Understanding an ambivalent attachment

Ambivalent attachment is the most common style of attachment I see with my clients. This has led me to believe that’s it’s the one which can cause major issues in everyday life.

It’s how we respond and adapt when we’ve had very inconsistent care growing up, or there were significant changes in our formative years. It can happen so easily, if there is a divorce or separation, a bereavement or any major upheaval at vital times. If our carers were under a lot of stress, or using substances which might have made their behaviour erratic.

Any of these factors mean that it becomes very hard to trust any positive experiences, the fear of loss makes it too hard to invest in things. The pain of our loss can be so great that subconsciously we don’t want to put ourselves in that position again. This inconsistency can have varying impacts on us.

So what does this look like?

Some of the signs to look for are:

  • Extreme indecision, not knowing what choice to make for fear of it being the wrong one. Spending hours/days struggling to make a decision, often just getting stuck or trying to get others to make the decision for us.
  • Mistrusting our own judgement. Once we’ve made a decision, then not being able to fully commit. Constantly worrying if the other one would have been better. Talking about it over and over, going round in circles.
  • Not being able to fully enjoy what’s going on. Having the constant nagging in your head, ‘What are they really thinking about me?’, I’m talking too much/not enough’.
  • Looking for things that are wrong, feeling on edge, not being able to relax & feeling on guard the whole time.
  • If you’ve been out, you’re reflecting on everything you said, worrying that it was the wrong thing. Ringing friends asking for reassurance.
  • Feeling to blame and taking responsibility for everything, ‘It must be me’, ‘everyone turns against me in the end’.
  • Trying too hard to please. Going over the top, offering to do things you later regret, but keep doing them anyway.
  • Never feeling good enough. Judging yourself against others and finding yourself lacking. Not being able to put yourself forward for anything, even though you know logically that you could do it, and even be good at it. Always finding an excuse not to.
  • Having more than your fair share of broken relationships. Feeling unable to fully trust someone, ‘why would they want to be with me?’. ‘It’s only a matter of time before they leave me’. Finding fault with things, even when things are going well. Feeling really uneasy when it is going well, picking an argument. Having some sense that you’re sabotaging things, but not knowing why and not being able to stop.
  • Doing things in the extremes, all or nothing. Going to the gym every day, or not at all. Crash dieting or total indulgence. Being a perfectionist and very particular about the way things need to be done.

All of the above has grown out of uncertainty and control being taken away with painful consequences. The need to be alert for any negative sign means it’s much harder to be present and enjoying the moment. Because you’ve had experiences of your needs being met, when it suddenly changed the loss felt dramatic and very painful.

Knowing where this has come from means we can start to prepare and look after these parts of us. It affects our behaviour without us knowing why. Staying in the moment and learning to enjoy and appreciate little things can be a great re-learning. Experimenting with little choices and decisions, picking one and being curious about what happens, instead of trying to work out if it’s right or wrong. You need to learn to find the middle ground and stay away from extremes, but in a mindful knowing way.

Understanding our own attachment style can be very revealing about why these behaviours happen. Giving us an opportunity to observe ourselves and do something different. Understanding why will help us be more compassionate and empathetic, instead of self-critical. All of these things can change once we understand what’s going on. Consistency is key for this style of attachment, resources that work every time that we can depend upon. Growth and healing starts with little, manageable, consistent steps that we can build on. Don’t aim for the stars, just the first rung on the ladder for now.

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