Your attachment style has a huge impact on your relationships. One of the hardest attachment styles to deal with is fearful-avoidant attachment, which is also known as disorganized attachment.
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This is the rarest attachment style, but it can cause serious problems in your relationship if you don’t know how to deal with the underlying issues.
We’re going to help you understand what a fearful avoidant attachment style is, where it comes from, and how you can deal with it.
Before we can look at how you might be able to heal a fearful avoidant attachment style, it’s important to understand where it comes from and how it can damage your relationships.
We usually learn our attachment style in childhood from the way the adults around us behave1. If our parents and the adults in our life make sure that our emotional and physical needs are met then we learn that we can rely on them and we develop a secure attachment.
If they don’t meet our needs, for whatever reason, we develop an insecure attachment. There are three different types of insecure attachment. The two main ones are anxious and avoidant. The final type of insecure attachment, disorganized or fearful-avoidant, is very rare and is usually the most damaging to your adult relationships2.
Having a fearful-avoidant attachment style means that you want to be close to others and have close loving relationships, but you struggle to trust people enough to make that happen.
Someone with this kind of attachment will usually have a negative view of other people, for example believing that they can’t be trusted or that they will always let you down. They also have a negative view of themselves, believing that they might be unlovable or unworthy3.
Although this sounds like it would be easy to spot, lots of people with a disorganized attachment style will be ‘high functioning’. This might mean that they’ve buried their low self-esteem so deeply that even they don’t realize how they see themselves.
Relationships with someone who has a fearful-avoidant attachment style can be difficult. They might be inconsistent in their behavior and unpredictable. That makes it hard for their partners to trust them.
They might alternate between being clingy and pulling away. They might freeze during conflict or overreact to some situations.They might also have difficulty dealing with their partner’s emotions.
Fearful avoidant attachment styles are thankfully rare, but it can be helpful to understand where they come from.
Here are the main reasons someone might have developed a fearful avoidant attachment style.
People who have experienced significant trauma or abuse are far more likely to develop a disorganized attachment style4. The trauma leads them to need comfort and support but they’ve learned that the people around them will hurt them or let them down. As a result, they develop a conflicting set of needs and desires.
Usually, this will be trauma or abuse that takes place early on in their life, often within the first few years. In other cases, even as an adult, abuse can be so traumatic that someone with a secure attachment style changes to develop a fearful-avoidant style.
One of the things children need is to learn that the adults around them can be relied on. If parents lie, gaslight, or betray their children’s trust, those children will learn that they can’t trust others.
Because children are learning this so early in life, it becomes a deep-rooted belief. This makes it very resistant to change. Even if people in their adult life are entirely trustworthy, someone with a fearful-avoidant attachment style will still be expecting to be let down or betrayed.
Another childhood factor that can lead someone to develop a disorganized attachment style is if parents or caregivers are emotionally needy and struggling with their own problems5.
Sometimes, parents are so focused on their own emotional needs that they are unwilling or unable to focus on the needs of their child.
When that happens, the child learns that their own needs and feelings are less important than anyone else’s. Their needs are ignored, so they start to believe that they are unimportant or unworthy. They also don’t feel able to trust others.
As children of needy parents become slightly older, they may also experience parentification. This is where they are pushed into taking responsibility for everyone else’s welfare, including their feelings. This leaves them feeling alone whilst also craving for others to love and care for them.
So, how do you know whether you or your partner has a fearful-avoidant attachment style? A disorganized attachment style is just that; disorganized. Sometimes they will behave like someone with an anxious attachment style and at other times they will look like they have an avoidant style.
The trouble is that most of us have at least some behaviors associated with both of these styles. Remember that this is the most extreme and least common of the attachment styles. If you suspect that you or your partner has this attachment style, it’s best to talk to an experienced therapist to find out for sure.
Having said that, there are some things you can look for. Here are the main signs you might want to keep an eye out for.
The clearest sign that you might have a fearful-avoidant attachment style is that you have a history of trauma, neglect, or abuse6. Not everyone who has this kind of attachment style has a bad history, but the overwhelming majority do.
Unfortunately, this isn’t foolproof. Lots of people who grew up in neglectful or damaging homes see their early life as normal. Often it’s only once you’re an adult and spend some time looking back at your childhood that you realize that you carry emotional scars.
One clue that your childhood was problematic without you noticing is that your friends are shocked or upset by some of the things you tell them about your early life. If your friends express surprise or sympathy about the way you were treated, it’s a good sign that you might want to think about it a little bit more carefully.
Someone with a fearful-avoidant attachment style will usually be keen to be in a relationship because they want to be loved and supported. On the other hand, they are scared of intimacy, so they will often leave before things get serious.
This means that they will often have a lot of short relationships, maybe somewhere between 3 months and 2 years. If this is you, you’ll probably have a ‘good’ reason for every breakup but this is more likely to be an excuse.
People with a fearful-avoidant attachment style can struggle to regulate their emotions effectively7. For some, this means that they have intense emotional outbursts and become angry or aggressive with very little provocation.
Others go in the opposite direction and struggle to show their emotions at all. They might even dissociate, where they can’t actually feel their own emotions at all.
Having a disorganized attachment style can leave someone feeling as though they have to hide their true self to avoid being rejected. Their insecurities mean that they believe their partner would leave them if they revealed their real thoughts and feelings.
Often, this also means that they feel the need to be perfect in order to ‘earn’ love. If they make a mistake or hurt someone, they become convinced that their relationship is over. Even worse, they believe that they don’t deserve to be loved.
When someone has a fearful-avoidant attachment style, they will look for ‘logical’ or ‘reasonable’ excuses to prevent a relationship from becoming too close or committed. Often, this means that they will (subconsciously) be on the lookout for any minor flaws in their partner.
This can create an emotional conflict for them. They don’t feel as though they deserve love, but they also feel the need to reject others.
Someone with a fearful avoidant attachment style wants closeness and intimacy, without actually getting too close. One way to fulfill this need is to have a lot of casual sex.
There’s nothing wrong with having a lot of sexual partners or enjoying casual sex if that’s what makes you happy. But someone with a disorganized attachment style is using sex as a band-aid, rather than to fulfill their personal sexual desires8.
As well as having a lot of sexual partners, someone with a fearful-avoidant attachment style might find it difficult to understand or enforce their own sexual boundaries.
They might use sex to make other people happy or as a way to feel more secure in their relationships. They might consent to sex that they don’t really want, just because someone asked. They might not even really realize that it’s ok for them to refuse to sleep with someone.
If you’re dating someone with a fearful-avoidant attachment style, the idea that they might be clingy probably sounds ridiculous. You probably see them pulling away, rather than asking for too much contact.
You might be surprised to realize that they are probably terrified of being too clingy or asking for too much love and affection. Their childhood taught them that other people didn’t care about their feelings, so they do everything they can to avoid making emotional demands of others… even when that pushes other people away.
Lots of people with a fearful-avoidant attachment style experience hypervigilance9. Sometimes this is a direct result of their attachment style. In other cases, it is a symptom of PTSD that they have developed as a result of their traumatic experiences.
Hypervigilance is an extreme awareness of threats. People with this symptom are always on the lookout for risks, both physical and emotional. It can also make them overreact to minor threats because it becomes difficult to tell the difference between minor and serious problems.
Learning how to fix a fearful-avoidant attachment style is not straightforward. You will need to work on both managing the effects of your attachment style and addressing the underlying problems.
Here are the most important tips you need to know.
If you have a fearful-avoidant attachment style, the single most important step you can take is to find yourself a great therapist. The right therapist will be able to work with you to heal some of the really deep wounds you’re carrying and start to make long-term improvements.
This isn’t going to be a quick fix. You’re not going to be able to have 5 or 6 sessions and develop a secure attachment style. You need to find someone you can trust and work with for quite a while.
Not every therapist will be well-equipped to deal with this kind of serious issue. You might want to look for someone who specializes in trauma-informed therapy and attachment issues.
Your next step will be to really focus on self-care. This sounds like it should be easy, but it can actually be really difficult. Self-care for someone with a fearful-avoidant attachment style often feels strange and unnatural.
When we talk about self-care, we’re not talking about a bubble bath or lighting a scented candle, although those things are lovely. It’s about trying to really look after yourself at a deep level, in a way that the people around you haven’t done in the past.
This is difficult if, deep down, you don’t really believe that you deserve this type of care. Self-care gives you the chance to get used to getting your needs met and feeling safe and secure.
As part of this self-care, you might want to do what therapists call “inner child work.” This is best done with a qualified therapist, but you can start by yourself.
The fundamental idea is that you still have your “child self,” who is carrying all of the pain of your early years. That child still needs care and protection and nurturing. As an adult, you can give your child self the love and protection it didn’t get years ago.
When you push yourself beyond your limits, force yourself to accept things that make you uncomfortable, or ignore your own needs, your inner child continues to feel unsafe.
Try asking yourself what would make your inner child feel safe and loved. Sometimes, just paying attention to your own needs can let you feel as though you are protecting that vulnerable inner self.
People with a fearful-avoidant attachment style feel as though their feelings aren’t important. This leads you to apologize for your emotions or try to make out that they’re not important.
The way we speak influences how we think and feel. Making a conscious decision to stop apologizing for your feelings is an important step towards understanding that your needs are just as important as everyone else’s.
Lots of relationship advice tells you to try being more vulnerable. That’s really good advice and it does help you to form deeper connections with the people who are important to you. For someone with a fearful-avoidant attachment style, it can feel far too scary, however.
People with a disorganized attachment style don’t have to try to feel vulnerable. They’ve been deeply vulnerable, and no one has taken care of them. Rather than pushing yourself past your boundaries, try to focus on your boundaries and treat them with respect and care.
Remember that you don’t have to feel uncomfortable or awkward just to make other people feel better. Your boundaries are important. Try to be clear about what does and doesn’t feel ok for you and communicate that as best you can.
Having a disorganized attachment style is difficult. You probably have strong emotions and they often pull you in different directions at the same time. This is why self-awareness is even more important for you than it is for people with other attachment styles.
One good step is to try to understand what you’re feeling at any specific moment. Paying attention to your emotions can help you identify when you have a strong reaction to something. If you realize that you can’t find any emotion at a particular point, you might be dissociating.
Mindfulness practice can help you get used to focusing on your emotions in the moment. Try using meditation or other mindfulness techniques to become more aware of what you’re feeling.
It’s also important to work on your overall self-awareness. Learn as much as you can about your attachment style, how you react to different situations, and your deeper thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.
If you want to have a successful relationship despite your fearful-avoidant attachment style, it’s important to be as honest as you can with your partner. Try to explain how you feel and where it comes from. The more they know, the easier it is for them to help you deal with your problems.
It’s often helpful to send them articles like this one to help them understand where your struggles originated. If they don’t understand, it’s easy for them to assume that your pulling away is about them, rather than about you and your past trauma.
You don’t have to tell them everything all in one go. Remember that your first priority is keeping yourself safe and looking after your own needs and boundaries. It’s not just ok to put yourself first. It’s essential for your healing. Take your time and open up in manageable chunks.
Having a fearful-avoidant (or disorganized) attachment style isn’t an illness. It’s a coping strategy that kept you safe as a child but is now getting in the way of forming deep, meaningful relationships. You can learn a new, better coping strategy but it will take time and effort.
People develop a fearful-avoidant (also known as disorganized) attachment style when they can’t rely on the people around them. It’s usually the result of some form of abuse or trauma during childhood, but adults can become fearful-avoidantly attached following severe trauma.
Having a fearful-avoidant attachment style is a learned reaction, and it is possible to learn a new way of dealing with the world. Because a fearful-avoidant attachment style is usually based on trauma, most people will need to work with an experienced therapist to help them change.
Having a fearful avoidant (disorganized) attachment style makes commitment difficult, but not impossible. If you’re dating someone with this attachment style, try not to push them for more commitment. Instead, make them feel safe enough to take that step themselves.
Working out how to overcome a fearful avoidant attachment style is incredibly difficult. Even with the tips we’ve included here, it’s not going to be an easy journey. It’s important to remember that every bit of progress is bringing you closer to the kinds of relationships you really want.
Was this article useful? A fearful avoidant attachment style is the hardest to deal with, so make sure you pass this article on to anyone who might need a little help. Do you recognize this attachment style? Does it describe you or your partner? Let us know in the comments.