Fearful-Avoidant Attachment: Signs, Causes & How To Deal With It
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
According to attachment theory, our style of connecting with other people is a direct reflection of our earliest experiences with our caregivers, as well as other influential relationships in our life. There are three main adult attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant. But there's also a fourth attachment style that's much more rare and thus hardly talked about: fearful-avoidant attachment.
What is fearful-avoidant attachment?
Fearful-avoidant attachment is an attachment style (aka a way of relating to people in relationships) that's both anxious and avoidant. It's also known as disorganized attachment. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy describes fearful-avoidant attachment as "reluctant to engage in a close relationship and a dire need to be loved by others." You don't want to be intimate with anyone, and yet you desperately crave affection.
A quick primer on all the attachment styles: People who grew up with trustworthy parents who engaged in consistent ways with them (including a lot of love and attention) generally end up with a secure attachment style, meaning they have generally healthy relationships where they feel secure, loved, and able to love back. Those whose parental relationships were unreliable or nonexistent tend to end up with an insecure attachment style, which can fall into two categories: anxious attachment or avoidant attachment. People with an anxious attachment style crave affection and often come off as "needy" in their relationships, whereas people with an avoidant attachment style tend to do the opposite and push others away out of a fear of intimacy.
But fearful-avoidant attachment style involves a combination of both feeling anxious for affection and avoiding it at all costs. According to psychologists Nicolas Favez and Herve Tissot, the researchers behind the 2019 study, this attachment style is seldom talked about and not well-researched because it's much rarer than the other three attachment styles. But some research has found fearful-avoidant people to have "the most psychological and relational risks."
Behaviors, signs, and symptoms of fearful-avoidant attachment.
A few that Favez and Tissot mention in their study:
- Severe difficulty regulating their emotions in relationships
- Responding poorly or inappropriately to negative emotions
- Negative view of themselves
- Perceiving other people and their support negatively
- Less commitment and satisfaction in romantic relationships
- Higher likelihood of showing violence in their relationships
- Having a very high number of sexual partners
- More sexual compliance (when asked for sex, you're likely to say yes)
- Elevated anxiety
- Fear of intimacy or fear of relationships
"Fearful avoidance or disorganization has also been shown to be linked with borderline personality disorders or dissociative symptoms," they write.
What causes fearful-avoidant attachment?
Some studies suggest trauma might be a key factor in creating fearful-avoidant attachment, Favez and Tissot write.
As children, those with fearful avoidance react to stress with "apparently incoherent behaviors," they explain, such as aimlessness, fear of their caregiver, or aggressiveness toward their caregiver. Earlier studies have hypothesized this behavior comes from traumatic experiences with their caregiver such that the child becomes "constantly caught between deactivation (as the attachment figure cannot be a source of reassurance) and hyperactivation (the presence of the 'frightening' figure constantly triggers attachment needs)."
In other words, a child who is afraid of their caregiver finds themselves desperately needing comfort but has learned that they cannot trust the person who gives it to them. In adulthood, this manifests as both wanting intimacy in your relationships but instinctively fearing it and trying to escape it.
How fearful-avoidant attachment affects relationships.
The study, which surveyed 600 men and women about their relationships and sex lives, found people with a fearful-avoidant attachment style tend to have a lot more sexual partners than other people. Fearful-avoidant people also tended to be a lot more sexually compliant, which means when someone solicits sex from you, you're more likely to say yes—such that you have sex when asked for it, even if you yourself have no sexual desire.
Having a lot of sex can be great. When you're single, it often means a lot of exploration, meeting new people, and having novel experiences, many of which might be deliciously low-pressure, of-the-moment affairs. But while some people consciously seek out a lot of casual sexual experiences for the physical pleasure, the excitement, or any number of other reasons, it seems fearful-avoidant people might find themselves having a lot of sex with a lot of different people without much of a reason at all.
Why? Favez and Tissot theorized it has to do with "out-of-control behaviors" developed in response to the confusion of both wanting connection but also feeling repulsed by it. They explain:
"For example, sexual contact may be initiated to meet emotional needs caused by depression or to distract oneself from depression-inducing thoughts," they write. "The elevated anxiety felt in fearful avoidance may motivate the individual to increase closeness with a partner by using sexual activities, whereas the elevated avoidance tendency may almost simultaneously motivate the individual to break the bond with this partner...which is in turn followed by the search for a new partner. This endless alternation between approach and avoidance may result in apparently out-of-control sexual behaviors."
Now, having a lot of sex in and of itself is not a bad thing. But doing it out of a simultaneous craving and fear of connection, all when you don't even really have any desire for sex itself? That can quickly become draining and perhaps even destructive, especially if you start finding yourself saying yes to sex you don't want or sex that puts your physical well-being at risk. If you're also breaking connections with people when you really desire to get closer to them, you're putting your mind and heart through a lot of heartache due to your own fears.
How to deal with fearful-avoidant attachment.
It might be hard to tell if you have fearful-avoidant attachment without consulting with a professional. While there is an online test you can take to determine your attachment style, it may not distinguish clearly between fearful-avoidant and the other two insecure attachment styles because the former is so rare and is, in fact, a combination of the other two.
Either way, if you're relating to any of the above and feeling nervous, take a deep breath. The good news is that attachment styles are malleable and can be adjusted through conscious intention and practice. You can change your attachment style. Here's how to get things back on track if you have fearful-avoidant attachment:
1. Look into therapy.
If fearful avoidance really is tied to experiencing trauma in childhood, therapy must play an important role in healing from this attachment wound. Plenty of research has found some people who experience sexual trauma respond by becoming "hypersexual" (i.e., having tons of sex with a lot of different people, sometimes in risky ways).
"Working on 'unresolved trauma' may thus be a path to resolve sexual difficulties, even if the trauma is not itself related to sexuality but more generally to relationships with significant others in the close environment," they recommend. "It also means that an individual with an apparent active and busy sexual life may, by this means, be trying to hide negative emotions and be struggling with them."
The researchers recommend pursuing a type of therapy that focuses on attachment, such as emotionally focused couple therapy.
2. Develop a mindfulness practice.
It's essential that you start understanding why you make the decisions you make regarding your sex life and relationships, and mindfulness—the practice of being present and aware of one's emotions—can be a good way to work on building up your self-awareness.
"In relationships, shifting from reactiveness to responsiveness can lift us out of our early attachment patterns toward a healthier, more secure style," licensed marriage and family therapist Linda Carroll, M.S., writes at mbg. "Next time you feel a partner coming too close or moving too far away, listen to what each of you is saying and how it's said. You might notice that your words in emotional situations trigger a physiological reaction of fight or flight. Simply becoming aware of each other's old fears is the first step in preventing them from controlling us."
3. Be honest with your partners.
If your goal is to ultimately form a close emotional bond with someone, you'll need to tell that person exactly what you want and why you struggle with it. This way, you can both work on solutions to help overcome your hurdles and get closer.
"With any prospective partner you meet, you should be honest about your own attachment type and what it means," Peter Lovenheim, author of The Attachment Effect: Exploring the Powerful Ways Our Earliest Bond Shapes Our Relationships and Lives, writes at mbg. "There's no point in pretending to be more eager than you are for intimacy, cuddles, and soul-mating. You want, after all, to find someone who accepts your attachment type and will be comfortable with you just as you are."
4. Get real about self-compassion.
This isn't just a feel-good catchphrase for you. At core, people with fearful-avoidant personalities are suffering from relationship insecurity—an instilled belief that people in your life are going to reject or leave you, just like your earliest caregivers or loved ones did. You need to actively work to break that toxic mindset that views yourself as unworthy because of what happened in your past.
"Here's the truth: There's no person out there who can heal your attachment issues," couples counselor Margaret Paul, Ph.D., tells mbg. "True healing occurs when you learn to be the loving parent that you never had to yourself. In what ways did your childhood hurt you? How can you give yourself the security, support, and validation you never had?"
At the end of the day, there's nothing wrong with having sex with a lot of people and enjoying independence—as long as it's coming from a healthy place and serving a healthy purpose. Whether you're seeking physical delights, novelty, or emotional connection, your sexual lifestyle should nourish you. With inner work and conscious effort, you can get your lifestyle to match up with your real needs and desires.
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