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Fearful Avoidant Attachment – Causes, Traits & How To Overcome

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 predisposition to form strong emotional bond with caregivers 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 ways​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 attachment styles in children are:

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

Later, social psychologists Phillip Shaver and Cindy Hazan proposed three parallel attachment styles in adults – secure, anxious and avoidant. These styles are the grownup versions of infant styles. An adult’s attachment influences how they view the world and interact with their partners in intimate relationships.

The 4 attachments in adults can be represented on 2-dimensional chart

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 anxiety​3​.

The anxiety dimension measures how positive or negative one’s view of themselves is. The avoidance dimension represent the extent to which a view of others is positive or negative. Low levels on both dimensions indicate a higher level of attachment security.

Secure attachment style

Secure people tend to have low levels of anxiety and avoidance. Those with secure attachments have a positive view of themselves and others. They feel safe to form secure relationships with their attachment figures or romantic partners.

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

Anxious attachment style

People with anxious attachment style, or anxious-preoccupied attachment style, have high anxiety but low avoidance.

These individuals yearn to be loved. They want intimate connections and therefore they have low avoidance. However, they also view themselves negatively resulting in high anxiety. Anxious adults want to be loved, but don’t believe they are lovable.

Dismissive avoidant attachment style

Dismissive avoidants are high on avoidance because they have a negative view of others. But they view themselves positively with low anxiety.

Such an individual tends to keep a distance even in a close relationship. They are unwilling to provide support to close friends or partners in times of distress and dismiss those who seek support from them as weak, emotionally unstable or immature​4​.

Fearful avoidant attachment style

This is another avoidant style. People with fearful avoidant attachment styles have high anxiety and high avoidance. They view both themselves and others negatively.

On one hand, they want to be loved but think that they are unlovable due to their low self-worth. On the other hand, they are afraid of others and want to avoid them.

man ignores woman cries

How Fearful Avoidant Attachment Develops

Although it is not known exactly what makes fearful avoidant attachment develop, studies have found that some fearful avoidant adults are grown-up versions of children with disorganized attachment.

Fearful avoidant children may have experienced less sensitive and more rejecting care. Their caregivers were unresponsive when they were distressed and needed comfort​5​. The caregiver’s behavior also tended to be punitive and malevolent.

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 scary parental behavior, the infant develops a fear of their parent. The child tries to avoid them instead of viewing them as a secure base. They have poor self-regulation because they don’t have an organized strategy to deal with stress or regulate emotions.

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​6​.

The parents of disorganized children generally have unresolved trauma from their own childhoods. 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 attachment​3​ when they grow up.

Signs of Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style in Adults

Fearful avoidants have the following characteristics:

Gender difference

Researchers have found that women have a higher likelihood of developing fearful avoidant attachment than men​5​.

High levels of avoidance

These 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 levels of anxiety

Despite not wanting to increase closeness, avoidant adults desire to get their emotional needs met in a romantic relationship. But they are anxious because they 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 their 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

The fearful-avoidantly attached tends to have low self-esteem (lowest among all the attachment types). They are the least trusting, the least assertive, and have more negative emotions.

Less support seeking and less care-giving

Their own fear of intimacy leads to less support-seeking in times of needs. They are also 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

Fearful avoidants often “deactivate” their attachment systems as a result of repeated rejections by others​8​. 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 support​9​.

These adults are uncomfortable with the distress of others. They fail to recognize other’s distress or empathize with it because otherwise they cannot keep their own attachment system deactivated​10​.

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 attachments​11​.

mother yells at daughter cries

Signs of Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style in Parents

Less likely to be parents

They generally do not like to become caregivers​4​.

Because they have difficulty providing emotional support to others, when they do become parents, they also have difficulty providing supportive care to their children.

Hostile parenting style

If they become parents, avoidant parents 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

Avoidant parents are less warm and supportive with their children. They also feel less emotionally attached to them​12​. 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 to be more stressful, less meaningful and less rewarding​4​.

woman clings on man back

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a debilitating mental illness characterized by chaotic and dramatic relationships, emotional instability, poor impulse control, anger outbursts, dissociative symptoms, as well as suicidal behaviors. 

Having a partner with BPD can sometimes feel like riding an emotional roller coaster. But having fearful-avoidant attachment does not automatically mean one has BPD. Although some studies found that BPD was associated with fearful avoidant attachment and preoccupied attachment, 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 disorders​13​.

Healing Fearful Avoidant Attachment

Fearfully avoidant adults want to seek intimacy, but at the same time do not trust their partners. Using this mixed strategy leads to confusion, disorientation, and unpredictable behavior with romantic partners.

Some fearful-avoidant people also suffer from disorganization in which they avoid close connections not because of the possibility of rejection but also the fear of their partners.

People who are fearful-avoidant cannot regulate their emotions well. When compared to those who are securely attached, they usually have rocky relationships and are hard to connect with.

However, the good news is, understanding the problem’s root and having self-awareness are half the battle won.

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

Keep in mind that they may experience more problems in mental health treatment such as therapy because they may not feel secure connecting with the therapist. When seeking help, beware of these characteristics and don’t give up easily​14​.

A secure relationship takes time to develop, and the same is true for the relationship between therapist and patient. Feeling secure is an important step in healing. In the long term, hard work will be rewarded.


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.
    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
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    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
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    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
  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.
    Crittenden PM, Ainsworth MDS. Child maltreatment and attachment theory. In: Child Maltreatment. Cambridge University Press; 1989:432-463. doi:10.1017/cbo9780511665707.015
  9. 9.
    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
  10. 10.
    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
  11. 11.
    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
  12. 12.
    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
  13. 13.
    LEVY KN. The implications of attachment theory and research for understanding borderline personality disorder. Develop Psychopathol. Published online December 2005. doi:10.1017/s0954579405050455
  14. 14.
    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

boy anxiously attached to mother crying
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