Anxious Ambivalent Attachment: An Overview

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Anxious ambivalent attachment is characterized by a distrust of a person with whom you are in aclose relationship with, and is associated with mental health challenges, such as depression and low self-esteem.

This attachment style is associated with early childhood experiences where your caregiver showed inconsistent emotional availability and responsiveness toward you.

Anxious Ambivalent Attachment and Attachment Theory

Anxious ambivalent attachment derives from attachment theory, a framework first put forth by psychiatrist John Bowlby. The idea behind attachment theory is that children are born with a deep need to become securely attached to their caregivers.

Psychologist Mary Ainsworth expanded on this theory, coming up with three attachment styles; researchers Main and Solomon added a fourth attachment style to the list.

These four attachment styles include:

  1. Secure attachment
  2. Ambivalent attachment
  3. Avoidant attachment
  4. Disordered attachment

Attachment theory hypothesizes that any attachment besides secure attachment can cause lifelong impacts. Children who experience insecure attachment, including anxious ambivalent attachment, may develop psychological issues and have trouble forming secure and healthy relationships later in life.

Causes of Anxious Ambivalent Attachment

Experiences in early childhood with your parents or caretakers cause anxious ambivalent attachment.

Anxious attachment results when your caregivers are not consistent in their responsiveness and availability with you, leading to feelings of confusion, distrust, anxiety, and ambivalence. People raised this way may desire closeness to their caretakers and distance themselves from them.

Other characteristics of early childhood relationships characterized by anxious ambivalent attachment include:

  • Caregivers who didn’t respond to your needs
  • Caregivers who were not emotionally available
  • Feeling like you always had to “earn” love from your caregivers
  • Caregivers who didn’t respond to you consistently or were “hot and cold”

Characteristics of Anxious Ambivalent Attachment

People who experienced anxious ambivalent attachment growing up often end up having trouble forming intimate relationships, and may also experience mental health challenges related to their insecure attachments.

Let’s take a deeper look at how these characteristics manifest.

How Does Anxious Ambivalent Attachment Affect Relationships?

In a nutshell, being raised this way can make you feel like others can’t be trusted, and you may have a hard time committing to a relationship.

Research has found that people who grew up with fairly secure attachments are more likely to be in gratifying and committed relationships while dating and during marriage. Their relationships are less likely to be rife with conflict as well. Additionally, their relationships are more likely to last and are less likely to result in divorce.

Some studies have also found links between anxious ambivalent attachment and emotional dysregulation and psychological aggression in relationships. Other studies have noted that people who are anxiously attached are more likely to experience relationship dissatisfaction.

A 2015 study found that people who experience anxious attachment more commonly experience jealousy when they feel distrust towards their significant other. They are also more likely to snoop through their significant others’ things, and have an increased propensity to exhibit abusive behavior.

How Anxious Ambivalent Attachment Affects Mental Health

People who experience anxious ambivalent attachment have an increased risk of experiencing mental health difficulties like depression, low self-esteem, and emotional dysregulation.

On the other hand, research has found that securely attached people are less likely to experience signs of depression, are more likely to experience confidence, and are better able to handle stressful events that come up in life.

A 2014 study found a link between attachment insecurity and an increased likelihood of developing a negative body image and symptoms of an eating disorder.

Other research has found links between attachment insecurities and various mental health conditions such as:

  • Depression
  • Clinical anxiety
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Personality disorders (histrionic and borderline)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Suicidal ideation

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

How to Overcome Anxious Ambivalent Attachment

If you were raised by a caregiver who did not provide secure and reliable attachment and was inconsistent regarding emotional support, you are not alone. But you should also know that the mental health effects of being raised this way are manageable.

The first step in overcoming anxious ambivalent attachment is to recognize the problem. Simply reading about the phenomenon and seeking help is wonderful and can be therapeutic in and of itself. After this, making a point to surround yourself with supportive individuals, emotionally available, and good sources of secure attachment can work wonders for your healing.

Talk therapy has been studied as a way of working through anxious ambivalent attachment. In particular, certain types of therapy are effective in managing insecure attachment.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

In cognitive behavioral therapy, you become more aware of your thoughts and feelings and how they affect your mental well-being. Studies have found that short-term. CBT is a positive way to address insecure attachment and may be particularly helpful in people who experience insecure attachment along with panic disorder.

Interpersonal Therapy

Interpersonal therapy is a type of therapy that focuses on your close relationships and how they impact your mental health. This type of therapy shows promise in treating anxious ambivalent attachment disorders.

A 2017 study found that depressed teenagers who experienced attachment anxiety and avoidance saw their symptoms significantly decrease after being treated with interpersonal therapy for 16 weeks.

Group Therapy

Group therapy is a type of therapy facilitated by a mental health professional, where participants share their feelings and struggle with other group members with similar mental health challenges.

A 2013 study found that group therapy can be helpful for people with attachment anxiety. In particular, the study looked at people who experience adverse self-perception, trouble with emotional regulation and unhealthy relationships with others.

How Do I Help My Partner With Ambivalent Attachment?

Having a partner who deals with anxious ambivalent attachment can be challenging. It’s important to remember that this likely stemmed from when your partner was a child when life was out of their control. That said, if your partner is exhibiting harmful behavior or is having trouble committing to your relationship, it’s not something you have to simply “put up with.” It doesn't do you any good to let unhealthy behaviors slide.

You can’t change your partner, but you can encourage them to grow and mature. One thing you can do is to be consistent in your responsiveness to them and show them what secure attachment looks like. But you can’t do it alone. Consider encouraging your partner to seek therapy. You can show them the research showing that therapy is an effective way of tackling attachment issues.

If you and your partner continue to struggle, you may consider couples counseling. Research has found that couples therapy is an effective way to manage attachment issues and can lead to more secure and satisfying relationships.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.