Attachment theory in psychology is a fascinating topic. Frighteningly enough, not all humans are born with the ability to form secure attachments with others! Some people develop different attachment styles that help them cope with stress and anxiety in relationships to fill this void. According to the attachment theory, four different styles are based on people’s relationships: secure attachment, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, and fearful-avoidant attachment.
Those with secure attachments have normal levels of trust and intimacy in relationships. Those with an anxious attachment style experience discomfort in their relationships. On the other hand, those with an avoidant attachment experience discomfort in close relationships and do not desire to get close to others. Lastly, those with a fearful-avoidant attachment have signs of anxiousness and avoidance in their relationships.
While we all struggle with relationships, if you or someone you love has a fearful-avoidant attachment, that struggle is likely even more significant. This article seeks to provide a brief overview of the fearful-avoidant attachment. In particular, I’ll discuss what fearful-avoidant attachment is, what problems can cause in relationships, why you develop this, and lastly (and most importantly!) how you can learn to overcome anxious apprehensions.
What Is Fearful Avoidant Attachment?
As mentioned earlier, fearful avoidant attachment is one of four adult attachment styles. Those with this insecure attachment style strongly desire close relationships but distrust others and fear intimacy. This leads people with a fearful-avoidant attachment to avoid the relationships they crave.
People with the fearful avoidant attachment style fear rejection, abandonment, and separation anxiety to the extent that they avoid intimacy to prevent these adverse outcomes. They tend to suppress their feelings and rely on distancing behaviors as coping mechanisms when they feel threatened or hurt in a relationship.
Fearful avoidant individuals also tend to be uncomfortable expressing love or affection towards their partners and prefer to keep their distance emotionally. For example, they may reject their partner when they perceive a slight threat of separation or loss. At the same time, they may also be unwilling to confide in their partner because they fear their partner will abandon them.
Characteristics and Signs of Fearful Avoidant Attachment
Fearful avoidant attachment is characterized by a lack of intimate and secure emotional attachment to a partner and a tendency to suppress thoughts and feelings. Individuals with this attachment pattern prefer to be independent and avoid emotional intimacy, believing they cannot meet their needs through the relationship.
These individuals are often preoccupied with the notion that their partner will not meet their needs or that they will be unable to meet their partner’s needs. They may feel uncomfortable getting close and avoid situations that lead to intimacy or disclosure. In relationships, fearful avoidants may feel desperate for affection and be highly critical of themselves and others.
In other words, these individuals tend to feel that their partners are not responsive, reliable, or trustworthy and cannot count on their partners to comfort them when upset. They are also likely to distance themselves from their partners when they experience negative emotions. Fearful avoidant has the following characteristics:
- Avoids emotional intimacy.
- The individual shows a lack of interest in forming close relationships.
- The individual is uncomfortable with closeness and intimacy.
- The individual is unwilling to get involved with people unless there is the certainty of being liked.
- The individual wants relationships to remain superficial.
- The individual wants relationships to stay free from conflict or disagreement.
- The individual tends to be preoccupied with fears of abandonment or being unworthy of love or support.
What Are the Causes of Fearful Avoidant Attachment?
Fearful avoidant attachment is often based on early childhood experiences. The caregiver meets some basic needs but does not respond consistently, does not provide physical proximity or emotional responsiveness, or makes it difficult for the child to seek comfort. Fearless-avoidant children have a solid impulse to control their environment without having any needs.
The neediness of a child may sometimes be responded to with anger or rejection from the caregiver, which can reinforce the idea that one cannot depend on others for support. Or there may be no response, leaving the child helpless, alone, and vulnerable.
As a result, people with fearful-avoidant personality disorder have several beliefs about themselves and others. These beliefs include:
- People are dangerous or mean.
- They cannot trust other people’s intentions.
- People should be self-sufficient because no one else can be trusted.
- It is better to take care of oneself than to rely on others.
- It is better to keep bad feelings inside than express them because they will only worsen things.
Caregiver abuse and trauma are other significant factors contributing to the disorder’s development. If parents are abusive towards their children, children may be reluctant to approach them for fear of further aggression. They may also learn abusive behaviors and replicate them in their relationships as they grow older. Adults may fear intimate relationships because they were abused in the past. They may also believe that others will harm them if they get too close or depend on others.
The causes of fearful avoidant attachment often involve our genetic temperament and experiential factors in childhood that causes the person to develop insecure attachments. These factors include the loss of a parent, parental abandonment or rejection, being raised in an environment of chronic insecurity and anxiety, having overly anxious parents, and being abused as a child.
How to Deal With Fearful Avoidant Attachment?
The fearful avoidant attachment pattern is a complex and confusing aspect of emotional life. It can be challenging to understand and even more challenging to cope with. But it can be managed positively with time, patience, and self-awareness.
To cope with fearful avoidant attachment, you must first understand what was happening in the past that caused this behavior. The person with this type of attachment will usually have very cold and distant parents. This causes them to be uncomfortable in close relationships, thus avoiding them. When this happens, the adult will begin to see it as usual and avoid close relationships throughout life. They may even develop a cycle where they enter into a relationship to avoid being alone.
The best way to cope with fearful-avoidant attachment is through therapy. A therapist should help you get over your fear of being close to others, which is one of the primary reasons why these people avoid relationships in the first place. The next step in coping with the fearful-avoidant attachment is better understanding it. This attachment pattern has been found in people from all walks of life, in situations as diverse as childhood parenthood, adult friendships, and professional relationships.
It’s important to note that the fearful-avoidant pattern isn’t a disorder that must be “treated” or “cured.” It’s simply part of a person’s emotional wiring and how some people experience relationships throughout their lives. The following interventions can help someone deal with it:
- Identifying negative views of self and others to change them.
- Learning new ways to communicate with others.
- Expressing anger in healthy, assertive ways instead of passive or aggressive ones.
- Becoming more attuned to one’s needs and desires without feeling guilty about them.
- Learning to share personal information more openly, without hiding anything or protecting oneself from criticism or rejection.
Further, you can use strategies to cope with fearful avoidant attachment in relationships. These include:
- Learn the skills of emotional regulation.
When you feel disconnected from your partner, taking things slowly and avoiding overreacting is essential. Use mindfulness to observe your feelings without judgment and consider alternative explanations for your partner’s behavior.
- Communicate with your partner.
If you have a fearful-avoidant attachment style, communication can be challenging. You must address any perceived abandonment issues upfront before entering into a relationship so that you and your partner know what to expect.
- Focus on yourself and your needs.
The best way to resolve conflict is by focusing on your own needs rather than predicting or analyzing what your partner will do next or how they feel about something or someone else.
- Seek support from friends and family members.
You’ll likely need support from others to learn secure attachments. So, open up, share your thoughts with your family, and do not hesitate to seek help.
Some people prefer to distance themselves and withdraw their emotions to maintain relationships. At the same time, others will focus too much on how the other person feels and become more immersed in the relationship than necessary. Either one of these attitudes can severely stifle the potential for relationships if the people involved don’t receive the proper guidance.
Whether it’s with family, friends, or romantic partners, I’ve put together some practical ways to deal with it. The fearful avoidant attachment style treatment involves developing and maintaining secure attachments through healthy intimate relationships.
The treatment approach focuses on obtaining support from others in a safe environment which allows for the gradual building of trust and security in relationships. Individuals learn to identify and express their emotions openly, effectively, and appropriately and how to receive support from others without fear of being rejected or abandoned.
- Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(2), 226–244. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.124
- Agrawal, H. R., Gunderson, J., Holmes, B. M., & Lyons-Ruth, K. (2004). Attachment studies with borderline patients: A Review. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 12(2), 94–104. https://doi.org/10.1080/10673220490447218