Unlike attachment anxiety that often shows up very early in the relationship, people with conflicted/fearful attachment style start relationships as:
- Secure – openly express love over time, seeking closeness and spending time together, confident and relaxed, or
- Anxious – right away express undying love and commitment, call every day and all the time, feel slighted when the other person does not want to spend time together and generally act needy and clingy, or
- Avoidant – approach the relationship cautiously often playing hard-to-get and “make-them-miss-me” mind games.
As the relationship progresses, they start to verbally or through actions show fear that the relationship might not work. They constantly question:
- How they feel (i.e. I don’t feel how I am supposed to feel)
- The person they are with (i.e. I don’t think they love me as much as I love them, We’re compatible/want the same things)
- The relationship (i.e. We have too many problems, this relationship is too much work it shouldn’t be this hard)
If they learn towards attachment anxiety, they become more needy and clingy. If they lean towards attachment avoidance, they escalate playing hard-to-get and “make-them-miss-me” mind games. Most of the time, they swing from needy and clingy (pull) to indifferent and distant (push).
Most people conclude that someone is acting indifferent and distant because they want space, want to be left alone, or stopped loving them. Others get tired of the “drama” or conclude that the conflicted/fearful avoidant is ‘too much work” and the relationship is too difficult, too complicated, too stressful, too painful and/or toxic.
But quite often that is not what is going on and is explained by their conflicted/fearful mixed messages. For example:
- They say they want “no-contact” then a few days later or even the very next day initiate contact. Why? Because they know that you will grow apart and they don’t want that.
- They say they don’t love you anymore but don’t want you seeing other people. Why? Because they still love you but fear that you may not love them back as much and so they reject you before you reject them.
Their attachment style programs them to believe that the people they want to be with will not want to be with them.
Some of their fears are unfounded but most of the time they have good reasons to think “I want them but what if they don’t want me.”
Almost everyone has an insecurity or insecurities that they try to hide from others. These insecurities range from a negative self-image to financial insecurities, from a dysfunctional family background to a feeling that you have not lived up to your potential or fallen short compared to your peers. The difference is that a fearful attachment style exaggerates insecurities.
I have worked with fearful avoidants who tell me, “My ex is so beautiful, she could get anyone she wants” and when I tell them, “but they chose you”, they respond, “I don’t think she’s coming back” or “There is this guy who is…: (and the go on the describe the other guy in terms of everything they are not.”
Another client might be insecure about her “drama” and tells me “My ex is a great catch. Women are always throwing themselves at him and I messed up”. When I say, “He loved you once, he can love you again”, they are like “I really messed up. He probably thinks I am damaged”.
We go back and forth for a while and sometimes I am able to (temporarily) calm their fears by telling them why their ex can want them again.
The fear of someone not wanting them makes fearful avoidants play “make-them-miss-me” mind games. They reach out then pull back to see if their ex will come after them, then reach out again, or post things on social media that they think will make their ex jealous (think someone else wants them) and show interest.
But while these mind games lessen the risk of them getting rejected and/or hurt, the wanting to get close and acting indifferent and distant the next makes the relationship feel “unsafe”.
For example, an ex will be afraid to reach out because they don’t know if they will get a response, and if they do, they don’t know if it will be warm and positive or cold and distant. The conflicted/fearful avoidant on the other hand is hoping that their ex reaches out but is too afraid to reach out because they think their ex does not want to hear from them or they will be seen as needy.
The more inconsistent and mixed the messages are, the more unsafe the relationship feels for the person who loves and even wants to be with conflicted/fearful avoidant.