Understanding The Anxious Avoidant Attachment Style

By Mary Elizabeth Dean|Updated June 28, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Aaron Dutil , LMHC, LPC

One of the most defining personality traits for any given individual is their attachment style. Attachment style refers to the relationships people establish with one another. Some styles are more or less healthier than others, and some styles are more or less social. We’re going to discuss each attachment style but look more closely at one of the most misunderstood styles--anxious-avoidant, also known as fearful-avoidant attachment style or disorganized attachment.   

I Think I Have Anxious Avoidant Attachment, How Can I Change That?

What Is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory is an important concept in the realm of social and emotional human development. It describes the way that children interact with their caregivers and how those interactions shape how we connect with our loved ones in adulthood. Those who typically developed a secure attachment and healthy relationships with their parents are more likely to have good self-esteem and healthy adult attachment later in life. Conversely, someone who develops an insecure attachment in childhood will have far more difficulties with relationships in adulthood.

Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby in the mid-20th century and theory revolutionized how we view one’s ability to create healthy connections. Attachment theory affirms that our relationship skills and ability to bond with others are affected by our relationship with our caregivers. Depending on how our childhood was, we can develop one of four attachment styles. 

The Four Attachment Styles

As mentioned before, there are four attachment styles recognized by attachment theory. Depending on how your caregivers interacted with you, you developed one of these attachment styles. Let’s discuss them in more detail.

Secure Attachment

The healthiest attachment style of the four is secure attachment. As you may have guessed from the name, people with this attachment type feel secure in themselves and their romantic relationships. They are more likely to have healthy relationships as they have good self-esteem, know conflict resolution, and can properly provide emotional support to their partners. They feel safe becoming emotionally close to their romantic partners.

In childhood, the person with a secure style is securely attached to their caregivers. Their caregivers were emotionally available to their children but also allowed their children to explore the world. They were able to provide their children with their physical and emotional needs and were able to show their children how to develop a healthy attachment and connection with other people. As a result, the children grow up into secure adults who know how to develop healthy intimate relationships.

Anxious Attachment Style

The anxious attachment style is the first insecure attachment style we will discuss. People with an anxious attachment, as you may have guessed, tend to exhibit anxious behaviors. Ultimately, anxious types fear abandonment by their partners, as they had caregivers that were inconsistent and did not care for their needs. This neglectful or inconsistent parenting made the child believe that they will be abandoned or neglected at any moment.

As a result, people with this attachment style tend to be quite anxious and smother their romantic partners. Furthermore, someone with this attachment needs constant validation as they tend to have low self-esteem. Anxious types can be quite clingy or needy and may become incredibly anxious or worried if their partner is not in constant contact with them.

Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Style

The next insecure attachment style is avoidant attachment, also known as dismissive-avoidant. This is the opposite of anxious attachment. While those with anxious attachment are clingy and need constant validation from their romantic partners, avoidant partners tend to avoid emotional intimacy or close relationships. Someone with this attachment needs independence and freedom and will feel stifled in long-term relationships.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that avoidant types don’t have emotional needs. Instead, they tend to ignore those needs, preferring to be single or date people whom they don’t have to commit to. Someone who is an avoidant type will feel secure enough in themselves to live without a close relationship and often have solid self-confidence. Avoidant types prefer to self-soothe rather than let anyone into their emotional lives.

Like people who have an anxious attachment, avoidant individuals did not have a secure attachment to their caregivers. Instead, the caregivers were probably neglectful or inconsistent in their parenting. Since avoidant children did not have their emotional needs met by their caregivers, they learned to ignore those needs and avoid close romantic relationships. As a result, they learn to be self-contained, tending to be emotionally unavailable and doing whatever they can to avoid commitment.

Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style

The fourth attachment type is fearful-avoidant (also known as anxious-avoidant attachment or insecure-avoidant attachment) and is the subject of the rest of this article. This attachment style is a mix of anxious attachment and avoidant attachment (which is why it is often called anxious-avoidant attachment). Someone with a fearful-avoidant attachment style will exhibit anxious and avoidant behaviors. Just like anxious types, people with fearful-avoidant attachment styles will be anxious without constant connection or validation from their partner. They fear that their partner will leave them or lose interest quickly.

However, people with this attachment style tend to also exhibit common behaviors of avoidant types. They will fear romantic relationships and potential negative outcomes, so they may push potential romantic partners away. In others words, they fear being emotionally close to someone but also crave more intimacy at the same time. This can be exhausting to both the fearful-avoidant person and their partners, making it one of the most difficult adult attachment styles to live with.

You can imagine how difficult it would be to have this outlook. Fearfully attached individuals are unable to reach out to anyone, and anyone that tries to reach out to them is promptly denied. As social creatures, we humans struggle when we are unable to make connections with others that we inherently need.

Some will try to explain this phenomenon as a simple tendency toward introversion. This is not the case, however. Introversion, defined by the comfort found in solitude, is not affected by self-esteem and the perception of others. Because low metrics on those spectra characterizes fearful-avoidant attachment, it can be easily separated from an introverted personality.

In fact, that explains why this attachment type is so painful to have. These people do not want to be left alone. They are deprived of affection from themselves and others, and they know they need it. They are just too afraid to take the risk.

This can have serious implications depending on the severity of the anxious avoidance. Those on the far end of this spectrum may find themselves struggling to feel fulfilled. They may have trouble finding a job, relaxing, or feeling happy at all. Extreme isolation has been known to cause depression or even hallucinations.

Someone closer to the center, however, might only experience negligible effects. This person could still function and find happiness in their lives. While a secure attachment style is always the best-case scenario, being in the middle is better than being incredibly fearful-avoidant.

For example, Edward Scissorhands, from the movie of the same name, is fearful-avoidant. He wants to be loved and accepted but is so mortified by rejection that he becomes a hermit and struggles anyways. You can see how this differs from secure attachment, where one pursues romantic relationships, and the ones they have are healthy.

How Is Anxious Avoidant Attachment Style Formed?

When I first learned about attachment styles, my immediate reaction was, "I don't want to be fearful-avoidant." It sounds incredibly difficult to live with. This begs the question: what determines someone's attachment style?

It is generally accepted that attachment styles are formed in early development. A child's relationship with their parents sets a precedent for what relationships are like in the world. Young children are continually learning, and what their parents teach them about love is sure to stick.

Children who spend a healthy amount of time with their parents and learn to trust them will eventually score higher on "perception of others." Likewise, if the child is allowed to explore, take risks, and learn through trial and error, they also will learn to trust themselves, scoring higher on "self-esteem." It follows, then, that those who score lower on these measures when they grow up did not have a foundation of trust for themselves or others.

Children can behave in ways that are very indicative of the attachment style they will grow up with. This can be observed at any time a child's parent leaves them alone, such as dropping them off at school. Depending on their style of attachment, they will react to being separated from their guardian in different ways.

Securely attached children are likely to cry at first, but they will eventually learn to make friends and be social with other children. Kids who are anxious types will cry incessantly, desperately wishing for the parent to return. Dismissive-avoidant children will not even care - they will just find some toy to play with and seem overall apathetic about being on their own and meeting new people. In fact, the avoidant attached child may even seem secure simply because they are the most collected of the bunch. 

Anxious-avoidant children, though, have it the worst. They will be very shy and emotional. They will want to make friends with the other children, but their hesitation to talk to new people will be very apparent. While the other kids play together, anxious-avoidant children will sit on the outside, waiting to be invited but too afraid to jump in on their own. This is why we call it fearful attachment - it is characterized by a persistent fear of relationships and their worst possible outcomes. Anxious-avoidant children who display these common behaviors without therapeutic help or inner work often struggle to make meaningful connections in adulthood.

Does this mean that all shy children are fearfully attached, and all the outgoing ones are secure? Certainly not - remember, this is evaluated on a spectrum. These are examples of the most extreme conceivable cases. Most children will probably exhibit some mixture of all these behaviors and traits.

Can I Change My Style?

This question is similar to the infamous "Nature v. Nurture" debate, which has no simple answer. As such, there is little consensus on this in the scientific community. It is important to evaluate both sides' arguments and form an individual opinion.

One side says no, you cannot change your attachment style. The experiences you had as a child have already had their effect on development, and your tendency toward this attachment style is set in stone. The best option, then, is to employ strategies that allow you to cope with this disposition.

The other camp says yes, you can. New experiences are very much able to influence your brain today, just as they could when you were younger. We have seen both good and bad events change people we know completely. Why would attachment style be any different?

The correct answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Early experiences certainly have their permanent influences, but new ones cannot be completely discounted either. In any case, the question has yet to be definitively answered.

It is worth considering that your parents, while they set the stage for your social future, are not the only people you have relationships with in life. There are grandparents, brothers, and sisters that may be present when you are young as well. We cannot neglect the friends we make as children, either. Could good experiences with family and bad experiences with peers lead to a strong in-group bias that this model does not account for? What about the opposite?

Attenuating The Effects

Regardless of whether or not attachment style can change, someone who is extremely fearful-avoidant probably wants to make an effort to be more socially at ease. There are steps you can take to make your life better.

First of all, recognizing that you have an insecure attachment style is already part of the battle. We cannot fix or heal our behavior without self-awareness. Recognizing your avoidant attachment patterns and attachment issues will help you understand what you need to work on.

Therefore, incorporating mindfulness is a great way to develop a more secure attachment. Be mindful of your thoughts and negative emotions; learning where they originated from can help you heal and develop calmer, healthier emotions in your relationships.

You should also make sure you are surrounded by loving and supportive people. Good emotional support is key to developing a more secure attachment style. However, many people with a fearful-avoidant attachment style tend to attract toxic people. Therefore, you may need to purge any toxic relationship or friendship that you have. It is much harder to become securely attached to healthy and supportive people if you have toxic people affecting your life and mental health.

Another way to help yourself is by seeing a therapist. A therapist can help work through what factors caused your fearful-avoidant attachment (such as a neglectful or unhealthy connection with your attachment figure or caregiver) and delve into any other factors that affected your attachment system. Furthermore, they can help you with your present thoughts and emotions, including anything that is preventing you from enjoying physical closeness or a healthy sex life. 

Some people with a fearful-avoidant attachment style also live with a mental illness, which makes it even harder for them to become securely attached to someone. A therapist can also give you guidance and support for coping with this.

I Think I Have Anxious Avoidant Attachment, How Can I Change That?

As we’ve discussed, it is very difficult for people with the fearful-avoidant attachment style to build relationships with anyone. It is essential for these people to find someone they can trust. Once they can let down their walls, the weight of the world will come off their shoulders. Psychologists understand the human mind and have certainly had to break down these sorts of barriers on more than one occasion.

Many mental disorders have no known cure, but psychologists can manage the symptoms. While fearful-avoidant attachment is not a disorder, its unpleasant effects can be mitigated. You may find that your style changes or you may find that you can live with the one you have. Either way, therapy is a great option and is sure to increase your quality of life exponentially.

Of course, you’ll work with your therapist to develop the best approach for you, but you probably want a sense of how likely therapy is to help you, right? One common type of talk therapy is cognitive-behavioral therapy (which is one of the most effective treatments for social anxiety disorder). Because CBT can be used to treat so many things, it has been studied quite a bit. The research to date indicates that it’s just as effective when delivered online as it is in person (as long as you’re not dealing with an incredibly severe issue).

There may be some additional draws of online therapy for you. If you’re someone who is nervous about leaving the house and interacting with strangers, online therapy might be an easier step; you can reach out to your counselor from anywhere you feel comfortable as long as you have a secure and reliable internet connection. BetterHelp also works to match you with the right person, so you’re working with someone you can trust. However, if you find that you do want to switch counselors, it’s easy to do so and more than 14,000 counselors are associated with BetterHelp.

If hearing from someone else is helpful, though, here are some recent reviews by BetterHelp users about their counselors:

“Natalie is a great listener and is incredibly easy to talk to. I was extremely nervous to start video sessions but she made them low stress and easy to open up in. It's rare to immediately find a therapist you click with and I count myself very lucky to have matched with Natalie.” Read more on Natalie Thwing.

“Ms. Natalie is so sweet, caring, understanding and has a demeanor in which I felt comfortable being able to open up to her right away. I always feel better after our therapy sessions and I’m confident that I’ll be able to grow and reach my goals with her help.” Read more on Natalie Bouffard-Lewis.

Below are some commonly asked questions around this topic:

What are signs of anxious avoidant attachment?
What is an example of anxious avoidant attachment?
How do you deal with an anxious avoidant attachment?
What are signs of avoidant attachment?
Are Avoidants narcissists?
Do Avoidants fall in love?
What does an anxious-avoidant relationship look like?
What triggers anxious attachment?
What are Avoidants attracted to?
How do you break an anxious-avoidant trap?

Helpful mental health resources delivered to your inbox
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.