Understanding Attachment Styles: Anxious/ Ambivalent Attachment & Trauma-Informed Dating

In Understanding Attachment Styles: A Key to Trauma-Informed Dating, Part 1, we talked about how understanding your attachment style (and learning to spot the attachment signals of someone else’s attachment style) can make dating easier. We also talked about secure attachment, and why it’s the jackpot of the attachment world (which can feel super unfair to those of us who didn’t win that random lottery.)

In this post, we’ll dive into the styles of insecure attachment- anxious/ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized. As you read these, try to put judgment aside. I know it’s painful to interface with some of these attachment styles, and it’s hard to face our own insecure attachment issues without feeling bad about ourselves or blaming and judging others. But remember- attachment wounding is not your fault. It may not even be your caregivers’ fault. But it is your responsibility to get help for the traumas that cause you to behave in ways that can make dating and relationships difficult for everyone involved.

The key is self-compassion- and compassion for those you might date. You can have discernment and compassion at the same time. See with clear seeing instead of rose-colored glasses, but still extend a kind heart to those who might fear connection, intimacy, and closeness or get anxious if there’s too much distance.

If you’re curious about this topic and you’re thinking about putting yourself out there again, we’ll be touching upon some of these issues in an online Zoom workshop I’m co-teaching with Harvard psychiatrist Jeffrey Rediger, MD, MDIv: PREPARING THE HEART TO LOVE AGAIN.

We’ll be covering attachment styles, how IFS can help you heal your heart so it’s more resilient and flexible when moving into and out of relationships, and solidify the most important relationship you can possibly have- the one between you and your “parts.”

Learn more and register here.

Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment: When Your Signal Cry Gets Left On

To examine how anxious/ ambivalent attachment tends to play out in dating situations, I’ll tell you a personal story. When I was first getting close to my current partner Jeff, I was aware that when my attachment system gets flipped to the “on” position, I have a tendency to swing towards the anxious/ ambivalent attachment style. Because I know this about myself, and because he’s a psychiatrist, I confided in him about this. And because we’d been close friends for 2 ½ years before we started dating, I trusted that it was safe to share this with him.

Because we were living 3000 miles apart at the time, I would start experiencing the classic “departure stress” as we got close to the time for one of us to get on a plane. I’d get clingy and teary in anticipation of the pain I would start to feel about 48 hours before separating from him. And then I’d need a lot of reassurance during the periods of separation.

I tried speaking on behalf of my anxiously attached parts and making requests on behalf of them. I told him it would help if he texted me photos to show me he was thinking of me. My parts would feel comforted and reassured if we set up virtual date nights on Zoom or talked on the phone frequently. He’d initially agreed to try to meet these requests, but the part of him that agreed wasn’t very connected to the part that usually wound up doing just the opposite.

He behaved this way because he has a disorganized attachment style (which we’ll talk about in a future post). Disorganized attachment, which develops when kiddos are dependent on caregivers that terrify them, is a mix of anxious/ ambivalent and avoidant behaviors. So his style and my style were pretty incompatible in the beginning. What I needed was frequent reassurance and moments of comforting connection, to ease my sadness, loneliness, and fear of abandonment when we were separated for sometimes months at a time.

What he typically needed once we separated was space. He needed digestion time, time to feel into himself, time to sort out what just happened, time to catch up on work and other relationships that might have gotten neglected while we were together, and time to discern how he actually felt about me when I wasn’t all up in his grill.

His needs were totally valid and understandable. But because he’d promise to stay closely connected in order to accommodate my more anxious style- and then his more avoidant parts would do just the opposite- we had a lot of trouble early on and wound up in couple’s therapy before we were technically even a couple.

Couples therapy did help us, as did understanding our attachment styles and learning how to be more sensitive to our very different needs. We tried IFIO (intimacy From The Inside Out) first, which is the IFS version of couple’s therapy. We were able to speak on behalf of our attachment style-related parts, which helped us understand our different needs better. Later on- and still to this day- we work with a couples therapist who trained in Terry Real’s Relational Life Therapy, mixed with some of Esther Perel’s work. It’s helped us a lot to move more towards secure attachment for us both.

But even without couple’s therapy, you can learn a lot about how you show up in a new attachment relationship. And you can learn to be more sensitive to others who might attach differently, by understanding how attachment styles work and how it can impact dating relationships or even close friendships.

What Is The Anxious/ Ambivalent Attachment Style?

If you or your dating partner have an anxious/ambivalent attachment style, you may crave closeness and validation, which is a beautiful quality! It means you got enough love and connection growing up to want connection, rather than categorically resisting or avoiding real intimacy. While this craving of connection makes someone with the anxious/ ambivalent attachment style want to be close to others- and that’s a good thing- if you cling too hard too quickly because of this deep desire to connect to someone new, it can put you at risk of scaring off new dating partners who might be worth keeping.

We’re not talking about “The Rules” or playing hard to get or asking anyone to be inauthentic. It’s just fine if you like someone and feel compelled to let them know! Most securely attached or anxiously attached people like that, when you express real interest when you’re genuinely interested. But if you chase too hard too quickly, you might wind up playing games with someone who likes to play hard to get- and enjoy the cat and mouse game of the chase. And that can be a set up for pain.

If you have the anxious attachment style and you find someone compelling, it’s common that your attachment system might flip on prematurely, causing you to be a bit..mmm…obsessive. Even before really getting to know someone, you might experience intense fear of rejection or abandonment, leading to behaviors that can strain new dating relationships, such as needing a lot of reassurance, excessive neediness, or clinginess.

Because I can tend towards the anxious/ ambivalent attachment style myself, I’m usually pretty comfortable with others with this style once the relationship is pretty solid. I can be insecure and need a lot of reassurance. The other person might need a lot of reassurance. We reassure each other, and attend to each other’s sensitivities and anxieties, and everyone’s fine.

But beginnings are hard. If I meet someone with an anxious/ ambivalent style, and I’m not sure I like someone, I need time to figure out whether I’m a yes or a no. I’m not capable of reassuring someone right away. But for people high on the anxious/ ambivalent spectrum, my need to have a window of discernment before I do a lot of reassuring may trigger anxiety in the other person. I don’t want to be inauthentic or provide false reassurance before I feel like I can really back it up with action. When I don’t have enough information and I haven’t really discerned whether someone is compatible with me, their anxiety can feel like unwanted pressure.

Of course, the same can happen when the tables are turned. Maybe I’m moving faster than someone else, and I’m totally into someone or really wanting to be closer to a new friend. But they’re not so sure about me- and I can feel their hesitancy. That hesitation can trigger my own anxiety, and then I have to attend to my own anxious parts, to reassure myself, in order to avoid getting too pressurized or too clingy, in a way that might turn off someone who might actually wind up liking me a lot if I can reassure myself enough to keep my obvious anxiety at bay.

A guy I once dated during my online dating experiment had a severe case of anxious/ ambivalent attachment. I kind of liked him, but I wasn’t 100% sure. We’d had a few good dates, but I also had spotted some worrisome issues that I wasn’t sure I wanted to take on. So while it might have felt good to him if I’d been more certain about him, I didn’t want to lead him on when I wasn’t sure. He literally texted me from the walkway out of my house to say “I miss you already and am counting the hours until we see each other again.”Iit was kind of a turn off. His text was sweet, but we’d already spent the entire day together. I could still see him outside and was frankly looking forward to some digestion time to myself, to figure out how I felt about him. But I felt pressured to respond, to say I missed him too, when I actually didn’t. It felt like too much intimacy too fast- since I honestly wasn’t sure whether I liked him or not. A few hours later, after I’d had a chance to think about him and feel into our date, the same sentiment might have felt reassuring. But when he was still at my front door, it felt a bit…stalker like.

The sad thing is that the behaviors that can accompany anxious attachment can create a painful self-fulfilling prophecy, since you’re more likely to scare someone off if you’re overly attached before you’ve even had a chance to get to know someone. And that can make you even more anxious- and then the cycle continues.

How Does Anxious/ Ambivalent Attachment Develop? 

It’s often the result of inconsistent and unpredictable caregiving during childhood, so it makes sense that you might cling, protest, or fear detaching. This attachment style develops when a child’s needs for security and emotional support are met erratically by the primary caregivers. When these kiddos cry, sometimes their caregivers responded and met their needs, while other times, they might have been neglected, left to cry it out, or emotionally abandoned.

When caregivers are inconsistent in their responsiveness, children receive mixed signals about the reliability of their caregivers. Sometimes the child’s needs are met with warmth and attentiveness, but other times they are ignored or responded to in a detached or even unkind manner. This unpredictability makes it difficult for the child to develop a sense of security and trust. As a result, when they feel anxious or insecure, they tend to turn their signal cry on- and it stays on, even if someone else is responding to their need. This can scare off dating partners because it can feel like a vast black hole of need and insecurity when someone is difficult to satisfy.

If you have this style, you may be at risk of constantly seeking reassurance from a new dating partner, needing frequent affirmations of love and commitment, and feeling insecure about the stability of the relationship. Over time, you may become overly dependent on your partner for emotional support and validation, exhibit clingy behavior, feel anxious or distressed when apart, and struggle with separation, even for short periods.

If you have this attachment style, you may also experience intense emotional reactions. Small issues or conflicts may trigger disproportionate levels of anxiety or distress, leading to dramatic emotional responses that can strain the new dating relationship. Due to your insecurity, you might struggle with jealousy and possessiveness, frequently worrying about your dating partner’s fidelity, and becoming suspicious or controlling in an attempt to secure the relationship. Trust issues are common, stemming from early experiences of inconsistent caregiving. Even in the face of evidence that your dating partner is actually reliable, you may still struggle to fully trust and may constantly seek reassurance.

Anxiously attached folks tend to overanalyze their partner’s actions and words, often interpreting neutral or ambiguous behaviors as signs of potential rejection or abandonment, which can lead to a cycle of anxiety and miscommunication in the relationship. You may have a strong desire for constant contact and communication, such as frequent texting or calling, and if your date is not immediately responsive, you may become anxious and interpret the lack of response as a sign of disinterest or rejection- which might be completely inaccurate, or you could be right. It’s hard to know unless you give someone some space to figure out for themselves how they feel about you.

All of this is understandable, given the attachment issues in childhood. But it’s good to be aware of your attachment style- and to understand if you spot these behaviors in someone you might be dating. Individuals with this style can work on developing self-soothing and self-reliance techniques, spreading out who you seek support from, and building self-esteem to reduce insecurity and dependency on their partner for emotional stability.

If you’re early on in dating someone who you think might be anxiously attached, you can reassure them to the degree that it’s honest and authentic, but don’t feel pressured to offer false reassurance just to relieve their anxiety (this will backfire if you wind up not being that interested.)  It’s also okay to take the space you need in order to figure out whether this is a relationship you want to pursue more deeply- or not. If the relationship deepens and you move forward, partners of anxiously attached individuals can benefit from providing reassurance and clear communication to alleviate their partner’s fears and insecurities, fostering a more balanced relationship.

What doesn’t work very well at all is when an anxiously attached individual pairs up with an avoidantly attached person. We’ll talk more about that dynamic in the next blog post in this series. We’ll also be talking about this in the upcoming online Zoom course I’m co-teaching with my partner Jeffrey Rediger, MD, MDiv- PREPARING THE HEART TO LOVE AGAIN.

Part of preparing our hearts to be more receptive and healthy for any kind of relational love is being able to comfort our own anxious parts if we’re on the anxiously attached end of the spectrum. That way we put less pressure on others to ease the anxiety that can accompany daring to love, daring to attach to others, daring to open ourselves to vulnerability with another human soul. We’ll talk more about attachment styles, we’ll create a sanctuary for healing heartbreak, and offer medicine for the broken heart so you’re more nourished and nourishing for any kind of attachment or love relationship moving forward.

Learn more and register here. You’re invited!