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How Fearful Avoidant Attachment Can Affect You

What Is Fearful Avoidant Attachment

Fearful avoidant attachment style in adulthood is an insecure attachment style caused by disorganized attachment in childhood. This attachment style is characterized by one’s negative view of themselves and their inability to get close to others. It tends to have worse outcomes than the other three attachment styles and is usually the result of childhood trauma.

Fearful adults have negative views of themselves and others. They are highly dependent on others’ approval and affirmation. They are highly anxious and desire closeness, but they avoid intimacy due to their negative expectations to prevent the pain of rejection or loss​1​.

fearful woman back facing man

Attachment Theory

Attachment is an infant’s deep rooted motivation to stay close to caregivers for survival. Attachment styles are behavioral patterns formed through interactions with attachment figures. These patterns affect the way a child interacts and develops relationships with others​2​.

Bowlby & Ainsworth attachment theory states that children with different attachments develop different internal working models which represent how they view themselves, others and the relationships with them. The four resulting attachment styles are:

  • Secure attachment
  • Ambivalent attachment
  • Avoidant attachment
  • Disorganized attachment

Later, researchers proposed adult attachment styles which are the grownup versions of infant styles. An adult’s attachment influences how they view the world and interact with their relationship partners.

Adult attachment can be categorized by two dimensions – avoidance and anxiety. The anxiety dimension refers to the degree that one’s view of themselves is positive or negative. The avoidance dimension represent the extent to which a view of others is positive or negative.

Secure attachment style

Securely attached adults tend to have low anxiety and avoidance. They have a positive view of themselves and others.

This is the only secure attachment Among the four attachments. All of the remaining styles below are insecure attachment.

Anxious-Preoccupied attachment style

Anxious-preoccupied attachment, also known as anxious attachment, results from ambivalent attachment in childhood. Anxiously attached individuals have high anxiety but low avoidance. They view themselves negatively but others positively.

Dismissive avoidant attachment style

This avoidant style usually results from avoidant attachment in childhood. People with dismissive avoidance attachment style have low anxiety but high avoidance. They view themselves positive but others negatively.

Fearful avoidant attachment style

This is another avoidant style usually caused by disorganized attachment in childhood. Fearful adults have high anxiety and high avoidance. They view themselves and others negatively.

fearful avoidant attachment chart depicting secure attachments, dismissive avoidant attachment, anxious preoccupied attachement and fearful avoidant attachment may be on the 2 dimension chart

How Does Fearful Avoidant Attachment Develop

Many fearful avoidant adults are grown-up versions of children with disorganized attachment.

Disorganized attachment is an insecure attachment style. It develops if an infant is continuously rejected or punished by their attachment figure when they try to seek comfort during times of distress. Because of the caretaker’s frightening behaviors in daily interactions, the infant develops a fear of their caretaker and tries to avoid them instead of viewing them as a secure base.

Disorganized infants make up approximately 19% of those seen in the Strange Situation. During the Strange Situation, disorganized infants act fearfully, conflicted, disorganized, apprehensively, disoriented, and in other ways oddly with their attachment figures when they reunite​4​.

The parents of disorganized children generally have unresolved emotional scars from their own childhoods. They are likely depressed, disturbed, neglectful, abusive or alcoholic in some way. A child who grows up with an alcoholic parent is four times as likely to develop fearful avoidant attachment​3​ when they grow up.

High Anxiety

High Avoidance

Fearful Avoidant Attachment in Adolescents

In childhood and adolescence, avoidant individuals often experience less sensitive and more rejecting care. The caregivers are particularly unresponsive or punitive when the child is distressed and needs comfort​5​. These caregivers tend to be punitive and malevolent. A highly avoidant teen often “deactivate” their attachment system as a result of repeated rejections​6​.

Signs of Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style in Adults

Fearful avoidant individuals are anxious and avoidant. They are disproportionately women​5​. And they have the following characteristics:

High 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. They worry about being hurt if they allow themselves to become too close to others. They find it difficult to trust or depend on others completely. 

High anxiety – Yet they desire to have close relationships. These people are high in anxiety and view themselves as undeserving the love and support of others. The mixed strategy makes fearful-avoidant people confused and disoriented, and they display uncertain behavior with romantic partners as a result. They are usually less trusting and more troubled because they have relatively negative models of self and others.

Most distressed and least healthy – Those who are fearful-avoidantly attached tend to have low self-esteem (lowest of all the attachment styles). They are the least trusting and the least assertive.

Less supportive – People with fearful avoidant attachment are less likely to support their loved ones. In the rare case that they do extend support to meet social obligations or receive favors and benefits, the help they give is often provided from a  distance​7​.

Deactivating attachment strategies – Studies have found that the more upset their romantic partner is, the less likely a fearful-avoidant adult is to offer comfort and support​8​. They are uncomfortable with the distress of others and may fail to recognize distress or empathize with it because they cannot keep their own attachment systems deactivated if they do so​9​.

Difficulty in handling loss – Fearful avoidant adults have a hard time adjusting to loss because they are highly anxious about attachments​10​.

Signs of Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style in Parents

Less likely to be parents – Avoidant individuals are less likely to want to become parents. 

Hostile parenting style – If they become parents, they tend to have a more hostile parenting style than those with a secure attachment style. 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 – Parents who are fearful-avoidant are less warm and supportive with their children. They feel less emotionally attached to them​11​.

More stressful, less rewarding – They find parenting to be more stressful, less meaningful and less rewarding​12​.

Healing Fearful Avoidant Attachment

People whose lives are affected adversely by their childhood experiences should seek professional help.m

In fearful-avoidant attachment, the individual may feel distrustful of other people, avoids relationships and views themselves as unlovable. Therefore, fearful-avoidant patients tended to experience more problems in mental health treatment such as therapy because they don’t feel secure connecting with the therapist. When seeking help, beware of these characteristics and don’t give up easily​13​.


References

  1. 1.
    Wearden AJ, Lamberton N, Crook N, Walsh V. Adult attachment, alexithymia, and symptom reporting. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. Published online March 2005:279-288. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychores.2004.09.010
  2. 2.
    Lawler-Row KA, Younger JW, Piferi RL, Jones WH. The Role of Adult Attachment Style in Forgiveness Following an Interpersonal Offense. Journal of Counseling & Development. Published online October 2006:493-502. doi:10.1002/j.1556-6678.2006.tb00434.x
  3. 3.
    Brennan KA, Shaver PR, Tobey AE. Attachment Styles, Gender and Parental Problem Drinking. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Published online November 1991:451-466. doi:10.1177/026540759184001
  4. 4.
    Paetzold RL, Rholes WS, Kohn JL. Disorganized Attachment in Adulthood: Theory, Measurement, and Implications for Romantic Relationships. Review of General Psychology. Published online June 2015:146-156. doi:10.1037/gpr0000042
  5. 5.
    Levy KN, Blatt SJ, Shaver PR. Attachment styles and parental representations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 1998:407-419. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.74.2.407
  6. 6.
    Crittenden PM, Ainsworth MDS. Child maltreatment and attachment theory. In: Child Maltreatment. Cambridge University Press; 1989:432-463. doi:10.1017/cbo9780511665707.015
  7. 7.
    Collins NL, Feeney BC. Working Models of Attachment Shape Perceptions of Social Support: Evidence From Experimental and Observational Studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 2004:363-383. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.87.3.363
  8. 8.
    Simpson JA, Rholes WS, Oriña MM, Grich J. Working Models of Attachment, Support Giving, and Support Seeking in a Stressful Situation. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. Published online May 2002:598-608. doi:10.1177/0146167202288004
  9. 9.
    Simpson JA, Rholes WS, Nelligan JS. Support seeking and support giving within couples in an anxiety-provoking situation: The role of attachment styles. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 1992:434-446. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.62.3.434
  10. 10.
    Fraley RC, Bonanno GA. Attachment and Loss: A Test of Three Competing Models on the Association between Attachment-Related Avoidance and Adaptation to Bereavement. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. Published online July 2004:878-890. doi:10.1177/0146167204264289
  11. 11.
    RHOLES WS, SIMPSON JA, BLAKELY BS. Adult attachment styles and mothers’ relationships with their young children. Personal Relationships. Published online March 1995:35-54. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.1995.tb00076.x
  12. 12.
    Rholes WS, Simpson JA, Friedman M. Avoidant Attachment and the Experience of Parenting. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. Published online March 2006:275-285. doi:10.1177/0146167205280910
  13. 13.
    Reis S, Grenyer BFS. Fearful attachment, working alliance and treatment response for individuals with major depression. Clin Psychol Psychother. Published online 2004:414-424. doi:10.1002/cpp.428

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