Author: Sarah Meyer
When we think of a person with an avoidant attachment style, we think about the proverbial bachelor or bachelorette, who is in no hurry to “settle down”, doesn’t really know what he or she wants, and tends to live a life characterized by sensation-seeking and risk-taking.
The popular profile of a person with avoidant attachment is someone who values independence and variety at the expense of emotional intimacy.
As with many cultural tropes, there is some truth to this.
Some studies have shown that people with an avoidant attachment style are more likely to be either single or divorced than people with a secure attachment style, more likely to engage in sexually risky behaviour as adolescents, and more likely to take risks in general when experiencing high levels of negative emotion.
At its core, though, avoidant attachment is about trust. Let’s think back for a moment to the Strange Situation experiment, where infants were brought into a playroom that they had never seen before to play with some new toys.
I have written about this in more detail here, but the experiment basically goes like this:
15-month old infants were brought into the playroom by their mothers, they played with both her and a researcher present for a little while, and then the infants were left there with the researcher for a few minutes while their mother went briefly into another room.
Researchers observed the infants’ behavior when the mother left, and when she later returned.
The infants who were classified as having an avoidant attachment style were different from the other infants in the following key ways:
These differences are important, because they suggest a fundamental breakdown in the mother-infant dyad that has been so pivotal to human evolution.
Instead of seeking comfort and reassurance from the mother in the novel environment, infants with an avoidant attachment style were passive and superficially disinterested, as if they did not expect their mother to respond to them.
They seemed calm on the surface, but when physiological measurements were performed, they showed that these infants were experiencing very high levels of distress and strain when separated from their mothers.
This distress was present across the systems that help regulate the body- including heart rate, body temperature, and various digestive and nervous system functions.
An avoidant attachment style (also known as dismissive avoidant attachment) is thought to form when a baby experiences neglectful or emotionally unavailable parenting.
Parents of children with an avoidant attachment style may be more likely to:
In response, the avoidantly attached child learns to shut down their natural urge to seek help from a parent when scared or hurt.
They may do this not only to avoid punishment or frightening behavior from the parent, but also to avoid being physically abandoned by them in the moment.
Both in childhood and later as adults, children identified as having an avoidant attachment style tend to suppress and disconnect from their physical needs.
They may not always notice when their body signals that they are hungry, thirsty, or tired etc., and may find it difficult to accept that they have psychological needs as well, such as the need for emotional intimacy, trust, and belonging.
In adulthood, avoidant attachment can present a significant barrier to forming close, stable romantic relationships.
This could be because the avoidantly attached individual may not be aware of (or comfortable with) their need for intimacy, but also because they may not be able to offer much emotional connection to their partner even when they do try.
The first sign of avoidant attachment is that you may tend to stay out of long-term, committed relationships.
Your friends might all have had boyfriends and girlfriends in high school, but perhaps you were the one that kept to yourself, or preferred short-term, casual partners.
Perhaps quite a few of the people around you showed an interest in connecting with you emotionally (rather than just sexually), but you kept them at arms’ length and didn’t reciprocate, even though you may have wanted to.
Then, as you moved on to college/university or into the workplace, you focused on your education or your career and getting that established, figuring that romance would come later.
You just didn’t really feel a connection with anyone around you- and you found lots of reasons to disqualify potential partners.
For example, he doesn’t like dogs, she likes Ted Burton movies, his family is too conservative.
More importantly, you didn’t open up to anyone and truly allow them to get to know you and see you lose your shit the first time you got to see your favorite band live, or know how devastated you were when you didn’t get that job you wanted.
Alternatively, maybe you did have that one relationship. But it was with someone you never really felt attracted to, never felt excited to get to know.
You picked a relationship partner who was predictable, safe, and introverted, who wouldn’t ask you for too much, but would protect you from the endless questions about when you were going to settle down and find someone.
Essentially, you used this person for security and to keep yourself out of the spotlight. But, perhaps just as avoidant themselves, your partner never showed up in a way that actually made you feel vulnerable and invested.
So you fooled yourself into thinking you had an emotional connection, when in fact, you did not.
That particular story is almost exactly what I did myself once, after a bad break up.
If you have an avoidant attachment style, it may be more difficult for you to understand and process emotions. (The same is true of people with a disorganized attachment style or fearful avoidant attachment style).
This is because, as I have said before, we learn how to regulate our emotions through our secure attachment to our mother or primary caregiver.
If your parents tended to discount emotions, telling you that you should “just get over it” or “stop making a fuss about nothing”, they were essentially leaving you to learn to regulate by yourself.
As a consequence, you never learned what to do with emotions, since your parents didn’t help you you develop those regulation skills over time.
And this might mean that instead of accepting your emotions, you approach them as if they have a kind of on-or-off switch:
“Either I get super overwhelmed by this and fall apart, or I shut the whole thing down.”
Unsurprisingly, this binary approach to dealing with emotions would most likely lead to a preference for the less costly shutting down response.
But doing this every day still takes quite a lot of resources from you.
Over time, you become invested in this pattern of response, and identified with it.
“I don’t get carried away by emotions,” you might think. Or…
“I am calm and rational.”
You may feel that emotions are a liability or an extravagance that you cannot afford. So, when other people around you express normal human vulnerabilities such as disappointment, failure, and attachment - you may recoil.
You may resent their self-indulgence, or you may just feel uncomfortable or even disgusted.
In addition, the emotions of other people will dysregulate your own emotions.
This is because as social beings, we automatically empathize with the emotions of people around us, which activates mirror neurons in our brains.
When someone around us is upset, we feel a little upset too.
If dealing with emotions is already very costly for you, because you tend to either become overwhelmed or have to actively suppress them, this will mean that you have to do a lot just to work through your empathic response.
Again, this could show up as a defensive feeling of judgment, discomfort, or disgust.
You might prefer to keep your distance from others as a way of managing these kinds of unpredictable situations.
One conclusion that you might come to if you reject or criticize other people for having emotions, is that other people are just too needy.
If you have an avoidant attachment style, you might be used to handling things on your own, ignoring difficult emotions and working hard to stay in control.
You believe that you are capable on your own, but you have less faith in other people, and prefer not to reach out for help. Because this is how you learned to stay safe and avoid pain and disappointment as a child, you subconsciously believe that others should do the same.
Securely attached people, by contrast, have greater optimism that other people will:
This may reflect their own willingness to help others in times of need, or the general responsiveness of their primary caregiver(s) or partners earlier in life.
If you have an avoidant attachment style, you may feel this difference as neediness or even weakness.
You may feel annoyed by others’ “lack of independence” or “incompetence”, and find yourself very burdened by emotional demands on you.
In relationships, you might withdraw when you feel your partner wants something from you, or when they exhibit vulnerability.
You might feel overwhelmed or disturbed by their need for close connection, and you may pull away from the relationship when your partner is upset, waiting until your partner has calmed down before you come back to them.
This could also look like a preference for engaging in fun activities with your partner over exchanges that foster emotional intimacy, such as:
Because you are used to numbing your own emotions, the emotional needs of your partner can easily feel like too much.
If you have an avoidant attachment style, you may find commitment frightening.
This might be because you feel anxious about your ability to sustain a relationship, worrying that you will make a lot of mistakes and disappoint your partner.
Because it is hard for you to process and work with emotions, you may feel that there is something deeply wrong with you - and that your inadequacy in this area will be exposed if you get too close to someone.
You are therefore afraid of the obligations that come with labeling a relationship, worrying that you will not be able to handle the responsibility of taking care of someone else.
You may also feel afraid because you are used to ignoring and shutting down your own needs.
This tendency might mean that you need extra time and space to notice your own needs and to feel where you are at.
Committing to a partner might feel to you like you will have even less opportunity to take care of yourself, something that you are already struggling with due to poor self-awareness.
Your partner’s demands might feel very loud or pressing to you, and threaten to drown out your own elusive internal cues - so the thought of being obligated to support them may seem like more than you can handle.
Because people with an avoidant attachment style like to feel in control, they may initially show a lot of interest in a new relationship.
This is particularly true before genuine feelings start to form, because at this stage the relationship offers a lot of novelty, sexual satisfaction, and fun.
At this stage of getting to know someone, things can generally feel quite safe and easy, as there may be low expectations and emotions may be mostly positive.
It is also likely that a relationship in its early stages seems closer to the ideal - and may not threaten the avoidantly attached individual with the potential for distress, disappointment or abandonment.
After an emotional attachment begins to form, however, a person with an avoidant attachment style may experience sudden panic or shut down.
This might show up (again) as a disgusted or nauseated response in the body, a strong feeling of irritation around everything your new partner does and says, or a simple desire to run away and clear your head.
Because you have learned that depending on other people leads to pain, your body may pair the normal experience of emotional attachment with a flight, fight, or freeze response.
If you have an avoidant attachment style, it may be difficult for your partner and close friends or family to see your investment in them.
This may be because you tend not to express your emotions very openly, or because you are uncomfortable with anything that might suggest that they are dependent on you.
You may distance yourself at times when securely attached people would typically seek closeness with significant others - for example, when you are sick, scared, or discouraged.
You may also tend to let expressions of affection and support go unreciprocated or unacknowledged, leaving your partner wondering whether you value them at all.
Unfortunately, this kind of behavior tends to push people away in the long run.
They may feel that they are simply not important to you or that you would prefer to be left alone, and may seek out emotional fulfillment elsewhere.
In this way, avoidant attachment and its attendant fear of abandonment can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This is because the fear and hesitation you feel around connecting with another person ultimately stops you from forming a deep attachment - the kind that could actually last the test of time.
If you have an avoidant attachment style, you may idealize being alone.
You may hold some romantic ideas about independence or solitude, and you may find these ideas to be a refuge when you experience stress in close relationships.
Of course, it’s good to enjoy solitude, and good to be independent to a point. No one likes a clingy partner who can’t handle a day on their own.
But what distinguishes a person with avoidant attachment from someone who just enjoys their own company, is that with avoidant attachment, seeking solitude and distance tends to be a defensive response to stress and uncertainty.
So, if you have an avoidant attachment style, you might:
These kinds of defensive narratives ultimately reinforce your belief that you are better off alone.
(Why is this important? It is because your core attachment style largely dictates and influences what happens in your relationship. Thus it’s imperative you understand your core attachment style!)
As we see in the Strange Situation, where the avoidantly attached baby does not outwardly “ask” the mother to stay (by crying or protesting), an avoidantly attached adult will be unlikely to show it when they need help from others.
This pattern is thought to develop because the baby has learned that their protests or desires will not be “heard” by their mother, so their natural tendency to seek reassurance from her is suppressed.
In adulthood, this looks like:
These patterns rob your relationships of depth.
If you read the above and believe this is you, it’s important to honor the fear and stress you feel around asking for help - but also to know that you don’t have to stay in that place.
You can, eventually, recognize this as the conditioning that it is, and open yourself up to more connection.
As humans we have evolved to depend on one another, and exchanging value with other humans can really enrich our lives and our relationships in ways we might not even anticipate.
Avoidant attachment, like other types of insecure attachment, tends to limit our capacity for close connection and joy in relationships.
It can make us hold back when we could be enjoying some of the wonderful things about being close to other people.
Like the happiness we might get from helping them in a truly meaningful way, or the sense of safety we might feel when they show up for us when we thought things would never be okay again.
But like the other insecure attachment styles, avoidant attachment can shift over time, and give way to better, healthier patterns that deepen the connections in our lives.
Some of the ways to overcome avoidant attachment biases include:
Setting aside time to reconnect with emotions and truly feel them through, with the help of music, movies, or a journal
Ultimately, this is what you need to remember:
With time and support, you can become more aware of attachment dynamics, and learn to override harmful biases with healthier, more adaptive beliefs.
Sarah has a Masters in psychology and works as a special education advisor in early childhood. She lives in Auckland, New Zealand, with her partner and two children. She has a passion for evolutionary psychology, attachment theory, and personality psychology.
Author For National Council for Research on Women
Author & Editor For National Council for Research on Women. Founder of the popular women's dating & relationship advice website, The Feminine Woman.
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