• By Rachel @EmotionEnhancement

The Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style


Fearful-avoidant attachment (also known as disorganized) is an insecure form of relationship attachment which affects around 7% of the population. It shares traits of both the dismissive-avoidant and preoccupied-anxious attachment styles. Those with fearful-avoidant attachment believe that they do not deserve or are unworthy of love. However, equally, they do not trust other people for fear that they will be rejected.


"Patients like these are torn by conflicting impulses (to avoid others out of fear of attack, to turn desperately to others out of fear of being alone) and often experience their feelings as overpowering and chaotic" - Attachment In Psychotherapy


Fearful-avoidant attachment is mostly the result of severe childhood trauma, emotional neglect or abuse. Scientific research illustrates that the first 18 months of a infant's life impacts the brains development. Exposure to severe trauma during childhood can cause long-term damaging effects, which changes the sensitivity and emotional regulation of the brain. People with fearful-avoidant attachment often experienced a chaotic childhood environment and were mostly fearful of their parents (or caregivers). The parents may have been physically violent, abusive, suffering from untreated PTSD, personality disorders, or been severely depressed. When looking for comfort the child would be met by a frightening or frightened parent, who would scare or confuse them and be unable to soothe them. In other words, the person they had to seek comfort from was also the person who caused them pain. It is not just angry or panicked caregivers that can evoke fear in a child. The Still Face Experiment by Dr. Edward Tronik, illustrates how severely depressed caregivers who are unable to express emotion, can also evoke the fear response in young children. Studies show that one of the key differences with the parents of fearful-avoidant children is that the parents had not resolved their own losses or trauma i.e they were unable to understand or integrate their trauma, causing their traumatic memories to greatly affect their behaviour. Such parents can be triggered for example by the cries of their baby and erupt into anger, or another disorganised response like withdrawal from their baby or dissociation.

"Children raised in such environments will become hypervigilant for threat cues (like those with anxious/preoccupied attachment) and simultaneously avoidant of interpersonal closeness and intimacy (like those with avoidant/dismissing attachment). When observed under laboratory conditions (in Mary Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” paradigm), these children can be seen to approach the parent, only to freeze and withdraw or wander about aimlessly. In a like vane, as adults they will simultaneously desire closeness and intimacy and approach potential attachment figures (close friends or romantic partners) but then become extremely uncomfortable when they get too close to those partners and withdraw; hence the message given to others is "come here and go away." Of course the person with this "fearful" attachment style is not likely to be fully conscious that he/she is enacting this process and may feel extremely misunderstood and victimized in professional, friendship and romantic relationships. This person may not perceive that (s)he is actually the one doing the distancing and rejecting." - Come Here-Go Away; the Dynamics of Fearful Attachment, Hal Shorey, Psychology Today.

Emotions were so heightened in childhood that they are felt intensely, with extreme highs and lows. As a coping mechanism as they grew older some may have taken on a controlling/parental role to their parents to attempt to manage the threat their parents presented, whilst being able to keep in close proximity. As adults, their responses in intimate relationships are often highly unpredictable, erratic or even bizarre. They will struggle to work together with partners, and be unable to explain what is happening internally for them. To partners it may appear that they are often lying, holding secrets and highly paranoid. Many have developed disassociation as a coping strategy.

"Constantly inundated by an avalanche of intense emotions, the disorganized person learns to dissociate from them, essentially detaching from their emotions. As the disorganized person detaches from their emotions, they become less able to recognize, manage, or control these emotions. The more they detach from the emotional self, the less they are able to learn from experiences, the more vulnerable they become to repeating past mistakes and miscalculations. The more they repeat past mistakes and miscalculations, the more this cycle is intensified and the less grasp on self the disorganized person is able to maintain." - Relationships: The Disorganized Attachment Style, Dr. Gregg Jantz, A Place Of Hope.

It is important to note that people with a predominately anxious attachment style and people with a predominately dismissive-avoidant attachment style can move between the two, this may cause them to believe they have fearful-avoidant attachment. For example, Ben's mother was very smothering in childhood but his father would alternate between giving him attention and being completely dismissive during periods of time when he was under high pressure at work. Ben scores highly on the dismissive-avoidance scale as the relationship with his mother was most influential to him. However, he does also have some anxious characteristics that he developed from his father's behavior towards him. He is mostly attracted towards anxious women, therefore, he stays in his dismissive-avoidant attachment style for the majority of the time. Occasionally he meets a woman he is attracted to who is more strongly dismissive-avoidant than him, which polarizes him over to his anxious side. He then finds himself using some anxious attachment behaviors to try and get her attention. It does not mean that he has the fearful-avoidant attachment style. His parents were not largely a source of fear, the negative emotions he mostly felt where feeling suffocated, annoyed or rejected. People with fearful-avoidant attachment display much more unpredictable behavior.


Characteristics of Fearful-Avoidant Attachment

Typically the following types of behavior will be present:

  • Unpredictable moods and overwhelming emotions, can have borderline personality disorder.

  • Dissociation, feeling detached from reality and feelings (may sound 'flat' when recalling distressing experiences).

  • A negative view of themselves and others.

  • May suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

  • Challenges a partner with negative behavior to 'test' them and see if they will be abandoned.

  • Typically will prefer to withdraw or avoid relationships.

  • Paranoid or fearful of novel situations.

  • Self-sabotage relationships.

  • Low self-confidence and self-worth.

  • Difficulty in building trust.

  • Feels trapped or smothered when a partner gets too close.

  • Finds it hard to express feelings, show affection and seek intimacy.

  • Takes a long time to get into a relationship then becomes quickly dependent when in it.

  • Fear of being vulnerable or revealing too much.

  • Fear of rejection and abandonment.

  • Constantly seeks approval from others to make them feel good.

  • More likely to stay with an abusive partner.

The above characteristics result in a similar end result to that of dismissive-avoidant attachment of avoiding close relationships altogether. However, unlike dismissive-avoidants, there is a low-self esteem that deep down something is wrong or unacceptable about them. According to Erica DJossa on The Love Compass blog,

"Due to the self-consciousness that a fearful-avoidant person experiences, they become dependent in relationships and may struggle with separation anxiety. They have difficulty building trust and often avoid conflict. They avoid displaying emotions and being vulnerable with their partners unless they are certain they will get a positive response. After entering into a relationship, those who are fearfully attached tend to be insecure and have more invested in the relationship than their partner. They tend to internalize problems in the relationship as being their fault and assume a passive role within the relationship. Due to all of the worries and fears experienced getting to know someone and that persist through their relationship, fearfully attached individuals often try to physically and emotionally avoid intimate connections with others." - The Fearful/Anxious Avoidant Attachment Style, Erica DJossa, The Love Compass blog.

How to manage fearful-avoidant attachment

Seek a psychotherapist to help you work through the root causes of your issues - Fearful-avoidant attachment is very difficult to manage without help. A therapist will provide a secure relationship that will allow for unresolved trauma to be processed. It's likely that it will take longer for a fearful-avoidant to trust the therapist and they will initially experience feelings of wanting to get close to then escape the therapist. The therapist will help explore these triggers and learn to identify distress that is linked to past trauma rather than current relationships.

Mindfulness - Mindfulness practices like meditation help build new pathways in the brain for dealing with stress more healthily. A regular mindfulness practice will help you manage emotions and intrusive thoughts.

Seek secure people as partners - People with dismissive-avoidant or preoccupied-avoidant attachment styles will magnify and trigger the fearful-avoidant. Someone with a secure attachment style will be able to provide emotional security, support and acceptance.

Express feelings and fears to your partner - This enables relationships to become a secure base, and source of soothing and comfort rather than a source of fear. Confiding in a partner helps to build trust and a feeling that they are an ally in helping resolve attachment injuries.

Practice acceptance of the normal ups and downs in relationships - Accept that there will be positive and negative feelings in a relationship, and that your partner will see both good and bad sides of you.

Learn to set clear boundaries - Having clear boundaries and being able to communicate them to a partner will help you get close, whilst retaining a sense of safety. Consider what behaviors you will not accept in a relationship and non-defensively advise partners of this.

You can visit the Attachment Styles page to find out more about all four types of attachment style.


References

David J. Wallen, Attachment in Psychotherapy - 2007, The Guildford Press


Hal Shorey, Come Here-Go Away; the Dynamics of Fearful Attachment - https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-freedom-change/201505/come-here-go-away-the-dynamics-fearful-attachment

Erica DJossa, The Fearful/Anxious Avoidant Attachment Style - http://the-love-compass.com/2013/09/17/the-fearful-avoidant-attachment-style/

Dr Gregg Jantz, Relationships: The Disorganized Attachment Style - https://www.aplaceofhope.com/relationships-the-disorganized-attachment-style/

Ed Tronick, Still Face Experiment - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0

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