What Is Fearful-Avoidant Attachment? Here Are the Sneaky Signs and Patterns To Look For in Your Relationships

It could be negatively impacting your relationships.

When we form a relationship with a partner, family member or close friend, inevitably, we bring our emotional baggage along too. And there’s nothing wrong with that⎯it’s part of being human. But sometimes, those old habits and negative patterns can haunt us in our relationships, and we may deal by turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms or even shutting down completely.

Sometimes, those harmful approaches to carrying out a relationship can have a label. Called attachment styles, there are four categories that you, your partner or a loved one may fall into. There’s secure attachment, the healthy style, in which people understand their self-worth and the good things they can bring to a relationship. Anxious attachment can leave individuals feeling unconfident in relationships and they often can’t see their self-worth. Avoidant attachment is marked by an extreme level of independence and shying away from closeness.

And lastly, there’s fearful-avoidant attachment, which, simply put, is when a person longs to feel close to others but fears it at the same time. According to The Attachment Project, the fearful-avoidant style can be observed in about 7% of the population.

To learn more about this attachment style and spot fearful-avoidant attachment signs and patterns in yourself or someone close to you, read on.

What Is Fearful-Avoidant Attachment?

At times referred to as “disorganized attachment,” fearful-avoidant attachment is a style characterized by high levels of anxiety and unhealthy self-esteem, as Debbie Missud, LMHC, puts it.

“Someone with this attachment style may deeply desire close and intimate relationships while feeling very afraid that they will be abandoned, rejected or betrayed,” she says.

Chantelle Doswell, LCSW, Liberation-Focused Trauma Therapist and Adjunct Professor at Columbia School of Social Work calls it a type of “insecure attachment.”

“People who have fearful-avoidant attachment in their relationships are uncomfortable depending on others and serving as an attachment figure for others,” Doswell says. “I tell people the slogan of this attachment style is, ‘I shouldn't need anything from people and they shouldn't need anything from me.’ Deep down, they worry that others may not be there emotionally when they are most needed.”

Oftentimes, fearful-avoidant attachment is connected to personality disorders—particularly borderline personality disorder (BPD), which Missud explains is characterized by extreme fear of abandonment in relationships, unhealthy self-esteem, difficulty regulating emotions and mood swings.

She adds that another mental health condition predisposing those to fearful-avoidant attachment is complex PTSD (C-PTSD), which differs from classic PTSD in that it’s based on repeated interpersonal trauma, difficulty regulating emotions and a fear of relationships altogether.

What Are the Common Behaviors and Signs of Fearful-Avoidant Attachment?

Missud says that one key characteristic of fearful-avoidant attachment is volatility in relationships. Additionally, it can present as an intense amount of fear.

“The ‘fearful’ part of the attachment style shows up through high anxiety in relationships,” Missud says. “They may feel insecure about their partner’s commitment to them and feel deep fear that their partner will abandon them, cheat on them, reject them or hurt them in some way.”

Related: 8 Sneaky Signs You Might Be a Victim of Micro-Cheating—Plus, Tips on How To Respond from Relationship Experts

The “avoidant” part comes in when people have difficulty maintaining long-term relationships. Missud that this can be seen through individuals bouncing from partner to partner and withdrawing from each relationship in an effort to protect themselves from what they believe is the inevitable pain their partner will cause them.

“Some other signs include difficulty regulating emotions during conflict, high reactivity, insecurity in the relationship and being highly affectionate one moment and cold/distant the next,” Missud says.

Related: Feeling Anxious? Here Are 75 Therapist-Backed Methods for Calming Your Anxiety Right Now

What Causes Fearful-Avoidant Attachment?

Like many psychological conditions, fearful-avoidant attachment frequently stems from childhood. Specifically, through abandonment or neglect. Doswell says that this can include parents or caregivers who were functionally unable to meet the child’s needs due to factors related to health or addiction, immigration separation, parental depression or parents with busy work schedules. It can also come from overly strict or dismissive parents or guardians in which emotional and/or physical needs were not being attuned to.

“You'll find that those who have fearful-avoidant attachment styles have been raised in an environment where they were encouraged to be very independent to the point of feeling like relationships aren't needed or safe,” Doswell says.

Apart from parents or caregivers, fearful-avoidant attachment can also come about from unhealthy systems, such as schools, or negative experiences with a romantic partner.

Since many individuals with fearful-avoidant attachment have experienced a lack of predictability throughout their lives, this can result in hypervigilance and hyper-independence, Missud says.

Childhood abuse can also lend itself to fearful-avoidant attachment.

“When a child does not know whether their caregiver will be doting and attuned or abusive and neglectful, they learn that relationships are unpredictable, abuse and pain are normal and they are not a priority to their loved ones,” Missud shares.

Simply stated, fearful-avoidant attachment is a trauma response that is to be expected after living through such adverse experiences.

Related: What Is Self-Care? And the Most Practical, Enjoyable Ideas for Weaving It Into Your Life

How Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Affects Relationships

Missud says that fearful-avoidant attachment affects relationships through patterns of high reactivity and conflict, being “hot and cold” (super affectionate one minute and reclusive the next) and withdrawing or leaving the relationship altogether when it calls for greater vulnerability.

“Someone who is in a relationship with a fearful-avoidant may feel like their partner has two sides to them and feel uncertain about which side they are going to get,” Missud says. “On the other hand, someone with fearful-avoidant attachment is more prone to tolerating and/or staying in an abusive relationship, as their history has taught them unhealthy boundaries and abuse are normal.”

Doswell adds that relationship issues that come up as a result of fearful-avoidant attachment can include inconsistent communication, not committing to a long-term relationship or a relationship title, turning away from a partner in times of conflict, not saying "I love you" or restricting the use of the word and thoughts of, or actual, infidelity.

Related: 25 Green Flags in a Relationship That Point to a Healthy Partnership

How To Deal With Fearful-Avoidant Attachment

Although it might seem as if fearful-avoidant attachment will always plague a person’s life, there’s hope. There are actually several ways to address it.

Missud says that for starters, it can help to work on developing a healthier level of self-esteem. This can be achieved through practicing self-compassion and engaging in confidence-boosting activities outside of relationships, which can both challenge beliefs of unworthiness and insecurity.

Missud also recommends learning how to practice mindfulness and emotion-regulation techniques, two things that can reduce reactivity during conflict. She says that you can also surround yourself with people who fall in the “secure” attachment category, adding that this can be “extremely healing.”

“It teaches someone with fearful-avoidant attachment that relationships can be safe, trustworthy and respectful,” she says.

Also, be sure to keep therapy in mind as an option. Missud says that therapy can help process any early experiences that have contributed to these relationship patterns and develop adaptive, healthier ones. She says that EMDR therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) can be particularly helpful for fearful-avoidant individuals.

Next up, learn how to deal with rejection in a healthy way.