What is Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style?
The fearful-avoidant (sometimes called anxious-avoidant) share an underlying distrust of caregiving others with the dismissive-avoidant, but have not developed the armor of high self-esteem to allow them to do without attachment; they realize they need and want intimacy, but when they are in a relationship that starts to get close, their fear and mistrust surfaces and they distance. In psychology this is called an approach-avoidance conflict; at a distance the sufferer wants to get closer, but when he does, the fear kicks in and he wants to withdraw. This leads to a pattern of circling or cycling, and the fearful-avoidant can often be found in a series of short relationships ended by their finding fault with a partner who seems more threatening as they get closer to understanding them.
The early caregiving of a fearful-avoidant type often has some features of both neglect and abuse (which may be psychological—a demeaning or absent caregiver, rejection and teasing from early playmates.) A fearful-avoidant type both desires close relationships and finds it difficult to be truly open to intimacy with others out of fear of rejection and loss, since that is what he or she have received from their caregivers. Instead of the dismissive’s defense mechanism of going it alone and covering up feelings of need for others by developing high self-esteem, the fearful-avoidant subconsciously believe there is something unacceptable about them that makes anyone who knows them deeply more likely to reject or betray them, so they will find reasons to relieve this fear by distancing anyone who gets too close. As with the dismissive, the fearful-avoidant will have difficulty understanding the emotional lives of others, and empathy, while present, is not very strong—thus there will be poor communication of feelings with his partner.
Both Ainsworth and Main found the mother of the avoidant child to be distant—rejecting of the infant’s attachment needs, hostile to signs of dependency, and disliking affectionate, face-to-face physical contact, especially when the baby desired it. Her aversion to nurturance would seem to be a logical outgrowth of the neglect she probably experienced when she herself was young. Needs and longings that were painfully unmet have become a source of hurt and shame for her. Having cut herself off from them, they make her angry, depressed, or disgusted when she sees them in her child. –Karen, p. 373
A narcissistic or demanding mother can cause a child to mold him- or herself to please the parent to the point where little remains of the child’s own feelings and personality; they have been trained to display a false personality to gain parental approval.
Children who have been brought up this way often become high-achieving, competent adults with a sense of hollowness at the core, and episodic low self-esteem. They are often from families where parents are highly competent and have high expectations, and parenting may have been so active that childhood selves were quashed by parental expectations, judgments, and signals. In other words, parental ego is so dominant that the child’s true feelings are buried to avoid their disapproval. What the child learns to display is a false persona more pleasing to the active and admired parents. Some authors, notably Alice Miller in Drama of the Gifted Child, have called such parenting “abuse,” though it is abuse through disapproval and verbal rejection of behavior the caregiver disliked.
While we all have public faces—versions of ourselves edited for public consumption—the fearful-avoidant have commonly developed a false self, an acceptable outer personality which inhibits spontaneous display of their innermost thoughts and feelings even in intimacy. Those who think of themselves as their friends will often be surprised and hurt when high stress brings out the true personality of the masked one. By hiding their true selves, such people live with a social support network that has been attracted by their fake persona, so that when a crisis occurs, those who might have cared for them aren’t around, and those who are around don’t care for the real person revealed by the crisis. In a quotation commonly misattributed to Dr. Seuss, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” Real intimacy and loyalty are founded on honesty, and pretending to be someone you aren’t—keeping up appearances—leaves you with no lasting close friends or partners.
[Note: if you arrived here looking for insight into a fearful-avoidant spouse or lover, I’ve just published a book on the topic: Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) a Dismissive Partner. Right now available from Amazon Kindle for $3.99, and a trade paperback is also available.]
An example of a Fearful-Avoidant person described here.
Ray LaMontagne –“Be Here Now”
For more on the other attachment types:
The Latest from Jeb Kinnison:
Other relevant posts:
Attachment Type Combinations in Relationships
Serial Monogamy: the Fearful-Avoidant Do It Faster
Limerence vs. Love
Rules for Relationships: Realism and Empathy
Perfect Soulmates or Fellow Travelers: Being Happy Depends on Perspective
Mate-Seeking: The Science of Finding Your Best Partner
Anxious-Preoccupied / Dismissive-Avoidant Couples: the Silent Treatment
Anxious-Preoccupied: Stuck on the Dismissive?
“Bad Boyfriends” – Useful for Improving Current Relationships
Asian Culture and Avoidant Attachment
My first book on attachment, Bad Boyfriends: Using Attachment Theory to Avoid Mr. (or Ms.) Wrong and Make You a Better Partner, goes into greater detail on how the fearful-avoidant can learn to embrace intimacy and attract good partners.
For more on understanding fearful-avoidant spouses or lovers, I’ve just published a book on the topic: Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) a Dismissive Partner. Right now available only from Amazon Kindle for $3.99 (or local currency equivalent), but by Oct. 15th a paperback should also be available.
Dr. John Gottman’s book (The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work) is a great guide on how to strive for secure attachment with your partner when you are insecure.
To comment or read more discussion of the fearful-avoidant type, go to Jeb Kinnison Boards: Fearful-Avoidant.