What is anxious ambivalent attachment

How Attachment Styles Affect Adult Relationships

love & friendship

Struggling with relationship problems? The cause may be the attachment style you developed with your primary caregiver as an infant. Here’s how to recognize insecure attachment and build stronger, healthier connections.

What is attachment?

Attachment, or the attachment bond, is the emotional connection you formed as an infant with your primary caregiver—probably your mother. According to attachment theory, pioneered by British psychiatrist John Bowlby and American psychologist Mary Ainsworth, the quality of the bonding you experienced during this first relationship often determines how well you relate to other people and respond to intimacy throughout life.

If your primary caretaker made you feel safe and understood as an infant, if they were able to respond to your cries and accurately interpret your changing physical and emotional needs, then you likely developed a successful, secure attachment. As an adult, that usually translates to being self-confident, trusting, and hopeful, with an ability to healthily manage conflict, respond to intimacy, and navigate the ups and downs of romantic relationships.

If you experienced confusing, frightening, or inconsistent emotional communication during infancy, though, if your caregiver was unable to consistently comfort you or respond to your needs, you’re more likely to have experienced an unsuccessful or insecure attachment. Infants with insecure attachment often grow into adults who have difficulty understanding their own emotions and the feelings of others, limiting their ability to build or maintain stable relationships. They may find it difficult to connect to others, shy away from intimacy, or be too clingy, fearful, or anxious in a relationship.

Of course, experiences that occur between infancy and adulthood can also impact and shape our relationships. However, the infant brain is so profoundly influenced by the attachment bond, understanding your attachment style can offer vital clues as to why you may be having problems in your adult relationships. Perhaps you behave in puzzling or self-destructive ways when you’re in a close relationship? Maybe you repeatedly make the same mistakes over and over? Or maybe you struggle to form meaningful connections in the first place?

[Read: What is Secure Attachment and Bonding?]

Whatever your specific relationship problems, it’s important to know that your brain remains capable of change throughout life. By identifying your attachment style, you can learn to challenge your insecurities, develop a more securely attached way of relating to others, and build stronger, healthier, and more fulfilling relationships.

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Attachment styles and how they shape adult relationships

Attachment styles or types are characterized by the behavior exhibited within a relationship, especially when that relationship is threatened. For example, someone with a secure attachment style may be able to share their feelings openly and seek support when faced with relationship problems. Those with insecure attachment styles, on the other hand, may tend to become needy or clingy in their closest relationships, behave in selfish or manipulative ways when feeling vulnerable, or simply shy away from intimacy altogether.

Understanding how your attachment style shapes and influences your intimate relationships can help you make sense of your own behavior, how you perceive your partner, and how you respond to intimacy. Identifying these patterns can then help you clarify what you need in a relationship and the best way to overcome problems.

While attachment styles are largely shaped by the infant-primary caregiver connection, especially during the first year, it’s important to note that the strength of attachment is not based solely on the level of parental love or the quality of care an infant receives. Rather, attachment is founded on the nonverbal emotional communication developed between caregiver and infant.

[Read: Nonverbal Communication and Body Language]

An infant communicates their feelings by sending nonverbal signals such as crying, cooing, or later pointing and smiling. In return, the caregiver reads and interprets these cues, responding to satisfy the child’s need for food, comfort, or affection. When this nonverbal communication is successful, a secure attachment develops.

The success of attachment isn’t impacted by socio-economic factors such as wealth, education, ethnicity, or culture. Neither is having an insecure attachment style as an adult reason to blame all your relationship problems onto your parent. Your personality and intervening experiences during childhood, adolescence, and adult life can also play a role in shaping your attachment style.

Types of attachment

Beyond categorizing attachment as secure or insecure, there are subsets of insecure attachment which give us four main attachment styles:

  • Secure attachment
  • Ambivalent (or anxious-preoccupied) attachment
  • Avoidant-dismissive attachment
  • Disorganized attachment

Secure attachment style: what it looks like

Empathetic and able to set appropriate boundaries, people with secure attachment tend to feel safe, stable, and more satisfied in their close relationships. While they don’t fear being on their own, they usually thrive in close, meaningful relationships.

How secure attachment style affects adult relationships

Having a secure attachment style doesn’t mean you’re perfect or you don’t experience relationship problems. But you likely feel secure enough to take responsibility for your own mistakes and failings, and are willing to seek help and support when you need it.

  • You appreciate your own self-worth and you’re able to be yourself in an intimate relationship. You’re comfortable expressing your feelings, hopes, and needs.
  • You find satisfaction in being with others, openly seek support and comfort from your partner, but don’t get overly anxious when the two of you are apart.
  • You’re similarly happy for your partner to rely on you for support.
  • You’re able to maintain your emotional balance and seek healthy ways to manage conflict in a close relationship.
  • When faced with disappointment, setbacks, and misfortune in your relationships as well as other parts of your life, you’re resilient enough to bounce back.

Primary caregiver relationship

As someone with a secure attachment style, it’s likely your primary caretaker was able to stay engaged with you as an infant and effectively manage their own stress as well as calm and soothe you when you were distressed. They made you feel safe and secure, communicated through emotion, and responded to your changing needs on a regular basis, enabling your nervous system to become “securely attached.”

Of course, no parent or caregiver is perfect and no one can be fully present and attentive to an infant 24 hours a day. In fact, that’s not necessary to establish secure attachment in a child. But when your caregiver missed your nonverbal cues, it’s likely they continued trying to figure out what you needed, keeping the secure attachment process on track.

The strong foundation of a secure attachment bond enabled you as a child to be self-confident, trusting, hopeful, and comfortable in the face of conflict.


Secure or insecure?

Some people may identify with some but not all of the characteristics of secure attachment. Even if your relationships tend to be stable, it’s possible that you have specific patterns of behavior or thinking that cause conflict with your partner and need to be actively addressed. Start by seeing if you relate to any aspects of the following three insecure attachment styles.

Ambivalent or anxious-preoccupied attachment style

People with an ambivalent attachment style (also referred to as “anxious-preoccupied,” “ambivalent-anxious,” or simply “anxious attachment”) tend to be overly needy. As the labels suggest, people with this attachment style are often anxious and uncertain, lacking in self-esteem. They crave emotional intimacy but worry that others don’t want to be with them.

How ambivalent attachment style affects adult relationships

If you have an ambivalent or anxious-preoccupied attachment style, you may be embarrassed about being too clingy or your constant need for love and attention. Or you may feel worn down by fear and anxiety about whether your partner really loves you.

  • You want to be in a relationship and crave feelings of closeness and intimacy with a significant other, but you struggle to feel that you can trust or fully rely on your partner.
  • Being in an intimate relationship tends to take over your life and you become overly fixated on the other person.
  • You may find it difficult to observe boundaries, viewing space between you as a threat, something that can provoke panic, anger, or fear that your partner no longer wants you.
  • A lot of your sense of self-worth rests on how you feel you’re being treated in the relationship and you tend to overreact to any perceived threats to the relationship.
  • You feel anxious or jealous when away from your partner and may use guilt, controlling behavior, or other manipulative tactics to keep them close.
  • You need constant reassurance and lots of attention from your partner.
  • Others may criticize you for being too needy or clingy and you may struggle to maintain close relationships.

Primary caregiver relationship

It’s likely your parent or primary caregiver was inconsistent in their parenting style, sometimes engaged and responsive to your needs as an infant, other times unavailable or distracted. This inconsistency may have left you feeling anxious and uncertain about whether your needs in this “first” relationship would be met, and thus provide a model for your behavior in later relationships.

Avoidant-dismissive attachment style

Adults with an avoidant-dismissive insecure attachment style are the opposite of those who are ambivalent or anxious-preoccupied. Instead of craving intimacy, they’re so wary of closeness they try to avoid emotional connection with others. They’d rather not rely on others, or have others rely on them.

How avoidant attachment style affects adult relationships

As someone with an avoidant-dismissive attachment style, you tend to find it difficult to tolerate emotional intimacy. You value your independence and freedom to the point where you can feel uncomfortable with, even stifled by, intimacy and closeness in a romantic relationship.

  • You’re an independent person, content to care for yourself and don’t feel you need others.
  • The more someone tries to get close to you or the needier a partner becomes, the more you tend to withdraw.
  • You’re uncomfortable with your emotions and partners often accuse you of being distant and closed off, rigid and intolerant. In return, you accuse them of being too needy.
  • You’re prone to minimize or disregard your partner’s feelings, keep secrets from them, engage in affairs, and even end relationships in order to regain your sense of freedom.
  • You may prefer fleeting, casual relationships to long-term intimate ones, or you seek out partners who are equally independent, ones who’ll keep their distance emotionally.
  • While you may think you don’t need close relationships or intimacy, the truth is we all do. Humans are hardwired for connection and deep down, even someone with an avoidant-dismissive attachment style wants a close meaningful relationship—if only they could overcome their deep-seated fears of intimacy.

Primary caregiver relationship

An avoidant-dismissive attachment style often stems from a parent who was unavailable or rejecting during your infancy. Since your needs were never regularly or predictably met by your caregiver, you were forced to distance yourself emotionally and try to self-soothe. This built a foundation of avoiding intimacy and craving independence in later life—even when that independence and lack of intimacy causes its own distress.

Disorganized/disoriented attachment style

Disorganized/disoriented attachment, also referred to as fearful-avoidant attachment, stems from intense fear, often as a result of childhood trauma, neglect, or abuse. Adults with this style of insecure attachment tend to feel they don’t deserve love or closeness in a relationship.

How disorganized attachment style affects adult relationships

If you have a disorganized attachment style, you’ve likely never learned to self-soothe your emotions, so both relationships and the world around you can feel frightening and unsafe. If you experienced abuse as a child, you may try to replicate the same abusive patterns of behavior as an adult.

  • You probably find intimate relationships confusing and unsettling, often swinging between emotional extremes of love and hate for a partner.
  • You may be insensitive towards your partner, selfish, controlling, and untrusting, which can lead to explosive or even abusive behavior. And you can be just as hard on yourself as you are on others.
  • You may exhibit antisocial or negative behavior patterns, abuse alcohol or drugs, or prone to aggression or violence.
  • Others may despair at your refusal to take responsibility for your actions.
  • While you crave the security and safety of a meaningful, intimate relationship, you also feel unworthy of love and terrified of getting hurt again.
  • Your childhood may have been shaped by abuse, neglect, or trauma.

Primary caregiver relationship

If your primary caregiver was dealing with unresolved trauma themselves, it can lead to the intense fear associated with a disorganized/disoriented attachment style. Often the parent acted as both a source of fear and comfort for you as an infant, triggering the confusion and disorientation you feel about relationships now. In other cases, your parental figure may have ignored or overlooked your needs as an infant, or their erratic, chaotic behavior could have been frightening or traumatizing to you.

Causes of insecure attachment

There are many reasons why even a loving, conscientious parent may not be successful at creating a secure attachment bond with an infant. The causes of your insecure attachment could include:

Having a young or inexperienced mother, lacking in the necessary parenting skills.

Your caregiver experienced depression caused by isolation, lack of social support, or hormonal problems, for example, forcing them to withdraw from the caregiving role.

Your primary caregiver’s addiction to alcohol or other drugs reduced their ability to accurately interpret or respond to your physical or emotional needs.

Traumatic experiences, such as a serious illness or accident which interrupted the attachment process.

Physical neglect, such as poor nutrition, insufficient exercise, or neglect of medical issues.

Emotional neglect or abuse. For example, your caregiver paid little attention to you as a child, made scant effort to understand your feelings, or engaged in verbal abuse.

Physical or sexual abuse, whether physical injury or violation.

Separation from your primary caregiver due to illness, death, divorce, or adoption.

Inconsistency in the primary caregiver. You experienced a succession of nannies or staff at daycare centers, for example.

Frequent moves or placements. For example, you constantly changed environment due to spending your early years in orphanages or moving between foster homes.

Getting help for insecure attachment

If you recognize an insecure attachment style in either yourself or your romantic partner, it’s important to know that you don’t have to resign yourselves to enduring the same attitudes, expectations, or patterns of behavior throughout life. It is possible to change and you can develop a more secure attachment style as an adult.

Therapy can be invaluable, whether it’s working one-on-one with a therapist or with your current partner in couples counselling. A therapist experienced in attachment theory can help you make sense of your past emotional experience and become more secure, either on your own or as a couple.

[Read: Finding a Therapist to Help You Heal]

If you don’t have access to appropriate therapy, there are still plenty of things you can do on your own to build a more secure attachment style. To start, learn all you can about your insecure attachment style. The more you understand, the better you’ll be able to recognize—and correct—the reflexive attitudes and behaviors of insecure attachment that may be contributing to your relationship problems.

The following tips can also help you transition to a more secure attachment style:

1. Improve your nonverbal communication skills

One of the most important lessons gleaned from attachment theory is that adult relationships, just like the first relationship you have with your primary caregiver, depend for their success on nonverbal forms of communication.

Even though you may not be aware of it, when you interact with others, you continuously give and receive wordless signals via the gestures you make, your posture, how much eye contact you make and the like. These nonverbal cues send strong messages about what you really feel.

At any age, developing how well you read, interpret, and communicate nonverbally can help improve and deepen your relationships with other people. You can learn to improve these skills by being present in the moment, learning to manage stress, and developing your emotional awareness.

[Read: Nonverbal Communication and Body Language]

2. Boost your emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (otherwise known as emotional quotient or EQ) is the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to empathize with your partner, communicate more effectively, and deal with conflict in a healthier way.

As well as helping to improve how well you read and use nonverbal communication, building emotional intelligence can help strengthen a romantic relationship. By understanding your emotions and how to control them, you’ll be better able to express your needs and feelings to your partner, as well as understand how your partner is really feeling, too.

[Read: Improving Emotional Intelligence (EQ)]


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3. Develop relationships with people who are securely attached

Being in a relationship with another person who also has an insecure attachment style can make for a union that’s out of sync at best, rocky, confusing, or even painful at worst. While you can work through your insecurities together as a couple, if you’re single it can help to look for a partner with a secure attachment style to help shift you away from the negative patterns of thinking and behaving.

A strong, supportive relationship with someone who makes you feel loved can play an important part in building your sense of security. Estimates vary, but research suggests that 50 to 60 percent of people have a secure attachment style, so there’s a good chance of finding a romantic partner who can help you overcome your insecurities. Similarly, developing strong friendships with these individuals can also help you recognize and adopt new patterns of behavior.

[Read: Dating Tips for Finding the Right Person]

4. Resolve any childhood trauma

As discussed above, experiencing trauma as an infant or young child can interrupt the attachment and bonding process. Childhood trauma can result from anything that impacts your sense of safety, such as an unsafe or unstable home environment, separation from your primary caregiver, serious illness, neglect, or abuse. When childhood trauma is not resolved, feelings of insecurity, fear, and helplessness can continue into adulthood.

Even if your trauma happened many years ago, there are steps you can take to overcome the pain, regain your emotional balance, and learn to trust and connect in relationships again.

[Read: Emotional and Psychological Trauma]

Authors: Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Jaelline Jaffe, Ph.D.

Last updated: November 15, 2022

How Anxious Ambivalent Attachment Develops in Children

Known as anxious preoccupied attachment in adulthood, anxious ambivalent attachment typically develops in children in the first 18 months of life.

During this formative period, a child’s caregiver may have acted nurturing and responsive one minute and unavailable or insensitive the next.

This article will cover your top questions on anxious ambivalent attachment in childhood including:
  • When and how does anxious ambivalent attachment develop in childhood?
  • What are common behaviors of caregivers with anxious ambivalent children?
  • How do anxious ambivalent children perceive the behavior of their caretakers?
  • Is your child anxious ambivalent? Were you an anxious child? Check these common behaviors and patterns of anxious ambivalent children.
  • What does ambivalence mean in children vs. adults?
  • How does anxious ambivalent attachment affect the child?
  • How can a child be raised to have secure attachment?
  • What are the five conditions required for raising a child with secure attachment?

Ambivalent attachment is caused by inconsistency from the caregiver

Put shortly, the caregivers behaved inconsistently in response to their child’s needs.

This doesn’t mean that they intentionally neglected their child’s needs, but the child perceived the way that they acted as not fully meeting them for whatever reason.

For example, perhaps when the baby cries for affection, the caregiver on some occasions runs to cater to their need, but on other occasions feels like it’s best for them to self-soothe, so they ignore their cries.

This might mean that the child starts to see their caregiver’s actions as unpredictable.

So, they start to feel conflicted about how their caregiver is going to respond to them. When their parent is attentive, the child is content and happy, but when they’re not the child is confused.

For this reason, the child may start to develop ambivalent attachment patterns and behaviors.

They might feel distrustful of their caregiver, but they also desperately want affection and for them to meet their emotional needs so they cling to them.

To recap, parents of ambivalent children tend to be:
  • Inconsistent and unpredictable in how they respond to their child’s needs
  • More aware of their own needs than those of their children’s because they likely didn’t receive the affection that they needed as a child
  • Unreliable in the eyes of their child
  • Loving and affectionate on some occasions, but punitive on others

How do attachment styles form in children?

A child’s attachment style is formed through the type of bond that develops between themselves and their caregivers. Through the way that their parents met their needs, a child develops expectations about their world and the people in it.

This outlook has a significant impact on many other areas of the child’s life; from how willing they are to explore their world, to how they socialize with other children and adults, and even to how they behave in adult relationships. 

The following table contains the different attachment style names, including how they change from childhood to adulthood:

What is ambivalence?

It can be difficult to act decisively and take a firm stance on something when you’re not sure how you really feel. However, making a decision becomes even harder when you feel conflicted – such as if you feel two things at the same time. This is what it feels like to be ambivalent; you behave or feel simultaneously and contradictorily towards someone or something. 

Ambi means both and valence means vigor – so ambivalence is to alternate between feeling strongly positive and strongly negative. This can understandably create mixed feelings, thus potentially leading to indecisiveness or uncertainty.

You may come across the term used interchangeably with apathetic, but the two are quite different; apathetic means to not have very strong feelings on a topic at all, whereas feeling ambivalent means to feel dissonant about it. In fact, someone who is ambivalent might feel an excess of emotions rather than an absence of them.

For example, someone might feel ambivalent about their favorite film being remade. Sure, they’re excited about the prospect of it actually being good, but what if it’s terrible? Thus, this person feels ambivalent towards the remake. If they were to feel apathetic, they wouldn’t care about the film at all. 

What does ambivalence in adults look like?

Acting ambivalently as an adult might mean having trouble picking where to go on holiday, deciding what restaurant you want to eat in at the weekend, or choosing whether a certain job offer is right for you. It can also significantly affect how we behave in our romantic relationships.

If you would like to know more about how the anxious attachment style involves ambivalent behavior and how this can potentially affect your relationships, then check out our previous post What are adult attachment styles and how do they affect intimate relationships?

However, this post will focus on how the ambivalent attachment style and resulting behaviors can develop in a child, as well as some evidence-based advice on how to raise a securely attached child.

How does an anxious ambivalent child behave?

In the Strange Situation experiment in 1969, Mary Ainsworth noted that after a period of absence with their mothers, some children were often bewildered, agitated, and avoided eye contact with their mothers on their reunion. However, these children also clung to their mothers desperately on her return.

The child was entirely focused on staying in close proximity to their mother, but they couldn’t seem to derive any comfort from her. These children were later identified as anxious-ambivalent.

A child with an ambivalent attachment style might try to stay close to their parent by “up-regulating” their actions. This might mean becoming distressed, angry, and throwing a temper tantrum when separated from their caregiver.

Even though they might resist soothing from their caregiver when they’re reunited with them, they may still cling on to them in order to feel safe.

Ambivalent children are often insecure about exploring their world, and for this reason, they might find it hard to settle in with groups of children without trying to attract the attention of the adults in the vicinity in order to feel safe.

How does an ambivalent attachment style affect the child?

Not only can this type of behavior affect how the child socializes with other children, but it can also affect their comprehension and ability to perform tasks successfully.

They can be so concerned with trying to gain and maintain the attention of adults that they may struggle to focus, absorb instructions, and they may ask questions repeatedly just to ensure that they’re noticed. They might even act like the “class clown” in order to get attention, even if it is negative reinforcement of the behavior.

These kinds of actions in the classroom and at home can be disruptive and can sometimes even lead to a misdiagnosis of ADHD. Yet, underneath their “performances” and attention-seeking behaviors, these children may be experiencing high levels of anxiety which is impairing their ability to do the tasks that they are asked to do.

To recap, children with ambivalent attachment tend to:
  • Attempt to stay close to their parent
  • Act out for attention, such as through temper tantrums or getting overly upset
  • Resist soothing, but also cling to the parent
  • Feel insecure about exploring their world
  • Be needy for adult attention (such as their teachers or supervisor)
  • Have difficulty focusing on tasks which can even lead to ADHD misdiagnosis
  • Have highly anxious habits

How can a child be raised to develop a secure attachment?

There is no parenting handbook, so, at times, it can be a tricky area to navigate. How much attention and love are too little, and how much is smothering? Fortunately, children are born with strong survival instincts based on their inability to survive on their own and their reliance on adults for love and protection.

Thus, they give out signals to notify their caregivers that they need something. How the parent responds to these cues from their children can differ between a secure and insecure attachment style.

The Five Conditions for raising a securely attached child

In order to raise a securely attached child, there are five areas that a caregiver should strive to fulfill (Brown & Elliott, 2016):

1. The child feels safe

A child needs to feel secure and safe in their world so as to flourish. For a baby or toddler, their parents are their prime source of safety.

When the caregiver is around, the child will feel confident that:

  • No harm will come to them
  • They will be fed
  • They will be kept warm

Yet it’s important to cater to the child’s needs with a certain amount of awareness; they should allow them the chance to develop freedom while still letting them know that they are nearby.

The parent is the child’s barrier against harm, letting them know that they are protected and loved.

2. The child feels seen and known

For a young child, their cues (cries and signals) are their outward voice to let their caregiver know what they want and need.

It is, therefore, important that the caregiver reads these cues accurately.

If the parent is in tune with the child’s cues they will respond in the appropriate way. This lets the child know that when they need something, they can signal for it and it will be given.

As a result, the child will have a sense of autonomy; their world is reliable, and they can exert a certain amount of control over it.

3. The child is comforted

Essentially, to raise a securely attached child, caregivers need to be open, warm, and inviting. The world can sometimes be a scary place to a small child. If they experience a bump in the road of their otherwise-pleasant-day, they need to know that their parents will be there to help soothe away their distress.

In time, the child learns to see this as the norm. As they grow up into adults, they use their caregiver’s actions as the template for managing their own upsets.

4. The child feels valued

The process of developing healthy self-esteem and value for who we are as a person starts as a baby.

Caregivers should aim to express happiness and pride over who their child is rather than over what the child does. The child starts to realize that they are valuable – unconditional – from what they achieve.

5. The child feels support for being their best self

A child should feel supported to joyfully explore their world.

To achieve this, a caregiver needs to believe in their child’s ability, as well as stay close to them lest anything go wrong; they’re allowing them to grow while watching from a safe distance.

Doing so will allow the child to develop a sense of freedom to explore their world and develop a strong sense of self.

This article is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discerning how to raise a child with a secure attachment.

If you’re interested in knowing more, then check out our articles on anxious attachment in adult relationships, and secure attachment in adult relationships as well as five requirements for developing secure attachment in childhood.

We also recommend the excellent book The Importance of Love Rays by attachment specialist Paula Sacks. 


Bowlby, J. (2012). A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory. London: Routledge.

Cassidy J, Berlin LJ (1994). The insecure / ambivalent pattern of attachment: theory and research. Child Dev, 65(4), 971-91.

Brown, D. P., Elliott, D. S. (2016). Attachment Disturbances in Adults: Treatment for Comprehensive Repair. New York: W. W. Norton.

Salter, M.D., Ainsworth, M.C., Blehar, E.W., Wall, S.N. (2015). Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. New York: Taylor & Francis.

What is the type of attachment - Burning hut

In the 50-60s of the last century, psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth investigated the relationship of infants with the closest adults in the first year of life. This is how attachment theory was born. According to her, children have several types of behavior towards their parents. In adulthood, these types of behavior are reflected in relationships with partners. Together with a psychologist, we understand what types of attachment are and what they are, as well as when they form and whether they can change.

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When did attachment theory appear and what does it say

British psychoanalyst John Bowlby is considered to be the founder of attachment theory. In the 1950s, he tried to understand the emotions experienced by babies who are separated from their mother. Bowlby noticed that children will behave differently to prevent separation from a parent: crying, screaming, clinging to him. Prior to Bowlby's research, psychoanalysts believed that this was the manifestation of the immature psyche's defense mechanisms that act to suppress emotional pain. But Bowlby suggested that such behavior may serve an evolutionary function.

His theory was that children's tendency to become emotionally attached to their caregivers, to seek them out when they were lost, and to worry about being separated from them, allowed children to survive. It was attachment that provided support, protection and care for a person who is too small to take care of himself.

A little later, Mary Ainsworth, an American-Canadian psychologist, expanded on Bowlby's theory of attachment and identified individual differences in how infants coped with separation from their parents. At 19In 69, she conducted the famous psychological experiment "Strange Situation". There were mothers with babies from 12 to 18 months and unfamiliar adults in the room. At first mothers and children played on the floor, but at some point their mothers got up and left the room without a child. After a while they returned to them.

Here are the results:

  • Bowlby's normative theory assumed a certain model of the child's behavior in such a "strange" situation: when the mother leaves him, he cries, gets upset, looks for her, and when she returns, the child quickly calms down. In Ainsworth's experiment, children did behave this way, but not more than 60% of them.

  • Another 20% of children were also frightened and upset when they lost sight of their mother, but could no longer easily calm down when she returned. Researchers have sometimes observed in children a desire to "punish" their mothers for leaving. Therefore, they cried for a long time and demanded to be calmed down.

  • Approximately 20% of the children from the experiment were not at all particularly upset by separation from their mother and after reunion tried to avoid contact with her and were more interested in toys.

  • There were also very few children who behaved inconsistently: they could feel fear or even aggression towards the mother when she returned.

As a result, the researchers identified four types of attachments: secure, anxious-resistant, avoidant and disorganized.

Also Eismont's work has shown that these individual differences are related to how parents interact with the child in the first years of life. For example, securely attached children tend to be actively responsive to their needs. In children with an anxious type, relatives often do not provide proper care, do not show attention.

Natalia Litvinova

Certified Emotionally Focused Therapist and Supervisor, Systemic Family Therapist, Member of the Society of Family Counselors and Psychotherapists

Formation of the type of attachment is influenced by the child's relationship with both parents. At the same time, to the extent that the second parent, more often the father, is included in the process of raising and caring for the child, to the extent that he influences the formation of the type of attachment. If he interacts with the child at a minimum, then the type will depend more on the relationship with the mother.

Grandparents can be figures of attachment if the child lives with them most of the time. But if he is still with his parents, then this is primarily about them.

Parents are key figures for a child. It is in contact with them, in the way they treat him, react to the manifestation of his emotions, and attachment is formed. With its help, the child understands whether everything is right with him or whether he is doing something wrong.

For example, if a child, when he screams, cries or gets angry, is constantly told “I don’t want to see or hear you”, “Come to your senses”, “Sit in the room until you calm down”, then he perceives this as if from he is refused. But a child cannot survive without parents. Then he understands: in order to be accepted, you need to remove, suppress the emotions that cause such a reaction from adults. But it is impossible to suppress only negative emotions - this is how an avoidant type of attachment is eventually formed.

How child attachment theory relates to adult romantic relationships

Later, in the 1980s, social psychologists Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver applied Ainsworth and Bowlby's attachment theory to adult romantic relationships. This is how the types of adult attachments that we know today appeared.

Hazan and Shaver noted that relationships between infants and their caregivers and relationships between adult romantic partners have common features:

  • both feel safe when the other is near,

  • both make close, intimate, bodily contact,

  • both feel insecure when the other is unavailable ,

  • both show mutual admiration.

Thus, adults have four types of attachment that they realize during romantic relationships:

Reliable type of attachment

  • Formed when adults pay attention to the needs of the child, respond to his requests for help. When a child is sure that loved ones will always be there.

  • A person with this type can trust others, love and accept love. He can approach other people with relative ease.

  • With this type, a person is not afraid of intimacy and does not panic when his partner needs time to be alone. He does not experience constant fear of being abandoned or betrayed.

  • With this type, a person is not afraid to feel affection for a partner. But at the same time, he does not become completely dependent on his beloved.

  • According to a 1980s attachment study by Hazan and Shaver, about 56% of adults were securely attached.

All other types of attachment are considered unreliable. They arise if in childhood the child was attached to a person whose attitude was unpredictable, dismissive or even cruel.

Anxious type of attachment

  • Insecure type of attachment, which is characterized by constant fear of being abandoned.

  • This type occurs if the close people around the child were not responsive, did not respond to requests for help, did not satisfy his needs.

  • Anxiously attached people tend to be insecure about their relationships. They worry that their partner will leave them, and they want confirmation that this will not happen.

  • Anxious attachment may be associated with compulsive behavior. For example, a person begins to worry if a partner does not respond quickly enough to a message or says “I love you” less often.

  • Anxious people tend to idealize others and question their worth as a romantic partner. Therefore, they seek and even require approval from the other person.

Avoidant (or avoidant-rejecting) type of attachment

  • An insecure type of attachment, which is characterized by fear of intimacy with other people.

  • Such attachment arises if the object of the child's attachment at an early age behaves coldly, disdainfully towards the child's requests.

  • Avoidant people tend to have difficulty connecting with and trusting others.

  • They prefer to be independent and rely on themselves.

  • They usually maintain some distance from their partners or are largely emotionally unavailable to them.

  • They think that they are worthy of love, but those around them are unreliable and not trustworthy.

Anxious-avoidant (or disorganized or ambivalent)

  • This type of attachment can occur if parents instilled a sense of fear, because of which an understanding of personal boundaries was not formed. Or the child has experienced psychological, physical, or even sexualized abuse.

  • This type of attachment is a combination of anxious and avoidant types.

  • On the one hand, a person is afraid to enter into close relationships. On the other hand, it feels the need to be loved, craves affection.

Natalya Litvinova

It is wrong to think that only people with reliable attachment can be happy in relationships. Rather, we can say that many things they will live easier.

Imagine a couple where one partner is anxious and the other is avoidant. And now the avoidant partner forgot to do something important. Then the anxious partner will perceive this situation as an attitude towards himself: “Since he did this, then I am not important to him, he does not care about my requests. ” If this situation happened to a reliable partner, then he could get angry, upset, or simply think that the partner is not having the best day. But he would not take this situation on himself, because he is sure that he deserves love. In a person with anxious attachment, certain actions of a partner can cause anxiety and thoughts that he is unworthy of love.

Why attachment theory has been criticized

Now attachment theory is popular. Psychologist Sue Johnson bases her approach to emotionally focused psychotherapy on this theory.

However, there are also critics of attachment theory. At the end of the 20th century, they wrote about the negative impact of theory on the idea of ​​a “good mother”. Feminist researchers believed that such an approach, firstly, largely leaves all responsibility for the psychological development of the child on the mother. Secondly, it negatively affects the self-esteem of women whose children were born prematurely and spent the first months of life in hospitals, or women who were forced to go to work early.

In the mid-60s, a study even appeared that showed that the main object of affection can not only be multiple, but also not coincide with the main person caring for the child. So, children who spent all the time with their mothers could become more attached to their fathers, sisters, brothers, grandfathers or grandmothers.

The theory is also criticized for the idea that the type of attachment is acquired once and for all life. In this case, it turns out that early experience is more important than everything else that happens to a person in the next years of life.

One of the most common criticisms of attachment theory is that in non-Western societies the idea of ​​a close bond between a child and a single caregiver is generally absent. For example, in Papua New Guinea or Uganda, child-rearing responsibilities are evenly distributed among a wide group of people.

Can several types intersect in one person at once? But a person can show different strategies in relationships with different partners.

Let's imagine a situation in which a person with an avoidant type of attachment was in a relationship with an anxious partner. Then, for some reason, this couple broke up. And a partner with an avoidant type entered into a relationship with a new person who has an even more avoidant type (because there are different degrees of anxiety, avoidance). And in these respects, he becomes more anxious. Therefore, he begins to manifest a strategy of a different, previously uncharacteristic type. For example, he criticizes a little or makes timid claims. But despite this, his type will not change, and anxious manifestations will still be milder than those of a person with an anxious type of attachment.

Can the type of attachment change?

Natalia Litvinova

If a reliable type is already formed, then it can turn into an unreliable one only if some traumatic event occurs in childhood, for example, the death of parents.

And unreliable types can become more reliable. The type of attachment is formed in parent-child relationships, when mom and dad are the most important people for the child. But then a person grows up, enters into a relationship, and then attachment to a partner becomes more important than attachment to parents. And already in these new relationships, the type of attachment may change.

If a pair of an alarming and reliable type is formed, then the alarming one can approach a more reliable one due to communication with its partner. When a partner is understanding, sympathetic, supportive, then the type of attachment can change. If earlier a person with an anxious type of attachment was repulsed, criticized, and in these relationships the partner accepts him, understands his problems and responds to his requests, then attachment can become more reliable.

It is also possible to correct the type of attachment with the help of psychotherapy.

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We are all programmed to be attached to other people. That is why the child cries when he is separated from his mother for some time. But depending on the behavior of loved ones in our childhood, personal experience and other factors, each of us forms our own type of attachment. It affects not only our relationships, but also ourselves.

Types of attachment


For people in this category, loving and caring for someone is absolutely natural. They are able to form a close bond with another person without worrying about petty misunderstandings.

"Reliable" accept partners as they are and treat them with respect. They do not play games or use manipulation, but openly talk about their successes and failures, needs and feelings. In addition, such people are attentive to the desires of a loved one and try to fulfill them.

“Reliable” people also have stable self-esteem, so they calmly perceive criticism and competently cope with conflicts. Instead of heating up the situation, they try to solve the problem, forgive a loved one or apologize.


People with this type of attachment desire closeness and are able to maintain close contact. Their main problem is elsewhere. They are afraid of being abandoned, and for the sake of maintaining relationships, they forget about their own desires and needs in order to please their partner. But as a result, they feel unhappy.

Anxious are fully occupied with relationships and are always "connected" to a partner. At the same time, they may worry that he wants intimacy to a lesser extent. This type takes everything to heart and gives a negative connotation to any comment of others in his address, expecting the worst.

To get rid of anxiety, such people begin to manipulate their partner. They deliberately move away to get attention and hear that they are needed. "Anxious" can react emotionally, do not answer calls, provoke a loved one to jealousy and threaten to break up. In addition, this type is quite jealous and tends to often call or write to a partner, even when he asks not to do so.


It includes two subtypes. The first - "disparaging" - is able to easily "cut off" difficult emotions. Narcissists and those who are used to suppressing their feelings fall into this category. The second - "scared" - wants close relationships, but is afraid of them and does not know how to trust.

In general, avoidant people avoid intimacy because independence is more important to them. Of course, this does not mean that they do not like close communication at all. It's just that for them there is a certain line that should not be crossed.

In relationships they are independent, rely only on themselves and do not like to talk about their feelings. Avoiders defend their freedom and try their best to delay the moment when they have to make any commitments. And when people with this type of attachment still start a relationship, they keep their distance, notice even the smallest flaws in a partner, nostalgic for a free life or dream of an ideal union.

Avoiders react sharply to any attempts to control them or restrict their freedom. In such situations, they begin to distance themselves again: flirt with others, make rash decisions, and also ignore a loved one, his emotions and needs. The partner may complain that they feel unwanted, and also that the "avoidant" is not open enough and does not share his secrets and experiences.

Often a person with an avoidant type of attachment considers his partner to be clingy, and against this background, he is even stronger and more independent. He doesn't worry about the end of the relationship. However, when a crack appears in a couple, the “avoiders” pretend that they do not need any connections at all and “bury” their feelings even deeper. At the same time, people with this type of attachment have the same need for intimacy as others - it is simply suppressed.

Anxiety avoidant

It is also called ambivalent or disorganized. This attachment variant combines the anxious and avoidant types, respectively, and is commonly found in survivors of abuse. Such people crave love, intimacy and care, but are afraid to enter into a relationship. They are afraid of the prospect of rejection. At the same time, they believe that they are unworthy of good things.

How type of attachment affects relationships

Even the most independent of us are surprised when we notice how dependent we become when we enter into a romantic relationship. This happens because an intimate relationship subconsciously stimulates our type of attachment and we begin to either trust a person or be wary of everything that happens.

To better understand how everything works in a couple, you can analyze the type of partner's attachment and start with his relationship to intimacy. Does he try to meet your needs or aggressively respond to your requests? Does he say that he is uncomfortable, or does he take a step forward and then distance himself? Self-confident people will not play games, show intractability, refuse to compromise.

Anxious and avoidant often form codependent relationships. Each of them does not understand their needs and the needs of the partner. That is why they are drawn to each other. Both types are rarely interested in "reliable" people, simply because healthy relationships are unfamiliar territory for them. And an alliance with someone who has similar problems confirms their fears and feeds the belief that they are not good enough for love.

Another feature of the "anxious" is that they quickly enter into a relationship, instead of pausing and analyzing how a potential partner meets their requirements. They focus on similarities with another person, idealize the chosen one and ignore possible problems. At the same time, the “anxious” forget about their needs and do not know how to properly build communication with a partner.

This is precisely the reason why the anxious type converges with the avoidant one. When the "avoiders" begin to move away, the experiences of the "anxious" intensify. They confuse their longing and anxiety with love, not realizing that in fact the problem is not in them, but in the inaccessibility of a partner. And unfortunately, whatever they do, they can't change it. "Anxious" spend more and more energy on maintaining relationships, afraid to face the truth. And the “avoiders” need someone who will look for meetings with them. It helps them meet their emotional needs.

In addition, unlike the reliable type, "alarmers" and "avoiders" do not know how to resolve conflicts, but instead begin to defend themselves and attack the enemy. Without conflict, impulsive behavior, and "chasing" an unavailable partner, unreliable types sink into depression associated with past relationships.

How to Change Your Attachment Type

Although most of us don't change our attachment type, it can be adjusted to make us feel more comfortable. Psychotherapy or relationships with a “reliable” partner help with this.

Changing the type of attachment is also inextricably linked with overcoming codependence. This can be done in a few steps: