If there was one go-to guidebook for relationships, you bet most people would commit it to memory. But humans are innately complex, emotional beings with a distinctive combination of chromosomes and experiences that shape how they engage with others. So that step-by-step instruction manual for relationships would have to be about eight billion editable pages—and counting.
A more realistic and manageable way to figure out relationships: learning about your attachment style. Your attachment style is the main character in your personal relationships, and some are easier to understand than others.
Attachment styles have been around since the 1960s, when psychiatrist John Bowlby formulated the theory after studying how infants reacted when separated from their primary caregivers (usually their mothers). He then classified their behaviors into four predominant attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and fearful avoidant.
For someone with fearful avoidant attachment style (also known simply as "fearful attachment"), relationship anxiety and self-doubt overwhelms and jeopardizes healthy connections with others. But your attachment style doesn't have to define you—and, in fact, can change from an insecure to secure with time and effort. Ahead, experts explain what you need to know about fearful attachment style—and how to heal.
What causes fearful attachment?
Fearful attachment is a subcategory of insecure attachment (along with anxious and avoidant). Most insecure attachment types develop during childhood, although it's possible that your experiences as an adult can impact your attachment style, explains Maggie Holland, MA, MHP, LMHC. People with fearful-avoidant attachment were likely encouraged to be highly independent as a child—to the point of feeling like relationships aren't needed or aren't safe. Maybe parents or guardians were overly strict or dismissive of feelings and physical intimacy. Basically, because a child's emotional and physical needs weren't met, they learned they couldn't depend on relationships.
Any significant experience that left you feeling abandoned or isolated, like watching your parents go through a messy divorce or experiencing your own traumatic breakup, can change the way you relate to others. Even with prior secure attachment, when your core needs are shaken from previous relationships, that affects your behavior and feelings going forward.
What are people with fearful avoidant attachment style afraid of?
While it's impossible to generalize, on a fundamental level, people with fearful avoidant attachment tend to fear rejection. Humans are naturally social beings and crave connection with others, but those with fearful attachment learned during childhood that they cannot depend on those connections to take care of them. "Fearful-avoidant attachment tells a person that their needs are not worthy of being met, and people will let them down," says Holland. "So they often withdraw from connection to protect themselves from rejection."
Scared of feeling alone but hesitant to form a close relationship, fearful avoidant people oftentimes have a history where attachment is broken, usually stemming from childhood experiences of neglect or any kind of volatile relationship, says Silvi Saxena, MBA, MSW, LSW, CCTP, OSW-C.
What do those with fearful avoidant attachment want?
"People with a fearful attachment style have the same basic need that all humans do—to connect and form deep bonds that create a feeling of safety and security," says Dr. Krista Jordan, PhD, a psychotherapist in Austin, Texas.
Fulfillment in close, stable relationships with friends and a romantic partner(s) is the goal, but those with fearful avoidant attachment have learned that having needs and wants that involve other people always ends in being dismissed, feeling unseen, and getting rejected. So, when a connection becomes too close, it feels dangerous, says Holland. "That doesn't mean they don't want them, it just means that they have been taught that relationships can be a source of pain," she adds.
What is fearful attachment in adults?
Fearful attachment in adults essentially looks the same as in infancy: there's a massive conflict between the desire to be close to people and feel safe. "In the baby, this plays out with physical movements, but in adults, it’s more in the relationship dynamic," says Jordan. A fearful baby may start to move towards the parent and then suddenly stop and collapse out of fear, explains Jordan. "A fearful adult may call you and set up a date and then at the last minute cancel out of a surge of anxiety that feels intolerable," she explains.
Dueling needs for closeness and safety can overwhelm people to the point where they feel it's best just to be alone. Adults with fearful attachment style can feel unworthy of love, admiration, and connection. "As babies, they experienced a pattern of going to their caregivers with a need, and that caregiver didn't respond and meet that need; this probably seems small to us as adults, but in a child's mind, this is actually a full-out rejection," says Holland.
Because they learned this pattern as children, "adults with a fearful attachment will often begin to get close to someone else, and then withdraw from the relationship in order to spare themselves from the rejection they expect to happen," explains Holland. Keeping close relationships at a distance or avoiding asking for help is typical behavior associated with this attachment style. Their own insecurities and fears stop them—"it's the brain's way of protecting itself because it has learned that that kind of relationship may be unsafe," says Saxena.
How do you love someone with fearful attachment?
There's no strict rulebook to loving people, but if you're in a relationship with someone who has fearful attachment style, here are a few expert-approved guidelines to follow:
1. Show—and tell—them you're a source of stability.
"The most important thing you can do is make sure you use clear and direct communication with your partner, and that you only say what you mean," says Holland. Don't commit to something you aren't 100-percent sure you can follow through on. It takes patience—your partner needs to see that you will always show up for them time and time again for them to truly believe it.
2. Replace their negative self-talk with a new narrative.
Remember, people with avoidant attachment often think negatively of themselves. To help them unlearn those tendencies, gently remind them of their positive qualities over time.
3. Don't take their behavior personally.
If your partner pushes you away due to being fearful avoidant and/or having relationship anxiety, understand that this is not their response to you, but rather their response to relationships in general. "Remember that your partner may have laid down these patterns between 12 and 36 months of age, literally decades before you ever met them," says Jordan. "...[Recognizing that] can help you not feel hurt when their deep ambivalence shows up."
Watch this video to learn how you act during arguments relates to your attachment style:
4. Prepare for non-linear progress.
It's likely that your partner may move forward and then backslide—offer patience and reassurance when this happens. "Trust is very important to establish, so you need to be completely transparent, dependable, and honest," says Jordan. "They are primed to see others as threats, so you may need to work extra hard to show that you are a safe person."
5. Understand that you can only do so much.
Loving someone with fearful attachment style means helping them see and understand their underlying issues and, if needed, getting professional support. Ultimately, it's their journey and commitment to understanding themselves, but you can love them by being there and being supportive, says Saxena.
How do those with fearful avoidant attachment handle breakups?
There's a deep wound of abandonment in people with this attachment style, and breakups can be extremely triggering. "Even the most 'healed' person can take it poorly, but it's important to understand that the wound that is triggered is an old wound and the feelings which come from the breakup can make it all feel the same," says Saxena.
Most of the time, the person with fearful avoidant attachment is probably the one instigating the breakup. "This is often in an attempt to protect themselves from what they see as the inevitable: their partner rejecting them," says Holland. If they really liked you, they may feel remorseful and sad, but they ultimately see it as a necessary hurt, she adds.
In cases where they aren't the initiators, a breakup just validates all the fears they have about relationships ending in rejection. Withdrawal, feelings of depression, and cycles of negative self-talk may ensue. It's hard for those with fearful avoidant to separate and not allow a breakup to be a reflection of self-worth. "Fearful avoidant attachment individuals will probably feel like they 'deserve' the breakup, that it was inevitable, and they aren't likely to follow up with questions or to try to reignite the relationship," says Holland.
They may be despondent one day, and cold and disconnected the next. They are essentially being driven by two competing forces inside of them—one that wants and needs connection and one that is deeply mistrustful and afraid of it, explains Jordan. "The part of them that yearns for connection will feel depressed over the breakup but the part of them that fears connection will feel relieved."
How do you communicate with a fearful avoidant person?
Communication is the key to any strong relationship, but it's especially important when dealing with an insecure attachment style. Ahead, some tips for productive and thoughtful talks:
1. Make clarity a priority.
Communicate with fearful avoidant people the same way you (hopefully) do in all your relationships: Be clear, be direct, be honest, and follow through with what you say you'll do, advises Holland.
It can be hard to communicate with someone with this attachment style because there's an underlying sense of anxiety. To make sure you and your partner are on the same page, Saxena suggests "asking what was heard to ensure the other party understood accurately... because sometimes the anxiety can mess up the true intention of what is being communicated."
2. Reassure them with affirmations.
Express compassion and understanding so they know you aren't taking things personally. "Let them know that you want to be there and that you understand it may be hard for them to really lean into relationships," suggests Jordan.
"Expect that they may have histories of abuse or neglect, and help them feel at ease talking about childhood experiences by framing them as strong individuals who made it through difficult circumstances (rather than victims)," Jordan adds. Be open and willing to go to attachment-based couples therapy (like PACT ) with them to provide extra support as they work on their relationship skills.
3. Take stock of your communication patterns.
Given their sensitivity to safety, be aware of raising your voice, slamming things, making emotional or physical threats, or making them feel unsafe in other ways. Using a softer voice, a more gentle tone, or the occasional smile—yes, even in an argument—helps signal to them that you aren't scary.
"Even expressive hand gestures can trigger a person with a trauma history to feel unsafe, so be willing to consider your own unconscious communication patterns that could be contributing to them feeling frightened," says Jordan. Remember that they are likely viewing relationships through a trauma lens. When they share anything with you, make sure you listen and validate, without jumping in with your own stories or experiences.
4. Set boundaries in a non-threatening, productive way.
A fearful person may respond and react emotionally to confrontation and conflict, which could take the form of a big emotional blow-up or a silent disconnection. That's why it's key to communicate boundaries in a kind way, with reassurance that your boundaries aren't you pushing them away or loving them any less.
"Over time, they can re-pattern their attachment and heal those wounds if they can find a partner who is willing to put in the work and help them," says Jordan.
Ultimately, the key to building a long-lasting, healthy relationship with a fearful avoidant person is being honesty, patience, and trust.
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