(Aka Disorganized Attachment, Anxious-Avoidant)
A Fearful-Avoidant is a type of person who longs for intimacy & closeness, but at the same time is scared of vulnerability and commitment. This is the most complicated attachment style (click here if you need a refresher), and the most misunderstood.
When we are children, we rely on our parents to protect us from the things that scare us. When our parents are the source of danger, this creates fear without a solution. Faced with this unsolvable problem, a child will physically & mentally freeze.1Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1990). Procedures for identifying infants as disorganized/disoriented during the Ainsworth Strange Situation. Attachment in the preschool years: Theory, research, and intervention, 1, 121-160.
When this happens regularly, it develops into the attachment style of Fearful-Avoidance (FA). In relationships, FAs erratically behave like both the avoidant and the anxious styles – sometimes even at the same time.
They struggle with intense loneliness, fear of rejection, and inconsistent behavior. These patterns mean they usually end up in dysfunctional and toxic relationships, making their fears self-fulfilling.
What is a Disorganized Attachment?
Avoidant and anxious attachments, despite being insecure styles, are organized responses. By consistently acting in a certain way, the child contributes to their needs being met even in a difficult environment.
Rather than a style of its own, disorganized attachment is a type of attachment trauma when a child’s fundamental needs for safety and love cannot be met.
When this happens, the child believes deep down that they are unlovable. Without the safety of a parent’s love, the child’s response to fear is to freeze as they realize that they have no solution on their own.
Although on the outside the child looks shut down, their nervous stress system (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) is running in overdrive. Flooded with high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), the next actions they take are usually incoherent and insensible.
After the specific threat that leads to their disorganized behavior is resolved, infants and children return to their organized attachment style of avoidant, anxious, or even secure.2Shemmings, D., & Shemmings, Y. (2011). Understanding disorganized attachment: Theory and practice for working with children and adults. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Growing Up to Fearful-Avoidant
After puberty, disorganized patterns start dominating the initial attachment style. All teens rebel in their own way, but disorganized teens have two distinct patterns: hostility or caretaking.
In the first type, they will order their parents around, or threaten them physically/verbally. The second reaction seems extremely helpful or polite toward the parent, but is actually a method of controlling an otherwise unpredictable/unsafe caregiver.3Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P. R. (Eds.). (2002). Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications. Rough Guides.
This means that the Fearful-Avoidant label gets applied to 3 different initial attachment styles and 2 different teenage styles, for a total of 6 different combinations. Small wonder that online articles on this style are so conflicting!
Way More Common Than You Thought
Articles based on the original studies by Ainsworth claim that disorganized attachment affects 4% of the population. However, during these experiments they had four categories: secure, avoidant, anxious, and unclassified.
Since disorganized behavior in children happens for a short period and they weren’t looking for it, numbers were extremely low.
An analysis of 80 research studies (and over 6,000 infants!) looking specifically for disorganization found that around 15% of children born into low risk, middle-class American families show a disorganized attachment. For children in high risk environments, that percentage goes up to 30%, or even a terrifying 45%.4van 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.
However, in adult studies only about 7% of people score a Fearful-Avoidant attachment.
Since a disorganized attachment correlates with a number of serious psychological issues, it is likely that most studies (which are typically carried out on college students) are under-representing or miscategorizing Fearful-Avoidants.