Fearful Avoidant Attachment: How It Develops & How To Cope

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published July 04, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


An attachment style describes the way in which people relate to others, based on how secure they feel. Fearful avoidant attachment is thought to be the rarest attachment type.  

A fearful attachment style, also known as disorganized attachment, is characterised by a combination of behaviours that can range from avoidance to clinginess. Children with this attachment style often long for close relationships but also fear trusting others and getting hurt.

The attachment style you develop in early childhood is thought to have a lifelong influence on your ability to communicate your emotions and needs, how you respond to conflict, and how you form expectations about your relationships.

Attachment styles as secure, anxious, avoidant or fearful outline diagram. Labeled educational axis scale with high or low avoidance and anxiety as influence to people relationship vector

Someone with this attachment style will often have a desire for close relationships but at the same time will fear trusting others and believe they will get hurt if they get too close.

Fearful individuals hold a negative model of self and also a negative model of others, fearing both intimacy and autonomy.

They display attachment behaviours typical of avoidant children becoming socially withdrawn and untrusting of others.

“Like dismissing avoidant, they often cope with distancing themselves from relationship partners, but unlike dismissing individuals they continue to experience anxiety and neediness concerning their partner’s love, reliability and trustworthiness” (Schachner, Shaver & Mikulincer, 2003, p. 248).

What are the signs of fearful avoidant attachment in children?

The behaviour of a fearful avoidant child is very disorganized, hence why it is also known as disorganized attachment. 

If the child and caregiver were to be separated for any amount of time, on reunion, the child will act conflicted. They may initially run towards their caregiver, but then seem to change their mind and either run away or act out. 

A child with a fearful avoidant attachment often desires comfort and closeness with their caregiver but once close, they act fearful and untrusting. The child may avoid eye contact, scream in an attempt to engage their caregiver, or seek attention to only shut it down promptly. 

Older children may grow to feel unsafe in their world. They find that they cannot put their full trust into anyone and may struggle to open up to others. They may not give deep information about themselves and prefer to keep conversations superficial as their own personal boundary. 

They tend to show no preference for people who are familiar to them over strangers and may discuss inappropriate things with people who are unfamiliar to them.

They might not have any long-term friendships with their peers and prefer to switch to spending time with someone else when friendships get to a stage of becoming more meaningful. 

Some other common traits that may indicate a child may have a fearful avoidant attachment style include:

  • Not having a felt sense of safety – always feeling like something is wrong

  • Poor self-regulation of emotions 

  • Difficulty trusting others

  • Hypervigilance – always looking out for signs of danger

  • Finding it hard to self-soothe

  • Fidgety behaviours

  • No sense of personal boundaries

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Finding it hard to keep friends 

  • Dissociating to cut off their emotions

  • Trying to regain control by behaving bossy

Children with a fearful avoidant attachment are at risk of carrying these behaviours into adulthood if they do not receive support to overcome this. They may struggle to feel secure in any relationship if they do not get help for their attachment style. 

What Causes Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style?

While it may not always be clear why someone may develop a fearful avoidant attachment style, it is often because of the parenting by caregivers. Some of the ways in which parenting styles can cause a fearful avoidant attachment include the following:

Abuse or trauma

Oftentimes, fearful avoidant attachment is common for those who have experienced abuse or trauma in their childhoods involving their caregiver. 

In response to abuse, a child becomes stuck between deactivation since the caregiver cannot be a source of reassurance, and hyperactivation since the presence of the frightening caregiver constantly triggers attachment needs. The child desperately needs comfort but has learnt that their caregiver cannot give it to them. 

Broken trust

In the eyes of a child who has a fearful avoidant attachment, their caregivers are untrustworthy.

Their parenting can be very inconsistent, being warm and loving one moment, then switching to cold and emotionally distant the next. This parenting can make it difficult for the child to predict how their parent will react at any given time, resulting in elevated feelings of insecurity. 

The parent may also make a lot of promises to the child which they do not follow through on. For instance, they may promise to do something for them, be there for them in times of need, or promise not to yell anymore.

When the parent does not follow through on these commitments, this adds to the child’s belief that they cannot trust others. 

Threatening language 

Toxic language from a caregiver such as making threats can result in a child not feeling secure in their relationship. 

This can include using threats of punishment and threats of physical violence to incite fear in the child. When a child feels fearful of their caregivers, they also learn they cannot rely on having healthy and supportive communication with them.

Emotionally needy caregivers

Caregivers who use their children for their own emotional needs may be inflicting damage on their child without realising. 

They may be emotionally needy by expressing their wants and needs to their child and sometimes expecting their child to carry this burden or fix the issues themselves. If the caregiver is using the child to satisfy their own needs, they may be neglecting the child’s emotional and physical needs. 

The child will also come to learn that their needs do not matter as much as others’. The child may even take on an emotional caretaker role for their parent which can make the parent even more reliant on their child to meet their needs. 

Fearful avoidant caregivers

It is likely that if a child has a fearful avoidant attachment style, that their caregivers also have this attachment style.

This does not mean that there is a genetic component to attachment styles, rather it is a continuation of behavioural patterns that are being repeated throughout generations. It is likely that a caregiver’s parents caused them to have a fearful avoidant attachment, and so on. 

Without addressing the insecure attachment of the child, they themselves may grow up to have their own children who are also fearful avoidant. 

What are fearful avoidant parents like?

It is likely that the parents of fearful avoidant children are likely to have the same attachment style. 

They may be frightened of the child, meaning that they don’t know how to meet the child’s needs and will flee or freeze in response to a child seeking support. They may have an exaggerated startle response and have a frightened tone of voice. 

A fearful avoidant parent is also likely to be very withdrawn from their child. They may have an anxious nature and be non-responsive to the child. Moreover, they may not pay attention to an infant when they cry.

A fearful avoidant parent is likely to have their own trauma that they are preoccupied with. They did not overcome their attachment style and so are less focused on their child and are more likely to pass on their insecurities to them.  

As well as being frightened, a fearful avoidant parent may sometimes be frightening to the child. They may be emotionally reactive, overreact to the child, be intrusive, and may even be threatening or abusive in severe cases. 

What are the traits of fearful avoidant attachment in adults?

John Bowlby argued that one’s sense of security as a child is critical to their attachment style as an adult. Fearful avoidant attachment can continue into adulthood if not addressed, and influence how a person behaves in their close relationships.

Attachment theory as secure, preoccupied, dismissive, fearful behavior models outline diagram. Labeled educational psychological types with influence from childhood parenting vector

Below are some of the traits that are characteristic of adults with a fearful avoidant attachment style:

  • A need for control and security

  • Difficulty trusting others

  • A limited sense of safety – always feeling like something will go wrong

  • Wanting a close relationship but afraid of getting too close

  • Difficulty regulating their emotions

  • They usually have a negative view of themselves

  • A negative view of others

  • Belief that they will be disappointed and let down by others

  • May be very focused on their career rather than on people in their lives

  • A need to protect themselves against rejection

  • May be passive or cold during interactions as a way to shield themselves 

  • People-pleasing tendencies 

  • Hypervigilant – always looking for signs of danger

  • May find it hard to maintain friendships

  • Elevated levels of anxiety

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Find it hard to self-soothe

What are the signs of fearful avoidant attachment in adults?

Fearful avoidant attachment can continue into adulthood if not addressed. A lot of the same traits from childhood can carry over into adulthood such as having high anxiety and difficulty trusting others. 

What is key with fearful avoidant attachment is that individuals want control and security and will put things in place to ensure they do not lose that. 

Emotional dysregulation

People with fearful avoidant attachment may have a lot of difficulty regulating their emotions in their adult relationships. 

They may find they have more highly emotional relationships and respond poorly or inappropriately to negative emotions. 

Conflicting feelings about relationships

A fearful avoidant person may not be sure how to feel about their relationships with friends and romantic partners. 

They often crave a relationship but are fearful of getting hurt. Once it becomes too intimate or emotional, they are likely to withdraw or end the relationship. In general, they tend to have feelings of general dissatisfaction in their relationships. 

Negative self-view

Part of fearful avoidant attachment is that the individual has a negative view of themselves. 

They may not be very sure of themselves which makes them less assertive and withdraw from social contact. 

Avoid getting close to others

People with fearful avoidant attachment want to minimise the eventual disappointment that comes from having relationships with others. 

By avoiding close involvement with others, this attachment style enables the person to protect themselves against anticipated rejection.

Someone with this attachment style may prioritize other things such as their career, rather than focusing on people, who they believe will disappoint them eventually. 

Unhelpful social behaviours 

Someone with this attachment style may be passive or cold during interactions as a way to shield themselves from hurt and rejection. 

Otherwise, it is common for people with this attachment style to hold grudges as they do not like to deal with confrontations or difficult conversations. 

They can also be people pleasers, meaning that they go along with whatever other people want, or agreeing to things they may not agree with, to make life easier. 

How to cope with a fearful avoidant attachment style?

Understand your attachment style

It can be useful to educate yourself on attachment theory and identify what attachment style you feel you may have. 

Consider how you behave in your relationships with others as well as considering how your relationship with your caregiver was as a child. Gaining an understanding of your attachment style can help you learn how to begin overcoming an insecure attachment. 

Self-awareness

Try to become aware of when your fearful avoidant style is being triggered. If you are picking up on a small change in your partner and your automatic thought is that they are being disloyal or are rejecting you, notice this. 

Consider why you feel this way and what can be a healthier thought to have instead. For instance, if you notice your partner has a change in body language, instead of thinking that they are hiding something, consider that they could just be tired or having a bad day. 

Being aware of your automatic thoughts and trying to challenge them when they come to the surface can help you to respond to situations in a healthy way.

Work on communication skills

Practice communicating in a manner which clearly expresses your needs in a healthy, non-confrontational way. 

Express from your feelings rather than from a place of blaming or criticism. You can do this by using ‘I’ statements such as saying, ‘I felt frustrated when you X’. In this way, your partner is less likely to feel attacked and there should be fewer misunderstandings about what you feel. 

Try to get used to expressing your needs in a clear and direct way whilst being kind. For instance, you could say ‘I am needing to feel supported when I X’ or ‘I am needing some time alone to do X’. Communicating what you need rather than indirectly pushing your partner away can make your partner clearer on what you expect from them.

Set healthy boundaries 

Many people with a fearful avoidant attachment style may have had their boundaries broken as a child and have a distorted view of what healthy boundaries are. 

Spend some time considering what you are comfortable with and what your limits are. You may need some help from a trusted friend or a therapist if this is something you struggle with. Then, communicate your boundaries with your partner and stick to them. 

Consider therapy 

If you find that you need extra support with managing your attachment style or want to learn to be more secure, you can consider trying therapy. 

Through therapeutic methods, you can learn to recognise your attachment patterns, examine your feelings about yourself, and learn to approach relationships with others in a healthy way.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a therapy which aims to help identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. This can be useful for someone who has insecure feelings and unhealthy behaviours that stem from a fearful avoidant attachment. 

Another type of therapy is interpersonal therapy which helps individuals learn how to improve their interpersonal relationships and social interactions. This can therefore be suited to someone wishing to change their attachment style and become more secure in their relationships.

Additionally, psychodynamic psychotherapy can help people with a fearful avoidant attachment investigate how their attachment style as a child is impacting their adult relationships. 

What is it like to be in a relationship with someone who is fearful avoidant?

Fearful individuals hold a negative model of self and also a negative model of others, fearing both intimacy and autonomy. They display attachment behaviours typical of avoidant children becoming socially withdrawn and untrusting of others.

They struggle with commitment 

Someone with a fearful avoidant attachment style may find it very difficult to commit to someone. They tend to both seek out connection and closeness while simultaneously trying to avoid getting into a serious relationship. 

Their avoidant traits tend to arise when the relationship becomes more serious. This tends to trigger them and brings up past wounds. Often, when the relationship is committed is when a change becomes noticeable in a fearful avoidant partner. 

They may be unable to fully trust that their partner will always be there for them, whether because of a core lack of self-worth, a lack of trust in others, or a combination of the two. 

They are fearful of intimacy

Due to their deep-rooted distrust of others, someone who has a fearful avoidant attachment may find it difficult to commit to someone. 

They tend to have a desire for connection while simultaneously pushing someone away when things become more serious. Becoming too close with a fearful avoidant can trigger their past wounds and this is when significant changes in their behaviour can be noticed.

They prefer being casual

Since they are afraid of trusting and getting close to someone, a person with a fearful avoidant attachment is happier remaining casual with romantic partners. 

They may find themselves staying in the dating stage of the relationship for a prolonged period as this feels more comfortable for them. They can stay in casual relationships or relationships without labels, not because they want to, but because they are afraid of getting closer. 

Often, someone with this attachment style prefers to have casual sex with people to fulfil their need for attention, without having to commit. Favez and Tissot (2019) found that fearful avoidance is predictive of more sexual partners as well as greater sexual compliance for both men and women. 

They keep emotionally distant

Someone with a fearful avoidant attachment may prefer to keep their partner at a distance so as to not have things get too emotionally intense.

They may be reluctant to share too much of themselves or talk about deep topics as a way to protect themselves. If things get too deep, or if they are asked to share personal things, they may shut down rapidly. 

They have a distorted view of what a relationship should be

Since it is common for those with a fearful avoidant attachment to have grown up in a household that is very turbulent and chaotic, they may believe that this is also what romantic relationships should be like.

If they are in a relationship with someone who is secure and calm, they may be suspicious. They may believe that something is wrong and challenge their partner or create a problem to make the relationship more unsettled and familiar. 

They are generally more unhappy

In a study examining the impact of attachment styles on romantic relationships, avoidant styles were associated with less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions in the relationships (Simpson, 1990). 

They self-sabotage 

Someone with a fearful avoidant attachment may self-sabotage a good romantic relationship because they are afraid and feel unsafe. 

They tend to hyperfocus on things that can go wrong in the relationship even if there is nothing to worry about. They may blame or accuse their partner of things, threaten to leave the relationship, or test their partner to see if they get jealous. All these strategies may cause their partner to consider ending the relationship. 

They can be easily triggered

Someone who is a fearful avoidant may be hyper aware of small changes in their partner which can be a big trigger for them.

Some of these triggers can include a change in voice, micro expressions, a shift in body language, and lying. A fearful avoidant partner may gather information about all these minor changes and will perceive that their partner is either withholding information, not being loyal, or is doing something to break trust.

Once they have this idea in their mind they can blow up or push their partner away in a way that they think is protecting themselves, even if their partner has not done anything wrong.

Signs that a fearful avoidant loves you

A fearful avoidant may show that they love you by:

  • Making an effort to connect with you

  • Expressing that they want to be intimate

  • They become more comfortable showing their vulnerable side

  • They will express that they want to feel more secure, or they make a conscious effort to be more secure.

  • They talk about the future with you

  • They discuss what they are insecure about and recognize that they need to work on this

 

How to support your fearful avoidant partner?

If you have a partner who has a fearful avoidant attachment style, there are some things you can do to support them:

Learn about their attachment style

Learning about attachment theory and getting to know your partner’s attachment style through research can be a good starting point for understanding them better.

Understanding your partner’s needs, struggles and triggers can help you to make sure you are communicating to them in a way that is supportive.

Reassure them

If your partner has a fearful avoidant attachment, they are probably fearful of getting too close to you since they believe they will be abandoned eventually.

Reassuring your partner by being explicitly clear that you love them and have chosen to stay with them for a reason may help them to feel more secure. 

While it can be tempting to get annoyed or argue when they express their distrust of you, try to approach the situation with comfort and support instead.

Build their confidence in the relationship by doing things for them that proves your trust and that you can be a secure figure for them in their life. 

Foster healthy communication

Unhealthy communication such as criticizing, blaming, or complaining can reinforce to your partner that you are going to hurt them eventually. Communicating through blaming often leads to the other person being defensive and choosing not to listen to what your needs are. 

Instead, communicate your needs to your partner concisely so that there is little confusion. Your partner should know that you deserve to be respected and that you have your own boundaries.

Explain to them that you will support them as best as you can but also that there are things that you will not tolerate. It is important to look out for your own mental health so if your partner is acting in a toxic way, this should be called out in a calm and direct way.

Try to work on a way to become more open in your communication if this is something you struggle with. If you are someone that does not share much, this can lead a fearful avoidant partner to make negative assumptions about what you are keeping to yourself.

Practising opening up a bit more can help clear up some uncertainties your partner has. 

Listen

Listening can be extremely important to a partner who has a fearful avoidant attachment style since they may have grown up in a household where their voice was not listened to.

Be open to hearing about your partner’s feelings and issues, however they are being expressed. Don’t try to fix the problems they come to you with unless they specifically ask you for advice. Instead, listen to understand and be a person they can come to when they need to unload. 

Be reliable

Fearful avoidant partners have a deep fear and expectation that they are going to be disappointed by others. 

You can help to break this unhelpful train of thought for your partner by becoming a reliable figure in their life. If you make promises and commitments, make sure you stick to them. If these are broken, this feeds into the fearful avoidant’s insecurities and can cause them to pull away from you. 

The more reliant you are, the more your partner will trust and see you as a source of security and safety. 

Work towards growth together

It may be the case that you both need to compromise for the relationship to work. You may need to work together to tackle the issues you have to make the relationship more secure. This may especially be the case if you yourself identify with one of the insecure attachment styles. 

If you need extra support, you can consider going to individual or couple’s therapy where a skilled therapist can help you both grow together as a couple.

How do you respond to a fearful avoidant pulling away?

If you see your fearful avoidant partner pulling away from you, there are some ways in which you can respond:

Don’t chase them

if you pursue someone who is clearly indicating that they need space, they will likely pull away even more or even turn hostile. 

Instead, reassure your partner that you will be there for them when they are ready to communicate to you. 

Don’t take it personally

While it is tempting to get upset and frustrated when someone is pulling away, try not to take this personally. Often, the person pulling away is seeking distance as a form of self-protection and it is not always about you. 

It is important to remember that if they are being critical of you, they are often more critical of themselves and will need support around tackling this.

Be mindful of how you express strong emotions

No one likes to be yelled at and emotional expressions delivered intensely often overwhelm avoidants. This is likely to make them pull away from you even more since it is triggering their attachment style. 

Try to remain calm and express your needs and emotions in a way that is honest and open but in a healthy, gentle manner. 

Allow them their independent lifestyle

It is necessary to realize that no partner can fulfil all our needs. Your partner may feel that you are being too clingy if you want to do everything with them and this could cause them to pull away even more. 

It is important to have your own interests and spend time apart while making sure to come back to each other afterwards. Being self-sufficient shows your partner that you are not overly dependent on them, which is something they can fear. 

How do you communicate with a fearful avoidant person?

While it may be tempting to argue with someone who has a fearful avoidant attachment when they are trying to self-sabotage their relationship, this is not a productive way to communicate.

When you notice them blaming or accusing you when there is nothing to be concerned about, this usually means their attachment style is being triggered and they are fearful of things getting more intimate. 

Approach conversations with them with openness and understanding. Gently reassure them and encourage them to communicate in a clear way. Ask them what needs are not being met and how you can help them achieve this. 

How common is fearful avoidant attachment style?

The fearful avoidant attachment style is rarer than the other attachment styles, typically occurring in about 7% of the population.

It often develops in the first 18 months of life and is most prevalent in those who were abused or experienced trauma as a child. More often than not, this attachment style develops in the most at-risk groups. 

Can a fearful avoidant person fall in love? 

While a fearful avoidant person may be more prone to breaking romantic connections because of their own fears and insecurities, they are able to fall in love and develop a more secure attachment.

This is often more possible when they are in a relationship with someone who is securely attached and is understanding of the struggle the fearful avoidant person has. 

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, July 04. Fearful Avoidant Attachment: How It Develops & How To Cope. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/fearful-avoidant-attachment.html

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