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Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style: What It Is, 39 Signs & How to Deal with It

All people need to have emotional connections with other human beings. But for people with a fearful-avoidant attachment style, it’s much more difficult. How does this attachment develop, and what can you expect if you’re in a relationship with someone who is a fearful-avoidant person?

fearful avoidant attachment

The way we connect with the world around us is not innate. Although human beings have a basic need to attach to others, that does not mean everyone does so in the same manner – and some people have a fearful-avoidant attachment style.

Our attachment style characterises how we approach future relationships, and the type of bonds we form with others. Sadly, the fearful-avoidant attachment style may lead you down the road to heartache.

Your attachment style develops early in childhood, and is formed by a mixture between your past experience and your attachment to your parents.

Those who develop in an insecure style often find it severely impacts the success of their adult relationships. [Read: The 19 signs you have emotional damage and how to move past it]

The adult attachment style

As an adult, your attachment style is a set of patterns you implement to get your emotional needs met in a relationship— be it a secure or anxious attachment. Sometimes, they work the way that you want, but they can also get you the exact opposite of what you need.

The key to forming a stable relationship with others is a secure attachment style. The type of attachment pattern that you develop typically determines who you choose to be with – and also what you’re willing to do to stay in a problematic relationship, even if it is to your own detriment.

According to researchers in psychology, only about 60 percent of adults have an attachment style considered “secure”, and therefore healthy. The other 40 percent fall into one of three less healthy categories. [Read: 16 signs you’re not ready for a real relationship]

Moreover, twenty percent fall into a very anxious (and sometimes destructive) pattern called the fearful-avoidant attachment style.

What is the fearful-avoidant attachment style?

The person with the fearful-avoidant attachment style is a highly tumultuous being on the inside.

The way they attach to others is a continual source of anxiety and chaos, because the fearful-avoidant attachment style creates a constant state of push and pull. This dichotomy means they live, internally, in a constant state of nervous ambivalence. Read: Avoidant attachment style – the types, 32 symptoms, and how to love one]

If they feel rejected, they pull in and cling harder out of fear of losing the person they are attached to. But, once they get in too close, they pull back out of fear of being hurt. The driving force behind the fearful-avoidant attachment style is always fear.

Confusion grows as they are afraid to be in an intimate relationship in case they get hurt, yet they are afraid to lose the relationship for the same reason. That leaves their partner with a steady stream of mixed signals!

People with a fearful-avoidant attachment style may keep their emotions on hold. Not wanting to show all their emotional cards, they fight hard to keep their reactions and feelings in check – usually to no avail. [Read: How to be emotionally available so you can actually find love]

When they finally give in and can’t hide their strong emotions, they explode, hurting those around them. They’ll tend to be seen as unpredictable, and come across as moody.

What causes fearful-avoidant attachment in adults? 

Sometimes the fearful-avoidant attachment style can also be called ‘disorganized attachment’. This is because there is a wide range of behaviors that can manifest, from avoidance to clinginess.

All attachment styles are developed in early childhood and usually continue throughout a person’s lifetime.

Attachment styles influence someone’s ability to communicate their needs and emotions, how they handle conflict and the expectations of other people in their close relationships. [Read: Attachment styles theory – 4 types and 19 signs and ways you attach to others]

People develop a certain attachment style because of their parents or primary caregivers. Here are some things parents do that lead to a person developing a fearful attachment style:

1. Abuse and trauma

People with fearful-avoidant attachment have often experienced abuse or trauma at the hands of their parents or caregivers. The presence of abusive caregivers constantly triggers issues with attachment needs. In response to the abuse, the child becomes stuck between disconnecting from their abusive parents and hyper-connection to them to meet their attachment needs.

The abused child wants to disconnect from abusive caregivers because they can’t be a source of reassurance for the child. At the same time, they want to be connected to the caregiver since just their mere presence satisfies the child’s innate need for attachment.

In other words, the child desperately needs comfort, but learns that people they love can never give it to them. [Read: Being raised by narcissists – 18 harmful ways it affects your life]

2. Parents who are emotionally needy

If parents use their children for their own emotional needs, this will damage the child, and make them fearful-avoidant. The parents don’t intend to make the child feel that way, but it still happens.

The caregivers might be emotionally needy by telling their children too much about what their own wants and needs are as an adult. They may even want the child to fix these issues for them, which is ridiculous, since they are only a child.

Therefore, they are neglecting the child’s emotional and physical needs – by putting theirs as a higher priority.

This leads the child to learn that their needs don’t matter as much as other people’s needs. The child might even turn into the emotional caretaker of their parent or parents.

This, in turn, is a vicious cycle. The parent relies more and more on their child to meet their own emotional needs, ignoring the child’s own. [Read: Interfering parents – all the ways they can affect your love life]

3. Betrayal and broken trust

When a child has an untrustworthy parent or caregiver, then the child is very likely to develop a fearful-avoidant attachment style.

The parent might be very inconsistent. One minute they are warm and loving, but the next they are cold and emotionally distant. This creates a feeling of insecurity in the child.

They learn they cannot rely on their parent. There may also be a lot of broken promises, where the parent doesn’t follow through with what they say. When the parent doesn’t uphold their words through actions, then the child may become unable to fully trust other people.

4. Abusive and toxic language

If a parent makes threats to the child, then the child will not feel secure. They might use threats of punishment or even physical violence to instill fear in the child.

And when verbal abuse works, the child learns that they can’t have any healthy communication with people they love. [Read: 15 Signs of a verbally abusive relationship – set yourself free]

The parents might also use insults to put down the child. They might call them lazy, dumb or worthless, or tell them that they won’t amount to anything in life.

This type of mental and emotional abuse through language helps create not only the child’s low self-esteem but also their fearful-avoidant attachment style.

5. Parents who also have fearful-avoidant attachment

Children learn from their parents by watching their behavior. So, if the parents exhibit actions and words indicative of a fearful avoidant-attachment style, then the child is likely to emulate them.

However, attachment styles aren’t genetic. They are socially learned. In other words, it’s the continuation of behavioral patterns that keep getting repeated generation after generation.

It’s likely that the parents’ parents also had the fearful-avoidant style as well. [Read: Incapable of love? 21 signs and reasons for emotional deprivation disorder]

Parents with the fearful-avoidant style might seem scared of their child. They don’t know how to meet their needs and will withdraw in response to the child needing support.

How to date people with fearful-avoidant attachment

From what you’ve heard so far, it might sound like it’s difficult to date someone with a fearful-avoidant attachment style. So, here are some things you can expect if you do:

1. They won’t be in touch with your emotions

Communication will be difficult because they can’t understand your emotions. Compared to other people, they are a lot less accurate at guessing other people’s internal states.

And when they are emotionally-charged themselves, such as in an argument, their ability to read people’s emotions gets even worse. [Read: Am I emotionally unavailable? 17 signs you are and how to fix it ASAP]

2. They get uncomfortable when you express negative emotions

When their partners are upset and express negative emotions, people with fearful-avoidant attachment may distance themselves. You might think that they are avoiding conflict or being passive-aggressive. But it’s just an instinctual response.

Even in a normal conversation, if you say that you’ve had a bad day or you are just frustrated with something, they might think that you are attacking them, or forcing them to fix it.

To you, it will seem like they’re not having a “real” conversation with you, but they are just so conditioned by their childhood with inconsistent love that they react to negative emotions with anxiety and fear.

3. They won’t ask you for help

Adults with fearful-avoidance won’t ask people to help them with anything. This is because they think that everyone in their life is going to disappoint or abandon them. They are fearful of getting vulnerable with people.

Because of this, they don’t want to rely on others, and they don’t want others to rely on them. That means their interpersonal relationships with friends, colleagues, and/or partners may be affected. [Read: 13 Signs you need relationship help and where to find assistance]

So, they will probably neglect to offer help or support when their partners express a need for it. This isn’t because they don’t care. It’s just because they think that they will become too vulnerable if they offer or receive support. 

4. They like spending time together, but don’t like talking about its meaning

People with this attachment style crave the feeling of being loved and supported. But they also feel the need to distance themselves too. That’s because they think that if they are dependent on anyone, then they will be hurt and rejected.

In a romantic relationship, this will appear as if they are giving mixed signals. Their emotions might be very hot and cold, and if that’s true, that’s just because they are fearful-avoidant. [Read: 42 Signs you’re not ready for a serious relationship and how to let them know]

5. They prefer casual sex

Many people who are secure in their attachment need and enjoy emotional attachment before, during, and after sex. However, a fearful-avoidant prefers casual sex without a lot of emotions involved.

The reason the fearful-avoidant don’t like emotional sex is that casual sex allows them to avoid the anxiety that comes with long-term, committed relationships. They tend to have more sexual partners than average and are more sexually compliant. 

However, this can negatively impact relationships. It can even lead to more low self-esteem for the fearful-avoidant. [Read: Casual sex – how to prepare for it and have a hookup with no regrets]

6. They have trouble with commitment

Fearful-avoidants are reluctant to label a secure relationship or commit to a person. Marriage in particular is uncomfortable for them to think about or to do. They see commitment as a huge infringement on their space and independence. 

So, if you’re with someone but you really can’t pin them down and get them to commit to you, then it’s likely that they have a fearful-avoidant attachment style.

Signs you have a fearful-avoidant attachment style

You may or may not have given a lot of thought to your childhood and your upbringing. Perhaps it’s just too painful for you to remember it.

So, you might not even know if you have a fearful-avoidant attachment type or not. Here are some signs to look for that indicate that you do: [Read: Fear of losing someone you love – why you feel it and ways to get over it]

1. You avoid commitment in relationships

Because your parents were not committed to you and your emotional needs, you find it difficult to commit to other people. 

You had no role model for commitment because your parents didn’t demonstrate it for you, so it’s a very scary thing for you to attempt. You think that if you commit, the person may leave you and you will be hurt and abandoned. [Read: Fear of commitment – 47 signs, whys, and ways to get over your phobia]

2. You take pride in your independence

You like your independence and space from other people. That is one of the reasons that you don’t like commitment too. 

You like to do your own thing and don’t like to be told what to do. “Me-time” is very important to you and you feel threatened by anyone or anything that will take away your independence.

3. You can’t communicate effectively 

For people who have secure attachment styles, communicating their thoughts and feelings is relatively easy. They are in touch with these things, but you – the fearful-avoidant – aren’t. [Read: How to communicate in a relationship – 16 steps to a better love]

You don’t want to think about your emotions, so it’s very difficult for you to communicate them effectively – since you don’t even understand them yourself!

4. Elevated anxiety

You grew up in a constant state of anxiety, perhaps because your parents weren’t trustworthy or reliable. This sort of free-floating anxiety is always with you, and it can affect you in any situation at any time. 

It’s difficult for you to feel calm and peaceful because you never felt that as a child. You don’t even know what it means or looks like. [Read: Signs of anxiety – how to read the signs ASAP and handle them better]

5. Your relationship pattern tends to have a ‘push and pull’ or ‘hot and cold’ dynamic

Because you have contradictory needs to be emotionally close to people but also to run away, your behavior manifests as a push-pull or hot-cold relationship dynamic. 

This will confuse the people you date because they never know what to expect from you. One minute you’re loving, and the next minute you’re cold. 

6. You are fearful of intimacy

Because your parents didn’t meet your emotional needs, you think that intimacy is a scary thing. You tried to get your parents’ emotional attention, but it didn’t work, and you were let down time and time again. [Read: Fear of intimacy – the hardships of being afraid of love]

So as a result, you fear developing closeness to other people. You think that everyone will disappoint you just like your parents did.

7. Negative view of yourself

While growing up, your parents did nothing to contribute to you having high self-esteem. Because they were unreliable and untrustworthy, you somehow internalized that as being your fault and became a fearful-avoidant child.

They also might have been verbal, mentally, or physically abusive to you too, so your self-relationship becomes negative. [Read: How to build self-esteem and love life with 10 simple life changes]

8. Severe difficulty regulating emotions in relationships

Your emotions were all over the place when you were growing up, perhaps because of the immense parental uncertainty. There was no consistency, and also no role model for a healthy way to regulate your emotions. 

Because of that, you still have severe difficulties regulating your emotions in relationships, even as an adult.

9. Tendency to seek out faults in partners as an excuse to leave relationships

Because you fear intimacy and don’t trust other people, you tend to nitpick and find faults with your partners frequently – even if they’re not actually real faults in them. [Read: How to be less critical – 15 reasons why you judge and how to stop it]

You find anything wrong with your partner because subconsciously, you want to create a reason to leave the relationship. It feels safer to you to have one foot out the door because you can’t get hurt that way.

10. May prefer casual sex

Since you have a problem regulating your emotions, you probably prefer to have casual sex because you don’t have to have any emotions involved. 

That way, sex can be purely a physical experience without any feelings involved. This feels safer to you because that way, you can’t get hurt or rejected. [Read: Guys and casual relationships – why they like it and what they want from it]

11. May be unpredictable

You have a hot-cold dynamic in your relationships, and this makes you quite unpredictable. Your emotions are not even-keeled, and you never know what you’re expected to feel at any given moment. The people in your life find that they never know how you are going to respond or behave.

12. May shut down rapidly

If you feel pushed to share your emotions and thoughts with someone, you can shut down and withdraw very quickly. That is because you see this as a threat. 

Sharing your thoughts and emotions opens you up to being rejected. This terrifies you, so your instinct is to just run away and avoid the situation – and the conversation. [Read: Emotionally damaged – how people get that way 26 signs, and how to heal from it]

13. You have a poor response to negative emotions

You might have grown up with parents who abused you either emotionally, mentally, physically, or all of the above. And if that’s true, then you were exposed to a constant steady stream of negative emotions.

Even though you are used to this, you still don’t respond very well when others express their negative feelings – even if they aren’t directed at you. 

14. You self-sabotage when someone gets too close

Maybe you’ve met someone who’s wonderful, and you think that you could really fall in love with them. At first, you love the feeling. But after a while, you start to panic. [Read: 8 Reasons getting back with your ex is self-sabotage]

Then, you start doing things that self-sabotage. You start distancing yourself and push the other person away, so you don’t feel too close.

How to overcome a fearful-avoidant attachment style

If you read that list and concluded that you might have the fearful-avoidant attachment style, then you might wonder what you can do about it. You can change your attachment style, and make yourself feel better. You can try doing the following things.

1. Learn your attachment style

The most important thing to know is that you can’t change what you don’t recognize. In other words, you have to admit and acknowledge that you do, in fact, have the fearful-avoidant attachment style in order to begin to change.

Once you’ve achieved self-knowledge, you should study fearful-avoidance to help you learn more about it. The more you know, the more you can change! [Read: Insecure attachment style – what it is, types, 23 signs and how it affects your life]

2. Establish boundaries

You need boundaries in a relationship to help you feel comfortable. Vocalize what triggers your fear and anxiety so your partner understands what you are feeling at any given moment.

For example, because you like your independence, you should be open and honest to people you’re in relationships with about that.

You might react negatively when your independence feels threatened. Remind them that it has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with your emotional needs. 

3. Remain kind to yourself, and get real about self-compassion

Since you didn’t grow up with a lot of positive messages about yourself, other people, and the world, you might not know how to love yourself. But try to be kind. [Read: How to be kind to yourself and others and love life instead of hating it]

Don’t engage in negative self-talk, and catch yourself when you do. Treat yourself as you would anyone else in your situation. Above all else, be patient with yourself and have self-compassion

4. Prioritize yourself

Prioritizing yourself comes with self-love. And loving yourself doesn’t mean that you’re selfish. In fact, it means that you’re generous enough to even pay compassionate attention to your own emotional needs!

Since your parents didn’t attend to your emotional needs as a child, you will have to do it yourself now that you are an adult. [Read: How to be yourself – 26 steps to unfake your life and love being you]

5. Develop a mindfulness practice

Part of the problem with being a fearful avoidant is that your emotions are all over the place. You have very little ability to regulate them, and you are likely to feel out of control. 

So, you should read books or take classes that teach you how to be mindful. This means stepping outside of yourself and being able to control your emotions when you are experiencing them. This will also help you understand your decisions and thought processes.

6. Be truthful and honest with your partner

Once you are honest with yourself and admit that you are a fearful-avoidant, you should also be truthful with your partner. Share with them how your parents treated you as a child and what you experienced. [Read: 19 Secrets to open up to someone you’re dating even if you’re scared]

Explain that your behavior and emotions have everything to do with your upbringing and nothing to do with your partner personally. That way, they will have a better ability to empathize with you and your feelings. 

7. Seek therapy if needed

If you have tried all you can to try to gain control over your fearful-avoidant attachment style but it’s just not working, then try to find a trained professional who can help you. 

A therapist can help and be very beneficial for you, because they can give you exercises and other tools to help you cope with your fearful emotions. [Read: Relationship therapy – 25 clues to know if it’ll help your romance]

How the fearful-avoidant attachment affects relationships

The fearful-avoidant’s assumption is that they must cling hard and seek out the person they want to be attached to, to get their emotional needs met. But, once they get in too close, they pull back out of fear of getting hurt. 

At the root of their behavior lies the fear of rejection and vulnerability. So, they lose on both sides in their attempt to get their emotional cup filled.

The fearful-avoidant attachment style individual may struggle to find stability in a relationship. So, they tend to experience extreme lows and highs. [Read: 23 Signs and why he is afraid to fall for you and scared to commit to love]

Afraid of being abandoned by the people that they want to be attached to, fearful-avoidants struggle once they find what it was that they thought they wanted. It is the very intimacy they think they crave and forces them to retreat and pull back.

Fearful-avoidants tend to be off in their timing. When they should be pulling they are pushing, and when they should be pushing, they are pulling. 

That predisposes them to abusive relationships, and accepting more pain than other attachment style types. [Read: 15 questions to reveal a controlling personality instantly]

How to deal with a fearful-avoidant partner

Maybe you’re not the one who has the fearful-avoidant attachment style, but it’s your partner who does. What should you do? How should you deal with them? Here are some tips for how to help your partner and your relationship:

1. Encourage openness instead of pushing it

Openness, honesty, and trust might come naturally to you, but it doesn’t for your partner. It causes them to shut down. Keep this in mind when you are trying to have an emotional conversation with them.

You might want to keep pushing them to open up but that might just push them away. So, instead, just gently encourage it. Don’t push for it, just ask them, letting them know it’s okay if they don’t. [Read: How to recognize an emotionally distant partner and deal with them]

2. Be reassuring

Your partner grew up with parents who weren’t reliable and were untrustworthy. That is all they know, and they think all people are like that. So, you need to help them feel safe by showing and telling them that you’re a source of stability in their life. 

You should let them know that you aren’t going to abandon them and that you love them unconditionally. After a while, they will start to believe it too!

3. Replace their negative talk with a new narrative

As a child, they never heard anything good about themselves. They were possibly verbally, mentally, or emotionally abused.

You need to remind them of their positive traits, because they can’t see them themselves. [Read: Positive self-talk – what it is, where it comes from, and how to master it]

Reassure them that they are a good person and that they deserve to be loved. Create a new, kinder narrative in their mind.

4. Don’t take their behavior personally

This is one of the most difficult things for partners of a fearful-avoidant to do. Their behavior seems to be directed at us, so it’s easy to take it personally. 

For example, if they go hot and cold, you might think it’s because of you. But it’s not. It’s due to the fact that they have this push and pull dichotomy inside of them. They would do that with anyone they were in a relationship with. [Read: Why is everyone easily offended nowadays? The hard truth revealed]

5. Prepare for non-linear progress

Most of us think that progress should be like running a marathon. You have a starting point and an ending point. We think the journey along the way should be a straight line – but it’s often not. 

They will make some progress and move forward, and you will be hopeful. But then they might backslide back into their old emotional habits. This can be frustrating, so you need to be patient with them.

6. Know that you can only do so much

You might have a savior complex, and want to solve all their problems. You need to know that you can’t “cure” the fearful-avoidant. There is no magic wand that will turn them into a different person. [Read: People always leave you? 20 ways to stop sabotaging a relationship]

That said, you can definitely help them along the way. In fact, you should – it’s the best way to prove to them that you are reliable and trustworthy!

7. Make sure you are always on the same page

It’s easy and normal for a fearful-avoidant to emotionally drift away in a romantic relationship. They will detach at times, and not appear ‘plugged in’.

So, you will have to keep up the communication, because they probably won’t. Keep checking in with them about your relationship so you can always make sure that you are on the same page. [Read: 21 Secret signs of a bad relationship that signal a bad future ahead]

Remember – we don’t have to be defined by our attachment behavior

Although every human has a basic need to attach and connect to others, not all people learn healthy ways of doing so. 

Mostly formed in childhood by the way a child attaches to their parents or caregivers, the good news is you can alter your attachment style to have more sense of security, and find the peace that you crave. [Read: 9 important habits you need to be more independent]

The first step involves figuring out what attachment style you have and working from there. If you have a history of failed relationships and are searching for the cause, consider how you bond with others and meet your emotional needs.

Anyone is capable of forming a secure attachment style if they put the effort in!

[Read: Healthy relationship – 27 signs, qualities, and what it looks like in real life]

For fearful-avoidant people, finding peace in a relationship is not easy. But that does not mean that it isn’t possible! Figuring out what drives you is the best way to steer yourself in a healthier direction. 

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Carol Morgan LP
Dr. Carol Morgan
Dr. Carol Morgan has a Ph.D. in communication and is a professor at Wright State University where she loves corrupting young minds. As a relationship and succes...