Fearful avoidant attachment is one of four adult attachment styles. Those with this insecure style of attachment have a strong desire for close relationships, but distrust others and fear intimacy.
This leads people with a fearful-avoidant attachment to avoid the very relationships they crave.
This article reviews the history of attachment theory, gives an overview of the four adult attachment styles, and explains how fearful-avoidant attachment develops. It also describes the impacts a fearful-avoidant attachment can have on the individual and discusses how people can cope with this attachment style.
History of Attachment Theory
Psychologist John Bowlby introduced attachment theory in 1969 to explain the bonds infants develop with their caregivers. He suggested that caregivers who are responsive and available will instill a sense of security in their babies that enables the child to go out and confidently explore the world.
In the 1970s, Bowlby’s colleague Mary Ainsworth expanded on his ideas by identifying three specific attachment patterns in infants, which accounted for both secure and insecure attachment styles.
This idea that people could fit into specific attachment categories was key to the work of scholars who extended the idea of attachment to adults.
Models of Adult Attachment Styles
The first researchers to make a connection between child and adult attachment styles were Hazan and Shaver in 1987.
Hazan and Shaver’s Three-Category Relationship Model
Bowlby argued that people develop working models of attachment relationships in childhood that they carry throughout their lives. These working models influence the way people behave in and experience adult relationships.
Based on this idea, Hazan and Shaver developed a three-category model of adult romantic relationships. However, this model didn’t include the fearful-avoidant attachment style.1
Bartholomew and Horowitz’s Four-Category Model of Adult Attachment
Then in 1990, Bartholomew and Horowitz proposed a four-category model of adult attachment styles that introduced the idea of fearful-avoidant attachment.
Bartholomew and Horowitz’s categories were based on the combination of two working models: on the one hand, whether or not a person feels worthy of love and support, and on the other hand, whether or not one feels other people are trustworthy and available.
This created four adult attachment styles, one secure style, and three insecure styles.2
Adult Attachment Styles
The attachment styles outlined by Bartholomew and Horowitz are:
People who have a secure attachment style believe they are worthy of love and that other people are trustworthy and responsive. As a result, they are comfortable with intimacy but are also secure enough to be on their own.
Those with preoccupied attachment believe they aren’t worthy of love but generally feel others are supportive and accepting. Consequently, these individuals seek validation and self-acceptance through their relationships with others.
People with dismissive-avoidant attachment have a sense of their own self-worth but don’t trust other people. This makes them dismissive of the value of intimacy, leading them to avoid close relationships.
Individuals with fearful avoidant attachment are a combination of the preoccupied and dismissive-avoidant styles of insecure attachment. They believe they are unlovable and also don’t trust other people to support and accept them. Because they think others will eventually reject them, they withdraw from relationships.
At the same time, however, they strongly desire intimacy because the acceptance of others helps them feel better about themselves.
As a result, their behavior may be confusing to friends and romantic partners; they may encourage closeness at first and then emotionally or physically retreat when they start to feel vulnerable in the relationship.
Development of Fearful-Avoidant Attachment
Fearful-avoidant attachment is often rooted in a childhood in which at least one parent or caregiver exhibits frightening behavior. This frightening behavior can range from overt abuse to more subtle signs of anxiety or uncertainty, but the result is the same.
When the child approaches the parent for comfort, the parent is unable to provide it. Because the caregiver does not offer a secure base and may function as a source of distress for the child, the child’s impulse will be to start to approach the caregiver for comfort but will then withdraw.
People who carry this working model of attachment into adulthood will exhibit the same impulse to approach and then withdraw in their interpersonal relationships with friends, spouses, partners, colleagues, and children.3
Impact of Fearful-Avoidant Attachment
People with fearful avoidant attachment want to form strong interpersonal bonds but also want to protect themselves from rejection. This leads them to seek out relationships but avoid true commitment or to leave as soon as a relationship gets too intimate.
The belief that others will hurt them and that they can’t measure up in a relationship lead those with a fearful-avoidant attachment to have a range of issues.
For example, multiple studies have shown that there is an association between fearful-avoidant attachment and depression.
Research by Van Buren and Cooley4 and Murphy and Bates5 found that it’s the negative view of the self and the self-criticism that accompanies fearful-avoidant attachment that leaves those with this attachment style vulnerable to depression, social anxiety, and negative emotions, in general.
Meanwhile, another study found that, in comparison to other attachment styles, fearful-avoidant attachment is predictive of more sexual partners in one’s lifetime and a greater tendency to consent to sex even when it’s unwanted.6
Coping With a Fearful-Avoidant Attachment
There are ways to deal with the challenges that come with a fearful-avoidant attachment style. These include:
Learn About Your Attachment Style
If you recognize yourself in the description of fearful-avoidant attachment, it helps to learn more as this will give you insight into the patterns and thought processes that may be keeping you from getting what you want from love and life.
Keep in mind that each of the adult attachment categories is broad and may not be a perfect description of your behavior and feelings.
Still, if you aren’t aware of your patterns, you can’t change them, so learning about the attachment style that best fits you can be the first step in this direction.
Set and Communicate Boundaries in Relationships
If you fear that sharing too much about yourself in a relationship too quickly will lead you to withdraw, slow things down. Communicate to your partner that you are most comfortable taking your time opening up and that you will be doing so gradually.
You can also communicate what makes you anxious and what will help you feel more secure, enabling you to feel safer in the relationship.3
Be Kind to Yourself
People with fearful-avoidant attachment think negatively about themselves and can often be self-critical.
It can help you to learn to talk to yourself like you would a friend. This enables you to be more compassionate and understanding of yourself while shutting down self-criticism.
Seek Out Therapy
It can be helpful to discuss your challenges with fearful-avoidant attachment with a counselor or therapist.
Research has shown, however, that fearful-avoidant attachment may impede treatment because people with this attachment style are prone to avoiding intimacy even with a therapist.7
As a result, it’s important to seek out a therapist who has experience successfully treating people with fearful-avoidant attachment and therefore knows how to overcome this potential therapeutic hurdle.