The Impact of Anxious-Avoidant Attachment

Medically approved by
Dr Earim Chaudry
Last updated
2nd February 2022

In 30 seconds

Attachment styles influence the way we connect with people. Some people desperately crave connection and fear it at the same time. This is called anxious-avoidant attachment, and is caused by inconsistent emotional support from our caregiver(s) as children. As adults, it can cause us to have dramatic relationships that don’t give us the support we need. But there are ways to combat this attachment style and create healthier romantic connections.

Attachment theory 

According to attachment theory, the way we connect to others develops in early childhood. How well we are able to do so as adults depends on these early experiences with our caregivers (often parents), or anyone else who had a hand in raising us. 

Children who have their needs met consistently are more likely to form secure attachments as adults. Those who didn’t can struggle with insecure attachment. 

Insecure attachment styles include:

  • Anxious, when the person desires closeness and becomes incredibly preoccupied with relationships and needs constant reassurance from their partners, and;
  • Avoidant, when someone is wary of closeness and connection and tends to pull away in relationships or avoid them altogether. 

The third style, anxious-avoidant (what we’re talking about here), is a confusing combination of the two which can make forming and maintaining relationships incredibly difficult. 

What is anxious-avoidant attachment? 

Those with anxious-avoidant attachment (also known as fearful avoidant or disorganised) desperately want connection, but also find the prospect of that connection frightening. 

According to attachment theory, this is because an early attachment figure (a parent or caregiver) has provided inconsistent emotional support to them as children, or were even abusive in some ways at some times. 

This teaches the child that said attachment figure — who they love and rely on for a feeling of safety — can also pose a serious threat. 

This sense of confusion follows the child into adulthood and their romantic relationships, and sometimes platonic ones too. They desperately want to form connections, but feel fear and anxiety when doing so. This can display itself as erratic behaviour that can drive away the people that the person wants to connect with, further proving the negative internal belief that the person with anxious-avoidant attachment isn’t wanted. 

What are the signs of anxious-avoidant attachment? 

Wondering whether you or a partner have this attachment style? Those with anxious-avoidant attachment have: 

  • A fear of intimacy: The fear of abandonment or rejection associated with this attachment style causes people to fear getting close to others, despite their desire for it.
  • Negative self-image: Anxious-avoidant people tend to believe they don’t deserve love or affection. They feel they have often been rejected or hurt by others, and often fear this happening again.
  • Low level of trust: This attachment style causes people to view the actions of those close to them negatively — they may feel unsupported or be on the lookout for signs of betrayal that would allow them to leave the relationship.
  • Difficulty regulating emotions: Those with anxious-avoidant attachment often find it hard to deal with intense emotions. They feel more intensely, especially when angry or when dealing with rejection.
  • Higher anxiety: Childhood trauma can cause anxious-avoidants to have higher levels of anxiety.
  • Higher sexual compliance: The desperation for intimacy caused by this attachment style can cause people to say yes to sex when they don’t really desire it. 

What is the impact of anxious-avoidant attachment? 

People with this attachment style often have difficulty with relationships because their desire for closeness and fear of intimacy—and therefore the chance of abandonment—are constantly at odds with one another.  

This may cause them to: 

  • Act erratically in relationships: Fear of abandonment can cause people with anxious-avoidant attachment to drive people away before they are left themselves. This can involve distrustful behaviour and emotional volatility.  They can also display mixed signals that might cause a genuinely interested partner to think their interest isn’t reciprocated, causing them to back off.
  • Avoid commitment altogether: People with this attachment style might find themselves avoiding serious relationships. This can manifest in lots of casual sex, extended dating periods that don’t turn into an actual partnership, or relationships without labels.

How to help anxious-avoidant attachment 

While our attachment styles formed as children, as adults it’s our responsibility to manage the ways they impact our lives. Anxious-avoidant attachment can be particularly hard to experience, but there are ways to help yourself have healthier relationships. 

  • Try therapy: Therapy is the biggest way to change the way you experience relationships. Delving into why you feel the emotions you feel and why you act the way you do with a professional will help you build self-awareness. Your relationship with your therapist is also a safe one, so will help you build trust in others too.
  • Find ways to combat negative self-talk: While people with anxious-avoidant attachment can struggle with platonic relationships, their biggest issues often appear to be in romantic ones. So, thinking of friends, family, co-workers and other people who care about them can help them believe that they are worthy of all kinds of love.
  • Choose safe relationships: This is a hard one. Those with anxious-avoidant attachment often find themselves in relationships that don’t offer them adequate support, or just won’t work out. Choosing a healthy partner who is genuinely interested in a relationship and is able to help you build trust over time is a good habit to get into for anyone. It will particularly help someone with this attachment style.
  • Be honest with partners: Anxious-avoidants typically have trouble asking for help — because they don’t want to seem like a burden. This means they’ll often keep their problems to themselves until they become unmanageable. Trusting your partners to support you in the good and the bad is important. 

Key takeaways 

Anxious-avoidant attachment is often forgotten when we talk about attachment styles. But it can be one of the most difficult challenges to deal with. There are ways to reduce the impact it has on our relationships, and this usually starts with talking to a professional.

FAQs 

How is anxious avoidant attachment different from other forms of attachment? 

While anxiously attached people tend to crave connection and avoidantly attached people tend to avoid it, anxious avoidants both crave connection and fear it. 

How do you fix anxious avoidant attachment? 

This attachment style can be difficult to deal with. Therapy and mindfulness practises can help you become more aware of why you feel the way you feel and how to self soothe. 

Is anxious avoidant attachment and codependence the same thing? 

Not quite. Codependence is when you rely on others, or one person in particular, more than is healthy or to form your sense of identity. Anxious attachment is most often associated with this problem. 

While we've ensured that everything you read on the Health Centre is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

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