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Ambivalent Attachment Style: 15 Signs, Causes & How It Affects Relationships

What is Ambivalent Attachment

An infant’s ambivalent attachment style, also known as an anxious-ambivalent attachment or insecure-resistant attachment style, is a pattern of contradictory behaviors that the child uses to seek closeness to their caregiver for safety and emotional needs. 

This insecure style of attachment with a primary caregiver is characterized by the infant being extremely distressed when their caregiver leaves for a short period but, paradoxically, resisting them when they return.​1​

boy hugs father on one side man hugs woman on the other side

Attachment & attachment theory

Attachment is the strong connection babies form with their primary caregivers. Evolutionarily, humans adapt to different kinds of caregiving and environments for survival.

The Attachment Theory, proposed by British psychiatrist John Bowlby, suggests that infants use different attention-seeking behaviors, called attachment styles, to stay close to their parents.

Infants usually display one of four patterns of attachment toward their caregivers:

  1. Secure attachment style
  2. Avoidant attachment style
  3. Ambivalent attachment style
  4. Disorganized attachment style

The last three attachments are insecure attachment styles.

During the attachment process, infants form mental models that represent how they view themselves and their relationships.

Different parenting styles, therefore, lead to different internal working models and attachment patterns in children.

The parent-child interactions and the resulting type of attachment lay the foundation for a child to form close relationships.​2​

Securely attached infants usually have caregivers who are responsive to their needs. Insecure attachment style, however, develops in response to inconsistent, overbearing, abusive, or unresponsive parenting.​3​

Ambivalent attachment in the strange situation

Ambivalent attachment is not a common style of attachment. Only 7-15% of the American population are found to be ambivalent-attached.​2​

Ambivalent infants usually have parents who are inconsistent in their responses to their young children.

Developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth invented the Strange Situation experiment to categorize the different attachment style types.

In the experiment, securely attached babies confidently explore their environment in their parents’ presence. They use the parents as a secure base to explore and a safe haven to retreat.

Ambivalent babies, on the other hand, are preoccupied with gaining their caregivers’ attention. They explore their environment less freely.

The parent’s absence causes the infant extreme distress, but the parent’s return does not relieve the distress.

In the reunion, they show ambivalent patterns of switching abruptly between resisting contact and clinging to maintain contact.

These babies use emotional behaviors to attract the attention of caregivers. They realize they cannot rely on their parents to provide comfort.​4​

A man holding a crying baby.

What causes ambivalent attachment

Being able to depend on an attachment figure during childhood is important for child development and healthy relationships throughout life. Ambivalent attachment styles are thought to develop from receiving inconsistent parenting. Parents either aren’t responsive to the children’s needs or don’t meet them consistently.

This pattern is found among the four attachment styles in children whose parents are the least responsive and interact the least.

Infants find these parents unavailable or unpredictable. Since they are unsure how their parents will respond to their needs, they may act out in ways that will catch their parents’ attention. 

Very often, the parents are anxious parents preoccupied with their own needs and thoughts and might not be fully present with their children.​5​

Characteristics in children

Here are some signs of anxious-ambivalent children:

  1. Express distress, fear, and anger toward the attachment figure.​6​
  2. Have a lower threshold for distress.
  3. Their easily activated stress response system interferes with their ability to explore new environments.
  4. Show more overt fear and less confidence.
  5. Have impulsive or helpless ambivalent attachment behaviors.7​
  6. Strong desire to please their parents.​8​
  7. More mental health problems, including anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and depressive symptoms.​9​

Ambivalent attachment in adults

In adulthood, ambivalent attachment is also called the preoccupied attachment style.

The quality of a parent-child relationship in the early years can significantly impact how people approach relationships.

Some studies show that the findings of early life attachments may apply to romantic relationships in adulthood.​10​

An ambivalent adult shows a variety of ambivalent patterns in their interactions. The characteristics of ambivalent adults include:

  1. They want to get closer and form an emotional attachment to their romantic partner than the partner would like.
  2. The obsession to be with their romantic partners could seem too stifling and frighten them away.
  3. A constant fear of abandonment and an ingrained worry that their partner does not love them and will leave them.​11​
  4. Need constant reassurance from the partner.
  5. They are more anxious and hostile than secure people.​12​
  6. Have a more negative and untrusting view of society and humanity as a whole.​13​
  7. Hypervigilantly deal with anxiety by forming dependent and clinging relationships that amplify their distress.​14​
  8. More prone to develop PTSD symptoms (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) from childhood trauma.​15​

Final thoughts

The childhood attachment pattern may seem to weigh heavily on adult life, but this does not have to be the case. 

An insecure ambivalent attachment system can be changed given secure and loving adult relationships in later life. People with attachment issues can also overcome attachment difficulties with the help of mental health professionals. 

Understanding and processing early childhood experiences is essential in overcoming insecure attachment styles, be it avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized attachment.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Is ambivalent attachment style the same as anxious attachment pattern?

Ambivalent and anxious attachment styles tend to be used interchangeably because ambivalent babies are anxious to know the whereabouts of their parental figures.
Sometimes, an ambivalent attachment pattern is also referred to as anxious ambivalent attachment.


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