- Attachment theory
- Two-dimension model
- What is fearful avoidant attachment
- Signs in adults
- Signs in parents
- Link to borderline personality disorder
- How to overcome
- How to help
Being in a relationship with a spouse with a fearful avoidant attachment style can be a complex and emotionally challenging experience. You often feel confused and frustrated as you try to navigate the intricacies of their emotional landscape.
On the one hand, you see a person who deeply craves intimacy and connection, wanting to experience the love and warmth of a safe relationship.
Yet, on the other hand, there’s a side of them that pushes you away just as intensely.
As they oscillate between seeking closeness and running away from it, you feel whiplashed by their unpredictable behavior.
To understand your partner’s behavior and improve your close relationships, let’s take a closer look at this attachment style, its origins, and its characteristics.
Attachment is an infant’s predisposition to form a strong emotional bond with their primary caregiver and stay close to them for survival.
Attachment styles are behavioral patterns formed through interactions with these attachment figures. These early experiences affect a child’s behavior and future relationships with others in powerful ways2.
John Bowlby & Mary Ainsworth’s attachment theory states that children with different attachments develop different internal working models which represent how they view themselves, others, and their interpersonal relationships.
The four attachment styles in children are:
Later, social psychologists Phillip Shaver and Cindy Hazan proposed three parallel attachment styles in adults – secure, anxious, and avoidant. These styles are the grown-up versions of infant styles.
An adult’s attachment is believed to influence how they view the world and interact in adult relationships.
The Two Dimensions In Adult Attachment Styles
In 1990, Bartholomew extended the typology of attachment in adults into four categories based on two dimensions – avoidance and anxiety3.
The anxiety dimension measures how positive or negative one’s view of themselves is. The avoidance dimension represents the extent to which their view of others is positive or negative. Low levels on both dimensions indicate a higher level of attachment security.
Based on the two-dimensional model, the four adult attachment styles are:
- Secure attachment style – low avoidance, low anxiety
- Anxious attachment style – low avoidance, high anxiety
- Dismissive-avoidant attachment style – high avoidance, low anxiety
- Fearful-avoidant attachment style – high avoidance, high anxiety
Note that fearful-avoidant attachment is an attachment style found in adults, not children.
Children can also have fear and avoidance in their attachment behavior, but it is called the disorganized attachment style.
What Is Fearful Avoidant Attachment
Fearful avoidant attachment style in adulthood is an insecure attachment style associated with a disorganized attachment style in childhood. Fearful adults are highly anxious and avoidant at the same time. They have a strong desire for closeness, yet they avoid intimacy due to their negative expectations and fear of rejection1. They have negative views of themselves and others.
Fearful attachment style is usually linked to childhood trauma. Fearful-avoidant adults tend to have worse outcomes among the four attachment styles.
What Causes Fearful Avoidant Attachment
A 20-year longitudinal study found that 72% of young adults retained their childhood attachment style.
Although it is unknown exactly what makes the fearful-avoidant style develop, studies have found that some fearful-avoidant adults are grown-up versions of children with disorganized attachment.
Disorganized attachment is one of the insecure styles in children. It tends to develop when parents show frightening behavior, including but not limited to abuse and neglect. Children develop a disorganized attachment strategy when their attachment figures are the sources of threat and safety simultaneously5.
The caregiver’s behavior tended to be punitive and malevolent. Children could be punished or threatened by them when they try to seek comfort during times of distress.
Because of the scary parental behavior, the infant develops a fear of their parent. They try to avoid their parents instead of viewing them as a secure base.
Disorganized children have poor self-regulation because they don’t have a healthy strategy to deal with stress or regulate emotions.
They comprise approximately 19% of those seen in the Strange Situation test. During the Strange Situation, disorganized infants act fearfully, conflicted, disorganized, apprehensively, disoriented, and in other ways oddly with their attachment figures when they reunite6.
The parents of disorganized children generally have unresolved trauma from their own childhood traumatic experiences. These parents are likely depressed, disturbed, neglectful, abusive, or alcoholic in some way.
A young child who grows up with an alcoholic parent is four times as likely to develop fearful avoidant attachment3 when they grow up.
Signs of Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style in Adults
Fearful avoidants have the following characteristics:
Researchers have found that women are more likely to develop a fearful avoidant attachment pattern than men7.
High levels of avoidance
Fearful adults are high in avoidance. They fear closeness to their partners and avoid them because of the possibility of rejection. They don’t feel comfortable getting close to others.
Avoidant adults worry about being hurt if they become too close to others. They find it difficult to trust or depend on others completely.
High levels of anxiety
Despite not wanting to increase closeness, avoidant adults desire to get their emotional needs met in a romantic relationship. They are anxious because they have a negative view of themselves. They don’t think they are worthy of love and support of others.
The mixed avoidance and anxiety strategy makes fearful-avoidant people confused and disoriented and displays uncertain and erratic behavior. They are usually less trusting and more troubled because they have negative models of themselves and others.
Most distressed and least healthy
The fearful-avoidantly attached tends to have low self-esteem (lowest among all the attachment types). They are the least trusting and assertive and have more negative emotions.
Less support-seeking and less caregiving
Their fear of intimacy leads to less support-seeking in times of need. They are also less likely to support their loved ones. In the rare case that they extend support to meet social obligations or receive favors and benefits, their help is often provided from a distance8.
Deactivating attachment strategies
Fearful avoidants often “deactivate” their attachment systems due to repeated rejections by others9. When they are in distress, they deactivate their attachment behavior. Consequently, the more upset their romantic partner is, the less likely a fearful-avoidant adult is to offer comfort and support10.
These adults are uncomfortable with the distress of others. They fail to recognize others’ distress or empathize with it because otherwise, they cannot keep their attachment system deactivated11.
Difficulty in handling loss
Although fearful-avoidant adults are less supportive and affectionate, they still have a hard time adjusting to loss because they are highly anxious about attachments12.
Fearful adults are more likely to be involved in abusive relationships as the abusers or the victims.
Researchers have found a strong correlation between abusiveness and adult attachment in men with fearful-avoidant attachments. These men tend to suffer from chronic anger with strong emotional reactions leading to violence toward their partners when they experience a fear of abandonment13.
A fearful-avoidant person experiences anxiety over rejection, which is why fearful women in abusive intimate relationships have a hard time leaving14.
Signs of Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style in Parents
Less likely to be parents
They generally do not like to become caregivers4.
Because they have difficulty providing emotional support to others, they also have difficulty providing supportive care to their children when they do become parents.
Hostile parenting style
If they become parents, avoidant parents tend to have a more hostile parenting style than those with a secure attachment type. They tend to advocate harsher disciplinary methods for young kids.
Fearful-avoidant parents are emotionally unaccepting. They expect their children to be independent and less affectionate.
Detached and distant
Avoidant parents are less warm and supportive of their children. They also feel less emotionally attached to them15. They keep a distance from their children in emotional situations.
More stressful, less rewarding
These individuals are less likely to feel confident in their ability to parent. They find parenting more stressful, less meaningful, and less rewarding4.
Purported Link To Borderline Personality Disorders
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a debilitating mental illness characterized by chaotic and dramatic relationships, emotional instability, poor impulse control, anger outbursts, dissociative symptoms, and suicidal behaviors.
Having a partner with BPD can sometimes feel like riding an emotional roller coaster.
But having a fearful-avoidant attachment does not automatically mean one has BPD. Although some studies found that BPD was associated with fearful-avoidant and anxious-preoccupied attachment style, a 2005 research reviewed nine studies on this topic and determined that was not entirely the case.
Several studies have found that this association is not higher than other psychiatric disorders16.
How to overcome fearful avoidant attachment style
You might be discouraged from reading all the symptoms and related outcomes. However, those are just statistics.
You don’t have to be part of those statistics.
Here are what you can do to overcome attachment insecurity.
Learn about this
The good news is, understanding the problem’s root and having self-awareness are half the battle won.
Healing begins with understanding where your attachment comes from and why you act the way you do.
Fearfully avoidant adults:u
- Want to seek intimacy but, at the same time, avoid emotional connection because they do not trust their partners or because they fear rejection due to negative self-worth.
- Sometimes act confused, disoriented, and unpredictable with romantic partners due to mixed intentions.
- Cannot regulate their emotions well.
- Have rocky close relationships and are hard to connect with.
You Are Worth It
You deserve to have a happy life.
People affected adversely by early childhood experiences can overcome fearful-avoidant attachment style with help. Seek professional help as soon as possible.
Don’t Give Up
Seeking professional help is the first step.
Understand that you may experience more problems in mental health treatment because you may not feel secure connecting with the therapist at first. When seeking help, beware of this tendency and don’t give up easily17.
Secure relationships take time to develop; the same is true for the safe relationship between therapist and patient.
A therapist can also help you set healthy boundaries, boost low self-confidence, and form stable relationships.
Having a sense of security is an important step in healing. In the long term, your hard work will be rewarded.
If you are currently in an abusive relationship, get help immediately.
Call National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233
or text START to 88788
How to Fix Fearful Avoidant Attachment In Your Partner
People with fearful avoidant attachment tend to have had difficult past experiences, and it is not their fault.
Encourage your partner to seek help from a mental health professional or get couple therapy.
It does take time to heal. But your partner will relearn attachment and overcome this with your patience, love, and support.
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