We all approach relationships differently, and as much as we might want to deny it, much of our approach can come down to our earliest experiences with caregivers and, subsequently, our attachment style.
There are four primary attachment styles, with three of them falling under the umbrella of insecure attachment. One of those three is ambivalent attachment, also known as anxious attachment or anxious-ambivalent attachment.
Here's what to know about the ambivalent attachment style—from why it happens to signs and how to heal, according to family and relationship experts.
What is the ambivalent attachment style?
"Ambivalent" is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone," and that's essentially what you get with an ambivalent attachment style.
According to somatic psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist Holly Richmond, Ph.D., LMFT, a child develops an ambivalent attachment style when they find from an early age that they cannot truly rely on their caregivers emotionally. This results in relationship difficulties down the line, she says, wherein those insecurities around trust and emotional support and connection keep rearing their heads.
In short, people with an ambivalent attachment style have a deep need for love and attention, coupled with a deep (and potentially even deeper) fear of abandonment and rejection—and as you might imagine, these contradictory impulses don't make relationships very easy.
The four attachment styles.
Attachment theory was first introduced by psychologist Mary Ainsworth and psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1950s. The theory is centered around the belief (and today, research) that the relationships we have with our earliest caregivers result in particular outcomes, depending on the kind of care we received.
Those outcomes? The four different attachment styles, which describe the specific patterns and behaviors we commonly see take place in relationships. Here's a quick look at each:
- Secure attachment: Caregivers were consistent and emotionally available, resulting in a secure attachment style. Secure attachment is characterized by the ability to form secure relationships with ease, romantic or otherwise.
- Anxious attachment: Caregivers were inconsistent in their affections, resulting in an anxious attachment style, also known as ambivalent attachment in kids. Ambivalent attachment is characterized by insecurity and fear of abandonment that manifests as clingy or needy behavior, among other things.
- Avoidant attachment: Caregivers were not emotionally available and/or dismissive, resulting in an avoidant attachment style. Avoidant attachment is characterized by emotional unavailability as a result of mistrust and hyper-independence.
- Fearful-avoidant attachment: A combination of anxious and avoidant attachment styles, fearful-avoidant attachment (aka "disorganized" attachment) usually results from experiencing a caregiver who is frightening or traumatizing. With this attachment style, there is both fear and a lack of trust when it comes to forging close connections, despite a desire to have them and experience safety.
What causes ambivalent attachment in children?
As aforementioned, ambivalent attachment is one of the three insecure attachment styles (along with avoidant and fearful-avoidant). And experts agree, children who form ambivalent attachment styles likely had parents who were not consistently available for love and support, resulting in a fear of abandonment, rejection, and/or low self-esteem.
As clinical psychologist Bobbi Wegner, Psy.D., previously told mbg, this could look like a parent being loving and available one moment, and the next, they're not meeting basic needs for love, security, or attention. "This leaves a child not knowing what to expect and hungry for attention and connection," she explains.
Psychologist Debra Campbell, Ph.D., also notes that despite wanting that connection and attention, children with this attachment style will struggle, because "childhood relationships may have taught them to deeply distrust closeness to others—that those you love and depend upon can be emotionally unpredictable, even abusive."
Types of ambivalent attachment style.
It's worth noting that there is some nuance within ambivalent attachment styles. For one thing, according to Richmond, these attachment styles aren't black-and-white and should be thought of as more of a spectrum, particularly when it comes to how behaviors and patterns manifest.
To that end, there's something called "ambivalent passive" attachment style, and then there's "ambivalent resistant" attachment style.
As relationship therapist Ken Page, LCSW, explains, with an ambivalent resistant attachment style, children become upset and/or emotional when their caregiver isn't present, including feeling intense anger or anxiety. They may engage in attention-seeking behaviors, and then when their caregiver does become available again, he explains, "they may become angry or even withdraw" because they don't know how to actually accept that love and attention.
With an ambivalent passive attachment style, on the other hand, the child may appear much more independent on the surface—seemingly unbothered by their parents' lack of love and connection. But the truth is, Richmond explains, they do actually crave that connection deeply; they're just stifling it because they've effectively given up hope that they can have their needs met.
7 signs of an ambivalent attachment style:
One telltale sign of an ambivalent attachment style is so-called neediness or "clinginess" in relationships. Nothing wrong with wanting a little reassurance from your partner once in a while, but according to Richmond, the attention-seeking behaviors seen in children with this attachment style carry into adulthood as well.
Overwhelmed by close connections
Despite their efforts to cling, ironically enough, Richmond notes that those with an ambivalent attachment style can actually be overwhelmed when they do receive love because they're so accustomed to the opposite. Thinking back to the aforementioned point about ambivalent passive attachment, these people can wind up feeling far too vulnerable when they're shown love, only to crave it once more after they've pushed it away.
Relationship fears are easily triggered
There's a reason ambivalent attachment is also called anxious attachment—there's a lot of anxiety involved. As holistic psychologist Nicole Lippman-Barile, Ph.D., previously explained to mbg, something as simple as a partner taking longer than usual to text back can trigger a host of fears about the entire relationship.
Any perceived distance is a catastrophic problem
People with an ambivalent attachment style will be very uncomfortable with any perceived distance (literal or emotional) within the relationship because they don't feel they can trust anything in the long term. As Wegner notes, "When an anxious person does not know what to expect in terms of your relationship, this creates a lot of insecurity for the person."
Because folks with this attachment style are so easily triggered, they often require constant reassurance, validation, and approval. Because they have a hard time believing things will work out, they will cling in a multitude of ways, according to Wegner.
Fear is one of the primary drivers of this attachment style, and it's not uncommon to see ambivalently attached people act out in self-sabotaging ways that can actually push their partners away. To that end, they're ultimately confirming their worst fears: that they're unlovable and will never have their needs met. As Cambell previously wrote for mbg, "Insecure or ambivalent attachment styles lend themselves to self-defeating patterns of trying to love while defending a heart that feels vulnerable."
Feeling threatened by a partner's independence
Lastly, Wegner notes, being uncomfortable with your partner's independence is another big tell of an ambivalent attachment style. "This can come in the form of a partner going out with friends, connecting with others, or being unavailable because of work or family commitments," she explains.
And speaking of independent partners, now might be a good time to mention that the actions of someone with an ambivalent attachment style "tend to attract avoidant styles—which confirms their fears of abandonment and rejection," according to Lippman-Barile.
How the ambivalent attachment style affects adult relationships.
As a child with an ambivalent attachment style grows up, they may likely experience some difficulty around forging close relationships, including both romantic ones and even friendships. Of course, this depends on the severity of their early emotional wounds, as well as how aware the person is of their own patterns, but generally speaking, relationships just may not come as easily compared to someone with a secure attachment style.
As Richmond explains, the fear of rejection and subsequent heartbreak can be very confusing when all these people really want is to experience loving relationships. And as Page adds, they will often feel very insecure when it comes to the emotional safety and availability of their partner.
"They tend to want deeper interactions and report finding that the people around them don’t want or need that kind of depth with the same intensity," he notes.
How to help a child develop a secure attachment style.
While it's somewhat inevitable that we may unintentionally inflict some emotional wounds on our children, there are certainly things that can be done to help ensure your child grows up with a secure attachment style.
For one thing, according to Page, attention heals. "Caring attention heals in a profound way. Every parent can practice being present to their child in deeper ways, and it's also important that we make space to help our child understand and validate the reasons for their ambivalence," he explains.
Whether that means prompting them to share what's bothering them, making space for all their emotions, or being consistent with your affection, the idea is that you are there for them—and they know it. Consistency is really what's key.
And according to Richmond, checking your own attachment style can have a profound impact, too. She notes that children with an ambivalent attachment style often had parents who themselves were anxious, avoidant, or a combination of both. To that end, children can only go off of what we model for them, so as a parent, getting to a place of secure attachment within yourself would certainly be helpful.
How to heal from an ambivalent attachment style.
Healing an ambivalent attachment style and reaching a place of security can be particularly confusing, especially if you're doing this work while trying to navigate an existing romantic relationship. After all, you may not even be sure what a loving relationship really looks like—and it could overwhelm you when you do get it. As such, Richmond says, it's going to take some soul searching to figure out what your standards really are and noticing when your old hardwiring is playing out.
Learn to sit with the uncomfortable feelings and fear that creep up when you're triggered, she suggests, adding that when you start to notice these patterns more and more, you can make the conscious choice to let yourself be vulnerable and open. "And then it becomes a practice," she adds.
And speaking of fears, Page also notes that it's really important "not to just pathologize ambivalent attachment styles and assume that our perceptions are incorrect." As he explains, "Even if we know that we have an ambivalent attachment style, we should still honor and dignify our feelings. In most cases we are feeling something real, even if we are exaggerating or misinterpreting it."
To that end, he says, the task is still the same: "To understand, with compassion and care, why we are feeling the way we feel, to give that feeling space and understanding, and to be able to communicate with our partner to work things through."
As you work to uncover the conditioning that's led to your ambivalent attachment style, it can also be valuable to work with an individual or couples' therapist. There are also a number of attachment books and online resources for improving attachment styles—like our guide to developing a secure attachment style.
What is an example of ambivalent attachment?
In a child, ambivalent attachment can look like throwing a tantrum, crying, or other attention-seeking behaviors when the child receives inconsistent attention from a caregiver. In adulthood, ambivalent attachment can look like clinging to relationships (or acting out) due to fear of abandonment and rejection, as well as low self-esteem.
What are the four types of attachment style?
The four attachment styles are secure attachment, anxious (aka ambivalent) attachment, avoidant attachment, and fearful-avoidant (aka disorganized) attachment.
What parenting style causes ambivalent attachment?
Ambivalent attachment styles typically result from children who experienced caregivers in their earliest years who were inconsistent in their affection, emotional availability, and care. This creates a dynamic of not knowing what to expect from caregivers and, subsequently, not trusting them—or others.
Are ambivalent attachment and anxious attachment the same thing?
Yes. In the field of attachment theory, "ambivalent attachment" and "anxious attachment" describe the same behavioral pattern, characterized by fear of abandonment, relationship anxiety, and craving intimacy and connection. Ambivalent attachment is more often used to describe attachment patterns in children, whereas anxious attachment describes the pattern as it manifests in adulthood.
The bottom line is, our attachment styles are heavily determined by our earliest experiences with caregivers—for better or worse. The good news is, if you're struggling with an ambivalent attachment style, you can reach a place of security with some conscious introspection and a willingness to approach relationships differently.
And remember, as Page tells mbg, "On some level, ambivalent attachment is part of the human condition. Love gets taken from us. People die. Relationships end or change. Betrayals can happen. All of these experiences can trigger the deepest human pain—and so it makes perfect sense that we would be afraid to commit fully, to love deeply, to surrender, compromise, and share our deepest vulnerability."
TL;DR? Give yourself some grace as you learn to unlearn these mental patterns.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.