The anxious-avoidant attachment style is characterized by a fear of intimacy and emotional closeness, leading to discomfort in relationships and a tendency to maintain emotional distance.
Attachment refers to an affectional bond between an individual and an attachment figure such as a parent or loved one.
This affectional bond is characterized by a tendency to “seek out and maintain proximity to a specific attachment figure, particularly during times of distress” (Hicks & Korbel, 2013).
Attachment Styles Explained
The types of attachment are based on attachment theory, the psychological, ethological, and evolutionary theory that studies bonds between parents and their children.
When it was first formulated by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the 1960s (and developed by Mary Ainsworth), attachment theory was only studied concerning infants. In the 1980s, the theory was extended to include adults (Hazan & Shaver, 1987).
According to attachment theory, children instinctively attach to their caregivers (Bretherton, 1992). The biological aim is survival and the psychological aim is security (Schaffer, 2003).
Accordingly, humans are said to have an attachment behavioral system that tries to maintain proximity to the attachment figure (Prior & Glaser, 2006).
The Four Adult Attachment Styles
In general terms, adult attachment styles can be defined as “social-cognitive schemas of experiences and feelings in romantic relationships” (Solomon & George, 2011, p. 346).
In its early stages, attachment theory involved the identification of different attachment styles in infants, but since, a taxonomy of adult attachment styles has been developed.
In the case of adults, the corresponding main attachment styles are secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant (also known as anxious-avoidant attachment).
Adults with different attachment styles seem to have different beliefs and behavior patterns, especially in romantic relationships. The anxious-avoidant attachment style is the main subject of this article, but I will first briefly define the other adult attachment styles.
- Secure attachment: Children with a secure attachment pattern show a moderate amount of distress when the caregiver leaves but can quickly compose themselves when the caregiver returns (Ainsworth, 1979). Such children feel protected by their attachment figures and they seem to trust that the caregiver will return. In the case of adults, this attachment style is characterized by a low fear of failure and a high need for achievement (Elliot & Reis, 2003). Such individuals are great at conflict resolution in relationships, they avoid manipulation, they are comfortable with intimacy, and are quickly forgiving.
- Anxious-preoccupied attachment: Adults with this type of attachment style desire closeness and intimacy, thereby often becoming overly dependent on their partners. As the name suggests, such individuals generally have less positive views about themselves and their partners. They are typically less trusting and more emotionally expressive (Sperling & Berman, 1994).
- Dismissive-avoidant attachment: Adults with this attachment style appear to be avoiding attachment completely. They desire a high level of independence and seem to view themselves as self-sufficient. They often have a low opinion of people whom they perceive as dependent on them and they deal with conflict by distancing themselves from them (Zahra, 2022).
Finally, we have anxious-avoidant, which is the subject of this article.
Definition of Anxious-Avoidant Attachment Style
At first glance, the anxious-avoidant (fearful-avoidant) attachment style seems contradictory and, in some sense, it is: adults with this attachment style have mixed feelings and mixed needs regarding romantic relationships.
They desire emotional closeness and intimacy, but they feel uncomfortable when they have it.
Dan et al. (2020) suggest that the:
“…initial response to emotional stimuli of individuals with fearful-avoidant attachment is dominated by avoidance, rather than anxiety.”
Moreover, such individuals tend to have a less pleasant outlook on life in general. Their preferred method for dealing with their conflicting desires, not unlike dismissive-avoidant adults, is suppressing their feelings (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991).
In the case of infants, an anxious-avoidant attachment pattern was first thought of as especially puzzling. Such infants show little emotion when their caregiver departs or returns.
After an interesting experiment involving the study of the heart rate of such infants, researchers now believe that anxious-avoidant infants do indeed have an emotional response to the caregiver’s actions, they just don’t express it (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970; Sroufe & Waters, 1977).
According to Ainsworth et al. (2015), infants are anxious-avoidant if there is:
“…conspicuous avoidance of the mother in the reunion episodes which is likely to consist of ignoring her altogether, although there may be some pointed looking away, turning away, or moving away … If there is a greeting when the mother enters, it tends to be a mere look or a smile … Either the baby does not approach his mother upon reunion, or they approach in “abortive” fashions with the baby going past the mother, or it tends to only occur after much coaxing … If picked up, the baby shows little or no contact-maintaining behavior; he tends not to cuddle in; he looks away and he may squirm to get down.”
Adults with this attachment style seem to have the same problems that such children do: while dismissive-avoidant adults are often able to use their defensive strategies with favorable results, anxious-avoidant adults rarely can.
For example, Fraley and Shaver (1997) conducted an experiment in which they asked adults to discuss losing their partner.
Dismissive individuals were just as psychologically distressed as others until they were asked to suppress their thoughts and feelings, after which they were able to actually decrease their feelings of distress. Anxious-avoidant individuals couldn’t do the same.
Examples of Anxious-Avoidant Attachment Style
Children with an anxious-avoidant attachment pattern:
- behave in a conflicting manner towards their attachment figure (usually one of their caregivers).
- desire closeness and comfort from their caregiver but also fear them.
- require being vulnerable but at the same time fear vulnerability.
- often lack personal boundaries.
- do not feel safe or secure.
- might not express distress, even when they feel it intensely.
- might ignore their caregiver when they return after leaving them.
Adults with an anxious-avoidant attachment style:
- avoid emotional closeness and intimacy with their romantic partner, even if they desire it intensely.
- feel uncomfortable expressing emotions or being vulnerable.
- have a need or desire to express their feelings.
- tend to distance themselves from their romantic partners when they feel uncomfortable.
- are generally less trusting of others and assume the worst about the intentions of others.
- tend to engage in “push-pull” dynamics and manipulative games in romantic relationships (meaning that they oscillate between giving attention to and ignoring their partners).
Attachment theory is the psychological, ethological, and evolutionary theory that studies emotional bonds between individuals and their attachment figures.
These attachment figures are typically caregivers in the case of children and romantic partners in the case of adults.
There are different ways to categorize attachment patterns or styles in humans, and anxious-avoidant attachment is one such style.
This attachment style is characterized by conflicting desires and aversions to closeness and intimacy and can thereby often lead to increased amounts of psychological distress.
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