Ambivalent-Insecure Attachment: Definition & 10 Examples

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The ambivalent-insecure attachment style is characterized by a preoccupation with significant others.

They are in a pervasive state of anxiety about the availability of others and the likelihood of forming a deep emotional bond.

This is most likely due to their primary caregiver’s unpredictability. When the child needs comforting, these caregivers will sometimes respond accordingly and be nurturing and caring.

However, on other occasions, the caregiver may be quite insensitive or even show anger and hostility towards the child.

It is this unpredictable nature of the parent’s actions that create deep feelings of apprehension in the child because they never know what to expect. This impacts them throughout their life and into their adult relationships.

Attachment Theory and Ambivalent-Insecure Attachment

Ambivalent-insecure attachment is a subcategory from Bowlby and Ainsworth’s attachment theory. In this theory, they explore ways our independence and confidence are affected from a very early age.

Bowlby believed there were four stages of attachment in early childhood:

  • Pre-attachment
  • Attachment in making
  • Clear-cut attachment
  • Formation of reciprocal relationships

During these early years, depending on the parenting style, children can develop various combinations of secure attachment, insecure attachment, anxious attachment, avoidant attationed, and disorganized attachment.

These attachment styles are believed to follow people through their lives and into their adult relationships.

Today, we’re zooming-in on the ambivalent-insecure attachment style, which is characterized by a preoccupation with significant others.

(Note: ambivalent-insecure is similar to but not the same as anxious-insecure attachment, which has its own traits.)

Ambivalent-Insecure Attachment Style Examples

1. Conflicting Behavior

It is easy to observe examples of the ambivalent attachment style when children are very young, especially as it relates to the primary caregiver (most likely the mother). For example, when the mother has left the child alone, the child will show extreme signs of distress.

This can include loud wailing and emotional fits. When the mother returns, the child’s behavior becomes perplexing.

The child exhibits relief when the mother returns and seeks comforting from her. If the mother does respond with nurturing behavior (this is unpredictable), the child fails to feel soothed and will continue to cry loudly.

At the same time however, they will also exhibit displays of anger and hostility towards the mother, as if they want to punish her for leaving.  

As Cassidy and Berlin (1994) state:

“…during reunion, these babies vacillate abruptly between angry, frustrated resistance to contact, and clinging, dependent, contact-maintaining behavior” (p. 971).

2. Maternal Inconsistency

The actions of the mother during infancy and early childhood provide clues as to the root cause of the ambivalent attachment style. In times of distress, sometimes the mother is very nurturing and caring. However, at other times, they appear to be insensitive and uninterested.

For example, when the baby is in the crib and indicates that it wants maternal attention by crying, sometimes the mother will respond accordingly and engage in soothing behaviors.

Shortly afterward, however, the mother has had enough and puts the child back in its crib. The baby desires more attention, but this time the mother lacks interest and ignores the baby’s calls.

This inconsistency is at the heart of the baby’s ambivalent attachment style and creates an adult that will go to extremes to garner the attention of significant others.

3. Inner Turmoil  

A person with an ambivalent attachment style leads a life of great inner turmoil and conflict. They are often extremely fearful that their partner will leave them. So, they may engage in excessive behavior in an attempt to keep their partner’s romantic involvement.

They become trapped in the need to feel loved and their excessive attempts to maintain a relationship. Often times they recognize the destructiveness of their actions but find it extremely difficult to control themselves.

These conflicting desires create a vicious cycle of contradictory behavior that makes it difficult for their romantic partner to maintain the relationship over the long run.  

Eventually, the partner cannot take it anymore and decides to terminate the relationship. Thus, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy for the individual with the ambivalent attachment style.

4. Lack of Trust in their Partner

Adults with an ambivalent attachment style find it very difficult to trust their partners. This makes perfect sense because they have learned early on that the people they count on will not be there for them.

When it comes to romantic relationships, they may become preoccupied with suspicion. They will often imagine that their partner is having an affair or doesn’t really love them as much as they say.

This can lead to destructive behaviors that are damaging to the relationship. It is very difficult for their partner to convince them that they have sincere feelings for them and want to maintain the relationship. 

5. Moodiness and Tantrums

Because the ambivalent attachment style involves so much inner turmoil and conflicting demands, people trapped in this style will often be quite moody.

They can become easily fearful of abandonment and throw a temper tantrum in an effort of emotional self-regulation; in many ways, being angry is less unpleasant that feeling rejected and unwanted.

People with ambivalent attachment are highly attuned to any slight sign of rejection, either real or imagined. Therefore, they are in a constant state of surveillance and calculation. Misunderstandings are not handled calmly and they may storm out of uncomfortable discussions.

The tumultuous nature of the relationship eventually takes its toll and can make life so difficult for their romantic partner that they must escape.

6. Possessiveness

Another example of the ambivalent attachment style is possessiveness. In both childhood and later in adult relationships, the ambivalent person will be extremely possessive.

In early childhood, they may push other children away if they approach their caregiver. If the caregiver shows any signs of affection towards another child, they may become hostile and state that they do not want their mother to talk to the other child.

Children can be very direct, which offers an opportunity to understand what they are feeling and why. 

In adult relationships, this possessiveness can be very forceful. They may try to manage and control their partner’s time and attempt to choose who they socialize with.

7. Public Displays of Affection

Some individuals with an ambivalent attachment style will try to engage in excessive displays of affection in public. They will often insist on such acts every time a couple goes out in the view of others.

Public displays of affection are acts of physical intimacy that can be observed by others in public places. Specific actions can include holding hands, hugging, or kissing. Of course, whether these behaviors are acceptable or not is very much a function of culture.

In some cases, this is an attempt to establish territory. By holding hands, it lets potential rivals know that their partner is in a relationship. In other cases, it is an attempt to feel reaffirmed that their partner is committed and not interested in others.

8. Enhancement of Appearance

Because they lack inner confidence in their value to romantic partners, some partners may cultivate the idea that enhancing their physical appearance will ensure attraction.

This can lead to a partner spending an inordinate amount of time obsessing over their appearance.

Although every case is different, in some cases, the individual will go through multiple cosmetic procedures. After each treatment or surgery, there is a brief period of satisfaction.

However, because the self-doubts still exist and the fear of abandonment is always lurking in their mind, this satisfaction quickly subsides and is replaced with another treatment.

9. Acts of Physical Intimidation

People with the ambivalent attachment style may seek to retain a relationship in a variety of ways. One method that some engage in involves physical intimidation.

These rivals may be real or the target of suspicion. Because there is a constant fear of losing one’s romantic partner, they become highly sensitive to any sign of dissatisfaction or attraction to others.

This can lead to extreme acts of jealousy including following the partner, monitoring their online activity, or even tracking their movements through the use of software.

Attending social gatherings together can become severely stressful. The person is in a constant state of readiness to catch the flirtations of others and may strike out accordingly.

10. Need for Constant Reassurance

A person with an ambivalent attachment style will need constant reassurance by their partner that they wish to maintain the relationship.

This is mainly due to the fact that they have been trained by their primary caregiver that affection is unpredictable. This creates a constant preoccupation with the status of the relationship.

The ambivalent personality will be aware of even the slightest sign from their partner that they are unhappy.

This sign will not be ignored or put aside as just a minor event. They will confront their partner with their concerns, perhaps multiple times, even after their partner has made every attempt to reassure them that nothing is wrong.

This pattern of behavior can eventually become exhausting and force the partner to leave.   

Conclusion

The ambivalent attachment style is a result of a primary caregiver that sends mixed signals when their child seeks comfort. Sometimes the caregiver responds with affection, but at other times they may ignore the child’s needs or even appear agitated.

This creates a constant feeling of anxiety in the child and they can easily become preoccupied with gaining approval from significant others.

In an adult relationship, this attachment style leads to a pattern of behaviors which the romantic partner finds very difficult to cope with. Their partner may need constant reassurance, be excessively suspicious and jealous, become possessive or maybe even violent towards suspected rivals.

Eventually, the partner of a person with an ambivalent attachment style may become overwhelmed and exhausted and leave the relationship. Thus, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

References

Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A

psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bowlby J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371.

Cassidy, J., & Berlin, L. J. (1994). The insecure/ambivalent pattern of attachment: Theory and research. Child Development, 65(4), 971-991. https://doi.org/10.2307/1131298

Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 51-524. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.52.3.511

Kagan, J. (1997). Temperament and the Reactions to Unfamiliarity. Child Development, 68(1), 139–143. https://doi.org/10.2307/1131931

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