girl holding old fashioned rotary phone by couch

I’m going to call this attachment style preoccupied, because I think that word suits it best (though others may disagree). The book Becoming Attached, by Robert Karen, uses the term ambivalent. These terms, plus the term anxious, all refer to the same attachment style.

It’s an insecure style, which means that somehow things didn’t go well enough during childhood, in regard to attachment to a loving and attuned caretaker. (See my blog post What Is Attachment Theory? for information on attachment theory and a list of the four styles of attachment, one of which is the preoccupied style. See also my forthcoming post for information about another insecure attachment style, the avoidant style.)

In What Circumstances Does the Preoccupied Attachment Style Develop?

The preoccupied attachment style tends to occur when there is a loving, attuned caretaker, but the loving, attuned caretaking is inconsistent. Sometimes the child feels loving attunement. Other times, the child feels abandoned and alone.

(Remember that parenting is not the only factor at play here. I want to emphasize that genetics play a big part in how a child feels and reacts to their environment. Also, there are cultural factors that might cause people to end up in one attachment style versus another. Finally, life events having nothing to do with parenting can affect how a child feels and behaves.)

What happens when a child sometimes gets their attachment needs met, and sometimes doesn’t? Following is an answer from the book Becoming Attached. This passage refers to the research of Mary Main, a student of Mary Ainsworth (who created the Strange Situation experiment, mentioned in my previous blog post).

“According to Main, the predominantly ambivalent child emphasizes his feelings of helplessness in order to elicit care. He learns to scan the environment in search of threatening elements that will enable him to become fearful and thereby get attention. Gradually, the ordinary takes on a frightening cast, leading in some cases to chronic fretfulness or anxiety.”

In other words, the child learns that attention can be obtained. Attention is not impossible to get. However, you need to work for it. You need to be overly dramatic. When you trip and fall, you need to scream loudly; maybe someone will notice you then.

This passage also includes the unsettling fact that the child will unconsciously internalize this mental state. Maybe at first, the falling-and-screaming drama is merely an act. But as the young child’s brain develops, it will actually start manufacturing over-the-top emotional reactions to small events. The falling-and-screaming drama will no longer be an act. Ordinary events will now evoke actual fear. And all of this will happen before the child starts to record memories.

By the time the child is of the age to record memories, they are already preoccupied (they can’t stop scanning the environment for a possible attachment figure), anxious (every little thing causes the child to overreact), and ambivalent (they have trouble accepting love and being comforted, since consistent love doesn’t exist in their mental schema; and they are constantly acting out, in the hopes of obtaining a fleeting moment of love).

What Is the Preoccupied Attachment Style?

Of the three terms used to describe this style, I like preoccupied the best for the following reason. Both children and adults with this style are preoccupied with human relationships. They are obsessed with trying to get and keep love and attention—including from a significant other, as well as from family, friends, and everyone they meet. In any social situation, they struggle to focus on anything other than attachment.

Attentiveness to other people could be a good thing. But in the case of the preoccupied person, their laser focus on relationships tends to work against them. Most of the time, the more you beg someone to love you, and demand to know if they love you, and jealously insist that they love you, and declare that it’s impossible that they will ever love you—the more you will drive them away in exasperation.

Everyone needs love and attention. It’s not a problem to ask for reassurance once in a while: to ask someone if they love you. People with a secure attachment style do it, and it’s healthy. The problem occurs when you do it all the time, and when you can’t accept love even when someone gives it to you. Tragically, people with a preoccupied attachment style have trouble accepting that love is possible for them, unless they work for it by continually acting out.

It is 100% possible for you to be loved unconditionally. No matter who you are. No matter what your attachment style is. I guarantee this.

Do you believe me?

Yesterday I shared with Patrons only what my own attachment style is. Tomorrow I will share a key insight from Becoming Attached about how to move from an insecure attachment style (like the preoccupied style) to a secure style. Join Patreon to gain access to these and many other wisdom posts!