Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment Style: It’s the here today gone tomorrow type of attachment.

If you missed the first three topics in the series, I recommend circling back to get a better understanding of The Attachment System, different attachment styles, why they matter, and how they affect us.

This week, we’re going to talk about the Anxious Ambivalent Attachment Style, which is sometimes called preoccupied. 

Here is an overview of attachment dynamics within the Anxious Ambivalent attachment style:

“It’s the here today gone tomorrow type of attachment. The ambivalent type of bonding leads to continual frustration and insecurity in relating that may manifest as feeling incapable of ever being truly loved, or lovable enough. There is an over-focus on the other and an under-focus on the self. And since we learn to abandon ourselves, we feel only external sources of comfort and regulation will work for us if we have an Anxious Ambivalent attachment style.”

So, how does this start? 

Certain caregiver patterns that we’re exposed to in childhood may begin to develop an anxious ambivalent style of relating. Some of those patterns include: inconsistent guidance, an “on again, off again” presence, and unpredictable responses from our caregivers, guardians, or parents. 

Intermittent reward systems lead children to develop an obsessive focus on their parents. A child’s attempt to connect might look like crying, showing-off, or throwing a tantrum because children don’t know how to verbalize their feelings and emotions.  Instead, they act them out.  When the parents are already stressed, their emotional overwhelm can lead to them having short tempers, frustrations, and agitations when their children act-out their needs.

This isn’t necessarily intentional abuse, and sometimes it just happens. Caregivers dealing with their own unresolved attachment wounds inadvertently pass them on to their children. It could be mental health issues, family or cultural issues, a tragedy, chronic illness, or other adverse experiences that caused the parents to be inconsistent in their responses to their child.  A number of different circumstances can lead to the Anxious Ambivalent attachment style.

Adults with an ambivalent attachment style can sometimes be demanding in relationships and this is due to an over-focus on the other person and an under-focus on the self. They may have difficulty with self-esteem, and look outside themselves (External Locus of Control) as a way to recognize their own value.  Self-regulation can be really difficult for Anxious Ambivalent types. They’re more likely to need another person to feel calm and settled. The Anxious Ambivalent person can sometimes end a relationship too soon, almost preemptively. If they believe their partner is going to abandon them and leave anyway, they might as well nip it in the bud and end it themselves before being abandoned or rejected. On the flip side, an Anxious Ambivalent type might cling to an unhealthy relationship for far too long, out of fear of being alone. 

They may communicate to their partner through complaints, a focus on what’s missing in their relationship, or they might not recognize when caring behaviors and loving attention is present. Anxious Ambivalent types need reassurance to build trust and to be able to receive compassion and love that is extended to them. Inconsistency and unpredictability is a predominant aspect that underlies this attachment adaptation. Love is there. Love is not. When it was “on again, off again” in childhood, it becomes difficult to trust in adulthood.

In the 1950s, when regulations were very different than they are today, the Hope Float Study was conducted that helps explain this behavior.  Researchers placed a rat in a bucket of water and observed what happened. The rat began to tread water, and after approximately 15 minutes, the rat gave up and started to sink. That’s when the researchers pulled the rat out of the water, dried it off, and gave it some time to rest. Then, they placed the rat back in the bucket of water. This time, they were astounded at what they discovered. The second time, the rat swam and treaded water for 60 hours, or two and a half days. That’s an astounding 240% increase in how long the rat swam before giving up. Researchers believed the initial rescue after 15 minutes tapped-into an inherent sense of hope that humans and many animals have.  The second time, the rat was hopeful enough that it would be rescued that it perpetuated a highly adverse situation for far longer than it would have otherwise.

This and similar studies have taught us a lot about intermittent rewards, especially in childhood, and how they can result in dynamics that can lead to undesirable behaviors in adulthood, such as addiction, obsession, or staying in abusive relationships with a toxic boss, a toxic partner, or a manipulative and controlling group for far too long.

One of the deepest fears of the Anxious Ambivalent type is abandonment. The irony here is that once you’re cut off from yourself and you’re over-focusing on another person while under-focusing on yourself.  By definition, that’s self-abandonment. The individual is actually abandoning themself out of an overwhelming fear of being abandoned by another person. This is the trap of the Anxious Ambivalent attachment style. 

Another element of this attachment style is finding it okay to want, long for, or yearn for something, but they can’t allow themselves to have, to receive and to take in the love, the care, or the appreciation that’s in front of them.  Even when abundantly present, they can’t seem to hold on to positive and nurturing feelings for very long.

In the last video, I talked about the Avoidant Attachment Style, which is kind of opposite.  Avoidants are dismissive of others, and they have an over-focus on the self, while Anxious Ambivalents over-focus on others and dismiss themselves.  When an Anxious Ambivalent gets into a relationship with an Avoidant, the relationship might look like the merging of a “narcissist” and an “empath.” One may get labeled as the “narcissist” and the other one may get labeled the “empath” when it may not be true narcissism or true empathy. It may really be an attachment wound combined with coping mechanisms on the part of both people in the relationship.  It’s important to be more cognizant about how terms are thrown around, especially potentially harmful labels such as “narcissist” and “empath,” because we’re not always seeing what we think we’re seeing. 

The Anxious Ambivalent attachment wound, like any other attachment wound, is healed in relationship.  I recommend seeking help from a therapist who understands attachment wounds. Working on consistency, developing an Internal Locus of Control, focusing more on Self and less on others, and learning to receive love when it’s present will benefit Anxious Ambivalent types.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email me at [email protected].  

For additional resources on different attachment styles, learn more about The Attachment System

💜About Jennifer💜

I’m Jennifer Whitacre, trauma specialist, empowerment strategist and shadow guide, and I help people strengthen their internal relationships through a process of SELF discovery. I guide and support my clients through the transformative process of developing SELF presence so they can shift from rigidity, reactiveness, and chaos into more flexibility, responsiveness, and connectedness.

People who are able to make this internal shift find they have more agency, decisions aren’t as difficult, they have more emotional stamina to deal with life’s ups and downs; and they have much higher levels of empathy and understanding for themselves and others.

The process is similar and unique for each client. Healing the invisible wounds inflicted from past trauma requires that we become familiar with non-verbal communication. That’s because the subconscious mind communicates non-verbally and unconsciously, the opposite kind of communication valued by the conscious mind. By understanding our own subconscious minds, the two minds become coherent and our lives naturally become more integrated.

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This blog is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat or diagnose. Reading this blog does not create a practitioner/client relationship with Jennifer Whitacre or with Jennifer Whitacre LLC. If you find this information to be relevant to you, you are encouraged to connect with a licensed mental health care professional. If you are interested in becoming a client of Jennifer Whitacre LLC, please connect by visiting:

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