Understanding Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style

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Individuals with a fearful avoidant attachment style desire close relationships, but feel uncomfortable relying on others and fear being let down. Fearful avoidant is one of four key styles of attachment proposed by psychologist John Bowlby, who developed attachment theory. 

Key Takeaways: Fearful Avoidant Attachment

  • Attachment theory is a theory in psychology that explains how and why we form close relationships to other people.
  • According to attachment theory, our early experiences in life can cause us to develop expectations that affect our relationships throughout our lives.
  • Individuals with a fearful avoidant attachment style worry about being rejected and are uncomfortable with closeness in their relationships.
  • Having a fearful avoidant attachment style is linked to negative outcomes, such as a higher risk of social anxiety and depression as well as less fulfilling interpersonal relationships.
  • Recent research suggests that it’s possible to change one’s attachment style and to develop healthier ways of relating to others.

Attachment Theory Overview

When studying the interactions between infants and their caregivers, Bowlby noticed that infants had a need to be in close proximity to their caregivers and that they often became quite distressed when separated. Bowlby suggested that this response was part of an evolved behavior: because young infants are dependent upon parents for caregiving, forming a close attachment to parents is evolutionarily adaptive.  

According to attachment theory, individuals develop expectations about how other people will behave based upon those early attachments. For example, if a child's parents are generally responsive and supportive when he or she is distressed, attachment theory would predict that the child would become a trusting adult. On the other hand, a child whose parents responded inconsistently or negatively might have difficulty trusting others upon reaching adulthood. 

The 4 Attachment Styles

Generally speaking, there are four different prototypical attachment styles that can explain our attitudes and beliefs about relationships:

  1. Secure. Individuals with a secure attachment style feel comfortable trusting others. They see themselves as worthy of love and support and are confident that others will support them if they need help.
  2. Anxious (also known as preoccupied or anxious-ambivalent). Anxiously attached individuals want to rely on others, but worry that others won’t support them in the way that they want. According to psychologists Kim Bartholomew and Leonard Horowitz, anxiously attached individuals typically have positive evaluations of other people but tend to doubt their self-worth. This causes them to seek out the support of others but also worry about whether their feelings for others will be reciprocated.
  3. Avoidant (also known as dismissing-avoidant). Avoidant individuals tend to limit the closeness of their relationships and feel uncomfortable relying on other people. According to Bartholomew and Horowitz, avoidant individuals typically have positive views of themselves but believe that other people can’t be counted on. Consequently, avoidant individuals tend to remain independent and often try to avoid any form of dependence.
  4. Fearful avoidant. Individuals with a fearful avoidant attachment style have characteristics of both anxious and avoidant individuals. Bartholomew and Horowitz write that they tend to have negative views of both themselves and others, feel unworthy of support, and anticipate that others will not support them. As a result, they feel uncomfortable relying on others despite a desire for close relationships.

Most people do not fit the attachment style prototypes perfectly; instead, researchers measure attachment style as a spectrum. In attachment questionnaires, researchers give participants questions measuring both their anxiety and avoidance in relationships. Anxiety survey items include statements such as, “I'm afraid that I will lose my partner's love,” while avoidance survey items include statements like, "I don't feel comfortable opening up to romantic partners.” On these measures of attachment, fearful avoidant individuals score highly on both anxiety and avoidance.

Roots of the Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style

If parents are not responsive to a child's needs, the child may develop a fearful avoidant attachment style. Psychologist Hal Shorey writes that people with fearful avoidant attachment styles may have had parents who responded to their needs in threatening ways or who were otherwise unable to care for and comfort the child. Similarly, researcher Antonia Bifulco found that fearful avoidant attachment is linked to childhood abuse and neglect.

However, some research suggests that fearful avoidant attachment style may have other origins as well. In fact, in one study conducted by Katherine Carnelley and her colleagues, the researchers found that attachment style was related to participants’ relationships with their mothers when they looked at college student participants. However, among a group of older participants, researchers did not find the expected link between early experiences and attachment. In other words, while early life experiences do affect attachment style, other factors may also play a role.

Key Studies

Some research suggests that fearful avoidant attachment style is connected to an increased risk of anxiety and depression. In a study conducted by Barbara Murphy and Glen Bates at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, researchers compared attachment style and symptoms of depression among 305 research participants. The researchers found that fewer than 20% of participants had a fearful avoidant attachment style, but, among participants whom the researchers categorized as depressed, the prevalence of fearful avoidant attachment was much higher. In fact, nearly half of participants categorized as depressed displayed a fearful avoidant attachment style. Other research has corroborated these findings. 

Psychologists have found that individuals with secure attachment styles tend to self-report healthier and more satisfying relationships than insecurely attached individuals. In a study conducted by noted attachment researchers Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver, researchers asked participants questions about their most important romantic relationships. The researchers found that secure participants reported having relationships that lasted longer than avoidant and anxious participants’ relationships.

Because fearful avoidant attachment style encompasses elements of both anxiety and avoidance, this particular attachment style can lead to interpersonal difficulties. For example, Shorey writes that people with a fearful avoidant attachment style want close relationships, but may pull away because of their anxieties and worries about relationships.

Changing Attachment Style

According to recent research, the negative outcomes of fearful avoidant attachment style are not inevitable. Individuals can utilize therapy to change relationship behavior patterns and cultivate a more secure attachment style. According to the Greater Good Science Center, therapy provides an outlet for understanding one's attachment style and practicing new ways of thinking about relationships.

Additional research has found that being in a relationship with someone who is securely attached can be beneficial to those with less secure attachment styles. In other words, people with less secure attachment styles may gradually become more comfortable if they are in a relationship with someone who has a secure attachment style. If two individuals who are not securely attached find themselves in a relationship together, it has been suggested that they may benefit from couple’s therapy. Healthier relationship dynamics are possible by coming to understand one's own attachment style as well as the attachment style of one's partner.

Sources and Further Reading

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Hopper, Elizabeth. "Understanding Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style." ThoughtCo, Oct. 30, 2020, thoughtco.com/fearful-avoidant-attachment-style-4169674. Hopper, Elizabeth. (2020, October 30). Understanding Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/fearful-avoidant-attachment-style-4169674 Hopper, Elizabeth. "Understanding Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/fearful-avoidant-attachment-style-4169674 (accessed March 27, 2023).