What Is Anxious-Avoidant Attachment, and How Does It Affect You?

Medically reviewed by: Erica Munro, MSc
Tuesday, November 21

Did you know that your earliest interactions with other people might influence your current relationships? That’s the theory behind attachment styles. 

If you know your own attachment styles, you can better understand yourself and your personal connections.

Below, you’ll learn more about the anxious-avoidant attachment style and its potential effects on relationships. 

What is attachment theory? 

Psychoanalyst John Bowlby came up with attachment theory while exploring infant behavior. Attachment theory is the theory that infants are wired to show distress, such as crying, when separated from their primary caregiver. 

Bowlby theorized that babies and young children do this due to evolutionary or survival instincts. Early caregivers provide protection and nurturing so children seek attachment, or connection, to them. 

Attachment theory also includes the idea that these early experiences with caregivers cause us to develop our attachment styles. These styles influence our interpersonal dynamics and relationships. Bowlby believed that attachment motives affect close relationships throughout people’s lives, from infancy through adulthood. 

Types of attachment styles 

Attachment theory covers four different attachment styles that people can form based on their experiences in infancy and as young children. However, people don’t always have one particular style — there can also be combinations of attachment styles. 

Find out more about the four main attachment styles, including the kind of impact caregivers can have. 

Anxious attachment 

People with an anxious or insecure attachment style can fear being abandoned. These individuals often have a heightened sensitivity to rejection, along with a strong desire for closeness. They might become nervous about being apart from their partner, and even the thought of being separated can cause anxiety

Having an anxious attachment style sometimes goes hand in hand with low self-esteem. These individuals desire to be close to others but also fear that others won’t want them around. 

Caregiver impact 

What caregiving experiences can lead to anxious attachment? Inconsistent caregiving is a key part of the development of this attachment style. Caregivers might have periodically been responsive to the child’s needs but ignored them or been too distracted to attend to them at other times. 

Children who experience unpredictable responses and behaviors from their caregivers may sometimes feel uncertain about what to expect from others. This uncertainty can fuel anxiety when it comes to their interpersonal relationships. 

Avoidant attachment 

An avoidant attachment style mainly involves a lot of emotional distance from others. Individuals with this style tend to be more self-reliant. They might also feel uncomfortable about becoming close to others. 

Unlike the low self-esteem that often comes with an anxious attachment style, those with an avoidant attachment style typically have high self-esteem. They might pride themselves on not depending on anyone else and don’t usually seek support from others. Individuals with this attachment style might have many friends and partners but typically keep them at arm’s length in terms of emotional intimacy. ‍

Caregiver impact 

How does an avoidant attachment style develop? Caregivers who are distant when interacting with or tending to children can influence this attachment style. Being dismissive of children can also cause an avoidant attachment style to develop. 

When caregivers don’t provide emotional intimacy, children might have trouble bonding with them. These children also learn to depend on themselves if their caregivers dismiss their emotional needs or concerns. Over time, these children grow distant and have a hard time feeling close to others.  

Disorganized attachment 

A disorganized attachment style often revolves around extremes. People with this attachment style might have a strong desire for intimacy — yet be terrified of it at the same time. This fear is usually intense, and individuals with this style may struggle to self-soothe those strong emotions. 

Disorganized attachment patterns are also typically associated with traumatic experiences during childhood. These individuals might not feel worthy or deserving of closeness with others, or they might view relationships as unsafe or scary. 

Caregiver impact 

A chaotic caregiving environment might lead to disorganized attachment. These caregivers might neglect or ignore children. In some cases, they might display erratic behavior that is frightening to children. For example, these caregivers might have unpredictable mood swings or other emotional issues leading to this behavior. 

If caregiving involves abuse or trauma, this can also result in disorganized attachment. Children learn to see their caregiver as a source of fear and comfort. This creates an unstable environment that can make relationships later on feel unsafe. 

Secure attachment 

A secure attachment style offers stable interpersonal dynamics. People with this attachment style tend to have a good sense of self-worth. They’re also comfortable with intimacy and closeness and have no trouble turning to others for support when needed. These individuals are likelier to trust others than to approach them with suspicion or fear. They can handle being separated from others without feeling nervous or anxious. 

Those with a secure attachment style often feel safe in their relationships. These relationships also tend to be stable and fulfilling. 

Caregiver impact 

What kind of caregiving results in a secure attachment style? Caregivers who provide reliable and consistent care help children build a sense of security and trust in others. These caregivers respond to their child’s needs, encourage them to express their feelings, and manage stress effectively. 

Growing up in this kind of safe and secure environment can help children learn valuable skills for healthy relationships, such as conflict resolution and communication. These children can then use what they’ve learned to build strong and stable relationships with others. 

What is anxious-avoidant attachment? 

An anxious-avoidant attachment style combines elements of the anxious and avoidant attachment styles. The American Psychological Association defines this attachment style as discomfort with intimacy or closeness with others and a tendency to avoid being in close or intimate relationships. 

Those with this attachment style also have a fear of being rejected or abandoned. An anxious-avoidant attachment style might develop from a strong desire for closeness combined with a deep-seated fear of intimacy. This can cause individuals to seek the intimacy they crave. However, they might also experience problems building a secure and intimate relationship. 

How does anxious-avoidant attachment impact romantic relationships? 

Any attachment style can impact romantic relationships since they influence our interpersonal dynamics. However, an anxious-avoidant attachment style can have an undesirable effect on romantic relationships — and interpersonal relationships in general. 

Below, we’ll examine how the anxious-avoidant attachment type may impact romantic relationships. 

Push-pull dynamic 

This dynamic occurs when an individual wants closeness but then pushes their partner away emotionally. This sometimes happens when that desired intimacy is within reach. 

A push-pull dynamic can be confusing for the partner and frustrating for the person with an anxious-avoidant attachment style: Even though they want closeness, the fear of being abandoned or rejected can be too strong for them to allow it to happen. This dynamic can erode trust in a relationship or prevent it from forming. 

Dissociation or overwhelm in conflicts 

Those with an anxious-avoidant attachment style might feel emotionally overwhelmed when conflicts or disagreements occur. They might dissociate or shut down when conflicts become too intense for them to handle. This makes it harder for couples to work through disagreements, which can cause an emotional rift in their relationship. 

Being able to resolve conflicts effectively can bring couples closer. However, this is a challenge when one or both romantic partners have an anxious-avoidant attachment style. 

Difficulty reading emotional cues 

The ability to read emotional cues is an important part of stable and secure adult relationships. Reading these cues can be difficult for those in an anxious-avoidant relationship. They might be hyper-vigilant, causing them to constantly watch their partner for emotional cues. They might also misinterpret emotional signals or cues, leading to fights or other problems. 

Unpredictable responses 

Individuals with an anxious-avoidant attachment style might respond to their partner unpredictably. They might sometimes show warmth and affection, then become distant and cold. These responses can make interactions between partners uncomfortable, leading to emotional distance. 

The other partner might become frustrated and impatient with these unpredictable behaviors. They might also be hurt or even become fearful, not knowing what to expect from a partner who alternates between intimacy and distance. 

Can you change your attachment style?

With attachment styles being deeply ingrained, is it possible to change them? The short answer is yes — for those who want to do so. Working in therapy to build self-awareness and intentional relationship-building are just a few things that can help you address thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors contributing to unhelpful attachment styles.

SonderMind offers a convenient way to connect with mental health professionals who can provide this guidance. Learn more about our personalized approach and how it helps you match with a therapist who can help you meet your unique therapeutic goals. 

Begin your journey to healthier relationships with SonderMind 

While all attachment styles that aren’t secure can be a challenge for romantic relationships, there’s always room for improvement. 

But you don’t have to do it on your own. Working with a therapist to develop a more secure attachment style can go a long way toward helping you build happy and healthy relationships with others and boost your own well-being. 

Connect with a SonderMind therapist today to start your journey. 

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