Attachment

The Heritability of Fearful Attachment

How you can inherit a fearful style without personally experiencing trauma.

Posted Jan 08, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

Usually, after going through a tumultuous relationship experience, a person will look back and take stock of their relationship history. At these points (and not including if you were the direct victim of partner abuse) it sometimes becomes apparent that they either picked unavailable relationship partners or that they themselves ended relationships prematurely because they became overly concerned with possible rejection.

Often, they simply were unable to tolerate the ambiguity of a developing relationship. Once they realize that the problem might be them and not those “others,” they may take a closer look at themselves. They may conclude that they have a fearful attachment style.

“Nothing really happened to me in childhood … so why do I feel so crazy?”

This refrain is all too common in those who either directly, or indirectly, have discovered that they have a fearful attachment style. Fearful attachment styles are characterized by having strong worries and concerns about relationships along with intense distrust and avoidance of the very people they want to be close to.

Emotionally, they often feel dysregulated (i.e., confusing emotions that are all over the place), anxious, and depressed. Moreover, they describe being attracted to others who are unavailable or abusive and that they have often turned away from people who seemed healthy and could have provided love and security.

Approximately 17% of people in the United States have this style (see Shorey & Snyder, 2006 for review). So, if this describes you, you are not alone. But this knowledge might not make it any easier.

Even if they can keep their style hidden from others, people with fearful attachment styles often feel alone and isolated while still very much wanting close relationships. Some readers will have had traumatic childhood experiences and will know where their styles and difficulties come from. But others will not be able to recall any significant incidents of abuse or neglect in their childhoods.

Attachment theory describes a social defense system where people seek proximity and protection from stronger others or groups when vulnerable or under threat. In childhood, people seek proximity primarily to their parents. When parents are consistently warm, available, and responsive, the children will typically develop secure attachment styles. In this context, the parent regulates the child’s distressed emotions by providing comfort, organizing the child’s thoughts through labeling emotions and describing experiences, and then encouraging re-engagement with the social environment. Approximately 55% of people will have such secure styles.  

A fearful style, in contrast, is typical when there is a history of family chaos and/or abuse. In such cases, frightened or upset children are forced to seek proximity from parents who are also a source of fear. In this case, the child is not comforted, emotions are not regulated, thoughts are not organized, and re-engagement with the social environment is not promoted. The child is simply left in a state of emotional turmoil and with few coping mechanisms or ways of successfully re-engaging with the social world.

But for a fearful attachment style to develop, the parent does not have to be an overt source of fear as would be the case with a rageful or abusive parent.

If the parent is frightened and dysregulated, as may be the case when that parent is being abused, the child will sense the parent’s fear and know that this person is not available to truly protect them. In this case, the child’s proximity-seeking also may not yield comfort, emotion regulation, or mental organization.

A similar case can result when the parent is emotionally flat and unable to provide emotional expression (as is the case in some psychiatric disorders like extreme depression or negative symptoms of schizophrenia).  In either case, the parent is not available to provide comfort or reassurance and the result may be the development of a fearful attachment style. Parents who have fearful attachment styles may thus pass on their fearful styles to their children even if the children are never directly traumatized.

Research on the intergenerational transmission of attachment styles indicates that there is a very high correlation between the child’s attachment style and that of the primary caregiver. There is about a 70% chance that a child will have the same attachment style as their mother. And, under normal (not high risk) conditions, there is approximately a 65% chance that in your adulthood, you will have the same attachment style you did when you were a toddler. So, there is strong evidence for the intergenerational transmission and stability of attachment styles over time (see Shorey & Snyder, 2006).

New research from the field of epigenetics is providing evidence that fearful attachment can be related to genetic changes passed down from one generation to the next (Ein-Dor, Verbeke, Mokry & Vrticka, 2018).  

Epigenetics is the study of how changes in the way genes are expressed are passed down from one generation to the next. For example, your parent may have been traumatized and passed on a Complex PTSD presentation to you even if you never directly experienced trauma yourself. In this respect, there is a great deal of overlap between the symptoms of Complex PTSD and fearful attachment.

A growing body of research on the children of trauma survivors is showing that their brains’ stress response systems look similar to those found in samples of people with PTSD. Lehrner and Yehuda, 2018, reviewed research showing that gene expression can even skip a generation. If your grandmother was traumatized when pregnant with your mother, then your gene expression may result in your emotional system looking like that of someone with PTSD (or fearful attachment).

Research on parenting more generally indicates that lower levels of care from your mother are related to lower activation of the genes responsible for oxytocin activity in your body. Oxytocin is important for experiencing reward when seeking social connection (proximity seeking) to others. So, gene expression related to maternal care can make one less interested in social connection and more avoidant. A lack of maternal care can also decrease how well genes work to control the activity of the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis (a brain pathway involved in stress responses), which is highly activated in people with trauma presentations.

In short, a lack of maternal care can result in genes being expressed in their children in a way that decreases oxytocin release and increases activity in the stress response system (HPA axis), corresponding with higher levels of attachment avoidance and anxiety, respectively. Higher levels of avoidance and anxiety correspond with more fearful attachment.  

So, if you have a fearful attachment style and don’t know where it came from, take some time getting to know your parents and grandparents and become familiar with their life stories. It may provide some clues to your own emotions and personality; and who knows, you might even strengthen some relationships that you stopped nurturing long ago.

References

Shorey, H. S., & Snyder, C. R. (2006). The role of adult attachment styles in psychopathology and psychotherapy outcomes. Review of General Psychology, 10, 1-20.

Ein-Dor, T., Verbeke, W. J. M. I., Mokry, M., & Vrtička, P. (2018). Epigenetic modification of the oxytocin and glucocorticoid receptor genes is linked to attachment avoidance in young adults. Attachment & Human Development, 20(4), 439–454. https://doi.org/10.1080/14616734.2018.1446451

Lehrner A, Yehuda R. Cultural trauma and epigenetic inheritance. Dev Psychopathol. 2018 Dec;30(5):1763-1777. doi: 10.1017/S0954579418001153. Epub 2018 Sep 28. PMID: 30261943.