Attachment Series Part 4: Fearful Avoidant

Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC

Attachment theory has become an essential framework for understanding how individuals form and maintain relationships. The theory asserts that early childhood experiences shape our attachment style, which can profoundly impact how we relate to others. 

One of the attachment styles that can cause significant challenges in relationships is the fearful avoidant attachment style. 

What's Attachment Theory?

In 1969, psychologist John Bowlby introduced attachment theory to explain infant-caretaker bonds. Bowlby suggested that responsive and available caregivers instill a sense of security, enabling a child to explore the world confidently.

Scholars later extended the idea of attachment to adults. We now understand that people develop and carry working attachment models throughout their lives. Even when learned in childhood, these styles influence how people experience adult relationships.

What are the Different Attachment Styles?

Attachment styles are deeply ingrained ways of relating to others developed during childhood. They shape our relationships throughout our lives. There are four main attachment styles: 

  • Secure: you believe you are worthy of love and others are responsive and trustworthy
  • Anxious-preoccupied: you feel you are unworthy of love but that others are supportive and accepting
  • Dismissive-avoidant: you have a sense of your own self-worth but don't trust others
  • Fearful avoidant: you believe yourself to be unlovable and are untrusting of others to support and accept you

These categories combine two working models: whether or not someone feels worthy of love and support and whether or not one feels others are trustworthy. 

What is Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style?

Fearful avoidant attachment style, also known as disorganized attachment, is characterized by conflicting emotions towards close relationships. People with this attachment style crave connection but have deep-seated fears and mistrust of others, leading to a push-pull relationship dynamic.

This attachment style can cause a person to feel conflicted, anxious, and unsure of how to approach relationships. They often have difficulty trusting others and may even feel uncomfortable with physical touch or emotional intimacy. Because they think others will inevitably reject them, they tend to withdraw from relationships before they can become serious.

It Can Happen in All Types of Relationships

fearful avoidant attachments lead to behavior that may confuse friends and romantic partners. People with this style may initially encourage closeness before emotionally or physically retreating when they feel vulnerable. Despite this, they still want love, intimacy, and connection. 

What Causes Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style?

Fearful avoidant attachment style typically stems from childhood experiences that created confusion or trauma surrounding attachment. They may have had caregivers who were abusive, neglectful, or inconsistent, leading to a lack of trust and belief that they cannot rely on others. 

When the child approached the parent for comfort, the parent could not provide it or caused further distress, causing the child to withdraw. Those carrying this fear into adulthood will have the same habit of approaching and withdrawing from their interpersonal relationships. 

For example, a child who experienced inconsistent or abusive caregiving may develop a fearful avoidant attachment style because they associate intimacy with pain or neglect. 

Alternatively, a child who witnessed parental conflict or experienced neglect may develop anxious attachment because they learned that intimacy is unpredictable and unreliable.

Those with a fearful avoidant attachment style usually have experienced trauma or loss, making it difficult to form healthy attachments. They may struggle with self-esteem and feel undeserving of love and attention, further contributing to their difficulty developing and maintaining close relationships.

What Does Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style Look Like?

Avoidant individuals often struggle with behaviors that can negatively impact their relationships. Here are some of the most common:

  • Avoidant behavior: Someone may engage in avoidant behavior, such as withdrawing or shutting down emotionally, when they feel vulnerable or threatened.
  • Conflicted feelings about relationships: A fearful avoidant person may still crave intimacy and connection, but they fear getting too close or being rejected.
  • Difficulty trusting others: Those with this attachment style may have difficulty trusting or relying on others due to past experiences of trauma or abuse.
  • Intimacy avoidance: They often avoid physical touch or emotional intimacy because they are afraid of getting too close to others.
  • Emotional numbness: People with this attachment style may have difficulty expressing emotions or feel emotionally detached from others.
  • Jealousy and possessiveness: Fearful avoidant individuals may become possessive or jealous in relationships because they fear losing the other person.
  • Fear of abandonment: Worrying about being abandoned or left alone is common in fearful avoidant people, contributing to conflicting feelings about entering a relationship.
  • Self-Sabotage: A person’s fear may lead them to sabotage their relationships or push people away to avoid getting hurt.

The fear and discomfort that coincide with a fearful avoidant attachment style are rooted in trauma. Recognizing and acknowledging this attachment style's root causes are critical first steps in overcoming it. Those who struggle with fearful avoidant attachment benefit from therapy or other interventions to heal from past hurts. 

Negative Impacts of Fearful Avoidant Attachment

People with fearful avoidant attachments want to form strong interpersonal bonds but at the same time, protect themselves from rejection. This dynamic leads them to seek relationships but avoid genuine commitment or long-term intimacy. 

The belief that others will hurt them or that they can't measure causes fearful avoidant people to have various issues. Fearful avoidant attachment styles are often considered the worst in terms of adverse outcomes. For example, there is a distinct correlation between fearful avoidant attachment and depression.

Avoidant Attachment and Mental Health

Researchers found that the cognitive distortions accompanying fearful avoidant attachment leaves those vulnerable to depression, social anxiety, and negative emotions. Another study found that, compared to other attachment styles, fearful avoidant people tend to have more sexual partners and a greater tendency to consent to sex even when it's unwanted.

How to Overcome Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style

Overcoming a fearful, avoidant attachment style can be challenging, but it is possible with the proper support.

Recognize Your Attachment Style 

Recognizing a fearful avoidant attachment style is the first step in overcoming it. Understanding the symptoms and how they manifest in your relationships can help you begin to address the root causes.

Seek Professional Help

Working with a therapist can be incredibly helpful in managing a fearful avoidant attachment style. A therapist can help you explore the root causes of your attachment style, develop coping skills, and work through trauma or other issues impacting your relationships.

Working with a qualified therapist or counselor can help you:

  • Understanding Attachment Patterns: Understanding underlying beliefs and emotions contributing to your attachment style is the first step to overcoming them.
  • Building Trust: Through therapy, you can learn to build trust with others and develop a sense of safety and security in your relationships.
  • Developing Self-Awareness: A therapist can guide you through ways to  become more aware of your emotions and behaviors, allowing you to recognize patterns and make positive changes.
  • Improving Communication: fearful avoidant individuals may struggle with communication, but talk therapy can help you develop healthy communication skills and express your emotions effectively.
  • Healing from Trauma: If you have experienced trauma or loss, therapy will help you heal from those experiences and develop a stronger sense of self-worth.

We often don’t know what happened in our early development that caused us to develop an avoidant attachment style. Talking to a professional can help us sort out our memories, feelings, and responses.

Practice Vulnerability

Fearful avoidant individuals may struggle with vulnerability because it requires being open and honest with others. Practicing vulnerability, even in small ways, can help you build trust and develop more intimate relationships.

Learn to Communicate Effectively

Slow things down if you're afraid of sharing too much about yourself in a relationship or moving too quickly. Communicate what makes you feel anxious and what helps you feel more secure and safe in a relationship.

Be Kind to Yourself

People with fearful avoidant attachments tend to think negatively of themselves. Learn to talk to yourself as you would a friend by shutting down self-criticism with compassion and understanding. 

Help for Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style 

If you can relate to the fearful avoidant attachment style, Inner Balance Counseling can help you understand your attachment patterns and work towards creating more secure and fulfilling relationships.

If you feel that you or a loved one has a fearful avoidant attachment style, know that you are not alone and that help is available. Our therapists and counselors can provide the support and guidance you need to understand your attachment patterns and develop healthier, more fulfilling relationships. Reach out today.

Learn more about attachment styles in the Attachment Series Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Five

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Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC

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