Attachment theory may have originated in 1958 by British psychiatrist John Bowlby, but it’s become a popular conversation topic online (with over 348.3 million TikTok views on the topic). If you’re not familiar, Bowlby discovered that the experiences people had with their caretakers in infancy and childhood later informed how they behaved in relationships as adults — especially romantic ones. Think of your attachment style as a sort of interpersonal personality type.
There are four different attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. Each stems from the presence, or lack thereof, of parental behaviors like nurture and attention toward their children, and each can present its own challenges in relationships. For the fearful-avoidant attachment style in particular, this can involve, well, exactly what it sounds like — a fear and avoidance of intimacy.
It can be helpful to know if this is your attachment style. That’s especially the case when it comes to dating and relationships, as it can inform how you feel about the foundation of the connection with your partner, according to licensed clinical social worker Briana Driver. “Our attachment style largely dictates how we gain a sense of security from potential partners and intimate connections,” Driver previously told Bustle. “It offers a framework — think love languages but significantly more in-depth — to what we need from a partner in order to feel seen, heard, and emotionally safe, quite similar to the needs we might have had as a child from our caregivers.” A fearful-avoidant attachment style, then, designates some deficits in what you might have received from your caretakers in childhood. Read on for insight into this attachment style and what you can do to improve your relationships.
What Is A Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style?
When a fearful-avoidant person enters into a relationship, they can experience traits of both anxiety and avoidant tendencies. “People with a fearful-avoidant working model yearn for closeness and relationships yet are fearful of getting close, fearful of getting hurt,” says Dr. Amir Levine, psychiatrist, neuroscientist at Columbia University, and co-author of Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find — And Keep — Love, tells Bustle. “They want to be in a relationship, but they also are very sensitive to potential hurts and disappointments and worry about that a lot.”
What Causes A Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style?
As Bowlby’s research found, attachment styles are formed based on the nature of the relationship between children and their caregivers. A person with a fearful-avoidant attachment style may have experienced both instability and a lack of care and attention from their parents or caregivers, creating a complicated mix of issues that can carry into their adult relationships. Their parents may have been emotionally distant or unavailable (a trait of someone with an avoidant attachment style), and not shown the love or nurturing that the child needed to develop a secure attachment.
Dr. Levine also says that it’s possible for some people’s fearful-avoidant attachment to have been informed by experiences with other people in other stages of life. “Oftentimes in the research literature there’s a connection to potential trauma by a person you were close to — leading people to fear closeness — having experienced it as something that is hurtful or dangerous,” he says. Despite this, though, he also stresses that research on adult attachment is much more established in its relation to childhood experience.
How To Know If You Have A Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style
If you have a fearful-avoidant attachment style, certain situations may ring true. “A true yearning for closeness, yet a real fear of it and avoidance of closeness at the same time is a hallmark of fearful-avoidant attachment style,” says Dr. Levine. You may also be extra sensitive to potential rejection. And this is why fearful avoidants tend to go out with people they’re less attracted to — it feels “less threatening” to them, Dr. Levine explains, and then they don’t understand why they can’t make the relationship work.
This attachment style can often get into the same troublesome patterns on dating apps. “You swipe left on people you’re attracted to on apps just because unconsciously — and sometimes quite consciously — it feels threatening,” Dr. Levine says. You might convince yourself that there’s something wrong — you decide they seem arrogant, or they’re too young or too old. In other words, you’ll find reasons to reject the people you’re most drawn to, he explains. As a result, those in this situation might end up wondering why they can’t find the right partner for them.
How A Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style Can Affect Your Relationships
As Dr. Levine says, fearful-avoidant people do desire love and intimacy, but they also tend to put up metaphorical walls and push their loved ones away for the sake of keeping themselves and their feelings “safe.” This can affect their ability to truly connect with others, who might feel like the fearful-avoidant partner is keeping them at bay.
Like any psychological trait, however, attachment styles affect everyone differently. One person may experience the symptoms of an anxious attachment style much more intensely than another person, or they may see a completely different impact on their own relationship. That said, people with a fearful-avoidant attachment generally experience difficulty with both security and openness in their partnerships, says Dr. Levine. “Studies show that people with [a] fearful-avoidant attachment style struggle to maintain stability in a relationship and struggle getting into one,” he tells Bustle.
How To Deal With A Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style
Having a fearful-avoidant attachment style can sometimes impede your efforts to maintain healthy, secure relationships — but it’s not impossible to counteract some of these negative effects and make strides towards overcoming your fearful-avoidant tendencies. Dr. Levine’s number one tip? Don’t be afraid to venture into the unknown. “In all relationships, when you start going out with someone, you essentially take a leap of faith,” he explains, noting that fearful-avoidants feel more anxiety when they do this.
While someone with a secure attachment style can much more easily navigate the dating world, Dr. Levine says that fearful-avoidants need lots of reassurance and real tools to convince them that they’re on the right track. This helps them feel more confident as they move forward. In order to do this, you can try to communicate your emotional needs with your partner and give them some ideas of ways they can affirm you or make you feel more secure.
The success of all partnerships come down to communication and trust. Although a fearful-avoidant attachment may make those more difficult to commit to, Dr. Levine believes that, with self-awareness and effort, it is possible to create healthy and fulfilling connections. “With some help and guidance, fearful-avoidants can make great strides in breaking this and other ineffective cycles.” The first step? Take that leap.
Kidd, T. (2011). Examining the association between adult attachment style and cortisol responses to acute stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3114075/
Briana Driver, licensed clinical social worker
Dr. Amir Levine, psychiatrist, neuroscientist at Columbia University, and co-author of Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find — And Keep — Love