What is the relationship between Fearful-avoidant attachment and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)?

In this blog, we will be discussing Fearful-avoidant attachment and Borderline Personality Disorder and also cover various attachment styles, what is BPD, the link between the attachment style and borderline personality disorder, and also explore what research says about this. 

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What is the relationship between Fearful-avoidant attachment and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)?

There is a link between Fearful-avoidant attachment and Borderline Personality Disorder and it clearly depicts how deep-rooted is the connection between attachment styles and personality disorders.

Fearful-avoidant attachment style can often lead to the development of borderline personality disorder as people with this attachment style struggle with their relationships as they crave intimacy but also end up avoiding it. There is a similar fluctuation in people with BPD as they have severe mood swings and one minute love someone beyond limits but dislike them too at the next moment.  

There are various similarities and overlappings of traits that are depicted in a fearful-avoidant attachment style and borderline personality disorder. We will explore it in a detailed manner in the later sections, but before we delve into that matter, we need to have a better understanding of what are attachment styles, different types of attachment styles, etc.

What are Attachment Styles?

Attachment refers to the way in which two people develop a healthy, emotional relationship with other people & the sense of security in the presence of the attachment figure. The process of attachment begins with parent & child, as the parent is supposed to respond to the child’s needs, thereby creating a sense of comfort & security for them to be able to explore the world. 

Apart from that, the child can easily come back to the parent, in case of distress. This was a phenomenon studied & theorized by the likes of Mary Ainsworth, with the infamous Strange Situation experiment. The experiment involved the parent leaving their infant in a room while leaving & how they react when the parents come back to be with the kids again. This led to a classification in terms of various patterns/styles of attachment:

  • Secure attachment

This type of attachment develops when the parent actively responds to the child’s emotional needs. When this occurs, the infant believes they’re worthy of love & easily mingle with their peers. This is the single ideal form of attachment.

  • Preoccupied/anxious attachment

This type of attachment develops when the parent attends to the child’s needs sometimes & sometimes they don’t. This results in the lack of an attachment figure & the child becoming irritated & clingy.  As the person grows further, they feel unworthy of love. Therefore, they seek validation from others.

  • Avoidant/dismissive attachment 

In this type of attachment, the child thinks it is better that they do not express themselves & rather resolve their issues on their own. The person grows up to have their own sense of self-worth & makes them avoid other people. As children, the parents aren’t able to fend for the child’s needs.

  • Fearful avoidant attachment

This attachment style is seen to develop where the parent is aggressive or ridicules the child, due to their own unhealed traumas and the child chooses to distance themselves from the parent and behaves aggressively towards them. 

As adults, they are not able to form a meaningful relationship with others, fluctuating between distrust & craving for intimacy at the same time.

What is Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)? 

According to the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual, 5th edition (DSM-5), borderline personality disorder consists of a pervasive pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image & impulsivity beginning from early adulthood. Following are some of the symptoms of BPD:

●  Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment. This develops an intolerance of being alone & needing to be with other people around them.

●  A pattern of unstable & intense interpersonal relationships as they hold dramatically opposite views of others- either as beneficent supports or cruel punitive.

●  Persistently unstable sense of image & self. There may be sudden changes in opinions & plans about career, sexuality, values & types of friends.

●  Affective instability is caused by marked instability in mood (e.g. irritability or anxiety lasting a few hours & rarely more than a few days.

●  Chronic feelings of emptiness.

●  Intense anger, difficulty controlling their anger, temper tantrums, physical fights, etc. 

The point to highlight these symptoms was that fearful-avoidant attachment styles & borderline personality disorder have basic similarities in terms of inability to form a healthy relationship with others & erratic behavior patterns as a result of unhealthy interactions in the formative years of life. Let’s see if there’s scientific evidence that shows the link between the two.

Fearful avoidant attachment style in interpersonal relationships

Fearful avoidant attachment style is quite a rare type of attachment style and that is why there is not enough awareness and discussions about this type of attachment. 

This type of attachment is a behavioral pattern in which a person has higher levels of anxiety and also a higher tendency of avoiding. The person with a fearful-avoidant attachment style would crave emotional connection but also feel scared of getting too close to another person. It is known to be a combination of avoidant attachment style and anxious attachment style. 

Signs and behaviors related to fearful-avoidant attachment style:

  • Fear of getting too close to others
  • Commitment issues
  • Higher anxiety
  • Low self-esteem and negative self-image
  • Difficulty in emotional regulations
  • Unsatisfaction with relationships
  • Craving intimate relationships 

People who have a fearful-avoidant attachment style often have struggles in their interpersonal relationships. This is due to their own issues and problems that is clearly depicted in their relationships. 

Fearful-avoidant attachment style can make a person seek close and intimate relationships but also push the other person away and avoid the intimacy and getting too close. This often comes off as mixed signals to the person they are in a relationship with or seeking a relationship with in the future. 

People with this type of attachment prefer causal sex, shut off communication swiftly, show unpredictable tendencies, and all this affects the relationships.

Relationship between Attachment Styles & Borderline Personality Disorder

A number of studies have studied the relationship between attachment styles and borderline personality disorder and some of them are discussed here.

Smith & South (2020) stated that theoretically, avoidant attachment style & Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) are consistent enough but neither anxious nor avoidant attachment can fully explain the etiology of BPD. 

Additionally, their meta-analysis of relevant literature suggested that factors like age, gender, sample type, relationship status & whether the participants are from the U.S., played a role in determining whether there’s an association between romantic relationships & BPD. 

Various parameters like the measurement scales used to study the effects could also influence the association.

After this, they correlated anxious attachment & avoidant attachment style separately to determine the association between borderline personality disorder. It was found that anxious attachment style has more correlation with the disorder than avoidant attachment style. 

Ultimately, they suggested that BPD may not be caused due to the attachment style with which the child is brought up. This can be also due to the developmental factors playing a role in maintaining the disorder, which continues as extreme emotional reactions in romantic relationships. 

HR Agrawal, J. Gunderson, BM. Holmes & K. Lyons-Ruth (2004) did a critical analysis of 13 studies regarding attachment styles & BPD. The types of attachment characteristics that are prevalent in those with BPD are unresolved, preoccupied & fearful attachment styles & the individuals crave intimacy but equally crave dependency & rejection. 

The severity & prevalence of the insecure attachment style in the adults in the study, support the role of disturbed interpersonal relationships in the development of BPD. The research also highlighted that there might be a role of biogenetics in terms of pathological behavior, but interpersonal relationships also act as a risk factor towards developing BPD pathogenesis.

Jacob White (2016) conducted a study to understand the patterns of attachment & trust in 30 women diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder. 

While the study established a negative correlation between avoidance & tendency to trust i.e. increase in avoidance will decrease the ability to trust & vice versa. The study also reported the role of insecure attachment amongst 93% of the participants in the study.

Fearful-avoidant attachment style and Borderline Personality Disorder

We now have an idea about fearful-avoidant attachment style and it is clear that there is an ambivalence to their feelings and behaviors that make it difficult for them to maintain their interpersonal relationships. 

This is similar to what happens when a person has BPD as they also have erratic moods swings and might be head over heels in love with a person and hate them the very next moment. 

Various research works have shown there is a correlation between fearful-avoidant attachment style and borderline personality disorder as there is a high similarity among the behavioral patterns and signs of BPD and fearful-avoidant attachment style.

This can be due to the trauma that they might have been through during their childhood as this type of attachment style develops when they noticed that their parents or at least one of their parents show erratic behavior that frightens the child, it can be anything including stress, anxiety, angry outbursts, or any subtle behaviors that made the child avoid them and stay alert but since they love their parent, it is always an oscillation between avoidance of intimacy and seeking close relationships. 

Conclusion

We discussed various aspects of attachment styles, personality disorders, what borderline personality disorder is, the relationship between fearful-avoidant attachment and borderline personality disorder, and how attachment styles impact a person’s personality.

Frequently Asked Questions: What is the relationship between Fearful-avoidant attachment and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)?

Are borderlines fearful-avoidant?

A number of studies have studied the relationship between BPD and self-reported attachment styles and it was found that there is a significant correlation between the traits of BPD and fearful-avoidant attachment style. 

What attachment style is associated with BPD?

People with BPD are more insecure and erratic in their mood and behaviors and it is mostly associated with unhealthy and insecure types of attachment like fearful-avoidant attachment style.

Do borderlines have an avoidant attachment?

A combination of avoidant attachment and anxious-ambivalent attachment is mostly seen in people who have BPD during their adulthood. 

Do people with borderline personality disorder have attachment issues?

In a study, it was found that almost 90% of people with BPD showed signs of insecure attachment when assessed on an attachment style inventory. This can be corroborated by examining the close association that can be seen in people with BPD and signs of fearful-avoidant attachment style. 

What is fearful-avoidant attachment?

Fearful-avoidant attachment is a type of attachment style that comes under the insecure type of attachment. People with fearful-avoidant attachment show an ambivalence where they seek deep connections but also don’t want to let anyone get too close to them. 

What is high functioning BPD?

People with high functioning BPD experience negative emotions, mood swings, anger, guilt, shame, feelings of intense emotions but they are able to manage them and try not to come off as unstable and dysfunctional to people around them.

References

Agrawal, H.R, Gunderson, J., Holmes B.M, & Lyons-Ruth. K (2004), Attachment Studies with Borderline Patients. Harv Rev Psychiatry, 12(2), pp. 94-104. doi: 10.1080/10673220490447218

Smith, M., & South, S. (2020). Romantic attachment style and borderline personality pathology: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 75. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2019.101781

https://www.karger.com/Article/Pdf/84813
https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/fearful-avoidant-attachment

White, J,M (2016).Attachment Styles and Trust Propensity in Females with Borderline Personality Disorder (2016) Theses and Dissertations. 1816. http://scholarworks.uark.edu/etd/1816s

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