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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