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The Psychodynamics of Fearful Avoidant Attachment

Don't go, but don't get too close either.

Key points

  • People with fearful-avoidant attachment struggle with issues related to intimacy and trust and present a strong need for independence.
  • The prototypical fearful-avoidant type would want closeness, but is at the same time hesitant to let others get too close.
  • Once others get too close, the fearful-avoidant type instinctually pushes them away fearing for rejection, abandonment or disappointment.

“Love is not a novel whereby at its end, the protagonists marry[1]” - Nizar Qabbani

When Kim Bartholomew (1991) envisioned four prototypes of attachment patterns in adults, she was the first to observe a fourth type which exhibited characteristics of both the classical anxious (preoccupied) and the avoidant (dismissive-avoidant). This type was henceforth dubbed the “fearful-avoidant” or “anxious-avoidant” style. Although Bartholomew’s conceptualization focused on negative evaluations/expectations (internal working model) of both the self and significant others (i.e., internal states), later theorists and therapists were more inclined to adopt a model which emphasized overt behavior and conscious feelings—which mainly revolve around comfort with intimacy, trust and the need for independence (Brennan, Clark, and Shaver, 1998).

The prototypical fearful avoidant individual would want closeness, but at the same time would be hesitant to let others get too close. Once others get too close, the fearful-avoidant individual instinctually pushes them, away fearing rejection, abandonment, or disappointment altogether. The models of adult attachment are not mutually exclusive and they are both complementary to the understanding of adult behavior in romantic relationships. Although they are indispensable to the comprehension and anticipation of adult behavior in relationships, they seem to fail to pinpoint the intricate inner world of the fearful-avoidant type, thus calling for more psychodynamic insights.

Barring individual differences, the prototypical fearful-avoidant seems to act just as the preoccupied person would in a relationship as long as anxiety levels are low. They both would crave constant attention, frequent contact, and expressions of love and intimacy. The fearful-avoidant would, however, retreat behind their defensive wall and don the armor of the dismissive-avoidant once their anxiety is awakened. The trigger is usually a push for greater intimacy, closeness, or further commitment from their partner, which would spell impending doom in the mind of the fearful-avoidant. The relentless pushing from the partner brings about floods of central nervous system arousal and anxious thoughts that call for the activation of their protective, avoidant side.

Their partner, meanwhile, bewildered by the increased distancing of the fearful-avoidant, tends to react by pushing for more intimacy, occasionally in a tone of anger and frustration at this sudden, inexplicable retreat. At the same time, the fearful-avoidant may be growing increasingly impatient with the partner’s incessant demands and their anxiety about the end of the relationship is gaining more and more momentum due to the tense state of affairs between them. Stuck in this vicious cycle from which they cannot escape—there now seems to be only one way out—the end of the relationship appears inevitable.

wallpaperflare/creative commons
wallpaperflare/creative commons

A closer inspection of the inner psychodynamics of the fearful-avoidant—particularly as their anxiety rises to the surface—reveals a hideous truth. The typical fear of relationships ending poorly—a fear unique to the fearful-avoidant—seems to take a new twist here.

As the fearful-avoidant’s anxiety emerges, the fear of the partner’s abandonment becomes a projection[2] of their own unconsciously denied fear of a newly emerging negative view of the other—hence reconciling with Bartholomew’s original conception of the fearful-avoidant (i.e., negative evaluation of the self and others). Now the partner has come to be viewed in a new light, where their faults are magnified, their dissimilarities are highlighted and the past is set to be altered, rewritten, and reframed through the lens of the present debacle. The rose-tinted past is seen as an illusion, with the fearful-avoidant believing themselves guilty of misevaluating their partner in the past.

This sharp fall in one’s esteem of the other is quite traumatic—both to the fearful-avoidant and to their partner, as the past unparalleled idealization of the partner, distinctive of the beginning of the relationship, turns into a fall from grace of the unforgiven. As this view becomes dominant, passive-aggressive behaviors begin to unfold in acts that would manifest in resistance to demands, avoidance of direct confrontation, procrastination, lateness, and more. The end of the relationship for the fearful-avoidant comes with a great, but brief, relief from their anxiety, although at a price—a dysthymic mood is soon to follow, effectively fulfilling the promise of “cannot with too much closeness, cannot with too much distance.”

I hold to the contention that the fearful-avoidant is basically a preoccupied type with a different presentation. The avoidance is merely a function of uncontrollable anxiety. This contrasts with the dismissive-avoidant type, where avoidance is inherently static. Support for this view comes at the physiological level, in that an anxiolytic intervention (anxiolytic drugs/alcohol) to the fearful-avoidant would revert them back to their preoccupied origin, craving for more closeness and more intimacy.


[1] The line from the renowned late poet later featured in a song “Illa Tilmitha” by famous singer and composer Kadim Al Sahir depicts a prototypical belief of the fearful avoidant.

[2] Projection is a defense mechanism whereby parts of the self are attributed to the other in unconscious denial

Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: a test of a four-category model. Journal of personality and social psychology, 61(2), 226.

Brennan, K. A., Clark, C. L., & Shaver, P. R. (1998). Self-report measurement of adult attachment: An integrative overview. In J. A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment theory and close relationships (p. 46–76). Guilford Press.Calkins.

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