Author: Sarah Meyer & Renée Shen
If you are someone who tends to have short-lived or tumultuous relationships, or who simply experiences a lot of stress when getting close to someone, you may have a fearful avoidant attachment style.
Of the four attachment styles, which I have written about here, the fearful avoidant attachment style presents the most complex set of challenges for people wanting to form a strong, lasting romantic relationship.
People with a fearful avoidant attachment style tend to have low self-esteem, even more so than other insecurely attached people, and to hold strong negative beliefs about themselves and their worth.
They also hold negative beliefs about other people’s intent. Specifically, their willingness to provide intimacy and support.
To explain what this looks like, I’ll need to go into a little more detail about attachment style research, and how we classify the different patterns.
Attachment style theory looks at the connection between the ways we formed bonds with our caregivers as infants, and the way we approach romantic and other intimate relationships as adults.
It was first studied using a famous experiment called The Strange Situation, where toddlers around 15 months old were brought by their primary caregiver (usually the mother) into a new environment (a playroom).
There, they met a researcher, and were invited to play with the toys in the room.
The experiment involved the mother leaving the infant with the researcher for a few minutes to play with the toys, and then returning.
Researchers observed the children’s behavior before separating from the mother, at the time of separation, and then again on reconciliation.
It has been found many times over that the patterns children show at this early age go on to accurately predict the way they act in romantic relationships when they grow up (and thus, their attachment style).
Most toddlers in this experiment showed a secure attachment pattern.
How did they showcase a secure attachment? It was evident through the following behavior:
Around one third of toddlers, however, showed an insecure attachment pattern.
Those who were classified as anxiously attached showed the following behaviors:
Those who were classified as having an avoidant attachment style were:
Finally, we have the children who showed a fearful avoidant attachment style.
In the strange situation experiment, a minority of children showed a combination of both the anxious and the avoidant response, as if they found the situation and their relationship with their mother so distressing and confusing that they didn’t know how to pick a strategy to cope with it.
Their behavior showed signs of disorientation.
They were distressed by the scary situation- the new place and the new person, but the mother was not a safe person for them to turn to.
In this scenario, the mother herself represented a threat to the child, and thus we see behavior like:
This is our template for thinking about fearful avoidant attachment style, also known as the disorganized attachment style.
When a person grows up with a fearful avoidant attachment style and begins to have romantic relationships, they tend to display both high anxiety and high avoidance.
Let’s now look at 10 signs that you might have a fearful avoidant attachment style - and why you might be sending mixed or disorienting signals to the people around you as a result.
The first and most obvious sign that you have a fearful avoidant attachment style is that your romantic partner is consistently confused by the way you act in the relationship.
Now of course, it’s normal to have some difficulty understanding other people, and if you’re a woman, you’ll know that men may often find women to be a little sensitive or unpredictable.
This is natural given our different hormones and our different evolutionary backgrounds.
Of course, women also find men confusing naturally.
But over time in a relationship, what usually happens is that you (consciously or subconsciously) learn each other’s patterns.
Even in the first few months of being together, you pick up on the things that they are sensitive to, you get a feel for the range of responses that they might give you to different kinds of situations, and you develop some ability to predict what they need from you.
If you have a fearful avoidant attachment style though, you may have some difficulty attuning to your partner - and they to you.
This is because your childhood experiences with the people who took care of you may have left you with negative beliefs about your own worth and the availability of other people in times of need.
And these negative beliefs have become the filter through which you see your relationship.
If you are looking at the relationship through a different set of filters than your partner is, you are going to experience regular conflicts and very different emotions.
Usually in the case of those couples in which one person has a fearful avoidant attachment style, you’ll both experience much more stress and fear, as well as very different responses to the same events.
This means that there will be a big gap between your perception of the relationship and your partner’s perception - which means it’s much harder for him or her to predict how you will act.
More specifically, you may also confuse your partner because as a person with a fearful avoidant attachment style, you have more than one dominant pattern of responding to stress in the relationship.
Most people, even if they struggle with insecure attachment, will respond to a threat to the relationship by either seeking reassurance (directly or indirectly), or withdrawing from the connection.
But because you didn’t get a consistent response from your mother or father growing up, you may use a mixture of both strategies.
So, sometimes you might act more anxious, seek a lot of closeness, and struggle to develop a healthy independence from your partner.
But then at other times, you might push your partner away, shut down, disappear for several days, and stop returning texts or calls.
You might also do more impulsive things such as:
This disorganized pattern of responding will be very confusing and stressful for you, and it will also be confusing and stressful for your partner.
If you’ve heard things like:
”I have no idea what you want from me”
“Why are you so hot and cold?”
”I have no idea what I did wrong this time” or
“What the hell is going on?”
Then you may want to consider that you have a fearful avoidant attachment style.
Of course, it is also possible that the person saying these things to you is abusive themselves, and may be gaslighting you.
But if you’ve heard this from more than one partner, or if your close friends and family are also saying similar things, it may be worth thinking about in context with the other signs.
Sometimes it can be hard to tell if you’re living with a lot of shame.
Some mild shame is good for us; over the course of human evolution, shame has helped us learn to relate to others, to practice moral and cultural rules, and to think carefully about the consequences of our actions.
But when children grow up with abuse and neglect, a different kind of feeling takes root.
Speaking from experience, this is toxic shame, and it feels like:
A person who deals with this kind of chronic shame is highly likely to have a fearful avoidant attachment style, and to have grown up with trauma and maltreatment.
This deep sense of shame becomes our filter through which we interpret our social interactions and our relationships, and can lead to the sort of erratic, disorganized behavior that we see in fearful avoidant attachment.
This is because it may take a lot of energy and resources for us to deal with the imagined threats to our sense of self that we see all around us.
We easily become dysregulated, and then we have to calm ourselves back down again, all the while feeling terrible about ourselves for over-reacting in the first place.
Given this significant emotional burden, it makes sense that people who deal with a lot of shame may sometimes run away from close connection, even or especially when there is a lot of attraction.
A person with a fearful avoidant attachment style likely has a long history of upheaval in relationships.
This is because as we form new relationships, we tend to “carry” the habits of our previous partners and our parents with us into the new connection, through our habits, beliefs, and natural posture in the relationship.
If you have a fearful avoidant attachment style, the habits you are “carrying” with you may be particularly confusing, frightening, abusive, or dismissive.
And sadly, the mistaken projections that you make as a result may lead you to act in bizarre ways in relationships yourself.
If this is you, you might not understand why so many of your relationships have failed.
You might have found yourself frightened by things that are innocent or commonplace in relationships - like the fluidity of a daily morning hug or an intimate touch on the neck.
You might have a history of feeling triggered and suddenly abandoning the person who has triggered you, without a coherent reason for doing so.
You might also have relationships that are full of unnecessary conflict, as you perceive hurt or negative intent in the things your partner does and then react with anger and hostility.
Only to realize later on that the other person was coming from a completely different place than you thought they were.
Your defensiveness and mistrust may then push your partner away.
Or maybe, you just feel like everyone is a jerk to you - like everyone is using you, that there is no-one you can trust, and you live your life ready to walk away from anyone at any moment.
People with a fearful avoidant attachment style tend to feel unworthy of love, and to expect pain instead.
This can mean that you take a defensive posture in relationships, expecting to be abandoned or left for someone better.
It can also mean that your insecurities stand in the way of your ability to attune to your partner and to respond to their needs and experiences.
For example, you might assume that he or she is ignoring you or falling out of love with you when really they’re just feeling down about work or are distracted by another problem in their life.
Or you might become angry and resentful when your lover does well, because you worry that they will realize they are better than you and proceed to leave you.
These kinds of beliefs, and the inaccuracy of the predictions you end up making because of them may leave you feeling preoccupied with your relationship.
You may find yourself very vulnerable to high levels of stress over minor events or disruptions, even in long standing relationships where a lot of trust would normally have been built up.
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For a woman, it can already be hard to understand men’s intentions, as they tend to have somewhat different ways of approaching relationships due to their evolutionary history and hormonal biology.
This is of course true for men trying to understand women as well.
But if you have a fearful avoidant attachment style as well, the differences between your needs and desires and those of a man could become a huge point of fear and mistrust for you, as you experience a greater need to feel in control of your relationship to avoid being hurt.
What could happen then, is that every time he makes a slightly insensitive joke, you could feel deeply rejected, and react as though he intended to hurt you.
You could find yourself suspicious if he is late even one time, or feel threatened by his need to spend time away from the relationship doing innocent things such as:
You might end up holding the belief that he secretly wants every attractive woman that he sees, and if you don’t keep a handle on him, he will cheat on you.
Possibly worse, you might misinterpret the things that your partner does to love you.
In other words: you might perceive behaviors that have good intent behind them to have bad intent - simply because your partner’s way of behaving looks different to the ways you show love.
You might also misjudge his attempts to make you laugh when you’re down, or get angry when he tries to give you practical advice instead of emotional support.
Because you’re ready to feel let down, disappointed and angry, you might see these natural responses as cruel or even abusive.
This might mean that your partner comes to expect a lot of rejection and anger from you, which could lead him to withdraw from the relationship.
If you get ghosted often, or abandoned by people close to you, it may be a sign that you have a fearful avoidant attachment style.
There are a couple of different reasons for this.
First, if you have a fearful avoidant attachment style, you most likely grew up with parents or caregivers who treated you badly, and may have been abusive or frightening.
Because we tend to seek out for what is familiar or emotionally salient to us, those painful experiences may lead you to choose partners and friends that act like the people who hurt you.
Usually, these kinds of people do not invest emotionally in others, and find it easy to leave them when they are no longer useful or interesting.
If this keeps happening to you, you may be stuck in a cycle of becoming attached to the wrong person and then being abandoned.
But the other reason is a little harder to hear.
And that is - as someone with a fearful avoidant attachment style, you might sometimes make other people feel uncomfortable as they come to see your attachment patterns up close.
Most likely, given your past, you will struggle to regulate your emotions in close relationships.
Intimacy will be frightening and stressful for you, and some people will in turn be frightened by the intensity of your responses, by your tendency to assume the worst, or by your general instability and unpredictability.
You may also struggle with timing in relationships, becoming quickly attached to someone who is not attached to you, or acting detached with a partner who is attached to you.
The sad truth is that both of these tendencies can scare people away.
If this is you, though, try not to blame yourself.
Once you see your fearful avoidant attachment style for the delusion that it is, it is always possible to recalibrate yourself and to slow down your reactions enough to make better decisions…
As someone who has been through some of this myself and come out the other side, there are lots of tools and strategies for doing this that we can look at in future posts.
We tend to choose friends that think in similar ways to ourselves, perhaps because we can predict their behavior better, perhaps because we like the validation.
And so, if you have a lot of friends who have a history of bad relationships and tend to be very negative about men, it may be worth thinking about the narratives you and your friends have constructed about love.
These may reflect your own insecure attachment, and may also exacerbate it.
Also, if your parents or siblings are insecurely attached, you are much more likely to be insecurely attached as well.
Research has shown that parents with a fearful avoidant attachment style are more likely to pass this attachment style on to their children through their own patterns of relating and modeling.
This often happens through abusive parenting, but some studies have shown that simply having a parent who is frightened or traumatized, or who fails to provide the child with a sense of safety because they themselves cannot feel safe, can also lead to a fearful avoidant attachment style.
Having a family member who is a victim of domestic abuse, or is otherwise lacking in social support, thus raises a child’s risk of fearful avoidant attachment even when they do not grow up with abuse themselves.
If you have a fearful avoidant attachment style, you may struggle to regulate your emotions.
This is because you deal with more relationship stress as a result of your negative beliefs, but also because the process of emotional regulation is actually learned through secure attachment in childhood in the first place.
Developmentally, it is simply the presence of the mother that first helps a distressed infant calm down.
The infant then learns this process of calming down through:
Eventually, the child grows up and they develop the capacity to regulate their emotions without the presence of their mother.
But the process is set in motion through the attachment relationship.
If you did not have this kind of relationship with your parent(s), you may find it more difficult to regulate your emotions.
This might mean that when you feel stressed or threatened, you might act impulsively, lashing out at your partner, or even engage in violence.
Studies have shown that people with a fearful avoidant attachment style may be more prone to violence in intimate relationships.
Interestingly, you may also find that you dissociate during these moments, and don’t remember the angry things you did or said.
This is also due to emotional flooding - being flooded with more emotion than you can process.
This may all sound a bit alarming or overwhelming. But know that you are not alone.
There are a lot of people in the world who do understand this attachment style, relate to it and who can also connect with you and even help you!
On a related note, there is also a connection between fearful avoidant attachment, childhood trauma, and the ability to describe and understand emotions in adulthood.
If you struggle with this, you might:
This is because you may tend to go to fight-or-flight very easily in response to both other people’s emotions and your own.
Particular emotional states may trigger memories of abuse, or may ring alarm bells for you that you need to manage the other person’s emotions in order to stay safe.
This heightened anxiety and stress, and the intrusion of memories from the past, may block your ability to feel your emotions in the moment.
In turn, this may also negatively affect your connection with others, as they may have a hard time reading and responding to your emotions.
If you have a fearful avoidant attachment style, you may be prone to pushing others away when you feel stressed or upset.
This is because you subconsciously doubt that the people you are close to will provide you with support and comfort.
It is also because you may blame other people for not giving you what you wanted, feeling that they “should know” what you expected from them, or that they are deliberately withholding something from you.
Sometimes, this may be the case, but if this is always the natural place that you go to when something goes wrong in your relationship, this will likely do a lot of harm to your connection.
You may be caught in these kinds of beliefs because you feel that other people are generally:
Or, you may blame the other person because this is a simple way to protect yourself when you feel confused or overwhelmed.
You are looking for an excuse to withdraw from the situation and your connection with the other person.
Once you see the self-defeating quality of these patterns, you could allow yourself to consider that they may not be the whole story.
Part of healing and moving past a fearful avoidant attachment style is accepting that there is a lot of space inside of your relationships for the following things to occur:
Just try to remember that the majority of the times that we hurt or disappoint someone else, it happens unintentionally.
If you relate to more than half of these signs, you may have a fearful avoidant attachment style.
You might feel somewhat relieved to have a name for the things you’re experiencing, or, this may be a disheartening discovery as you realize the significant obstacles you face to forming a healthy relationship.
If this is you, it’s important to remember that our attachment systems are designed to be malleable.
They emerged as a result of years of evolution, as babies and young children needed to be able to predict what kinds of strategies would help them get the comfort and protection they needed from the adults in their lives.
But a core feature of these attachment schemas is that they are subject to change, even in the context of just one close relationship!
And this is a very positive reality that you should find hope in.
Our mental maps for forming bonds with others are continuously being updated, both as we go through life experiences, but also as we think about and make sense of our attachment history.
So we can do a lot to transform our habitual patterns by feeling through, understanding, and reframing the events of our past.
So here are three quick steps to take to overcome fearful avoidant attachment style:
This is a painful part of the healing process - but that’s why it’s so effective as a first step to healing.
Dip deep into your past, feel into your gut and into the knot that you may be holding within your heart, and name the traumatic experiences you have had in the past with your parents or caregivers.
Write every traumatic experience down, so that you can re-acquaint yourself with what really happened to you.
You need to do this so that you can allow yourself the opportunity to grieve and actually have an emotional response to the traumatic events that you probably weren’t afforded the opportunity to respond to as a child.
This step is crucial to remove and cleanse old knots from terrifying experiences or trauma.
You may want to enlist the help of a close friend, partner, or even a professional to do this if you need to.
In this step, it’s your responsibility to ask yourself or someone close to you to stop you in your tracks immediately when you begin to act out.
This is very hard - even harder if you’ve done no healing work before (which is why step 1, the previous step is so important!)
Instead of acting out on others impulsively, you need to stop completely in your tracks and do something drastic immediately in order to break your pattern - which is really a way of rewiring your neurology.
What does it mean to rewire your neurology?
It means to break the old behavioral patterns associated with (and emanating from) your fearful avoidant attachment style.
You need to do something that involves your physical body and interrupts your behavior IN THE MOMENT.
So what can you do instead of becoming angry, blaming, or engaging in other fight or flight behaviors?
This is a step that Renée of The Feminine Woman recommends for those people who struggle with an anxious preoccupied attachment style, but it also works wonders for those with a fearful avoidant attachment style.
So what does it involve?
Basically it involves you searching for movie scenes, meditation tracks or even old personal videos from your past and placing them on your phone or tablet for ease of access.
So you may be wondering what types of movie scenes or music?
I want you to search for movie scenes that represent the following, so that you can cement into your bodily memory (and physiology) what true connection and intimacy feels like:
Choose scenes and music that show:
All of these types of scenes are scenes that you will take and place on your phone so that you can access them easily when you are tempted to abandon yourself, your partner or just generally reject connection.
The purpose of watching and re-watching these scenes is to rewire your psychology and your internal script from this:
“Relationships and connection are not safe, trustworthy or even worth the effort.”
“Connection gives me life. I am worthy of love just as he/she is. And it is ok to connect and to feel vulnerable.”
So I hope this article on the signs you have fearful avoidant attachment style has helped you.
Remember to take the three steps starting today. It’s imperative that you start the healing process and don’t delay.
Remember that every choice you make and every step you take is a step in the direction towards more love, connection and beauty in your life or more disconnection, isolation and trauma.
Sarah has a Masters in psychology and works as a special education advisor in early childhood. She lives in Auckland, New Zealand, with her partner and two children. She has a passion for evolutionary psychology, attachment theory, and personality psychology.
Author For National Council for Research on Women
Author & Editor For National Council for Research on Women. Founder of the popular women's dating & relationship advice website, The Feminine Woman.
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