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Come Here, Go Away: The Dynamics of Fearful Attachment

People can both desperately want and avoid close relationships.

Key points

  • When a child cannot escape the anxiety coming from the environment nor be soothed by the parent, they can develop fearful attachment.
  • Those with fearful attachment desire closeness and intimacy, and yet simultaneously want to withdraw.
  • A secure attachment style from childhood could deviate in the direction of a fearful style if one subsequently experiences major loss or trauma.
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Imagine feeling lonely inside and craving love and affection. Then you meet someone wonderful. You are full of joy and excitement. Now you can feel whole and good like you know you should.

But several months later, when your romantic partner throws his or her arms around you and tells you that they love you, you experience a flood of anxiety and a sense of impending doom. You try to act happy, because you know that is how a "normal" person would feel. But you have a hard time hiding your anxiety. You try to fix it by explaining, but this effort only makes you sound off-balance and needy. Across the coming weeks, you feel increasingly squirrelly, start to pick up on signs that your partner is having second thoughts, and get that awful feeling in your know, the one you spend your whole life trying to avoid. As the relationship begins to implode, you just want to scream, "What the heck just happened?!"

What happened is that you ran straight into your own defensive wall, that part of your personality which is trying to protect you and keep you safe. Of course, this defense is not a rational process; it is housed deep in the emotional centers of your brain and is automatically triggered by signals from the environment. It does not care about your rational thought processes or your adult need for love and affection. It would rather you be sad and lonely than injured.

Attachment theory can give us even deeper insight into this process. In childhood, the attachment system increases anxiety when the young person stays too far away from parent; the resulting discomfort then impels the child to re-establish proximity. Imagine what happens, however, when the parent you are seeking comfort from is himself frightening or frightened. If the parent yells at the approaching child, or even worse becomes physically abusive, then this "attachment figure" is just as scary as whatever the child was running from in the first place.

A terrified parent (who may themselves be an abuse victim) also cannot adequately soothe a distressed child. In either case, the attachment system does not serve its intended function. The child cannot escape the anxiety coming from the environment and cannot be soothed by the parent. To make matters worse, the parent’s behavior might actually increase the child's anxiety and impel the child to once again approach the scary parent.

Children raised in such environments will become hypervigilant for threat cues (like those with anxious/preoccupied attachment) and simultaneously avoidant of interpersonal closeness and intimacy (like those with avoidant/dismissing attachment). When observed under laboratory conditions (in Mary Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” paradigm), these children can be seen to approach the parent, only to freeze and withdraw or wander about aimlessly. In a similar vein, as adults, they will simultaneously desire closeness and intimacy and approach potential attachment figures (close friends or romantic partners), but then become extremely uncomfortable when they get too close to those partners and withdraw; hence the message given to others is "come here and go away." Of course, the person with this "fearful" attachment style is not likely to be fully conscious that they are enacting this process and may feel extremely misunderstood and victimized in professional, friendship, and romantic relationships. This person may not perceive that they are actually the one doing the distancing and rejecting.

If you see yourself in these descriptions and patterns, take heart. The defensive process is a normal reaction to a situational stressor in childhood. The situational stressor may have been physical abuse or assault (big "T" trauma), or angry hostility, and scary parental behavior (little "t" trauma). Scary parental behavior doesn't even mean that the parent was overtly threatening. A very depressed or mentally ill parent who is emotionally unexpressive will be frightening because the child knows that the parent cannot provide protection or comfort.

The work by Dr. Ed Tronic with young children using the "Still Face Paradigm" provides an excellent example of the effects of parental unresponsiveness and lack of attunement. When parents do not accurately reflect and validate their children's emotional experiences, the children become emotionally dysregulated. If this pattern is maintained over an extended period of time, it could have a lifelong impact on the developing person’s neurology and ability to accurately perceive and regulate emotions or sustain healthy and mutually reciprocal relationships.

Once you understand why your adult emotions are so dysregulated and why you feel "crazy" in relationships, you can start the process of living with intent, and you can refuse to let the process continue disrupting your relationships.

Here are some things you can do:

  • Recognize that your emotions may not be giving you accurate feedback about what is going on in your relationships. The distress you feel may have nothing to do with your present romantic partner or close friend; that person may simply be a trigger. Think about it as a post-traumatic stress reaction.
  • Consider getting a therapist, or use a self-help program like Adult Children of Alcoholics or Co-Dependents Anonymous, where you can disclose your true feelings and perceptions in a safe place (no matter how "off" they may seem) and obtain a neutral perspective and help in calibrating your emotional and behavioral responses. People with fearful attachment styles often do not know how they should feel or respond in emotionally charged situations.
  • Take a long time out (days perhaps) before you take action based on strong emotions. Be sure that you get all of the facts on the table, and make a conscious choice for how you want to respond before taking action.
  • Practice setting healthy boundaries. You probably did not have good boundaries modeled for you in childhood, so this may not come naturally. When you are in a calm emotional space, ask yourself what you need in your relationships and what behaviors you are willing to accept from your relationship partners; then communicate this information directly in a non-defensive manner. Of course, you should keep in mind that it is not in any other adult's power to “make” you feel good inside. That’s your job.
  • Don't disclose too much of your inner turmoil or trauma history until you know that the listener is "safe." The vulnerability you will feel upon disclosing too much too fast might flood you with intense anxiety that will make you want to run away and cut off the relationship. In my work with people who have suffered trauma, I often try to slow them down if they attempt to disclose their most closely guarded secrets too early in the therapeutic relationship. I ask them why they think I am someone to trust with their well-being. I believe that I am trustworthy, but I like people to evaluate on their own when and how to lower their guard.
  • Practice standing your ground, not running away, and experiencing healthy endings. I usually tell my fearfully attached clients that we will know when we are establishing a close therapeutic relationship because they will start feeling anxious about coming to their sessions and thinking about reasons to avoid coming. This also applies to friendships and romantic involvements. If you have this style, you should simply anticipate this emotional reaction in yourself and refuse to run when it tells you to (of course don’t ignore signs of potential abuse or unhealthy behavior). When someone tells you how much they care, you should similarly force yourself to graciously accept the gesture. Remember, you give others a gift when you allow them to express their own goodness. Finally, try to stay through the relationship ending. No relationship lasts forever. They ebb and flow like the tide. When it is time for a relationship to end, listen to the other, say your truth, and then release them. Don’t worry, you will still have yourself to love you.

If you are reading this and wondering who you know who has this style, you should be aware that you might not see it until you start getting close and establishing a level of intimacy with the person. You may also observe the person becoming dysregulated and disorganized if their personal security is threatened due to things such as a serious illness or being threatened with disciplinary action or job loss.

It is also important to be aware that even if you have had a secure attachment style from childhood, this style could deviate in the direction of having a fearful style if you subsequently experience a major loss, such as the death of a parent, or if you are otherwise traumatized (e.g., violent crime, battery, or being in a long-term, emotionally abusive relationship).

If you are in relationship with someone with this style, be patient. Realize that it is not in your power to take away all of their pain. You can be there for them and provide comfort and a secure base while they explore their own inner workings. If you want to stay in the relationship, you should be aware that you may also have to endure some “testing behaviors.” The person with the fearful style may engage in some negative or challenging behaviors to see if you are going to reject or hurt them. After all, that is what their experience has taught them to expect. If you take these behaviors for what they are, however, and don’t take them too personally—I know; easier said than done—the person is likely to start effectively regulating their emotions and become much more comfortable with intimacy in the relationship.

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