Most people new to attachment theory and even those familiar with it tend to focus only on a fearful avoidant’s fear of getting close as a reason a fearful avoidant pulls away. When a fearful avoidant breaks up or ends a relationship, they conclude that “we got too close and they pulled away” or “they developed feelings and got scared.” That may be the case, but let’s start with the most pressing question.
Did a fearful avoidant develop feelings and pull away? It’s possible they did. Fearful avoidants want to love and be loved, to be close to someone and for a relationship to work. Were a fearful avoidant’s feelings for you real and genuine if they pulled away or broke up with you? Yes, it’s possible your fearful avoidant’s feelings were real, BUT, it’s also highly possible that:
1) A fearful avoidant leaned anxious, you misunderstood what they wanted and they pulled away
2) A fearful avoidant developed feelings, felt trapped and pulled away
But before I discuss the difference a fearful avoidant leans anxious and pulls away and a fearful avoidant develops or catches feelings and pull aways, it’s really, really very important that you understand why fearful avoidants are afraid of getting too close and what they’re really afraid of.
Why are fearful avoidants afraid of getting too close and what are they REALLY afraid of?
Most people just stop at fearful avoidants fear getting close or fearful avoidants want their independence but never try to understand or explain why fearful avoidants are more than just “avoidants”, and why the so called “stages a fearful avoidant goes through after a break-up” are a myth rather a reality when talking about the most conflicted and disorganized attachment style where two things can be true at the same time.
It’s true that fearful avoidant are scared of getting too close but it’s also true that fearful avoidants are scared of abandonment. A fearful avoidants fear of getting close and fear of abandonment goes back to a fearful avoidant’s childhood where the same attachment figures who made them feel loved and cared for, also frightened them, hurt them and made them feel unsafe. Recent studies also show that someone who didn’t start off as a fearful avoidant can become one as a result of adult experiences that were very traumatic e.g. sexual rape, repeated emotional or physical violence etc. Someone can also develop a fearful avoidant attachment style from a long-term romantic relationship that started as loving and caring, supportive and safe then turned abusive or violent.
What you have is an attachment style that wants connection and craves closeness but also has a deep fear of getting too close; fears that you will leave or abandon them, but also pushes you away. They want to get close because closeness feels good, is fulfilling and satisfying than being alone, but closeness also leads to pain (disappointment, rejection, abandonment, depression, abuse etc.) and so they avoid getting too close. Their past experience have taught fearful avoidants that getting close (or relationships) is an experience of given/taken away, accepted/rejected, praised/blamed, supported/criticized, protected/threatened, loved/smothered, wanted/abandoned, etc.
If their fear of getting close is stronger than their fear of abandonment, a fearful avoidant will lean avoidant. Leaning avoidant means the attachment system is deactivated and a fearful avoidant pulls away from connection to self-regulate. If their fear of abandonment is stronger than their fear of getting too close, a fearful avoidant will lean anxious. Leaning anxious means the attachment system is activated and a fearful avoidant gets close in an attempt to seek reassurance.
It’s almost like you’re dealing with two different people; one who gets close and needs reassurance and the other who distances and want to be left alone. Most fearful avoidants are able to manage these conflicting fears and needs within them by using activation and deactivation strategies.
They can deal with their internal conflict as long as:
1) Someone doesn’t develop feelings too soon and push for a level of closeness that they’re not comfortable with or don’t want.
2) They can keep someone from getting too close and the relationship from getting too serious to a point that there are expectations for them to be or do things that people in close relationships do.
3) They don’t have to change who they are or how they want to live their life to accommodate another person’s need for closeness.
Now that you understand why fearful avoidants are afraid of getting too close and what they’re really afraid of, it’s important to understand how you play into their fear of getting too close and their fear of abandonment.
1) A fearful avoidant leans anxious, you misinterpret what they want and they pull away
When you’re casually dating or in a situationship and you’re not pushing for more closeness than a fearful avoidant is comfortable with (no expectations), a fearful avoidant can enjoy the attention, connection and even intimacy because the risk for disappointment, rejection, abandonment, depression, abuse etc. is low.
They get close (or allow you to get close) just enough to experience the good and positive experience of being close to someone but not too close to get hurt by it. When they feel that they’ve allowed themselves or you to get too close, they pull away or push you away. Then when they’ve pulled away or pushed you away to enough a distance where they feel safe, they lean back and get close. Repeat.
When a fearful avoidant leans anxious, they want more closeness so you see them reaching out, responding promptly, wanting to talk to you, spend time with you and doing things that suggest that they want to be with you. Every now and then they lean avoidant or deactivate but they lean back in at some point usually within days.
A fearful avoidant leaning anxious will show strong interest in you and it can feel they are really into you. They’re attracted to you, feel a connection with you, and want to see where things go but don’t want a relationship. Most fearful avoidants will tell you “I want to take things slow” or “Lets just see where things go” or “I’m attracted to you but I don’t want a relationship.”
But because a fearful avoidant is leaning anxious and showing all the signs that they want to get close, you develop feelings and start wanting more /a relationship and a fearful avoidant feels pressured by what they see as pressure and expectations (to be in or do a relationship) and pull away. They create physical and emotional distance or re-enforce boundaries to try to keep you from getting too close, and at some point, that’s not enough because you keep pushing and pushing to get close (constantly texting, wanting to meet/spend more time together, trying to be intimate with them when they’re rebuffing your advances, getting jealous even when you’re not exclusive etc.,) and overstepping boundaries by acting like you’re in a relationship when they’ve clearly told you they don’t want a relationship or “we’re not in a relationship”.
The more you push for more closeness or for a relationship, the more avoidant they get. The pressure to be close is too much. Some fearful avoidant may even still want to stay close but understand that if they can’t meet your needs or expectations, you will break up with them so, they break up with you before you break up with them.
You’re stunned, confused, in total disbelief and even in denial. They seemed so into you and even pursued you what happened? What happened is that you read too much into a fearful avoidant leaning anxious as them wanting a relationship vs. wanting closeness, and a fearful avoidant leaned avoidant and pulled away.
When you read that fearful avoidants are afraid of getting close, it’s easy to conclude that that “we got too close and they pulled away” or “they developed feelings and got scared.” It’s an easier reality to deal with because it absolves you of all responsibility for a fearful avoidant pulling away or breaking up. You did nothing wrong, all you did was love them and they got scared of how your love or their feelings for you and ran.
It’s also very tempting to want to pull away and give an avoidant “space”. It’s a strong argument for going “no contact”; if someone is afraid of getting too close, the solution is “cut off all contact” so they stop being afraid because you’re not close anymore, they’ll start missing you and want to get close again. Makes sense right?
2) A fearful avoidant develops feelings and even falls in love, feels trapped and pulls away
Most fearful avoidants don’t get into a relationship with someone unless they’re emotionally invested and want things to work. They may even have feelings for you but if their fear of getting too close is stronger than their need for closeness, a relationship is not happening. Things with a fearful avoidant will stay at casually dating, a situationship or friends-with-benefits and you may even get to “exclusive” but not officially a relationship.
A fearful avoidant entering into a relationship means that their need for closeness is stronger than their fear of it. They start to see a future with you even if they don’t trust their feelings or are worried about the relationship not working. They verbally express their feelings of love for you and do things that make you feel and believe they love you. They’re putting in the effort to show you that they don’t just want a casual low-risk connection and intimacy, they want a long-term relationship. Every now and then, they lean avoidant but they lean back in because they want the relationship to work and they don’t want to lose you. You start to see glimpses of their fear abandonment and generally acting more anxious than avoidant. They get needy and clingy sometimes, express jealousy, fears of not being good enough or inability to meet your needs or expectations, worries about separation/fear of losing you etc. Some fearful avoidants even become hyperactivated as a response to their fear of abandonment.
As their feelings grow stronger or the relationship gets more serious, most fearful avoidants start feeling trapped because “getting just close enough and pulling away” isn’t enough anymore, they want more. But wanting more closeness also means that the risk of disappointment, rejection, abandonment, depression, abuse etc. just got real. A fearful avoidant may also realize that the relationships can’t be sustained with just “bare minimum” closeness. You are asking for more/need more/expect more and they’re not sure they can deliver. They start feeling anxious that they’re going to disappoint you and you’ll not to be with them anymore. The more you push for more the more anxious they get because it’s only a matter of time before you reject and abandon them.
The conflict between “get too close and risk rejection/abandonment” or “distance and pull away and end up alone feeling rejected/abandoned” starts to feel unmanageable. If they allow more closeness, they’ll enjoy the experience and the benefits of being close to someone but they’re also risking disappointment, rejection, abandonment, depression, abuse etc., that’ll likely follow. If they pull away, push you away too far, or end the relationship, they’ll avoid the expectations to be close, criticism, blame, rejection and abandonment that was bound to happen anyway but they’re also losing being close to you and probably the connection and relationship too.
The stronger the conflict within a fearful avoidant the more trapped they feel. Most fearful avoidants feel confused as to why they feel the way they feel, frustrated that they can’t make a relationship work, ashamed because they feel they let you and let themselves down, inadequate because they feel something is wrong with them or that they’re not good enough and helpless to do anything.
A fearful avoidant may even truly love you and even want a relationship and a future with you but feel trapped in this reality of no solution. It’s like there’s no way out.
When they break-up with you, you’re genuinely surprised and confused. How can someone who was so into you just break up with you from what seems like out of nowhere and for no reason at all? Many of my clients say whey were completely blindsided by the break-up because just before the breaking up, things were a lot better than they’d been, and they felt that they had finally turned a corner.
Fearful avoidants sometimes don’t want to break up, but feel that they have to
Some fearful avoidants lean more avoidant – distant, more closed off, and even cold – just before they pull away or break up and others learn more anxious just before they break-up with you. They’re reaching out more, being more affectionate and wanting more intimacy, telling you how much they love you, planning dates or vacations and even introducing you to friends and family.
Leaning anxious just before they break-up with you happens a lot with fearful avoidants who feel that they had to break up rather than necessarily wanted to break up. After breaking up, fearful avoidants who felt that they didn’t want to break up but had to act like you’re not broken up. They still want the closeness, connection and even intimacy you had but they’re also afraid that things might get serious again and they’ll feel trapped and have to pull away. Others may even block you, cut off contact and act cold and distant because they think it’s not fair to you that they can’t decide if they want to stay close or stay away.
But a fearful avoidant ex may also want to break up if they strongly feel that you are the reason they have to break up. You do things that make them feel loved, valued, wanted and safe, but you also do things to make them feel unloved, unwanted, not good enough, rejected, abandoned and unsafe. You trigger their fear of abandonment which then makes them more afraid of getting close or of being in a relationship. You’ve become the the attachment figure “who made them feel loved and cared for but also frightened them, hurt them and made them feel unsafe.
I’ve worked with so many clients who could not understand why their fearful avoidant ex was showing all signs of wanting to get back together and some even gave a timeline in which they’d decide to come back, but everyone and then they have a question or concern or worry as to why the relationship wouldn’t work, or they were incompatible (wanted different things, had different personalities, different interests, outlook to life, political views, kids/no kids, ideas of how to raise children etc). Sometimes it’d that they needed to see more change or needed to do their own self-work.
It’s even obvious to mutual friends and families that “they’re meant to be together” but because of things that happened in the relationship, a fearful avoidant ex just can’t seem to be able to take that final step because they’re afraid the relationship won’t work.
A fearful avoidant ex can feel trapped in a reality of no solution
While you are not the cause cause of a fearful avoidant’s conflicted relationship with closeness, your words, actions and behaviours (or at least a fearful avoidant’s perception of them) can make a fearful avoidants fear of getting close and fear of abandonment worse.
Thinking that all you did was love a fearful avoidant and they got scared is not entirely accurate or helpful, especially if you’re trying to convince a fearful avoidant that it’s safe to get close to you. What it says to a fearful avoidant is that you don’t care or don’t know what makes them want to get close to you. Not taking any responsibility for how you might triggering their fear of getting close affects not just the way you approach getting back a fearful avoidant ex, but also your chances of getting them back. You end up triggering behaviours that complicate your ability to simultaneously navigate a fearful avoidant’s fear of getting too close and fear of abandonment.
So don’t just assume that you got too close and fearful avoidant pulled away or that they developed feelings and got scared. Whenever a client comes to me with “we got too close and they pulled away” or “they developed feelings and got scared” or “all you did was love them and they got scared of how your love or their feelings for you and ran”:
- I know they don’t understand a fearful avoidant attachment style,
- They’re in denial, struggling to understand what happened or know that it’s over and hanging to what makes them feel better about the situation or
- Need a reality check. Think about it, even if a fearful avoidant ex ends up reaching out, what do you have to offer them that will make them want to get close? More of the “love” that scared them away in them first place? Insist that you did nothing wrong and that they’re “the problem” because something is wrong with them or they’re not good enough? Give them space and make them feel like you’re not interested/feel rejected and abandoned? Tell them about attachment styles so they know just how “messed up” they are? Or perhaps, lecture them on how to be in a relationship or what they need to make you feel safe? Talk about expectations!
To improve your chances, identify which of your actions and behaviours may be perceived by a fearful avoidant as high-risk for getting too close. Did you move too fast, have too many expectations (for a fearful avoidant), become needy and clingy, push too hard and put too much pressure, pull back too much, walk away when you should have stayed, overstepped boundaries, become “too much” drama/emotional, complain a lot/never satisfied or happy by anything they did, made a fearful avoidant feel that you were disappointed in them, withhold affection because you were upset or as a bargain etc. the list is long.
Once you have figured out what might triggered their fear of getting close or fear of abandonment, try to be a partner who can provide satisfying and reassuring care and support when a fearful avoidant leans anxious or is hyperactivated, and when they lean avoidant or deactivate.
If you’re reading this and beating yourself up for all the mistakes you made that pushed a fearful avoidant ex away.
1. Don’t take a fearful avoidants fears personally even if a fearful avoidants questions your feelings for them or their feelings for you, remind yourself that you’re not the cause of their fears, and all you can do is be there for them in a safe and healthy way.
2. Don’t try to convince them that their fears are irrational or ridiculous, instead prove to a fearful avoidant in your actions that there’s nothing for them to be afraid of. They can get close to you, and you’ll not abandon them.
3. Don’t try to fix them. A fearful avoidant may be afraid of abandonment but that doesn’t mean that they’re afraid of losing you. If you need to set boundaries then do so. If they’re open to seeking professional help about their attachment style then encourage and support them but don’t try to fix them to meet your needs.
4. Last but not least, be prepared to leave if you think you can’t be with someone with a fearful avoidant attachment. Leaving them will likely trigger a fearful avoidant, but an unhappy, hurt, frustrated or resentful you can’t make a fearful avoidant feel safe or want to get close – or feel safe in a relationship with an avoidant.