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  • Heather B MacIntosh PhD

Attachment Theory 101 Lessons from the Farmyard, Instalment Four

Maestro the Standardbred Racehorse—Fearful Avoidant





Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style


I think it was Mark Twain who once quipped, if you need to eat two frogs, eat the biggest one first. This is sage advice and a strategy I usually employ when facing a challenging task. However, in the case of our journey through the farmyard exploring the nature of adult attachment, I’m afraid I have saved the hardest for last. Beginning with Security allowed us to wade into the deep waters of how our developmental experiences shape us in our approach to human relationships with some gentleness. Developmental experiences marked by loving, consistent, reliable caregivers who make efforts to connect, understand, and repair when there is misattunement or injury, are easy to take into our bones and get inside of. Developmental experiences full of confusion, terror, and inconsistency where caregivers are wrapped up in their own traumas or challenges, who do not find ways to be connected and understanding, and who fail at attempts to repair when things go wrong, are harder to hold inside of ourselves.


In this blog we are going to explore the Fearful Avoidant attachment style, the style of relating most closely connected to a history of trauma during development. This strategy for connecting with others is most aligned with having experienced devastation and destruction at crucial points in interpersonal development; in short, this is the attachment style where we cannot avoid facing the horrors that humans can inflict on other humans, even children.


It is said that the Disorganized Child becomes the Fearful Avoidant adult. In other words, the attachment style of childhood that is also most associated with trauma, the Disorganized Attachment style, tends to remain stable throughout childhood and evolve into the Fearful Avoidant attachment style in adulthood. Videos of Disorganized children show tiny humans in the terrifying dilemma of needing a caregiver who may be confusing, frightening, dangerous and traumatizing, so, these little people walk backwards towards their caregivers—literally, walking towards their caregivers but, with their backs turned to face the caregiver. It is heartbreaking and shows, so poignantly, that we are hard wired to seek connection even if the only connection available to us is dangerous to our very beings.


Similar to the other styles of attachment, the Fearful Avoidant strategy for connecting with others arises through the internal working models of self and other that are developed through experiences with early caregivers. Sadly, for the Fearful Avoidantly attached, those models of self and other are consistently negative. Not only does the person with this strategy of relating embrace an extremely negative view of themselves as not worthy of love and care, they also endorse a negative view of others as being terrifying, dangerous, and not likely to be there for them when they need them. However, while the Fearful Avoidant style falls into the negative self and negative other area of the four factor model of adult attachment, it is very much disorganized and, in some ways, an easier way of thinking about it is that the Fearful Avoidantly attached person will fluctuate, sometimes wildly and rapidly, between a Preoccupied approach to their relationships and an Avoidant approach to connecting. I like to call this the approach-avoid tango—back and forth we go in the tango—come here—go away—come here—go away—nooooo, don’t go away!, each incline on the preoccupied attachment roller coaster doomed to rapidly slide downwards into the trough of the depths of disconnection, numbing, dissociation--avoidance. As you can imagine, those who experience Fearful Avoidance in their attachment systems can feel overwhelmed, confused, frightened, desperate, tormented, and in chaos. Sadly, those with the Fearful Avoidant attachment style often end up in relationships that are characterized by controlling and abusive behaviour by partners—not only does this match their internal expectations of how relationships are, it also reinforces the internal working models that say—I am bad and, others are dangerous. Unfortunately, like so many aspects of how our minds work, evolution primes us to notice things that match our expectations, especially if those things are dangerous and our survival relies upon us noticing threats.




Maestro the Standardbred—Fearful Avoidance in the Near Death Experience of Riding a Traumatized Horse


Our farmyard exploration of the Fearful Avoidant Attachment Style takes us back twenty years to a horse, Maestro, now long gone. My first experience owning a horse, a lifelong dream and passion, was a life changing experience and the source of my staunch position that I will love and embrace all manner of traumatized animals and humans but, I won’t be hopping up to ride any traumatized horses. I'll spare you the details but suffice to say, I'm not an acrobat and flying through the air was not good for my overall health and wellbeing.


What I didn't really understand then, before I spent 20 years studying trauma and relationships, is that trauma changes us, changes our brains, our nervous systems, changes our ability to feel safe and secure. Trauma changes our essential relationship to our inner and outer worlds often placing us in rigid states of fight, flight, freeze that lie in wait for any evidence, internal or external, that the danger we feel in the core of our being is justified. That horse, Maestro, a big, black, off the racetrack Standardbred horse, had been traumatized. He had probably been abused and treated cruelly in his former life as a racehorse and his only value was his speed. I will never know the details of his traumas although I had been told that he had been involved in an accident with a trailer at the track. By the time he became the gorgeous fruition of my lifelong dream he was about nine years old and was the epitome of terrified. However, as I didn’t fully understand the fight flight freeze phenomenon and I didn’t yet really understand horses and their ways of telling us important things about themselves and their state, I hadn’t registered that he spent most of his time in a state of freeze—he was quiet and somewhat disconnected but, he was easily and suddenly swept up into his hardwired, prey animal, flight state.




When I look at these pictures now, so many years, and study, and, therapy (!) later, I see the bracing in his body, his ears poised for any sign of danger, his feet planted akimbo and legs braced. At the time all I saw was the big, beautiful horse I was in love with.


And so, on a lovely fall day I went to ride Maestro, on my own, with my two young children in tow, off playing in a fort on the property. As we transitioned from a walk to a trot, there was an imperceptible sound off in the bushes and Maestro dropped to his knees, like an elevator with a cut cable, and then he shot up in the air like a rocket. I was unseated by his drop and then flown into the air as he rose up, tearing his bridle and reins into shreds. He was off and did not return. As one of my sons, only eight at the time, went to call an ambulance for his now incapacitated mother, a neighbour caught Maestro flying down the road as though his life depended on keeping going until he was as far away as possible. His response to a potential threat—a tiny one, at that—was, GET AWAY. He did not have the capacity to think-- he was simply reacting, as a traumatized prey animal would—straight into flight—abject avoidance of the terror and disconnection of regulation. He just had to get away and it didn’t matter that the person who cared for him and paid for his food and lodgings had been on top of him at the time. In yee aulde fight, flight, and flee, he was a flighter and I became a flyer.




And you might say—so that’s the Avoidance part—what about the Preoccupied part? Good question. Well, after this traumatic event I ended up in a wheelchair for a few months, and then onto crutches while awaiting the first in a series of three surgeries. During this time, I could not drive and so neither could I go to visit Maestro as he was boarded about an hour from my home at the time, Ottawa. However, about two weeks after the accident I received a call from the owner of the farm where Maestro lived—you know, before cell phones and text messages and Facebook Messenger, we just picked up the phone and dialed a land line--. She told me that I would have to call a vet for Maestro and I would need to find a way to get there. Maestro had lain down in his stall after the accident and had not gotten back up. He hadn’t been eating, wasn’t responsive, and seemed extremely distressed. Maestro was in a state of preoccupation and had collapsed. All of the stress of the traumatic flight response was followed by a flop into a frozen fright response. My partner packed me and my wheelchair into the car and off we went to the farm where I was pushed down the rocky hill from the driveway to the barn. I wheeled myself into the barn, stopped myself at the door of Maestro’s stall, opened the door, looked him in the eyes and called to him. He looked at me, lifted his head, settled his gaze on my face and I told him it was okay, I understood, and that I forgave him. He stood up, came to me, nuzzled me in my wheelchair and our reconnection appeared to be all that was required for him to return to the land of the living. He did not lie down again and the vet wasn’t needed. I never rode him again.


As you can imagine, this event was traumatic for both of us. It was twenty years before I was able to start riding again and found my beloved Trissa, my Securely attached steed. Trissa, who helped me heal that trauma and return to the saddle and find the joy and delight in sharing the experience of exploring nature and many hours of silent and singing times of wandering aimlessly through wooded vales and grassy knolls.




And so, my friends, we have come to the end of our four factor story. From Secure to Preoccupied, Dismissing to Fearful Avoidant, we have wandered the farmyard and found the stories of connection, and disconnection, to help us make sense of one story of how we connect, how our developmental experiences affect our ways of living and loving, and how the stories of our earliest experiences continue to be told in our relationships through life. The last blog in this series will discuss what all of this means! How does understanding more about our attachment styles help us, what kinds of relationships tend to arise out of the internal working models of self and other in these four constellations and what are the limitations of this way of thinking about relationships, including the rather western individualist way of thinking about relationships. And...well...we will also talk about whether and how these styles can change over time as we strive towards that coveted Earned Security with someone safe, close, and reliable. Stay tuned!

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