Understanding Anxious Avoidant Attachment

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated January 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Attachment styles describe the ways we connect and communicate with those closest to us. They may influence our relationship patterns and are often developed in infancy and childhood based on how well our caregivers meet our emotional and physical needs. There are four main attachment styles that are commonly discussed in social psychology research, one of which is the anxious-avoidant attachment style. 

People with an anxious-avoidant attachment style may have trouble establishing healthy personal relationships, despite a desire to be accepted and loved. They might feel uncomfortable with vulnerability or find themselves entering relationships, including romantic relationships quickly and leaving the relationship once it becomes serious. 

Attachment styles can change, and learning more about your style can help you strive toward a more positive personal experience with relationships in the future. 

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Attachment Styles May Change With Time And Support

What Is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory is a concept in social and emotional human development. It describes how caregivers interact with their children and how those interactions shape the child's relationships throughout their lives which lead to the development of adult attachment styles. 

Those who developed a secure attachment and healthy relationships with their parents may have higher self-esteem and healthy adult relationships later in life, known as a secure attachment style. Conversely, someone who develops an insecure attachment may experience difficulties with relationships in adulthood and avoidant or anxious behaviors.

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed attachment theory in the mid-20th century and revolutionized how many view healthy boundaries and connections, including between romantic partners. The theory affirms that our relationship skills, how we fall in love, and how we leave a long-term relationship may be impacted by our first interpersonal connections in life. While attachment styles are commonly analyzed through the lens of romantic relationships, a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that attachment styles can also inform how people interact with their friends and larger social networks as well.

Anxious-Avoidant Attachment 

Anxious-avoidant attachment may also be called fearful-avoidant attachment or disorganized attachment. It combines aspects of both the anxious and avoidant attachment styles. People with anxious-avoidant attachment styles or attachment anxiety may feel the urge to connect vulnerably with others. However, they might also have an intense fear of both intimacy and vulnerability. Those who are in relationships tend to struggle forming healthy emotional bonds. They may enter a relationship feeling emotionally present but as the relationship continues and more commitment is required, they could become anxious, distressed, or distant. 

If their partner has an anxious attachment style, their partner may react by attempting to regain the attention they once gave. However, their partner's persistent affection and attempts to connect may further overwhelm them, causing them to pull back partially or entirely to avoid commitment. In an anxious-avoidant relationship like this, a power imbalance can develop. Although they crave love, they have a tendency to show avoidance behavior. They may feel that they cannot find a match and might prefer being alone or focusing all their energy on work or other pursuits.

Other Attachment Styles

Learning about other attachment styles and their differences may help you understand the anxious-avoidant style and other unhealthy attachment styles

Secure Attachment styles

The healthiest attachment style is secure attachment. People demonstrating this attachment style may feel confident in themselves and their relationships. They might maintain and build healthy connections and know when to leave an unhealthy relationship.

An individual with a secure attachment type may also excel in the following: 

  • Feeling emotionally close to others
  • Being aware of how and when to set boundaries
  • Accepting the boundaries of others
  • Leaving relationships that no longer serve them 
  • Having open and direct conversations about conflict
  • Making their own choices and having a healthy level of independence
  • Detecting red flags in the behavior of potential partners or friends
  • Knowing when to let go 
  • Knowing when to pursue closeness in a relationship

In childhood, someone with this style may feel close to their caregivers. Their caregivers may have been emotionally available and allowed their children to explore who they were. They could have met were likely able to control their own stress, while also meeting the child's physical and emotional needs, including the expression of complex emotions Through these actions, they were able to show the child how to develop healthy attachments and connections with others. As a result, such children often grow into secure adults who can develop healthy intimate relationships, in which emotional closeness, solid boundaries, and independence are primary features.

Studies show that the healthiest parenting style for children is the authoritative style. Children raised by parents who utilize authoritative methods may develop a secure attachment style and higher self-esteem.  

Anxious Attachment

Anxious types are often afraid of their partner leaving them or being abandoned by their partners, as they may have had inconsistent caregivers who did not meet their needs. They may require constant reassurance from partners or seek attention frequently. This can make it hard for people with an anxious attachment style to foster stable relationships. Neglectful, inconsistent parenting or chaotic behavior on the part of a caregiver could have made the child believe they would be abandoned or neglected. It could have also contributed to the belief that they were responsible for the emotional well-being of others. 

As a result, people with this attachment style may feel anxious and constantly reach out for reassurance or affection, even if it disrespects a boundary. They may feel a need for constant validation have low self-esteem, and develop a negative self-image. Anxious types may start feeling threatened or worried if their partner wants space, doesn't respond to their messages, or tries to set a physical boundary. 

Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment

The dismissive-avoidant attachment style has traits opposite to those associated with the anxious attachment style. While those with an anxious attachment style may crave validation and constant closeness, avoidant partners may have a negative view of emotional intimacy or close relationships. Someone with this attachment style may crave independence and feel stifled in long-term relationships.

Avoidant types may still have fears, emotional needs, and vulnerable feelings. However, instead of communicating their needs, they may ignore them. They could prefer to be single or to date people who do not want long-term connections. 

An avoidant attachment type may feel secure enough to live without a close intimate relationship. They might also have high levels of self-confidence and practice self-soothing instead of letting others into their lives to support them. However, this situation may also lead to loneliness or depression. 

As dismissive-avoidant attachment is an insecure attachment style, avoidant individuals may not have had a secure attachment to their caregivers. Their caregivers may have been neglectful or inconsistent. Since avoidant children did not have their emotional needs met, they may have learned to care for themselves, avoid others, and lack trust. As a result, they may feel self-contained, emotionally unavailable, and unprepared for commitment. 

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How Is The fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style Formed?

According to attachment theory, attachment styles form in early childhood. An infant or child's relationship with their parents may set a precedent for their relationships as an adult. If the child can explore, take risks, and learn through trial and error with the support of their adult caregiver, they might learn to trust themselves and develop high self-esteem. Conversely, children who do not have these experiences might negatively perceive others and have low self-esteem. Often, children develop disorganized attachments due to neglect on the part of a primary caregiver or another form of childhood trauma.

Children can behave in ways that demonstrate their attachment style. For example, by observing children being dropped off for school by their parents, you might see different attachment styles reflected in various behaviors. Securely attached children may cry at first but eventually learn to make friends and be social with other children. Anxious kids may cry throughout the day or ask for their parents. Dismissive-avoidant children may pretend not to care. They might find a toy to play with or spend their time alone. 

Anxious-avoidant children may act timid and emotional. They could want to make friends with the other children but feel hesitant to talk to new people out of fear of hurt or rejection. While the other kids play together, anxious-avoidant children may sit outside the group, waiting to be invited in. They might avoid healthy interaction because they feel anxious about the potential outcomes or uncomfortable with how others interact. 

Can I Change My Attachment Style?

Several studies indicate that attachment styles can be changed. If you have an anxious-avoidant attachment style, you may be able to change it through therapy, education, and working with a partner. One study on this topic analyzed five other studies on attachment and found that attachment styles were likely to change based on life circumstances, trauma, understanding of attachment, and therapy. 

Recognizing your insecure attachment style may be the first step to improving your own issues with relationships. You might learn the patterns that no longer serve you as an adult. Try to be mindful of your thoughts and feelings and learn where they stem from. Forgiving your child or adult self for any negative experiences you went through can be valuable. 

Working with a therapist may allow you to learn secure attachment principles if you have an anxious, avoidant attachment style. They may offer you coping mechanisms or assignments to try at home with your partner or yourself. If you experience a mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression, your therapist may also discuss these issues. 

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Attachment Styles May Change With Time And Support

Counseling For Attachment Issues 

People who identify as anxious avoidants may have difficulty reaching out to strangers and asking for help. While fearful-avoidant attachment is not a disorder, you may mitigate its unpleasant effects with the help of a qualified therapist. A therapist can provide emotional support and help you develop the tools necessary to foster healthy, secure attachments. However, you might find that in-person therapy feels too formal or vulnerable.

Online therapy may give you control over the sessions you seek. You can attend a session from any location with an internet connection and choose whether you see your therapist through video call, phone call, or messaging. 

Online therapy is as effective as in-person therapy. In some cases, studies show it can be more effective and that clients are often as satisfied with online treatment as they are meeting with a counselor face-to-face. If you're ready to try this counseling method, consider reaching out to a therapist through a platform such as BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples. 

Takeaway

It may feel challenging to attempt to form healthy, fulfilling adult relationships if you have an anxious-avoidant attachment style. Working with a qualified therapist may allow you to gain skills often seen in a secure attachment to improve your relationships in the future. 

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