How can you recognize an ambivalent guy

Bond in partnerships

People live in families, social groups and social institutions. Through evolution, they are designed to follow a striving for society and to seek closeness to other people. They are often important caregivers with whom there is a strong emotional bond that influences thinking and behavior. Caregivers are e.g. your own parents, your own children, relationship partners or spouses and friends. Often you only notice the emotional bond when the caregiver is absent, e.g. because they have been away for a long time or because they have moved to another city. Then you think back to the time you had activities together and suffer from the breakup.

In summary, attachment is a relatively long-lasting orientation towards another person, which can be divided into four aspects. In the case of a secure bond, the following results accordingly:

  • Seek closeness to the other person
  • Suffer from separation from the person
  • Be happy when the person returns
  • Orientate yourself to the person even if they are not in the immediate vicinity.

2. From the early attachment of the toddler to the attachment as an adult

Behind the striving for society, which is shown directly in behavior, lies the attachment motive, which determines the attachment organization. Its development can be understood against the background of biological needs, since the newborn child needs protection, security and support, especially in the first years of life, but also into adolescence, in order to be able to develop its possibilities - but at least in the face of dangers that emanate from the environment to survive.

This is where the explanation of the attachment by the English psychiatrist John Bowlby comes in, who sees the attachment organization as a biological system that has developed in evolution and that serves the goal of keeping the toddler close to his caregivers, mostly the parents to reach. Although Bowlby comes from the psychoanalytic tradition, he broke with many of Sigmund Freud's ideas. While Freud assumed that early childhood imprints fatefully overshadowed the rest of life, Bowlby put this view into perspective in his attachment theory, since he had recognized the importance of lifelong development. Although the course is set in early childhood that point in a certain direction, there is the possibility of deviating from the chosen path through new relationship experiences and moving in a new direction. In this context, it is important to note that new experiences are weighted more heavily than past experiences. It is therefore possible that recent experiences with a relationship partner influence the current pattern of attachment more than the parent-child relationship.

It is also important that the attachment organization changes with age. While it was originally based on physical closeness and emotional relief, in older children and adolescents the importance of linguistic representation and communication for assessing the bond is increasing. Attachment representations emerge that can be referred to as an inner working model. These schemes, derived from concrete experience, about how relationships with other people are to be assessed, determine the assessment of new relationship experiences and contribute to the regulation of emotions in stressful situations.

Basically, two basic types of attachment representations can be distinguished, which can also be demonstrated in the behavior of small children: secure and insecure attachment. Safe toddlers are characterized by the fact that they cry less, greet their mother positively after returning from an absence, and show more positive than negative reactions when they are picked up. Insecure toddlers, on the other hand, keep withdrawing and thus avoid closeness or cling by looking for closeness in an exaggerated manner and thus behaving in an anxious and ambivalent manner. In the latter case, the children experience fear of the persistence of closeness they experience from the caregiver.

Whether toddlers develop a secure or insecure bond depends on how sensitively the mother or the main caregiver respond to the child's needs. Greater sensitivity promotes secure rather than insecure attachment. Sensitivity is related to encouragement from the child, warmth and compassion, and emotional support from the child.

The concept of attachment is also directly significant for the romantic relationship, as it is organized in a similar way to the parent-child relationship - but between two people who are in principle equal and can give each other encouragement, warmth and support. Partnership means that the partners negotiate on an equal footing with one another the way in which the striving for attachment is realized. Such a partnership, which emphasizes reciprocity, can already occur between parents and growing child.

As we have seen, internal work models reflect different attachment qualities (secure attachment, insecure attachment that can be either avoidant or fearfully ambivalent). They contain general action plans that can be applied to social relationships. These action plans can be interpreted as a spiritual orientation framework that is derived from experiences with the caregivers. The different working models depending on the experience have a tendency to stabilize in the course of further development and serve as a starting point for the approach to later relationships. They generalize to relationships with other people, which means that the earlier attachment style influences the attachment behavior in later relationships.

Let us now consider the case of a person who, due to their bad experiences either with early caregivers (e.g. parents) or with previous partners, has developed an inner work model that says that other people in partnerships are not reliable. If this person now connects with a partner who is reliable and loyal, experiences contradicting the previous representations of attachment are gained, which over time can lead to the internal working model being changed and a secure attachment to the place of an insecure attachment Bond occurs.

The possible change in internal working models over the life span becomes clear in longitudinal studies in which the stability of early childhood attachment was examined over a period of almost 20 years: attachment styles are not fate. There is evidence of weak attachment continuity, but continuity and change coexist in the course of development. The attachment pattern of toddlers differs in many ways from the attachment representation of 19-year-olds. This has to do with the fact that, in addition to the toddler's original attachment organization, the current relationships play a role, e.g. the question of whether the parents or the current relationship person are supportive and reliable or antagonistic and chaotic.

In addition, the progressive intellectual development of the child and adolescent creates the ability to rethink and evaluate one's own relationship experiences so that conclusions can be drawn as to what kind of relationship one wishes or strives for. These conclusions can influence future relationship behavior. This is especially true in romantic relationships, as there is a possibility that one “can learn from mistakes”.

3. Bonding in partnerships

How can the attachment representation in partnerships be described? To answer this question, there are clear results from relationship research, which are summarized below.

Four characteristic working models can be distinguished, three of which represent variants of the insecure bond. In order to better classify these work models, it is useful to differentiate between the way in which a person assesses their self-image (self-assessment) and their image of others (in relation to important caregivers). For example, a person can rate themselves positively and distrust their partner. Or she can evaluate herself negatively and consider her partner to be reliable.

Building on this, a classification of the attachment representations in partnerships results, which comprises four attachment styles: secure, fearful-ambivalent, fearful-avoiding and indifferent avoiding:

  1. A positive view of yourself and your partner is a hallmark of a secure attachment style. The person can allow closeness and perceives the partnership as emotionally supportive.
  2. A negative view of the self and a positive view of the partner lead to an anxious-ambivalent attachment style. The person is anxious, which makes them insecure about the continuity of the relationship, and they are emotionally drawn to the partner.
  3. A negative view of self and partner results in an anxious-avoidant attachment style. The person is afraid of intimacy and avoids deeper social relationships.
  4. A positive view of the self and a negative view of the partner characterize an indifferent-avoidant attachment style. The person avoids intimacy in the partnership, emphasizes their own autonomy and does not feel strong emotional dependence on their partner.

These four attachment styles can be mapped into two attachment dimensions, which are referred to as fear and avoidance. Fear refers to having a negative view of self, while avoidance refers to having a negative view of the partner. Then, for example, a lack of fear and avoidance means a secure attachment style, while high fear and high avoidance characterize an anxious-avoidance attachment style.

A high level of fear of attachment includes a suspicious and tense attitude in relationships. On the other hand, a high degree of avoidance of ties means that there is little willingness to commit and little motivation to get involved in the sustainability of the relationship.

Avoidant attachment doesn't necessarily mean that you don't have a partner. Rather, a man's avoidant attachment style can trigger a lifelong struggle for affection in women who are anxious and ambivalent, which keeps the partner busy. Whether it is advisable to enter into such a partnership can be doubted. The benefits and burdens are too one-sided: the avoiding man is offered a “warm nest” without being emotionally involved, while the anxious, ambivalent woman is strongly committed to the relationship and at the same time suffers from being driven by fears , the relationship could end. Such fears are nourished by the avoidant tendencies of men.

The assumption is that a secure attachment style goes hand in hand with a longer relationship. This assumption has been empirically confirmed: people who were securely attached stayed together longer and were less likely to be divorced than people who were insecure.

Based on large samples, it can answer the question of what combinations of attachment styles are common and infrequent in pairs. In the first place it can be said that couples in which both partners are securely bound occur very often. It was also found that couples in which both partners are avoidant or fearfully ambivalent are very rarely together. Instead, couples can often be found in which one partner is avoidant (often the man) and the other partner is anxiously ambivalent (often the woman). This corresponds exactly to the constellation, the problems of which have already been addressed above.

In addition, there are other gender differences:

  • Women are more likely to stay in the relationship when they are anxious-ambivalent and men when they are avoidant.
  • Women are more likely to leave the relationship when they are avoidant, men when they are anxious and ambivalent.

These results can be partly attributed to the fact that women feel responsible for maintaining a relationship and that anxious-ambivalent women hold on to their relationship particularly intensely. It should also be borne in mind that stereotypes of gender roles suggest that women tend to be anxious and ambivalent and men tend to be avoidant. Therefore, an anxious-ambivalent man violates the gender role stereotype just as much as an avoidant woman does. Affiliate representations by partners that conform to gender role stereotypes are believed to promote longevity in a relationship.

Other gender differences are related to satisfaction: The satisfaction of men is negatively related to the anxious-ambivalent attachment style of their partners: the more anxious-ambivalent their partner is, the more dissatisfied they are. In contrast, women's satisfaction correlates positively with the man's secure attachment style and negatively with his avoidant attachment style: the safer and less avoidant the man, the more satisfied the woman feels.

4. Application

What conclusions can be drawn from these results for the practice of relationships? On the one hand, it can be stated that partnership happiness and stability of the relationship are most likely achieved through secure attachment. Fortunately, more than 50% of the partners are characterized by this type of attachment. This also corresponds to the everyday experience that many partnerships appear to be sustainable and mutually supportive. Therefore, it makes sense to strive for a secure bond in the partnership by looking for reliable and supportive partners when choosing a partner.

An insecure relationship is more likely to be associated with lower partner satisfaction and greater instability in the relationship. The couple relationship is characterized by the fact that conflicts are dealt with more destructively than constructively; conflict escalates and disputes are relatively common. In this case, it would therefore be beneficial if the partners sought marriage or partnership counseling, in which positive communication, the minimization of conflicts and partnership-based exchange are discussed. In addition, the question of secure attachment can be addressed and answered. How can a reliable bond be experienced without the partner feeling restricted? The chances of success of such advisory services are quite positive.

5. Literature

  • Baumeister, R.F. & Leary, M.R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychologicl Bulletin, 117, 497-529.
  • Berger, J. (2014). Love can be learned. Ways to a sustainable couple relationship. Berlin: Springer.
  • Bierhoff, H.W. & Rohmann, E. (2005). What makes love strong. Reinbek: Rowohlt.
  • Bowlby, J. (1969/1984). Binding. Frankfurt: Fischer.
  • Bierhoff, H.W. & Grau, I. (1999). The Influence of Early Childhood: Attachment Theory (pp. 22-45). In this., Romantic relationships. Bern: Huber.
  • Grossmann, K. & Grossmann, K.E. (2004). Attachments - the fabric of mental security. Stuttgart: Velcro Cotta.
  • Neumann, E., Rohmann, E. & Bierhoff, H.W. (2007). Development and validation of scales to record avoidance and fear in partnerships - The Bochum Loyalty Questionnaire (BoBi). Diagnostica, 53, 33-47.
  • Rohmann, E. (2008). Satisfaction with the partnership and life satisfaction. In E. Rohmann, M.J. Herner & D. Fetchenhauer (eds.), Social psychological contributions to positive psychology (pp. 93-117). Lengerich: Pabst.
  • Schindler, L., Hahlweg, K. & Revenstorf, D. (2013). Partnership problems? How Your Relationship Works - Couples Guide. Berlin: Springer.
  • Stöcker, K., Strasser, K. & Winter, M. (2003). Attachment and partnership representation. In I. Grau & H.W. Bierhoff (ed.), Social psychology of partnership (p.137-163). Berlin: Springer. 217-231.

Further contributions by the authors can be found here in our family handbook

6. Authors

Prof. Dr. Hans Werner Bierhoff
Ruhr-University Bochum
Faculty of Psychology
Social psychology
Universitätsstr. 150
44780 Bochum

Tel. +49 (0) 234 32-23170


PD Dr. Elke Rohmann
Ruhr-University Bochum
Faculty of Psychology
Social psychology
Universitätsstr. 150
44780 Bochum

Tel .: +49 (0) 234 32-23747


Created on March 28, 2003, last changed on December 16, 2014