Understanding The Anxious Avoidant Attachment Style

Updated December 7, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Attachment styles affect how we act and behave in relationships. People with an anxious avoidant attachment style may have trouble establishing healthy relationships, despite a desire to be accepted and loved. This attachment style is usually established early in childhood. There is some debate about whether you can change your attachment style, but by understanding the difficulties you have in relationships, you can make positive changes moving forward. A qualified therapist can help you identify and overcome these challenges.  

Want To Work Through An Anxious Avoidant Attachment Style?

What Is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory is an important concept in social and emotional human development. It describes how children interact with their caregivers and how those interactions shape relationships throughout our lives. Those who developed a secure attachment and healthy relationships with their parents are more likely to have good self-esteem and healthy adult relationships later in life. Conversely, someone who develops an insecure attachment will have more difficulties with relationships in adulthood.

John Bowlby developed attachment theory in the mid-20th century and revolutionized how we view our ability to create healthy connections. It affirms that our relationship skills and ability to bond with others are affected by our relationship with our caregivers when we were very young.

Other Attachment Styles

Attachment theory recognizes four attachment styles. You developed one of these attachment styles depending on how your caregivers interacted with you as a young child. Before focusing on anxious avoidant attachment, here is a brief look at the other attachment styles.

Secure Attachment

The healthiest attachment style of the four is secure attachment. People with this attachment type tend to feel confident in themselves and their relationships. They are more likely to have healthy relationships as they have high self-esteem, understand conflict resolution, and can adequately provide emotional support to their partners. They usually feel safe becoming emotionally close to other people, romantically or otherwise.

In childhood, someone with this style is securely attached to their caregivers. Their caregivers were likely emotionally available but also allowed their children to explore the world. They met the child’s physical and emotional needs and showed them how to develop a healthy attachment and connection with other people. As a result, the children grow into secure adults who can develop healthy intimate relationships.

Anxious Attachment

People with anxious attachment tend to exhibit anxious behaviors. Ultimately, anxious types usually fear abandonment by their partners, as they had inconsistent caregivers who did not meet their needs. This neglectful or inconsistent parenting made the child believe they could be abandoned or neglected at any moment.

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

Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment

Avoidant or dismissive-avoidant is the opposite of anxious attachment. While those with anxious attachment are clingy and need constant validation, avoidant partners tend to avoid emotional intimacy or close relationships. Someone with this attachment may need independence and freedom and can 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 they don’t have to commit to. An avoidant type may feel secure enough in themselves to live without a close relationship and often has solid self-confidence. They prefer to self-soothe rather than let anyone into their emotional lives.

Like people with anxious attachment, avoidant individuals did not have a secure attachment to their caregivers. Their caregivers were probably neglectful or inconsistent. Since avoidant children did not have their emotional needs met, they learned to ignore them and avoid close relationships. As a result, they may learn to be self-contained, tending to be emotionally unavailable and doing whatever they can to avoid commitment.

Anxious Avoidant Attachment Style

Anxious avoidant attachment can also be called fearful-avoidant or insecure-avoidant. This attachment style is a mix of anxious and avoidant attachment. 

Someone with an anxious avoidant attachment style exhibits both anxious and avoidant behaviors. They may be fearful without constant connection or validation from their partner and believe that their partner will leave them or lose interest quickly. At the same time, they may also fear romantic relationships and potential negative outcomes and push potential romantic partners away. In other words, they fear being emotionally close to someone but also crave intimacy at the same time. These conflicting needs can be exhausting to both the anxious-avoidant person and their partner, making it one of the most challenging adult attachment styles to live with.

How Is Anxious Avoidant Attachment Style Formed?

According to attachment theory,  attachment styles form in early development. An infant or child's relationship with their parents sets a precedent for their relationships in the world.

Children who spend a healthy amount of time with their parents and learn to trust them have a positive perception of others. If the child can explore, take risks, and learn through trial and error, they will learn to trust themselves and develop high self-esteem. Conversely, children who do not have these experiences are more likely to have a negative perception of others and low self-esteem.

Children can behave in ways that are very indicative of their attachment style. You can observe any time a child's parent leaves them alone, such as when dropping them off at school. Their attachment style likely affects how they react to separation from their guardian.

Securely attached children are likely to cry at first but will eventually learn to make friends and be social with other children. Anxious kids will cry incessantly, desperately wishing for the parent to return. Dismissive-avoidant children will not even care. They will just find a toy to play with and seem apathetic about being on their own and meeting new people. 

Anxious-avoidant children will likely be timid and emotional. They will want to make friends with the other children but be hesitant to talk to new people. While the other kids play together, anxious-avoidant children sit outside the group, waiting to be invited in but too afraid to jump in on their own. This behavior is why it is called fearful attachment. It is characterized by a persistent fear of relationships and their worst possible outcomes. 

Can I Change My Attachment Style?

There isn’t a straightforward answer to this question. Some people believe you have little control over your attachment style since it is established at such a young age. Others believe that new experiences can influence your brain and how you respond to relationships. 

Regardless, recognizing that you have an insecure attachment disorder can be an essential first step to improving your relationships because it can help you identify patterns you need to work on. Being mindful of your thoughts and feelings and learning where they come from can help you heal and have healthier relationships.

Therapy Can Help

If you have an anxious avoidant attachment style, working with a therapist can be an effective way to work through your relationship issues.  A therapist can help you identify the factors that caused your anxious-avoidant attachment and work through the effects it has on your adult relationships, including anything that prevents you from enjoying physical closeness or a healthy sex life. 

Some people with a fearful-avoidant attachment style may also experience anxiety or depression, 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 these concerns.

Want To Work Through An Anxious Avoidant Attachment Style?

While fearful-avoidant attachment is not a disorder, you can mitigate its unpleasant effects with the help of a qualified therapist.

If you’re thinking of getting in touch with a counselor, consider the many benefits of online therapy. People with an anxious-avoidant attachment style may have difficulty reaching out to strangers and asking for help, but online therapy can help you feel more comfortable. You can do it right from the comfort of your own home or anywhere with an internet connection.

Online therapy is just as effective as in-person therapy. In fact, some studies show it can be more effective and that people were just as satisfied with online treatment as they were meeting with a counselor face to face.

“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.

Takeaway

An anxious avoidant attachment disorder can make it very difficult to have healthy, fulfilling adult relationships. If you think you have signs of an anxious avoidant attachment style, working with a qualified therapist can help you work through it and learn how to have healthy relationships in the future.

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