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Illustration by Marta Pucci

Overcoming Avoidant Attachment Style

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
6/2/2022
Last updated:
6/2/2022
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
6/2/2022
Last updated:
6/2/2022

TL;DR

  • The theory of attachment can help us understand the way we relate to others and the behaviors we tend to display when we are in a meaningful relationship.
  • Our natural style of attachment will likely depend on our childhood experiences, particularly the relationship we shared with our primary caregiver or parent.
  • Avoidant attachment develops when a child does not receive the attention or emotional support they require, suffering repeated rejections when they look for affection.
  • Avoidant attachment can follow you into adulthood, impacting on all adult relationships, particularly romantic ones. In particular, you may tend to hold loved ones at arm’s length and send mixed signals about your feelings.
  • There are many types of therapy that can help you to process previous experiences and move forward with new patterns of attachment behavior.

A bit about attachment theory

The theory of attachment, and how it comes to impact our adult relationships, has become a cornerstone of the psychology of intimate relationships. It’s a relatively new concept but has been embraced by therapists and coaches alike to help clients understand theirs and their partner’s behaviors in the course of a romantic relationship.

The theory points to the idea that our childhood experiences, particularly the bond we build with our primary caregiver, can impact how we feel about ourselves. It can also influence how we behave during future relationships. A close bond, or secure relationship, with a parent is thought to result in stronger emotional connections and healthier relationships as an adult.

There are four different types of attachment style which fall along two scales – attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance:

  • Secure attachment style
  • Anxious attachment style
  • Avoidant attachment style
  • Disorganized attachment style (or fearful-avoidant attachments)

It’s worth remembering here that nothing is set in stone. Our attachment behavior can change over time depending on our experiences.

We’ve talked before about attachment theory basics so if you’re interested in a more detailed overview of attachment in adulthood, you can head over there.

Meanwhile, here we’ll take a look at the avoidant or insecure attachment style. 

Avoidant attachment in focus

As a child…

Avoidant, or fearful-avoidant attachment, is thought to stem from a childhood where the child’s needs are not met in a sensitive or appropriate way. Perhaps the child was left to cry or discouraged from making a fuss about things. Or perhaps the parent was simply emotionally unavailable, meaning the child experienced rejection repeatedly as they reached out for affection.

In practice, children in this situation may appear to learn to self-soothe or seem particularly independent. However, in reality they’ve likely learned to simply depend on themselves, becoming disconnected from their own wants or needs in an act of self-preservation. Heartbreakingly, they may even stop asking for love and affection.

As an adult…

It may come as no surprise that a child who has an avoidant attachment style is likely to become an adult who is unable or unwilling to trust others or to ask for help and support. After all, when you’re conditioned to rely only on yourself and you’ve experienced repeated rejection when you reach out to connect with others, there is little incentive to keep trying.

While the majority of people, around half, are said to enjoy secure attachment in their relationships, avoidant attachment is not uncommon. It’s been found, among many different population samples, that around 25% of people display avoidant behavior (1). If nothing else, this figure should reassure you that if you suspect you have this kind of insecure attachment style you’re not alone.

How can you tell if you have an avoidant attachment style?

As an adult, attachment insecurity can impact severely on any and all of your meaningful relationships, be they with friends or family. But it's often with a romantic partner that the majority of issues come to the fore, simply because of the depth of intimate connections involved. With a dislike for sharing feelings and an almost innate ability to hold their partner at arm’s length, a relationship with an avoidant adult can be a recipe for mixed signals, frustration and confusion. For someone who struggles with emotional closeness and has an inbuilt fear of rejection, a healthy relationship can feel almost impossible to navigate.

Do you suspect you may have this type of attachment style? Read these statements and see how many of these behavioral patterns resonate with you:

  • I pride myself on my independence and self-reliance.
  • I regularly, often subconsciously, view others around me in a negative light.
  • I struggle with the idea of rejection and will avoid situations that may result in this.
  • I hate talking about my own thoughts and feelings.
  • I feel awkward and uncomfortable when my partner tries to share their innermost thoughts and feelings with me.
  • I struggle to put my trust in others.
  • If a situation feels difficult, I prefer to tackle it alone.
  • I will often avoid situations that feel particularly confrontational or unpleasant.
  • I often struggle to recall negative emotions or memories as I have a tendency to pack them away tightly so I don’t have to face them.

Overcoming the avoidant style of attachment

When it comes to improving the quality of their relationships, one of the problems for those with an avoidant attachment style is that they can’t stand digging deep inside. They’d rather not confront those innermost thoughts and feelings and so are unlikely to acknowledge their avoidant attachment style, much less agree to do something about it.

Of course, as with many relationship issues, the best course of action is to work on communication with your partner. To build trust and intimacy through emotional connection. But to an avoidant person this can be a step too far too quickly, preferring instead to bury their head in the sand and repeat past patterns of behavior.

While therapy may not be particularly appealing either, there are ways you can talk to your partner about the idea. And the beauty of therapy in this situation is that there are so many different types which, depending on your exact situation, can work together to rapidly improve matters. From traditional talking therapies to CBT, a professional therapist will be able to work with you alone or as a partnership if that’s what you prefer, to address the messages you received growing up. They’ll help you to process them, understand their impact on you as an adult and help you find a way forward that helps you to improve and strengthen your current relationship.

In some cases, we find that adults can have a PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) type reaction to events that happened during their childhood. In this case EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) – a relatively new form of psychotherapy can be particularly effective in helping the brain to resume its natural healing process and improve and balance the mental state.

The most important thing is that you don't give up. Positive relationship behaviors can be learned and adult attachment patterns can shift and change over time. With support from a securely attached partner, along with therapy - whether face-to-face or online - there is no reason at all why you won't be able to learn to build a solid relationship in the future. 

(1) Mickelson, K. D., Kessler, R. C., & Shaver, P. R. (1997). Adult attachment in a nationally representative sample. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(5), 1092–1106. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.73.5.1092
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