Love, attachment and intimacy. Part 2/4: ambivalent or preoccupied attachment

This is the second of four articles about attachment styles, the way we form relationships and view ourselves based on early experiences of nurturing. The first article briefly outlined the groundbreaking research of Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby and described the avoidant attachment style, in which emotions are either unavailable or feel dangerous to express. This article explains the origin and characteristics of ambivalent attachment, in which the infant is preoccupied with the presence of the parent whose emotional availability is unpredictable, and carries this model of relationships into adult life, passively or angrily fearing that their partner doesn’t love them.

Each article ends with an example of popular songs which encapsulate what it means to live the attachment style, and asks how counselling or psychotherapy can help change the pattern. The ambivalent attachment style is illustrated by Harry Nilsson’s Without You and Radiohead’s Creep, and the combination of avoidant and ambivalent attachments in relationship is illustrated by Wham’s Freedom.

Attachment: the internal working model

Attachment is the nature of the bond between an infant and carers, usually parents. When a baby is born, s/he is completely helpless, a bundle of unmet needs the child cannot meet on their own, dependent on others for their welfare. Through this relationship of dependency, the child learns what to expect of others, how they are valued by others and therefore how to value their own self, and from this the infant draws an internal map of the world, an internal working model. If others are dependable and emotionally available, the world appears as a safe place in which the child is able to explore, understand their own emotions, express them openly and be safely contained. This is the secure attachment of the child to the parent. The various ways in which carers are not dependable and are emotionally unavailable, cold or frightening, leads to a pattern of insecure attachment: the world does not appear to be a safe place, so the child is less able to explore and understand their own internal experiences, emotions are not contained by carers, and emotions are therefore either suppressed or expressed in anxious or distressed ways. Unless later interventions are made, this becomes the blueprint for later relationships, falling into one of three distinct patterns: ambivalent or preoccupied attachment (this article); avoidant or dismissive attachment; and disorganised or fearful attachment.

Attachment styles were observed and delineated by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby in research involving infants and their mothers. Later research included fathers, added more detail to the earlier work, and included longitudinal studies which followed observed infants into adulthood. For more about this research, click here.

As with the other three articles about attachment, below the patterns for ambivalent attachment are shown for the infant/parent relationship, then in adult relationships, followed by the depiction of attachment in popular songs and the role of therapy in repairing the emotional deficits of the attachment style.

The use of the words ‘intimate’ and ‘intimacy’ in these articles should be explained. In everyday language, these words are often used as a euphemism for sex, but here it has a broader meaning: intimacy is any encounter between two people where they are truly open, without the need for social role-playing or emotional barriers, without any expectation that oneself or another is anything but their honest self. The parent-child relationship is therefore a powerful developmental blueprint for intimacy: the measure of acceptance the child feels from the parent is the measure of how safe it feels for the growing person to be intimate, to express how they truly feel, and engage meaningfully in relationships with others.

Pattern of parent/child relationship in ambivalent attachment

Parental availability: how emotionally available the parent is to the child

To be ambivalent is to have mixed feelings about someone or something; to feel stuck because one is unable to choose between two opposing courses of action. This describes the dilemma of the child whose parents send mixed signals of acceptance and rejection. The child is stuck between acting on their parents’ acceptance, believing that love is available, which is dangerous due to the ever-present threat of rejection, or acting on their parents’ rejection, withdrawing and hiding because love is unavailable, which feels like giving up on life itself. Thus the ambivalent child, and the preoccupied adult, is stuck between these two positions.

The child is preoccupied with the emotional availability of the parent for one key reason: the child has a taste from the parent of what it feels like to be cared for, but in doses small enough and with such inconsistency that the child is terrified of being abandoned. From the parents’ vantage point, this can happen for a number of reasons: either their own upbringing didn’t teach them about the emotional needs of a child, so their unrecognised parental blueprint is of needs being unmet; or their work is so demanding that when with their child they are too tired to be emotionally available; or their own emotions are in turmoil, expressed as conflict in which the child pays the emotional price; or they are too preoccupied with their own concerns that their child rarely feels they are truly present. This means the child is in a state of confusion, never having the security of knowing whether the parent will be available and, if so, whether the attention received will feel nurturing or rejecting.

Emotional acceptance: how accepted the child feels by the parent

The parent can enter the world of the child only sometimes, and only to a small extent. The regular non-availability of the parent, mixed with occasional positive availability and punitive or insensitive handling, means that the parent sends confusing messages to the child. For example, the parent may play with the child briefly, but then openly complain to the child is s/he taking up too much time when they have so many other things to do; or the parent may give the child attention, so the child receives their hoped-for love and acceptance, but then this is regularly interrupted by the parent’s angry outbursts or rejecting sarcasm. The result is that the child has enough acceptance to cling to the hope of more, and is desperate not to lose it.

Parent/child relationship: the nature of early interactions between parent and child   

This creates the key issue for the child: trust. The child is desperate for parental attention, but cannot trust it will be there consistently. Thus the child clings on to the parent, anxiously dependent, fearful of losing their presence, or the child withdraws from the parent, desperately hurt, so as to avoid the pain of further rejection. This relationship of dependence and rejection is fearful, leading the child into a turmoil of uncontained emotions so that self-understanding and self-acceptance cannot grow, since the child is preoccupied with being abandoned, potentially only a heartbeat away. Thus the child makes an early decision about him/herself: ‘since I am consistently rejected, there must be something wrong with me’ or, to put it another way, ‘since I am not accepted, I must be unacceptable.’

Secure base: a measure of the child’s sense of security, whether or not s/he can use the parent as a secure base from which to explore the world, knowing the parent will be welcoming on their return

In Mary Ainsworth’s and John Bowlby’s observations, the ambivalently-attached child cannot use the parent as a secure base from which to explore the environment, so the ambivalent child plays and explores less, cries more and is more emotionally disregulated than a securely attached child because s/he doesn’t consistently have the parent’s help in soothing and regulating emotions. The child is therefore habitually anxious and clings to the parent. When the parent is absent, the ambivalent child is extremely upset but, on the parent’s return, the child is not reassured, and the child’s response has two patterns: s/he either appears defeated, making no effort to reunite, crushed by their conflicted sadness that the parent has returned but emotional comfort is unavailable; or the child may allow the parent to pick them up but then refuses harmonious reconciliation by turning their head away to ignore, or they arch their back to reject, or hit the parent to punish them for leaving.

Developmental steps: how supported the child is by the parent in their emotional and relational development  

The ambivalently attached child is fearful of the parent, who represents rejection. Lacking inner trust and security, s/he is even more fearful of strangers. When the child makes incremental steps towards independence — walking, talking, dressing, developing interests that are not the carer’s interests — the child is desperate for approval the parents do not give, or do not give consistently, so the child’s emotional conflict and ambivalence is reinforced.

Pattern in adult relationships

Sense of self: the person’s view of themself and relationship with their own emotions

As an adult, the ambivalently or resistantly attached person is called the preoccupied personality. Having made the decision as a child that ‘I am rejected therefore there is something wrong with me’, this adult is full of self-doubt, fearful of others’ criticism and rejection, and also self-critical and self-rejecting.

Personal communication: how well the person can communicate on a personal, intimate level 

Lacking self-acceptance, this adult is preoccupied with acceptance by others. The ambivalent/preoccupied adult is often very well aware of their feelings, but their thoughts, feelings and ideas tend to be either withheld for fear of rejection, or shared with great volume, fearing that if every detail is not fully explained, they will be misunderstood, followed by self-doubt and vulnerability.

Relationships: the nature of the person’s emotional engagement with others

What this person most wants is also what they most fear: intimacy. The preoccupied person is reluctant to share with others for fear of rejection. Once something personal is shared, reassurance and acceptance is sought, but it is never enough to relieve self-doubt. The preoccupied/ambivalent adult therefore fears that their partner doesn’t love them, and as a consequence they may vacillate between anger and clinging, repeating the developmental blueprint between infant and unreliable parent.

This may lead to one of two common patterns.

i. The fear of rejection accompanied by uncontained emotions may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, creating what we expect. This fear drives away the partner who sees them as too anxious or insecure, thus ‘proving’ to the ambivalently attached that they are unlovable. They are left inconsolable, in the same place as the rejected child, desperate for affirming love.

ii. Since the ambivalently attached person’s internal working model is one of rejection, they are far more likely to stay in an unhealthy relationship, fearing no one else could ever love them. This may mean hanging on to relationships even when they are emotionally or physically abusive, with excuses and defences made by the ambivalently attached for their partner’s abusive behaviour.

Ambivalent attachment and co-dependence 

The idea of co-dependence, co-dependency, or the co-dependent relationship, has developed over time. Originally, co-dependence was a term used in the 1980s in substance abuse/addiction work to describe a relationship in which one person helps another to continue their abusive habits. The alcoholic (or cocaine user, heroin addict, etc.) is aided in their destructive behaviour, positively encouraged to avoid responsibility, because their partner takes all responsibility for them. This partner practically does all the cleaning up after the other’s binges, cognitively makes excuses for their partner’s unreliability and irresponsibility, and emotionally they are completely reliant on the addict for their sense of worth.

Co-dependence, then, describes the situation in which there is mutual dependence to perpetuate destructive behaviour. The addict depends on the partner’s poor self-worth, which leads to over-responsibility. This serves the addict because the unbounded support enables and maintains their addiction: ‘I never have to face my behaviour because my partner will look after me and make excuses for me.’ Similarly, the over-responsible partner depends on the addict to reinforce the idea that they can become a good and worthy person if only they can look after and ‘save’ the addict. The over-responsible partner needs to be needed, so the more desperate the addict is, the ‘better’ it is, because they are all the more dependent on help.

This pattern of care-taking and abuse-enabling is now applied to any situation in which one person’s excessive need to please enables another person’s destructive behaviour. It doesn’t just apply to partners: parents may enable their children’s addiction; sisters and brothers may perpetuate the cycle of supported irresponsibility; or one friend may consistently help another avoid the consequences of their actions.

The co-dependent person who helps another avoid responsibility is demonstrating the extent of their ambivalent attachment. As we have seen, due to early parental messages, the ambivalently attached person believes ‘there must be something wrong with me’, and is preoccupied with being abandoned, potentially only a heartbeat away. Their ambivalence is created by the emotional contradiction set up in their childhood relationship with parents: they can base their actions on acceptance and believe that love is available, but that is dangerous due to the ever-present threat of rejection; or they can base their actions on rejection by withdrawing and hiding because love is unavailable, but this feels like giving up on life itself. The ambivalent/preoccupied person is caught impossibly between these two positions, established in childhood.

The highly ambivalent person may seek to resolve their need for emotional security by being locked into co-dependence: ‘I will choose someone who needs me so much that they cannot reject me.’ There are two roles in the relationship, Rescuer and Victim, and both use the other to reinforce their position. The Rescuer needs a Victim to rescue, but s/he also needs the Victim to maintain their position, never to be fully rescued, never stepping out of their role: if the Victim does step out of their role, they no longer need to be ‘saved’, so the Rescuer is no longer ‘needed’. The Victim also needs a Rescuer to maintain their Victim status, to be looked after and exonerated, so they never have to take responsibility for their actions. 

The painful ambivalence between wanting love and expecting rejection can never be resolved in a co-dependent relationship. The attempt to control love by being with someone who ‘can’t leave’ is the very opposite of healthy emotional security. Since the Rescuer seeks to take all responsibility so the Victim doesn’t have to take any, no amount of abuse received is too much. Self-assertion raises the possibility of rejection, so the ‘solution’ is to try harder, to take even more responsibility for the other, to sacrifice one’s own thoughts, feelings and needs more, which means eroding personal boundaries still further. Co-dependence reinforces the poor self-worth of the ambivalently attached, ensuring that resolution of their original emotional wound is impossible within that relationship.

Songs of ambivalent / preoccupied attachment

It is important to understand that each of the four attachment styles has a range, so some people are more or less ambivalent than others. One person may be able to manage their ambivalence due to being with an understanding and loving partner, while another may be so hampered by self-doubt and self-criticism that living with it can seem impossible.

Click the picture to play the music video, which opens in YouTube.

There are a great many popular songs about ambivalent attachment. One of the most obvious is Without You, written by Tom Evans and Pete Ham of Badfinger, released by them in 1970, a hit single for Harry Nilsson in 1972 and for Mariah Carey in 1994. Noted above were two responses by the ambivalent child to parental rejection: defeated dejection or clinging anger. From this developmental blueprint, the adult version of the first response, deflated dejection at unattainable love, appears in the first verse: “I guess that’s just the way the story goes”. The existential crisis for the child of dependence on an emotionally unavailable carer, transferred to the adult love relationship, is in the chorus: “I can’t live if living is without you.”

As noted above, the ambivalently attached child has made the implicit decision, ‘I don’t belong so there is something wrong with me’. This can have a see-saw effect on the way the person views those s/he wants to be attached to, idealising the other into the loving presence they wished for, extending still further the emotional distance between themself and the love object and reducing the capacity for real emotional connection. I know of no song that expresses both sides of this equation better than Thom Yorke’s song Creep, performed by his band, Radiohead, with its denigration of self and idealisation of the love interest.

Click the picture to play the music video, which opens in YouTube.

When you were here before, couldn’t look you in the eye.
You’re just like an angel, your skin makes me cry.
You float like a feather in a beautiful world.
I wish I was special: you’re so f___in’ special.

But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo.
What the hell am I doin’ here?
I don’t belong here.

I don’t care if it hurts, I want to have control.
I want a perfect body, I want a perfect soul.
I want you to notice when I’m not around.
So f___in’ special: I wish I was special.

But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo.
What the hell am I doin’ here?
I don’t belong here.

She’s running out the door.
She’s running out.
She’s run, run, run, run, run.

Whatever makes you happy, whatever you want.
You’re so f___in’ special: I wish I was special.

But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo.
What the hell am I doin’ here?
I don’t belong here.
I don’t belong here.

George Michael’s song, Freedom, performed by Wham!, was a hit in 1984. The lyric neatly and succinctly expresses a common combination: the ambivalently attached in a difficult relationship with the avoidantly attached (the latter described in the first of these four articles). In this song, the avoidantly attached girlfriend uses common avoidant strategies for maintaining emotional distance: she is unfaithful, she laughs at her partner’s wish for closeness and reliability, and she mocks him in just the way she would have heard from the parent who co-created her emotional avoidance, saying he is a baby for having feelings. He stays and suffers because this relational unavailability matches the developmental blueprint of his ambivalent childhood: “Like a prisoner who has his own key, but I can’t escape until you love me”. Now an adult, he still believes implicitly, ‘I don’t belong, there is something wrong with me and I am unlovable’, so he clings on to the unhealthy relationship just as he did to the parent, believing that if this relationship ends then no one else could ever love him. A complementary drama is played out for the avoidantly attached partner: in this song, the boyfriend represents for her the emotional expression she is missing but, being ambivalent, he expresses it in such a pleading way that it reinforces her avoidant desire to keep emotions and real relational connection at bay.

Click the picture to play the music video, which opens in YouTube.

Every day I hear a different story,
People saying that you’re no good for me:
‘Saw your lover with another
and she’s making a fool of you.’

If you loved me, baby, you’d deny it,
But you laugh and tell me I should try it,
Tell me I’m a baby and I don’t understand.

But you know that I’ll forgive you
Just this once, twice, forever,
‘Cause, baby, you could drag me
To hell and back
Just as long as we’re together,
And you do.

I don’t want your freedom,
I don’t want to play around.
I don’t want nobody, baby,
Part time love just brings me down.
I don’t need your freedom:
Girl, all I want right now is you.

Like a prisoner who has his own key,
But I can’t escape until you love me.
I just go from day to day
knowing all about the other boys

You take my hand and tell me I’m a fool
To give you that all I do,
I bet you someday, baby,
someone says the same to you.

The role of counselling and psychotherapy

Any childhood experience of attachment involves the child deciding what the world is like through their experience of nurturing, and a decision about who they need to be to survive in the world. The ambivalent child decided s/he is unlovable so, in its most magnified form, those with adult preoccupied attachment must take one of two courses: (i) resign to isolation and loneliness; (ii) cling on to and idealise anyone who shows romantic interest, while fearing that the other doesn’t really reciprocate their love, sure that no one will ever show interest in them again.

This unresolved need for love and recognition is shown in the way someone with an ambivalent/preoccupied attachment talks about their upbringing. Particular incidents in their childhood are typically remembered vividly, either with an emotional distance that signifies resigned passivity, or with active unresolved anger or fear. The preoccupied adult often speaks in great detail, in ways that are grammatically entangled, with many clauses and sub-clauses, their emotional non-containment by parents reflected in their verbal non-containment in the present. This great detail in speech reflects the unmet developmental need to be listened to, the need to feel understood, and the fear of not being heard.

One key role of therapy is to bring this ambivalent model of relationships into awareness, to see it clearly as an experience of a past relationship being universalised and re-enacted in the present. This knowledge is critical and crucial, but in itself it is not enough: that past relationship was the foundation upon which a person’s whole view of life was built, so the therapeutic work is fundamental, bringing the old foundations into awareness, and building new foundations.

Awareness of the old foundations involves recognising lifelong patterns of thought, emotion and behaviour which are often so normalised and habitual that the person doesn’t realise they are there. The preoccupied person feels odd, different to everyone else, and often fears imminent rejection if only others ‘find out what I’m really like’. Sometimes the ambivalent client pays the therapist compliments as a habitual response to the fear they would lose the relationship or be rejected, just as they feared losing their parent. Often sentences begin or end with a qualifying phrase such as, ‘You’ll think I’m stupid for saying this’, or ‘I bet you think I’m bad for thinking that’, reflecting their familiar self-critical internal voice. Since we have no power over anything of which we are unaware, once such patterns are identified we begin to have choices.

True choices are available only when we can see alternatives, and that is where the experience of therapy, the quality of the therapeutic relationship, is essential for laying the new foundations. In therapy, the ambivalent client can become aware of their negative self-judgement and their expectation of negative judgement from others. Together we can recognise and explore the biographical experiences that left those lasting wounds, and begin to heal. Healing begins by making available now what the preoccupied adult needed as a child: to be noticed, to be nurtured, to have feelings and the very self accepted warmly so as to feel acceptable and lovable. It is my privilege to see that, through this process, a client can start to feel acceptance, begin to ask for what they need emotionally without fear of rejection, and thus work towards the kind of healthy self-acceptance and separation that children who were securely attached experienced. This therapeutic and reparative process is known as earned secure attachment, and is explored in more detail in the fourth article in this series.


About Ian Pittaway

Ian is a psychotherapist and writer with a private practice in Stourbridge, West Midlands. Ian’s therapy is integrative, chiefly comprising key elements of transactional analysis, object relations, attachment research and person centred therapy. Ian has a special interest in trauma recovery and bereavement.

To contact Ian, call 07504 269 855 or click here.


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