If you haven’t read the previous two posts in this series on anxious-preoccupied attachment and dismissive-avoidant attachment, then I would highly recommend going back and reading those before you read this post, because in some ways fearful-avoidant attachment is like a blend of the other two insecure styles. If you have read those posts, then you might be confused about how a person could be a blend of those two seemingly opposite styles. But if you’ve ever been with a partner who’s displayed these characteristics or been the partner displaying them yourself, it might come as a huge relief to know you’re not alone in experiencing this roller coaster of emotions.
What does fearful avoidant attachment behavior look like?
- Low view of both self and others. Anxious attachers typically have a low view of themselves and dismissive attachers typically have a low view of others; fearful attachers experience the worst of both worlds.
- Desire to get emotional needs met in a relationship. Unlike dismissive attachers, fearful attachers realize that a healthy level of dependence on another person is a good thing.
- Desire not to get hurt. Although they desire a secure relationship, their low opinion of themselves and others doesn’t let them believe that a secure relationship is possible. They’re convinced that they’re not worthy of another person’s love and that any partner will eventually leave them and cause them pain. Therefore, they’re very fearful of the very thing they want. In counselor Matthew Hunt’s words, “They have no organized strategy for getting their needs met by others.”
- Strong reluctance followed by strong anxiety. Though all fearful attachers are different, there is a relationship pattern that is not unusual for them as a group: First, they’re very hesitant to start an official relationship. They might want to prolong the initial “honeymoon” stage of a relationship indefinitely without ever labeling it to minimize chances of future heartbreak. But if their partner convinces them to start an official relationship, they’ll go into anxious attachment mode, perhaps becoming “clingy” or untrusting because their worry about eventual heartbreak hasn’t just gone away. Essentially, they display characteristics of both anxious and dismissive attachers; they might cling in one season and flee in another.
- Reluctance to share their deepest feelings. Fearful attachers believe that revealing their true selves will result in their partner not loving them anymore.
- Reluctance to end relationships. Because they’re sure they won’t find someone who loves them again, if fearful attachers actually allow themselves to get involved in a relationship then they will often stay in it even if they’re not really happy.
How is a fearful attacher made?
Experts believe there are a lot of different behaviors from childhood caregivers that can lead to children developing fearful attachment (and carrying it into adulthood). Dr. Hal Shorey explains that fearful attachers frequently had at least one caregiver that showed “scary parental behavior.” In other words, when the child experienced any kind of distress or fear, the reaction they received from their caregiver was not helpful. In fact, their caregiver might have even been a source of distress or fear.
According to Shorey, this might include anything from outright abuse (physical or otherwise) to milder or more subtle hostility. He even explains that unintentional “scary parental behavior,” such as a caregiver dealing with a serious mental illness, can lead to a child developing fearful attachment. A caregiver with a mental illness might not be trying to cause their child anxiety at all, and might be really sad to know that their illness is creating this effect, but the child still can’t understand that caregiver’s behavior and therefore feels anxiety about it.
What can I do about my fearful avoidant attachment?
First, if you’ve recognized yourself as a fearful attacher from reading this post, then good for you! Lots of people don’t understand that their relationship problems are part of a pattern of behavior and damaging thought processes that they have, so they can never solve those problems. If you’ve recognized this, then you’ve already taken an important first step! Definitely consider seeking out a therapist who has experience with attachment theory. If that’s not an option for you, though, or if you’d also like some practical options for what you can do until you get a chance to start that therapy, consider these ways you can help yourself work toward secure attachment:
- Don’t assume that your feelings about your relationship are the same as the truth about your relationship. I’ve given this advice in every insecure attachment style post, but that’s because it’s relevant to every kind of insecure attachment. Because your brain is programmed to assume that any close relationship will end badly, it’s very possible that you’re not interpreting all of your partner’s actions and statements accurately. You’re seeing them through the lens of your own insecurities.
- Remember that it’s okay for relationships to evolve in stages. If fear that opening up your true self will result in your partner leaving you, then feel free to do so very gradually. Intimacy isn’t a race; if it will help you stay in a relationship that’s good for you rather than running away from it, then just tell your partner about the fact that you’ll have to take your time in revealing yourself but that you’re working on it. In fact, if you do reveal things you feel vulnerable about before you’re ready, then you’re more likely to fall back into old patterns and flee the relationship because you’ll feel like you’ve revealed too much and are bound to be abandoned soon.
- Practice actually accepting expressions of love. For a fearful attacher, if someone expresses love for you, or sometimes even just a sincere friendly affection, your default reaction is probably to think, “You just think you feel that way because you don’t really know me yet.” When you hear yourself thinking this, stop immediately, replay the person’s expression of love again, and this time try to believe that it’s true. You probably won’t be completely successful at this the first time. But it’s about stopping your negative thoughts about yourself one day at a time, and you’ll never make progress at this if you don’t practice.
Just a reminder: If you’ve been interested in this series on attachment styles generally and want to read more, there are lots of great books you can consult for further reading. To start with, try Jeb Kinnison’s Bad Boyfriends (which, despite what the title sounds like, is relevant for both men and women) or Amir Levine and Rachel Heller’s Attachment and How it Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love.
If you think you or your partner has an fearful avoidant attachment style and you’d like to talk more about changing that, you can call us at (305) 501-0133 or click here to schedule a free 20-minute Clarity Consult .