Dating someone with a fearful avoidant attachment style can be tricky—one moment, they may pull you in for deeper intimacy, and the next, they may push you away. And having a fearful avoidant attachment style yourself is equally tricky—your emotions can run high, where sometimes you desperately want to feel closer to your partner, and other times you feel terrified.
If you relate to either of these situations, you are not alone. Roughly one in every twenty people has a fearful avoidant attachment style.
If you’d like to understand the causes and behavioral patterns of fearful avoidance and how to navigate this attachment style in a relationship, then read on.
What Is Fearful Avoidant Attachment?
Fearful-avoidant attachment style is characterized by a mix of anxious and avoidant behaviors. Individuals with this style desire close relationships but simultaneously grapple with deep discomfort and distrust.
On the one hand, they strongly fear rejection and abandonment, often doubting their partner’s sincerity and commitment. And at the same time, they can struggle to trust and rely on others and can feel intensely afraid or overwhelmed when they experience emotional intimacy.
People who are fearful avoidant also commonly struggle with a negative self-image, viewing themselves as unworthy of love or affection.
This can all create some challenges in building intimate partnerships. But if one is willing to embark on a path of healing, growth, and self-discovery, then there’s no reason they can’t develop the tools and awareness to build healthy, deep, and lasting relationships.
Common Fearful Avoidant Signs and Behaviors
Check out this list of common tendencies from a fearful, avoidant individual to better understand whether you or your partner might have this attachment style.
- Can’t see support: Fearful avoidant individuals tend to see their partners as unsupportive1https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0022-3522.214.171.1243, even if their partner is offering support.
- Mixed signals: Fearful-avoidant individuals often give mixed signals, which can confuse their partners. They might yearn for closeness but also push others away out of fear. They might feel available one moment and unavailable the next. With enough mixed signals, your partner may end up feeling like this:
- Emotional dysregulation: Folks with this attachment style can experience strong emotions in relationships. Certain relationship triggers, which may even seem innocuous, can completely overwhelm their emotional system.
- Sabotage: When a romantic relationship starts to get too close or become too intense, fearful avoidant individuals may feel overcome with the fear of getting hurt if they become too attached, and they might act out by pushing their partner away, lashing out with anger, or going cold.
- Struggles with trust: Because their caregivers were often unreliable, fearful avoidant folks might struggle to trust their partners completely, fearing betrayal, rejection, manipulation, or aggression.
- Difficulty expressing needs: They may have difficulty expressing their needs in a relationship, often suppressing their true feelings out of fear of being rejected or misunderstood.
- Aggression. Fearful avoidant individuals are more prone to acting out aggressively2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3051370/—either as a trauma response or because they feel overwhelmed.
This picture below might epitomize how a fearful avoidant person feels in relationships.
To better understand fearful avoidant attachment, let’s zoom out and go over attachment theory and where the term came from.
Fearful Avoidance and Attachment Theory
What is attachment theory?
Attachment theory is a field in psychology3http://www.psychology.sunysb.edu/attachment/online/inge_origins%20DP1992.pdf, originally pioneered by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth4https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/looking-back-making-and-breaking-attachment-theory, that posits that children fundamentally require safety, affection, and comfort from their caregivers. The children will develop different attachment styles depending on how reliably their caregivers can provide these needs.
These attachment styles shape how children view relationships and life at large. The degree to which their needs are met colors their perceptions of questions like: how much can I rely on others? How dependable are people? How predictable is life? How safe is it to be me?
Further, these children then grow into adulthood and bring their attachment styles, and related perceptions of people and life, with them.
How does fearful avoidance fit into attachment theory?
According to attachment theory, children exhibit four types of attachment patterns in relation to their caregivers and attachment figures.
- Children with secure attachments feel calm and comfortable with their caregivers and are easily soothed when upset.
- Children with anxious attachments feel anxious their caregivers might leave at any given moment and become inconsolably distraught when their caregivers do leave them alone.
- Children with avoidant attachments feel distanced from their caregivers and rely less on them for emotional support.
- And children with fearful-avoidant attachment rely on their caregivers for support and desire affection when unsafe, but they also can feel afraid and frozen by their caregivers.
Fearful avoidance and the two dimensions of attachment theory
Researchers Kim Bartholomew and Leonard Horowitz introduced a four-dimensional model5https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0092656605000097#:~:text=The%20most%20influential%20of%20the,defining%20four%20adult%20attachment%20styles. for looking at attachment types in the early 90s.
This model includes two key dimensions:
Model of Self: This dimension relates to a person’s self-esteem and self-worth. A positive model of self implies a person views themselves as worthy of love and care, while a negative model suggests feelings of unworthiness.
Model of Others: This dimension pertains to people’s views about others. A positive model of others suggests a belief that other people are generally trustworthy and reliable. In contrast, a negative model of others implies a perception of people as unreliable and potentially harmful.
Fearful-avoidant attachment is characterized by negative views of both self and others. Individuals with this style often view themselves as unworthy of love (negative model of self) and others as untrustworthy or potentially harmful (negative model of others). This creates a complex pattern of desiring closeness with others while also fearing it.
Folks with anxious (preoccupied) attachment tend to have low self-esteem while viewing others positively.
Individuals with avoidant (dismissing) attachment view themselves positively and others negatively.
And securely attached folks view both themselves and others positively.
Clarifying language around fearful-avoidance
Attachment theory can get a little confusing because there are a lot of overlapping terms, and different people use different verbiage to describe each attachment style.
People often use “fearful-avoidant” and “disorganized” interchangeably. Though technically, there is a difference between the two terms.
“Disorganized attachment style” is the term that refers to children2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3051370/ who are both avoidant and anxious. And “fearful avoidant attachment style” is the term that refers to the adult version6https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Bartholomew-and-Horowitzs-1991-model-of-adult-attachment_fig1_275367267 of this attachment style.
For simplicity, in the rest of this post, we may use “disorganized” and “fearful avoidant” interchangeably, but just know there is a technical difference in the words used for children and adult attachment styles.
Children with a disorganized (fearful-avoidant) attachment style
In 1969, psychologist Mary Ainsworth conducted a study called the “Strange Situation3http://www.psychology.sunysb.edu/attachment/online/inge_origins%20DP1992.pdf” test, which informed our understanding of how children of different attachment styles relate to their caregivers.
It went as follows:
A caregiver would take their child into a “strange” room (one neither had been to before) full of toys. Sometimes there was a stranger in the room.
Psychologists would then observe how the child would interact with the toys and the caregiver.
Then the caregiver would leave for a few moments. This would elicit a response in the child.
And then, the caregiver would return, which would elicit another response.
Children of each attachment style would behave categorically differently.
Children with a disorganized (fearful, avoidant) style coped with stress in inconsistent ways7https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-lifespandevelopment/chapter/mary-ainsworth-and-the-strange-situation-technique/#:~:text=A%20child%20with%20a%20disorganized,or%20fall%20to%20the%20floor.. Sometimes the child would cry when the caregiver left but then avoid them when they returned. Other times the child would crawl towards the caregiver when they returned but suddenly freeze up before reaching them.
Children with a fearful attachment style tend to be overly dependent on their caregivers but also avoid them as much as possible. They’re afraid of being abandoned and rejected, so they constantly seek reassurance from their parents or guardians. Still, they feel afraid that their caregiver may respond with anger, coldness, or aggression.
If you’d like to deepen your social skillset beyond attachment theory and into other realms of connection, you might be interested in this goodie.
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Causes of Fearful Avoidant Attachment
Research into the nature versus nurture debate has suggested that genetic and environmental factors play crucial roles in shaping attachment styles. Some studies estimate that genetics can account for about 40% of the variation8https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8474999/#:~:text=shaped%20throughout%20development.-,Genetic%20research%20indicates%20that%20up%20to%2045%25%20of%20the%20variability,be%20explained%20by%20genetic%20causes. in adult insecure attachment styles.
Notably, more females than males9https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/026540759184001 have a fearful avoidant attachment style.
Though children may be genetically predisposed to an insecure attachment style (anxious, avoidant, or disorganized), the disorganized (fearful-avoidant) style is strongly correlated with the following types of parental behavior and conditions:
- Alcoholism. Research has shown that when one of the parents in a household is an alcoholic9https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/026540759184001, the child is most likely to take on a fearful-avoidant attachment style.
- Depression. It’s also more likely for a child to have a fearful avoidant style if one of the parents struggles with depression9https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/026540759184001.
- Abuse. One common contributor to a child’s fearful avoidant attachment style is an abusive9https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/026540759184001 caregiver. This could have been a parent, sibling, or grandparent. These early traumatic experiences from a loved one can explain why children with this attachment style may seek their caregiver’s comfort and fear them.
- Punishment and malevolence. Surveys10https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0022-35126.96.36.1997 of fearful avoidant individuals indicate that fearful avoidant children consider their parents punitive and malevolent. If a child views their parent as evil and a consistent source of fear, it could damage the trust needed for secure attachment.
Caregivers pass on what they know
Another reason caregivers may raise children in a way that causes fearful avoidance is because It’s what they know. Research suggests that parents tend to pass on11https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-6811.1995.tb00076.x their attachment style to their kids. And this makes sense because the child develops their conception of safety and intimacy from their caregivers’ ability to create safe intimacy.
Fearful avoidant attachment is a learned pattern of relating to others. One way or another, the caregiver cannot provide consistent, healthy affection and connection. And often, the parent is a source of comfort, fear, inconsistency, and avoidance. Children internalize these mixed emotions and messages from their caregivers and develop a complex relationship with intimacy, which can quickly stoke all of these old feelings.
Tips for Fearful Avoidant Folks to Improve Relationships
If you have a fearful avoidant attachment style, there are many steps you can take to learn to better work with your attachment patterns and create healthy relationships. Here are a few tips you can try:
Develop awareness over your impulses
If you start by building awareness, you can better spot when a fearful avoidant pattern is coming up. With more self-understanding, you can develop more agency in how you show up.
Action step: Bring a notebook around with you for one day this week. Any time you notice one of the following situations come up, take a moment and jot down what impulses you have, what event led to these feelings, and any other notable thoughts or emotions. Here are the situations to look out for:
- You feel very close to someone; then, like a switch is flipped, you want to push them away
- You experience terror related to emotional closeness
- You feel an impulse to control a person or social situation in order to feel safe
- In an innocuous situation, you feel like the other person had malintent or couldn’t be trusted
- You start to feel intense and overwhelming emotions.
Practice grounding methods
Individuals with disorganized attachment often encounter severe emotional fluctuations. Mastering strategies to regulate intense emotions and stay present during distressing periods is vital for mental health.
Action step: Try this two-minute grounding meditation next time you feel scattered:
- Shut your eyes
- Feel the presence of your feet touching the ground
- Visualize the Earth providing you with support
- Keep alternating your focus between the sensation of your feet and the comforting support the Earth offers.
Action step: The next time you feel overtaken by strong emotions, try the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding method12https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/behavioral-health-partners/bhp-blog/april-2018/5-4-3-2-1-coping-technique-for-anxiety.aspx to alleviate anxiety. Just follow these steps:
- Identify five objects within your visual field (for instance, a book, a lamp, a painting, your shoes, or a cup).
- Identify four things you can physically feel (like the texture of your jeans, the smooth surface of a table, the cool air from a fan, and the softness of a blanket).
- Identify three sounds you notice (such as birds chirping outside, the ticking of a clock, or distant conversation).
- Identify two scents you can recognize (perhaps the aroma of coffee or the fresh scent of your laundry).
- Identify one taste (what is the current flavor in your mouth?).
You could also try out some of these meditations.
Sometimes, your behavior and emotions might seem unpredictable to your partner or friends, so building the habit of sharing openly about your feelings and fears is critical to creating a healthy connection.
Action step: Here’s an activity taken from a communication modality called Authentic Relating. This activity creates a practice space for you to share your emotions in real-time. Here are the steps:
- Sit across from your partner. You can do this activity in eye contact, but if that feels overstimulating or too intense, you can close your eyes or look where you want.
- Set a timer for three minutes.
- Share honestly on the prompt: “Being with you right now, I notice I am feeling _____.”
- Then when your partner hears what you say, they’ll share: “Hearing that, I notice I feel _____.”
- Then when you hear what they share, respond: “Hearing that, I notice I feel _____.”
- Go back and forth until the time runs out, striving to be as transparent and in the moment as you can.
Trust your boundaries
For some fearful avoidant individuals, it can be stressful to set boundaries because, one moment, they want more closeness, and then they want less. Lots of people feel that they aren’t allowed to change their minds if their boundaries change.
But on your healing journey, your desire for intimacy might fluctuate all over the place—and it’s important that you acknowledge and honor whatever your comfort levels and boundaries are at any given time.
Action step: Here’s an activity you can try with your partner to help you feel into your boundaries around closeness and voice them. Try these steps:
- Stand about ten feet from your partner, and look at each other.
- Feel in your body how comfortable you feel with their distance from you.
- Using one hand, either beckon them forward or direct them back.
- They will slowly walk toward you or away from you as long as you motion with your hand
- Once you notice a desire to pause them, put a stop motion with your hand, and they’ll stop in their tracks.
- Then you can either beckon them forward again or signal them back. Again they’ll slowly walk in accordance with your request until you pause them.
- Keep doing this activity for about 5 minutes, bringing them as close or far as you’d like to.
Let this activity be a practice of noticing how much closeness/intimacy you want in a given moment and empowering yourself to ask for more or less.
Tips for Partners of Fearful Avoidant Folks
If your partner has a fearful, avoidant attachment style, here are some tips to help you navigate your relationships and friendships more easily.
Become an expert reassurer
When your partner was a baby, they rarely felt safe or comfortable. Part of their healing process will involve re-parenting themself and seeking support from you and a professional to help re-parent young parts of themself. One way you can help with this is to become an endless source of reassurance.
Action step: Ask your partner the phrases they like to hear that help them feel safe, secure, and reassured. If they are drawing a blank, you could offer some of the following suggestions.
- “I’m here for you”
- “You are safe”
- “I love you, and I won’t turn on you”
- “There’s no pressure to feel anything other than what you’re feeling right now”
- “All of you are welcome.”
Make sure to test out each phrase your partner suggests. Have them close their eyes as you say the phrase to them, and have them notice how it makes them feel.
Once you’ve found a few phrases that resonate with them, make it a practice to embed these phrases into your interactions as often as possible. And even actively ask if they’d like reassurance at any moment. Just make sure you don’t state any reassurance phrases unless you mean them at the moment; otherwise, you may replicate some confusing patterns their caregiver expressed years ago.
Train your trustability
Your partner likely has wounds around trusting other people in their life. In order to get clear on what would help them relax more into trusting you, try this activity.
Action step: Give this a shot to get a better sense of what trust means to your partner.
- Sit across from your partner
- Set a timer for five minutes
- Ask your partner, “What would help you trust me more?”
- Let them answer until they run out of things to say. While they share, just listen.
- Then ask them, “How could I be more trustworthy?”
- Again, let them answer until they run out of things to say. And while they share, just listen.
- Go back and forth between these two questions until the timer goes off.
- Then reflect together on what that activity was like and what you both learned.
Keep track of your needs
If your partner experiences heightened emotional swings, it can feel like you need to be the perfect partner and always attend to supporting them. But the reality is, to be a great partner, you have to put your needs and boundaries first. Otherwise, you’ll sacrifice yourself over and over until you have nothing at all to give.
Action step: For one day this week, set a timer to go off every hour. Each time the alarm goes off, just take two minutes to jot down any unmet needs you have at that moment. You might need food or water. You might need affection or cuddles. You may need someone to listen to you.
Here’s a list of needs to help spark your inspiration. If every hour is too much, just try writing your needs down one time and see what you notice.
Look to Professional Support
Working with a therapist
Seeking professional support can offer immense help. Therapists or counselors trained in attachment theory can provide the tools and techniques to manage fears and build healthier intimate relationships.
Therapy provides a safe, non-judgmental space to explore childhood trauma, understand its impact, and foster secure attachment patterns. Over time, with professional guidance, people can learn to build trust, express needs, and cultivate fulfilling relationships.
If you’d like to try working with a therapist specializing in attachment theory, try this directory.
Training communication skills
It can also be tremendously helpful for you and your partner to deepen your capacity to communicate needs, feelings, boundaries, and desires. If you’d like to pursue training or engage with a community that practices communication skills, three great options are:
Frequently Asked Questions About Fearful Avoidance Attachment
The major signs of fearful avoidant attachment include a desire for close relationships, feeling uncomfortable with emotional intimacy, and displaying unpredictable moods and reactions in relationships.
Fearful avoidant attachment usually stems from early childhood experiences, particularly inconsistent or traumatic caregiving, leading to an internal conflict between seeking and avoiding intimacy. As children, their caregivers are often abusive or struggle with alcoholism or depression.
No attachment style is inherently the “worst.” Each has its unique challenges and implications, and individuals with fearful avoidant attachment can certainly work towards developing healthier relationship patterns.
Fearful avoidant attachment gets triggered by emotional intimacy, vulnerability, or perceived threat of abandonment or rejection. All of these events can trigger childhood memories of unstable caregivers and can evoke fear and avoidance.
A fearful-avoidant person may push you away if they experience emotional demands, perceived criticism, or feelings of being controlled or engulfed. Relating intimately with a fearful avoidant individual is a tricky balance of attempting not to overwhelm them with intimacy or rejection.
Folks with fearful avoidant attachment can absolutely heal and develop a secure attachment. With self-awareness, patience, and potentially professional support, individuals with fearful avoidant attachments can learn to develop healthier relationships.
A fearful avoidant individual needs reassurance of love and commitment, consistency, patience, trust, and a safe space to express their feelings without fear of judgment or rejection. We all need these things as children and fearful-avoidant individuals didn’t get them when they were young.
A secure attachment style partner can most easily provide the consistency and understanding that a fearful avoidant individual often needs because they can most readily offer support, reassurance, and consistency.
You might have a fearful avoidant attachment style if you experience conflicting desires for intimacy and independence, struggle with trust in relationships, and often feel emotionally overwhelmed.
A fearful-avoidant person might show love through acts of care and support but may struggle with expressing it verbally or consistently due to their fears of vulnerability. It could be helpful to explore the Five Love Languages together to understand best how you like receiving love and how your partner feels able to express it.
No, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant attachment are two different attachment styles. Dismissive avoidants tend to deny the need for closeness, while fearful avoidants desire closeness but fear it.
The Path Forward for Fearful Avoidant Individuals
Navigating the complexities of a fearful avoidant attachment style can be challenging, but remember that growth and healing are possible.
If you have a fearful avoidant attachment style, keep these tips in mind:
- Develop awareness over your impulses. Spend a day jotting down any time you feel either a desperate need for intimacy or the impulse to run from it.
- Practice grounding methods. If you feel emotionally dysregulated, try noticing 5 visual stimuli, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 smells, and 1 taste.
- Open communication. Practice revealing what’s actually going for you in a connection.
- Trust your boundaries. It’s okay if your boundaries move around, trust whatever your “no” is in the moment, and try out the activity above to better tune into your embodied boundaries.
And if your partner has a fearful avoidant attachment style, you could try:
- Become an expert reassurer. Find out which phrases your partner likes to hear to feel safe, soothed, and reassured. Then sincerely say those things as much as possible.
- Train your trustability. Get clear on what your partner would need from you to trust you more.
- Keep track of your needs. It might feel like your partner has a lot of needs to attend to, so make sure you keep your needs on the table as well.
With self-awareness and a genuine desire for change, you or your partner can progress towards a stronger and more secure bond.
If you’d like to take a quiz to clarify what attachment style you have, here is a free option.
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