Fearful-Avoidant: The Disorganized Attachment Style

"Come here, go away": Are you trapped in a cycle of heartbreak?

9 minute read
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The Fearful-Avoidant (FA) attachment style means you focus most of your energy on romantic relationships: chasing, fixing, or avoiding them.

If this was you, your childhood had more intense emotional pain than your growing nervous system could handle. Faced with this overload, your emotional system short-circuited and set you up for a lifetime of alternating numbness and explosive emotion.

These early experiences taught you to associate love with great highs and lows. Crushing loneliness pushes you towards people, but a paralyzing fear of rejection keeps you from getting too close.

Like all insecure attachment styles, the hope that keeps you stuck in this emotional rollercoaster is to find a partner that really understands you in a way that no-one else can.

But trapped in the grip of your attachment style, this dream is out of reach. The relationships you do find are with other insecurely attached people unable to see you past their own pain, and are full of drama and heartbreak.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

    What is a Disorganized/Fearful-Avoidant Attachment?

    If you’re Fearful-Avoidant, you behave like both the avoidant and anxious attachment styles. You spend a lot of effort on being likeable, but if people get too close you’ll start pushing them away to avoid rejection. Your relationships are a dance of “Come here, go away”.

    Unlike anxious or avoidant children, who had parents who gave them love only when they acted a certain way, your childhood didn’t have a solution.

    Your parents, stuck in their own traumas, weren’t available when you needed them. And without these basic needs for predictable safety and love being met, you started believing that this was because something was wrong with you.

    This fear without solution becomes a Fearful-Avoidant attachment, affecting around 15% of children born into low-risk, middle-class American families.

    And for those of you who grew up in poverty or dangerous neighborhoods, that percentage goes up to 30%-45%. 1van IJzendoorn, Marinus & Schuengel, Carlo & bakermans-kranenburg, Marian. (1999). Disorganized attachment in early childhood: Meta-analysis of precursors, concomitants, and sequelae. Development and psychopathology. 11. 225-49. 10.1017/S0954579499002035.

    What are Fearful-Avoidants like?

    If this is your attachment style, it’s shown itself in different ways throughout your life.

    Childhood

    As a child, you had an organized attachment style. Whether you were mostly anxious, avoidant, or even secure, sometimes your parents were emotionally absent or hostile.

    They were having these emotional reactions to their own lives, but you were too young to understand that – and perhaps your parents also blamed you for what they were feeling.

    Because you couldn’t predict how they would react to what you did, you learned to pay a lot of attention to how your parents were feeling. And when they exploded/imploded, you froze – wanting to restore the connection with them, but afraid to draw more attention to yourself. 2Duschinsky, R. (2018). Disorganization, fear and attachment: Working towards clarification. Infant mental health journal39(1), 17-29.

    Stress hormones flooded your brain, overwhelming your nervous system. When you finally said or did something, it made no sense for the situation.

    Your inner critic, or maybe even your parents, would shame you for your reaction, and you’d dread the next time you felt this fear without solution.

    When the crisis was over and your parents went back to normal, you went back to your organized attachment style – contributing to your security as best you could. 3Shemmings, D., & Shemmings, Y. (2011). Understanding disorganized attachment: Theory and practice for working with children and adults. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

    Adolescence

    As a teenager, your disorganized attachment started taking control in one of two ways: hostility or caretaking (or sometimes one for each parent).

    If you discovered you started getting what you needed when you forced the situation, you started ordering your parents around – or even threatening them.

    If you couldn’t or wouldn’t challenge your parents, you instead acted as polite and helpful towards your parent as possible.

    Whichever path you took, it was how you controlled an otherwise unpredictable or unsafe caregiver. 4Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P. R. (Eds.). (2002). Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications. Rough Guides.

    Adulthood

    As adults, we’re easily influenced by our environment into anxious or avoidant behavior.

    Each insecure partner we take is a different type of wound. An anxious partner overwhelming us makes us increasingly avoidant and emotionally numb, while an avoidant partner quickly starves us of emotional intimacy and leaves us unsure of ourselves.

    We even change styles throughout the same relationship. When we’re unsure of our position in a relationship, we’ll be anxious. When things are secure enough to lead to commitment and vulnerability, we’ll get avoidant.

    This is why FA men are often anxious early in a relationship and become increasingly unavailable, while many FA women are dismissive early on and become increasingly clingy.

    Those of us who became too afraid of rejection will pour the same intense energy into safer, non-romantic relationships: friendships, children, mentors, or even fictional/anime characters.

    What Causes Disorganized Attachments?

    If you’ve discovered that you have both anxious and avoidant traits, it’s probably pretty confusing if you don’t think your childhood was that bad.

    Many online articles (and books) claim that a Fearful-Avoidant style is very rare, and only results from sexual abuse, physical abuse, or actual abandonment. They tell you not to worry about it, and gloss over the style.

    But while it’s true that these situations will make an extremely disorganized attachment, they’re not the only causes.

    Dr. David & Yvonne Shemmings are two of the top experts in the world on disorganized attachment. In their book Understanding Disorganized Attachment, they list three risk factors: unresolved parental trauma, insensitive parenting and frightening parenting. 

    Unresolved Loss/Trauma

    When we don’t process trauma or losing a loved one, we repress our feelings to get by. This repression takes a tremendous amount of energy, causing extreme avoidance or disassociation every time these memories get triggered.

    Although this is how our adult minds try to protect itself, an infant seeing their parent disappear mentally and emotionally is terrifying. A series of videos called Still Face Experiment shows us that babies panic within seconds of seeing their mother’s expression go blank.

    And they did this experiment with secure babies; imagine the effect on you if this happened several times a day.

    This category mostly contains survivors of sexual abuse, torture, or parents carrying unresolved grief over the death of a close family member. 

    Frightening Parental Behavior

    Similar to abusive parenting, these FR parental behaviours may place infants in an irresolvable and disorganizing paradox: their parents are the only potential source of comfort and protection while at the same time they frighten their children through their behaviour.

    – Out et al., 2009 5Out, D., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., & Van IJzendoorn, M. H. (2009). The role of disconnected and extremely insensitive parenting in the development of disorganized attachment: Validation of a new measure. Attachment & Human Development11(5), 419-443.

    In 2009, researchers at Leiden University sorted fear-provoking parental behavior into 5 categories.

    1. Frightening and threatening behavior towards the child
    2. Behaving frightened of the child
    3. Disassociating while handling the child (freezing, treating them like an inanimate object)
    4. Acting in a timid or subservient manner towards the child
    5. Disorganized behavior (disoriented or contradictory movements and vocalizations)

    The more severe these were, and the more they occurred when the child was seeking soothing, the higher the risk for disorganization.

    Extreme Insensitivity

    There are two types of parental insensitivity: withdrawal/neglect, and intrusion/aggression.

    Parental withdrawal & neglect is when you are distressed or seeking care from your parent, and they repeatedly refuse to engage or respond.

    Parental intrusiveness is when your parent overrides your cues, and gives you what they want to give. This can range from more intensity than you’re comfortable with, to outright aggression, hostility, and contempt.

    On its own, parental insensitivity typically leads to an organized insecure style (anxious or avoidant).

    Reflective Function

    The more risk factors you grew up with, the higher your likelihood of having a disorganized attachment, but none of them alone leads to becoming fearful-avoidant.

    Dr. Shemmings adds a 4th factor that he believes ties everything together, the Reflective Function. 

    This is defined as the parent’s ability to appreciate their child as having hopes, intentions and thoughts independently of their own.

    Parents that couldn’t see you as a separate individual combined with the other risk factors almost guarantee a disorganized attachment.

    A mother is pushing her toddler in a buggy. It is a very cold day and the child’s shoe and sock have come off. The mother laid them on the top of the buggy and continued pushing. She was accompanied by a friend, who said ‘Shall we stop and put his sock on – his little foot must be getting really cold?’ The mother replied ‘No…no…he’s fine; my feet are like toast’.   

    – David Shemmings

     

    How to Overcome Being Fearful-Avoidant

    As a child, your nerves were overloaded so many times you associate love with overwhelming highs and lows, tinted with chaos and uncertainty.

    If you want to get off this roller-coaster and have genuine relationships, I’m sure you’ve discovered that most dating advice doesn’t lead you to success.

    The internet is full of people who are happy to tell you “the best” way to look, communicate, and have sex. They may even have your best intentions at heart, but this is shaping you according to their beliefs rather than your inner experience.

    A Fearful-Avoidant style means that outer instruction already shaped your entire life, and it disconnected you from your genuine needs and desires.

    All the excitement in the world won’t fix this disconnect, and neither will a healthy, stable relationship on its own.

    But a warm, responsive, predictable relationship – whether with a friend, a lover, a therapist, or a support group – will give you the secure base you need to expand your comfort zone.

    Trusting these relationships will be scary at first, but there’s a simple question you can ask to tell who you can trust.

    Does this relationship tell me what I should feel, how I should act, who I should be?

    Or does this relationship give me room to connect with my inner self, and encourage me to connect with my body and emotion?

    If it’s the latter, you will grow closer to yourself (and a secure attachment) every day.

    References:

    Cowie, H. (2018). Handbook of attachment: theory, research, and clinical applications.

    Duschinsky, R. (2018). Disorganization, fear and attachment: Working towards clarification. Infant mental health journal, 39(1), 17-29.

    Shemmings, D., & Shemmings, Y. (2011). Understanding disorganized attachment: Theory and practice for working with children and adults. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

    Out, D., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., & Van IJzendoorn, M. H. (2009). The role of disconnected and extremely insensitive parenting in the development of disorganized attachment: Validation of a new measure. Attachment & Human Development, 11(5), 419-443.

    van IJzendoorn, Marinus & Schuengel, Carlo & bakermans-kranenburg, Marian. (1999). Disorganized attachment in early childhood: Meta-analysis of precursors, concomitants, and sequelae. Development and psychopathology. 11. 225-49. 10.1017/S0954579499002035.

    These references contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases: this means whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price at no extra cost to you.

    Have you had any new realizations from this article about how your childhood affected you? I’d love to hear about it below.

    About Dace

    Dace is a Canadian psychotherapist specializing in sex & relationship therapy. He is currently travelling the world, studying different ways of bringing people to passion, strength, and love.
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    Dee

    I am so glad that I found your site. It explains me to a tee. My entire childhood was so messed up. Abandoned at 1 & 1/2 years to grandparents you were emotionally ill, a step grandfather who was a pedophile. Too many problems to write. I ran away to live on the streets at 14. More lessons learned in the 4 yrs. out there. I’m in therapy now and want to heal. I got lucky and found a man who loves me and tries very hard to help me any way he can. My therapist is trying patiently to help me. What can I tell him to help him understand what I’m going through in my mind. I tend to push then withdraw and I feel it’s hurting our alliance. He is good at what he does and has asked me to research different attachment styles. From what I’ve read so far, I can fall into many of them. I just want to heal. Thank you in advance for any insite you may offer.

    K. B.

    This has been the clearest article that I’ve seen so far regarding this attachment style that I seem to suffer from. However, I still can’t shake the feeling that my childhood wasn’t nearly traumatic enough to create this form of attachment and even acknowledging that this may be me feels like I’m placing undue blame at the feet of my parents. I never felt afraid of my parents or unsupported by them. Maybe a little smothered, but I was always supported and encouraged to pursue and be whatever I wanted to be. How late into childhood can these sort of problems arise? Like is a separation/divorce in high school enough to trigger it? Or is looking at it as a trigger the wrong perspective? And if that is the cause, does it mean that every child of divorced parents will inevitably feel anxious and fearful of forming relationships? if so, it feels like this would be the most common type of attachment as I feel that my childhood was more stable and supportive than most. I’m probably misinterpreting, but just something I’ve been trying to mull through for awhile.

    M. E.

    Thanks, Dace, for such clear writing that speaks directly to the person suffering through this. So much of the “information” online lacks this specificity. My recent ex is FA, with a long trail of destroyed relationships and a toxic, chaotic 22-year marriage to a controlling, dismissive woman (much like his mother) behind him, alcoholism and major depressive disorder, none of which was either evident or revealed to me until we were well down the road of our relationship. He abruptly ended things, clearly sliding into a major depressive episode, about 3 months ago. Its painful to see the good person in there be suffocated by demons he doesn’t understand, and yet to refuse to get help for fear of “finding out what’s wrong with me”. I offered safety and understanding, but it wasn’t my job to be his therapist. Perhaps if he ever resurfaces (he has yet to return my belongings) I’ll suggest he read your page.

    Chad

    Thanks for your writing. I’ll be waiting for the FA book when it comes out. I recently discovered this was my attachment style and it all matches my childhood to a T. Between both parents, a narcissistist father with anger issues that was not present and a depressed dissociative mother that was unable to set boundaries and care for herself, I received all the kinds of parenting listed above. Since I moved out at age 15, I’ve been riding the roller coaster since and trying to find as much self discovery information on all subjects as possible. The FA attachment style summarizes most issues I’m facing nowadays. Thanks again for bringing some light to it.

    Kaitlyn

    God, if this isn’t my childhood to a T. No wonder I can’t make any romantic relationships work. On a deep inner level, the thought of being with someone romantically fills me with disgust and anger. Probably because my subconsciousness associates it with the emotional slavery/isolation that was growing up in a hostile/chaotic family environment. My mom seemed to endlessly loathe and berate my dad, and my dad constantly played mind games to manipulate my mom’s emotions. Both would ridicule/downplay my needs whenever I voiced them, so I learned early on that I couldn’t be my true self around them. As a result, I became deathly terrified of conflict as an adult and still struggle immensely with setting up boundaries. I became a people pleaser and was bullied for years by other kids because I was so used to not speaking up, yet was also desperate for love and acceptance. Alternatively, I grew to disdain the idea of dating someone because I felt like it would take away my sense of self. The few times I pursued a sexual relationship, I inevitably ended up falling for that person but would see a thousand flaws that drove me to distraction, and I would always cut things off before they got ugly. And yet I would mourn the loss of the relationship and fall into a deep depression once it was over. Being FA sucks big time 🙁

    RaVen

    I had to ruefully laugh out loud when I read: “Come here, go away”. I agree to this assessment: three risk factors: unresolved parental trauma, insensitive parenting and frightening parenting. Sadly, all of the 11 so called relationships always had others telling me how to act, do, feel, be, think. Been single for 16 years, and as a Deaf adult fluent in ASL – 99.9% of the hearing singles I met REFUSES to learn American Sign Language & if they cannot be sensitive enough and understanding the importance of ASL – a visual gestural language that is best for Deaf and HOH people, and ASL Culture, well, it looks like I will be single for the rest of my life. Communication is the glue that holds a relationship. A healthy, honest communication holds the hearts together. A language that a Deaf person can understand 100% is a gift to their soul. Sadly, 90% of Deaf or HoH children are born from hearing families. Most of them refuse to learn ASL – talk about insensitive & language deprivation & oppressing of social skills. My dysfunctional family’s hidden abuse from my father and uncle created so much trauma, defensiveness, fractured broken marriage. Aptly well said: All the excitement in the world won’t fix this disconnect, and neither will a healthy, stable relationship on its own. Traveled all over the world, lived in 7 different states, and well meaning people just don’t get it when they try to “prescribe” what’s best for me. I actually have to get to know myself all over again. I started by discarding everything I don’t enjoy/like/ or not have interest. Then slowly relearn what does inspires me. Then set boundaries knowing it’s risky and learning how to develop a thicker skin when people reject me. This is a lifelong journey as a Deaf person, I face even more challenges than most.

    Carol

    A friend told me about this and asked me to take the test so I did it has been very traumatic my childhood was very violent and insecure it left one parent trying to hurt me and the other one trying to get him off of me my mother tried to save me from my father he was a violent alcoholic when he was drunk he would try to drown me mainly in the toilet or the sink

    A from the Cabin up there

    Thank you for this …
    To be honest, now that I’m 30, I just feel so comfortable being alone (and single) , I don’t even fantasize about the ‘ideal romance’ anymore… I mean, I’ve done my share of TRYING to communicate with others properly, but guess not everyone’s been successful taming their demons, aye?
    This way , I’m more calm, knowing that I don’t HAVE TO deal with the triggers every second, has this AMAZING soothing effect… knowing I’m a grown up now and I can push bullies out of my life …
    All I’m saying is, we’re living in a world filled with traumatized people who are addicted to their scars and getting therapy has become a part of their identity. Healing is not the ultimate goal !
    I just think enjoying some alone time ain’t that bad.
    because when you see how you can live with minimum social interaction and HEAL every day from a roller-coaster-like childhood and adolescence and all the trauma-based relationships/friendships that followed all those dark years, and caused even more damage… Well… Guess that IS something, right?

    L /

    Sounds like my childhood hits all four risk factors: mom “abandoned” or left me when I was about 3 or 4 y/o, both parents were too preoccupied with their issues during the 10 year divorce and custody proceedings, most of the focus was how the courts would see me as a gauge of how they were raising me so each “coached” me on what to say or how to act during supervised visits, and home was a rollercoaster I dare not write since it’s way too long. This explains quite a bit… Hoping to pull myself out of this. The part about being with other avoidant partners also clears a lot up. Hoping being with another avoidant partner isn’t a “trauma bonding” relationship, and that the relationship can be worked on and grown into healthy and fruitful instead of having to have to end it for both our mental health. However, if the latter is necessary, as sad as it could be, it should be done so we both heal.

    s /

    I have read about this in the past but blanked it out. I had a difficult childhood which repeated in a difficult marriage. I am single now and have faith that one day I will meet someone and can have a more balanced relationship. I agree with MM that it can feel like life or death.

    M M

    This speaks to me so deeply. I had no idea this was so fleshed out and explainable. I have somehow found a relationship with a secure healthy woman. I have had my commitment phobias and times when I thought I had to run and end the relationship without any explanation at all, just that it felt like life or death and I couldn’t breathe. What is defeating is that I will think I “beat” beat this a few times and then have a solid happy year with no avoidant thoughts and then suddenly around a birthday or important event or buying a new home together, it just comes back overnight. “Run, I don’t love her, this is not for me… etc”

    ...

    Realising how fucked up my childhood was in terms of interpersonal relationships.

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