Understanding 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 two types of insecure attachment, ambivalent/anxious and avoidant. The fourth attachment category, known as disorganized attachment, occurs when no organized strategy is formed.
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 from a parent or primary caregiver results in an insecure attachment developing in the relationship with their child. In another article, I discuss how an avoidant attachment pattern develops when parents are cold, emotionally unavailable and distant, and children then try to shut down their awareness of their primary needs. This article will explain how an ambivalent/anxious attachment develops in childhood and goes on to effect individuals in their adult relationships.
What is Ambivalent/Anxious Attachment?
Many parents and/or caregivers are inconsistently attuned to their children. 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. When parents vacillate between these two very different responses, their children become confused and insecure, not knowing what kind of treatment to expect. These children often feel distrustful or suspicious of their parent, but they act clingy and desperate. They learn that the best way to get their needs met is to cling to their attachment figure. These children have an ambivalent/anxious attachment with their unpredictable parent.
What behaviors are associated with an ambivalent/anxious attachment pattern?
Children with ambivalent/anxious attachment pattern tend to cling to their attachment figures and often act desperate for their attention. Mary Ainsworth, who assessed children’s attachment patterns at 12 to 18 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. Yet, these children usually clung to the mother. They 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 ambivalent/anxious attachment pattern develop in children?
A number of factors may contribute to the formation of an ambivalent/anxious attachment pattern between a parent and child. The main factor in a child developing an ambivalent/anxious attachment pattern is inconsistent attunement in the relationship with their primary caregiver.
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 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 tend to be 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 feel overly dependent on 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 often feel desperate and assume the role of the “pursuer” in a relationship. They often have 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 insecure based on the inconsistent availability of their 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 reinforced 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 go through the process of Voice Therapy, which will help them 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