What is fearful-avoidant attachment in borderline personality?

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Page last updated: 21/09/2022

In this article, we will have an in-depth look at the fearful-avoidant attachment in borderline personality. We will also look at three primary attachment styles associated with borderline personality. This information will help you understand the personality disorder better.

What is the fearful-avoidant attachment in borderline personality?

The fearful-avoidant attachment is one of the four attachment styles (how we respond emotionally to others) proposed by John Bowlby. In fearful-avoidant attachment, subjects have negative views of others and consider them emotionally unreliable. They, therefore, have to rely on themselves.

This phenomenon happens because primary caregivers did not respond or outright rejected their needs. Pain and other uncomfortable emotions are kept to self, internalised and rationalised instead of being shared with others for fear of others becoming unresponsive to their needs.

Understanding the attachment styles

Attachment disorders are conditions that explain why children have difficulties in emotional attachments with others. The difficulties include being overly attached or lacking emotional connections with others. These disorders cause difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships in adulthood.

The attachment theory by John Bowlby explains how people form bonds and intimate relationships. He developed the theory by studying children and wanted to understand why children cry when separated from their mothers. His research was further used in understanding attachment in adults.

Different attachment styles were developed and they explain how people form bonds and relationships with others. There are two major categories of attachment styles and they include secure and insecure attachment styles.

Secure attachments are developed by children whose needs were met right away by their parents. As adults, people with secure attachments have strong close relationships and trust that the other person will be there for them in times of need.

Those with insecure attachments had absent caregivers or the caregivers never met their needs. They, therefore, grow up mistrusting others and having difficulties in forming close bonds and relationships. The sub-categories of insecure attachments include:

 Anxious-preoccupied attachment style

This type of attachment is characterised by a negative view of oneself. Feelings of unworthiness are predominant. This is because of a parenting style that was inconsistent in emotional response and availability. At times, your parents were nurturing. 

At other times, they were cold, cruel, or detached, as their mood dictated. The inconsistency in emotional response created a hype-vigilant state where you had to be on the lookout for mood changes, thus causing anxiety. The characteristics include; 

  • Spending too much time thinking about your relationship
  • Increased need to feel wanted
  • Idealizing romantic partners
  • Experience jealousy
  • Require constant assurance that people care about you
What is fearful-avoidant attachment in borderline personality?

Dismissive-avoidant attachment

Avoidant attachment is characterised by a negative view of others and considers them emotionally unreliable. They, therefore, have to rely on themselves. This phenomenon happens because primary caregivers did not respond or outright rejected their needs.

Pain and other uncomfortable emotions are kept to self, internalised and rationalised instead of being shared with others for fear of others becoming unresponsive to their needs. The characteristics are;

  • Fell like forming close bonds will make you less independent
  • You hardly rely on those close to you
  • Feel like close bonds and relationships are not worth it
  • You prefer being alone

Fearful-avoidant attachment

This type of attachment is characterised by prolonged exposure to abuse and or neglect. Inner conflict is caused by the abuse and the person copes with the turmoil through splitting (division or polarization of beliefs, actions, objects, or persons into good and bad by focusing selectively on their positive or negative attributes. (psychology today)) and dissociation. 

This results in chaotic and unpredictable relationships with others. The characteristics include:

  • You want to develop intimate relationships but get afraid that your partner will hurt or leave you
  • Have conflicting feelings about relationships and intimacy
  • Feel like you are not good enough for someone
  • Try to avoid your feelings or relationships by pushing people away
  • Your relationships are filled with ups and lows

Understanding borderline personality disorder

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a mental disorder that affects how you feel about yourself and other people and can cause problems in carrying out normal day-to-day activities. People with BPD have a negative self-image, find it difficult to control emotions, and have a series of unstable relationships.

People with BPD dislike being alone and have an extreme fear of abandonment. However, their negative traits of irritability, mood swings and impulsiveness tend to push people away, including those who love and want to have a meaningful relationship with them. 

The symptoms of BPD start in early adulthood and seem to worsen in young adulthood, however, the symptoms tend to improve with age and one can function normally with BPD.

What is the relationship between fearful-avoidant attachment style and borderline personality disorder

If a child is brought up by a parent who is able to mirror their emotions and is loving and nurturing, the child feels safe and develops trust in those around him/her. The child grows up knowing that the world is a safe place and that people will have their back when they are in trouble.

However, if the message passed was that the world was unsafe, or caregivers were absent and not attuned to one’s needs and feelings, the child grows up being insecure, constantly needs reassurance and wants to end everything when conflicts arise. Most people with borderline personality disorder have a fearful-avoidant attachment style.

Most experienced trauma, abuse or neglect from childhood and most of this hurt was caused by their primary caregivers. This made them develop negative coping mechanisms, like dissociation and splitting. They relate to others in unpredictable ways and can be chaotic. This can also lead to a vicious cycle of abuse in relationships.

People with fearful-avoidant attachment style and those with borderline personality disorder share some symptoms like;

  • Insecure about themselves and relationships
  • Variations in moods
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Alternating between idealizing and devaluing others

Just like people with BPD, it is difficult to reassure a partner with a fearful-avoidant attachment that you are there for them. If at any time they feel like you are not there for them, they might retaliate with either wrath or clinginess to regain your affection and attention.

Research by Madison Smith from Purdue University and Susan South (2020) shows that BPD criteria are frequently described when discussing insecure attachment. The research goes ahead to explain how the most consistent impairment among people with BPD is dysfunctional romantic relationships, which is also common in those with the fearful-avoidant attachment style.

The research further elaborates that the fearful attachment style can be related to the tendency of people with BPD traits to want close bonds and relationships but are reluctant to do so. They, therefore, suggest that BPD should be seen as a developmental process that should start by examining the early stages of a person’s development and attachment style.

It is extremely common for people with a fearful-avoidant style to withdraw and end a relationship because of fear of abandonment and rejection. This behavioural reaction can be traced from childhood and people tend to carry these patterns throughout their lives.

Although parents are responsible for laying the foundation as children, we can make informed decisions as adults to change our behaviours. It is important to understand the attachment styles developed in childhood and how they are shaping our behaviours and responses as adults. This can help us improve our relationships and the awareness can help us move to more securely attached relationships.

How to deal with fearful avoidant attachment in BPD

As discussed earlier, it is possible to adjust attachment styles as adults by making informed decisions and choices. So take a deep breath and remember that everything can get back t track. By making a conscious intention to change and through practice, you can form secure attachments with people you love.

The following tips can help you get back on track;

Be honest with your partners

If your plan is to form a life-long connection with someone, it is important to let them know what you are struggling with and what you want from the relationship. Be honest with your attachment style and what it means. You want to find a partner who will accept your attachment style, who you are and who will help you work on solutions to overcome your struggles.

Go for therapy

Therapy plays a big role in healing the insecure attachment and stopping it from affecting your adult life. Emotionally focused couple therapy is crucial for couples struggling with attachment issues and BPD.

Practice self-compassion

Actively work on getting rid of the toxic mindset that you are not good enough and that people will leave you. Margaret Paul, PhD once said, “there is no one who can heal your attachment issues… true healing occurs when you become the loving parent that you never had for yourself. In what ways did your childhood hurt you? How can you give yourself the security, support, and validation you never had?”

Treatment for BPD

Medication

There is no medication for BPD but medication can be given for the symptoms that manifest, i.e. antipsychotics, antidepressants and anxiolytics

Therapy

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy will help you respond to emotional situations with positive coping mechanisms and with reason and proper judgment. This will reduce seeing things in black and white (polarizing).

Hospitalization

This is necessary if you are experiencing extreme symptoms like suicidal thoughts and attempts, or hallucinations and delusions that are affecting your daily functioning and relationship with others.

Conclusion

In this article, we have learnt about fearful-avoidant attachment in borderline personality disorder. We have also looked at other types of attachment styles and what BPD is. We have discussed the relationship between BPD and fearful-avoidant attachment and how to deal with it.

Finally, we have provided you with treatment options that we believe are suitable for borderline personality disorder. We hope this information was insightful.

If you have any questions or comments, please let us know in the comment section.

Frequently Asked Questions: Fearful avoidant attachment borderline personality disorder

What attachment style is associated with BPD?

Research shows that at least 92% of BPD patients exhibit insecure attachment styles, especially disorganised attachment.

Do fearful avoidants get attached?

No. people with fearful-avoidant attachment seek ‌relationships but avoid commitment as soon as things get serious.

Do people with fearful avoidant attachment fall in love?

Yes, someone who has a fearful-avoidant attachment style can still fall in love.

Citations

Healthline, How Attachment Disorders Impact Your Relationships. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/attachment-disorder-in-adults

The attachment project, (July 2, 2020). Attachment Styles & Their Role in Relationships. Retrieved from https://www.attachmentproject.com/blog/four-attachment-styles/#:~:text=There%20are%20four%20adult%20attachment,Secure

Lo, I. (July 2, 2021). Attachment Styles and Borderline Personality Disorder. Psychologytoday. Retrieved from: Attachment Styles and Borderline Personality Disorder | Psychology Today 

Burton, N. (May 4, 2020). Self-Deception II: Splitting. Psychologytoday. Retrieved from: Self-Deception II: Splitting | Psychology Today