Attachment theory posits that the way we relate to our early caregivers can predict our lifelong relationship style. It’s mind-blowing to think that the first five years of life could explain your most recent breakup. Yet, research has shown that adults attach in relationships in the same way they learned to attach to caregivers.
We all have a deep need for love and belonging. As infants and young children, we’re also entirely dependent on the adults around us to fulfill our basic needs for everything from shelter to nutrition. We learn to trust or distrust the world based on the level of responsiveness our caregivers showed to us.
It makes sense, right? If we cry because we’re hungry and the adult in our lives steps up to feed us, we’ve learned that we can rely on others to meet our needs. If we cry and the response is inconsistent, we’re never quite sure if our needs can be met by others or not. If we cry and someone tries to get us to stop without meeting our needs, we may learn we can’t ask for what we need and may even begin to suppress our innate reaction to our feelings. And if we cry and are ignored completely? That’s a whole other level of trust issues.
For children who received consistent response to their needs, emotional validation, and comfort, they become securely attached to their caregiver and are later capable of healthy, trusting, loving relationships. People whose caregivers responded inconsistently grow into anxious adults who are just as anxiously attached in relationships. People whose needs were shamed, ignored, or dismissed become adults who avoid attachment entirely — only ever depending on themselves. Lastly, we have the fearful avoidants, or disorganized — the worst of both insecure worlds.
What Is a Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style?
For Fearful Avoidants, there’s inconsistent parenting paired with fear of one or more caregivers. This attachment style can form because of abuse, but it can also develop because at least one caregiver was inconsistent. This creates a paradigm where the Fearful-Avoidant child will try to approach the parent for comfort but then will withdraw. There’s a desire for a relationship paired with a distrust in their reaction.
The adult form of this could result in someone who is emotionally unavailable. They want a relationship, but they will certainly withdraw from it as a way to reject others before they can be rejected. This attachment style comes with an underlying sense of unworthiness and has been linked to depression and anxiety in adults.
At the heart of it, someone will a Fearful-Avoidant Attachment style longs for love but doesn’t trust it. Their innate view of the world is that other people will hurt them, and their early conditioning has made them suspect that they don’t deserve love or acceptance. This deep sense of unworthiness can have them chasing relationships and then withdrawing from them.
Signs of Fearful Avoidant Attachment
The Fearful-Avoidants in the world share many similarities. Here are just a few of the signs of those who share this attachment style.
Fear of Intimacy
What’s interesting about the Fearful-Avoidant, or Disorganized, Attachment style is that some people will avoid relationships entirely, but others will be more than happy to enter relationships while avoiding deeper intimacy. Because this style comes with a heightened fear of rejection, they don’t let anyone get too close to them.
Lack of Self-Worth
Their underlying belief system is that they do not deserve love and healthy relationships. Otherwise, why would people leave? This thought process forms the basis of how they relate to relationships and to the world around them. Their anxiety is accompanied by the idea that they are not worthy.
Difficulty Regulating Emotions
For the Fearful-Avoidant partner, it’s hard to regulate what they perceive to be negative emotions. Their reactions may seem disproportionate to the situation. The person with this attachment style likely won’t handle stress well because it can seem overwhelming even when it may seem manageable from the outside looking in.
What’s interesting is that Fearful-Avoidant people often express dissatisfaction with their relationships and with the ways other people show support. Their view of the world is negative, and they have difficulty recognizing the effort of others if it disagrees with that worldview. These partners may be the ones constantly dissatisfied with how other people treat them. Even with healthy partners, they can nitpick and find fault in order to have a valid excuse to leave the relationship.
The Fearful, or Anxious-, Avoidant partner is also unpredictable. Their reactions may be difficult to gauge, and you may feel like you’re walking on eggshells with them. In the worst cases, this volatility can come with violence.
This attachment style is likely to send many mixed signals. They want love and relationships while distrusting and avoiding them. It can be confusing for the people who become involved with them. The push and pull can also be intense and exhausting for potential partners. The Fearful Avoidant may even love bomb the people they’re interested in only to pull away when the relationship solidifies.
While people with this style may avoid relationships, they may often find themselves in situationships, or casual relationships without labels that simulate a real relationship. Their avoidance of commitment could lead to any number of casual sexual partners, and they may find relational satisfaction in casual rather than official relationships.
Fearful-Avoidant partners don’t tend to deal with emotions well — their own or the emotions of others. Instead, they shut down. Because this attachment style has been shamed for their emotions, they find it difficult to communicate emotion at all. They also tend to avoid how they feel. From a romantic relationship standpoint, partners with this attachment style can be great when things are going well but can shut down immediately if there’s a conflict of any kind in the relationship no matter how small and easily solved it may be.
How to Deal with a Fearful-Avoidant Partner
As a person who has dated the Fearful-Avoidant partner, I can tell you that it’s no picnic. It’s hard to love someone who refuses to accept the love and, in fact, emphatically refuses it. Attempts to connect with them are often shut down. It can be discouraging, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to have a successful relationship with someone with this attachment style.
Everything the Fearful-Avoidant partner does when it comes to intimacy is out of a fear of being left and rejected. It helps to remember this and show compassion. Reassure them often. This can help them feel supported and assured that they are not being left.
Because Fearful-Avoidants often feel inadequate and unworthy, they need extra appreciation and validation. It can help soothe the anxiety that underlies their relationship with others. Pointing out the good things they do can help them see that they are valued and worthy of love.
Be a Safe Space
Never criticize, shame, blame, or belittle the Fearful-Avoidant partner. Be a safe person that they can show their true feelings. When communicating about problems in the relationship, keep it respectful and kind. Allowing them the space to be who they are without shame or judgment can help them learn to open up and explore their emotions safely.
It’s hard to love someone who keeps pushing you away. Be patient with them. It takes time to learn a secure attachment style. If they are genuinely trying, adjust your patience accordingly.
With that being said, we can’t want healing enough for someone else. If you love a Fearful-Avoidant who isn’t working on their attachment issues, there’s nothing you can do to fix this for them or make them feel loved. Know your own worth and boundaries, and keep those in mind, too. While I’ll never regret the experience of loving someone with this attachment style, I do sometimes wish we’d explored our separate attachment issues in couples counseling to have worked through some of the issues that blocked true intimacy. Effort, even paired with love, is not enough when it’s one-sided.
Because this type of partner will always assume the worst, it’s important to openly communicate with them throughout the relationship. Be clear about needs and expectations. Learn to fight fairly — keeping disagreements kind.
Be Open to Learning
Remember that this type of person is both Fearful and Avoidant. Understanding Anxious and Avoidant Attachment styles can also give insight into how to deal with the person who struggles with a combination of the two. Learn about attachment and how it impacts your relationships. Learn your own attachment style and ask yourself if it is as secure as it needs to be. Be open to learning, and you might even try learning together — perhaps even in couples’ counseling.
How to Deal with Fearful-Avoidant Tendencies in Ourselves
For those who see these traits in themselves, there is help and hope. Here are a few things you can do to become more secure.
To address Fearful-Avoidant attachment, it’s important to build self-esteem and self-worth. Often, there is an underlying sense of unworthiness in play. Using positive affirmations, stopping negative thoughts, and learning to reframe the way you think can all contribute to building strong self-worth.
Get Trauma Therapy
While any counseling can help, trauma therapy in particular has been proven effective at dealing with issues up to and including PTSD. So often, we minimize our childhood trauma, dismissing it as anything other than trauma. Yet, trauma counseling modalities can help us reprocess these experiences and reintegrate them into our lives in healthier ways, which can also address the underlying attachment style.
Sense these reactions are fear-based, it’s important to communicate boundaries to those around you, particularly romantic partners. Ask for support, discuss what you need, and be open not only about triggers but about how you prefer to deal with them. Simply discussing boundaries could alleviate some relational stress and allow your partner to step up and support you in a way that helps rather than exacerbates the discomfort.
One of the most important things a Fearful-Avoidant person can do is to recognize the triggers that come with this attachment style. Often, it’s easier to blame other people and point to their failings for our reactions. Yet, this attachment style is known for finding excuses not to rely on others. They are constantly looking to prove that they are unworthy to be loved and that other people are also unworthy to love them. If this sounds like you, recognize your patterns and begin to create new reactions to the most common triggers.
Practice opening up to safe people. Rehearse this feeling of being secure. Share a memory. Open up about a thought or feeling. Allow yourself the experiencing of sharing with someone who will not criticize, judge, or shame you for it. Rehearse being a secure person with a secure attachment style. Practice as often as needed.
Allow Room for Imperfection
Most importantly, practice compassion for yourself and others. Allow room for imperfection. Other people will let you down. You’ll let them down, too. It’s a natural part of relationships, but it doesn’t have to end them. It can become a learning opportunity instead of a missed opportunity. Messing up feels uncomfortable. Learn to breathe through discomfort without assuming it’s the end of the world or of your relationship.
It’s not going to be easy to learn a secure attachment style. Don’t give up. Keep trying. Find a counselor to practice with and ask friends and partners for support as you learn and grow. Fear can feel insurmountable, but it’s not. With practice, you can learn to be the secure, healthy partner you long to be.
At the end of the day, it’s important to know that you are worthy of love, acceptance, and belonging. Louder for the people in the back.
You are worthy of love.
You are worthy of acceptance.
You are worthy of belonging.
You. Are. Worthy.
Even if you have to say this to yourself every day, believe it. Let other people love you. Love yourself. Welcome love, and don’t look for an excuse to throw it back in other people’s faces. Just allow it to be. You deserve it.
As children, we needed parents who showed up for us. Yet, our parents are people, too. People who struggled. People who made mistakes. People who might even have been ill-equipped for parenting or lacked the support they needed. We cannot have a do-over. Not for being a child or being a parent. But we can learn to become secure no matter what stage of life we’re in.
In fact, developing a secure attachment is what we’ll need to do if we want healthier, happier relationships. Otherwise, we’ll keep tripping over our attachment style and wondering why we can’t our relationships right — and why love continues to elude us.
Article originally published on The Truly Charming