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Fearful Avoidant Attachment: 7 Signs, Causes & How To Overcome

| Attachment theory | The two dimensions in attachment | What causes fearful avoidant attachment develops | Signs in adults | Signs in parents | Link to borderline personality disorder | How to fix |

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 attachment styles are characterized by one’s negative view of themselves and their inability to get close to others. They tend to have worse outcomes than the other three attachment styles and are usually linked to 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 have a strong desire for closeness, but they avoid intimacy due to their negative expectations and fear of rejection​1​.

fearful woman back facing man anxious avoidant attachment

Attachment Theory

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 ways​2​.

John Bowlby & Mary 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:

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. It is believed that 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 with fearful avoidant attachment signs

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 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.

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 close relationships. 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.

Also See: Fearful Avoidant vs Dismissive Avoidant Attachment Styles

man ignores woman cries fear of attachment avoidant anxious attachment

What Causes Fearful Avoidant Attachment

A 20-year longitudinal study found that 72% of young adults retained their childhood attachment style.

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.

Disorganized attachment is an insecure attachment style in children. It tends to develop in infants with parents who are abusive or neglectful​5​. The caregiver’s behavior tended to be punitive and malevolent. Children could be punished or threatened 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 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 attachment​3​ when they grow up.

girl cries next to man holding a belt disorganized fearful avoidant attachment style

Signs of Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style in Adults

Fearful avoidants have the following characteristics in adults:

Gender difference

Researchers have found that women have a higher likelihood of developing a fearful avoidant attachment pattern than men​7​.

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. Avoidant adults 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. They are anxious because they view themselves as undeserving the love and support of others.

The mixed of avoidance and anxiety 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 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, 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 need. 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​8​.

Deactivating attachment strategies

Fearful avoidants often “deactivate” their attachment systems as a result of repeated rejections by others​9​. 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​10​.

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 own attachment system deactivated​11​.

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​12​.

Abusive relationships

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 abandonment​13​.

A fearful-avoidant person experiences anxiety over rejection, which is why fearful women in abusive relationships have a hard time leaving an unhealthy relationship​14​.

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 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 with their children. They also feel less emotionally attached to them​15​. 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 anxious man back fearful avoidant traits

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​16​.

How to Fix Fearful Avoidant Attachment

You might be discouraged to read all the symptoms and related outcomes if you are an avoidant adult looking for a solution. However, those are just statistics.

You don’t have to be part of those statistics.

Healing begins with understanding where your attachment comes from and why you act the way you do.

Fearfully avoidant adults:

  • want to seek intimacy, but at the same time avoid close connections because they do not trust their partners, or because they fear rejection due to negative self-regard.
  • sometimes act confused, disoriented, and unpredictable with romantic partners due to mixed intentions.
  • cannot regulate their emotions well.
  • have rocky relationships and are hard to connect with.

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 early childhood experiences can overcome fearful avoidant attachment style with help.

Seeking professional help is the first step.

Also See: Free Therapy

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 at first. When seeking help, beware of these characteristics and don’t give up easily​17​. A secure relationship takes time to develop, and the same is true for the relationship between therapist and patient.

A therapist can also help you set healthy boundaries, boost low self-confidence and look for safe relationships if you are currently in an abusive relationship.

Having a sense of security is an important step in healing. In the long term, your hard work will be rewarded.


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About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is an author, Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more


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