
    Any help would be appreciated.


  7. I am confused by the last part of the first section of the article. You write “the disorganized attachment pattern, known as ambivalent/anxious attachment”. Few lines earlier you mention these two as different types of attachment. (I believe Naomi s comment points to the same problem.) Is it a mistake?


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