What is Attachment Theory
In our close relationships, we all have different ways of relating to other people. Attachment theory is a way of categorizing the way we form close bonds with each other. Avoidant attachment is just one style, and it’s not an easy one.
For romantic relationships, attachment theory also provides a framework to understand why our partner is behaving a particular way – or for that matter, why we are. If we keep finding ourselves falling into the same relationships traps, it could be because of our attachment style and the decisions we make based on it.
Our attachment style derives from our experiences as a child, especially the way we were parented. We’re born as tiny, dependent babies. We rely on others from the beginning and we develop a style of attaching to people based on the behavior of those who care for us. The relationship our primary caregiver has with us generally sets a blueprint for the way we’ll have relationships in the future.
When parents are attuned to their child’s needs, but still willing to give them independence, it creates a healthy, secure attachment style. When parents are less in tune with their baby’s needs, too intrusive, or too distant, it causes distress. Children are very adaptive, and they’ll respond by developing defensive strategies to emotions and attachment. This helps moderate and relieve intense emotional states.
Unfortunately, these less healthy styles carry on as we grow up and impact the kind of relationships formed in adulthood. This includes romantic relationships.
What is Avoidant Attachment
“Avoidant attachment” sounds counterintuitive, but if you take the words in their literal sense it becomes clear. It’s someone who avoids getting attached emotionally to other people or situations.
A characteristic Avoidant will show some of these behaviors:
- Boundaries are set and well enforced. These can be physical as well as emotional – perhaps sleeping in a different bed, maybe keeping information to themselves that would be better shared.
- Deep feelings make them uncomfortable. It’s rare for someone with an Avoidant style to talk to their friends about their deepest feelings, because they like to have a strong sense of independence. As a result, their significant other might feel a little like a business partner than a romantic one.
- Intimacy is awkward. Avoidants find it easier to withdraw when it comes to the first hint of closeness.
- They want their partner – but not so much their partner’s presence. If their significant other isn’t near, they’ll miss them, but when they return, the Avoidant may start to feel stifled immediately. There can be a lot of mixed signals.
- Casual sex may be easier than intimate sex. It’s all about the boundaries and connections. They don’t want to feel concerned about their partner’s feelings during or after sex.
- Past relationships or the imaginary “perfect relationship” can get put on a pedestal. It makes it easier to find the shortcomings of the current one, thus avoiding getting too attached.
- They’ll seek out faults. Every little thing can add up to create an undesirable picture of their prospective partner (or actual partner). As in the above point, they may think they’re better off with someone else.
- Commitment is off the cards. Or at least, it’s a lot trickier to broach. Avoidants often see it as an infringement of personal boundaries and a challenge to their independence.
People with a Dismissive-Avoidant attachment style will tend to keep an emotional distance between themselves and their partners. Connections with others are low on their list of values, and they often brush feelings aside – their own as well as other people’s. They may be love avoidant and generally stay away from close or romantic relationships.
When they’re in one, it can be difficult to connect. They might be aware of their difficulty expressing emotions, and seek out emotionally open (even vulnerable) romantic partners to help fill that need. But they’re unable to reciprocate, and the relationship suffers as a result.
Many a commitmentphobe may turn out to have a fearful-avoidant attachment style. They could come across as ambivalent, and while they do want to have their emotional needs met, their fear of being close can get in the way.
Typically, Fearful-Avoidants will try to hold back those strong feelings but they just won’t be able to. They can obsess about whether their partner loves them or not. This can lead to some stormy emotional weather and, for the Fearful-Avoidant, the sense of being completely overwhelmed. Unpredictable moods can lead to relationships with steep peaks and deep troughs.
Someone with Anxious-Avoidant Attachment style will be preoccupied (even obsessed) with their relationships. They tend to read way too much between the lines, whether it’s text messages, conversations, actions, or other social situations. Sometimes they’re just too sensitive.
It can lead to a painful cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies and self-sabotage. They’ll often choose a Dismissive-Avoidant partner. Or they might withdraw, and when their partner responds, they’ll have the “I told you so” conversation with themselves.
Avoidants in Intimate Relationships
Close relationships are important to humans. We’re social beings. Being emotionally distanced from the people we should be closest to is taxing. We also don’t get to live as rich and full a life as we might otherwise.
While it can take some effort, it’s very possible to have a good and even close relationship if you have an insecure attachment style.
As a partner to someone with an Avoidant Attachment style, it’s key to build up trust and demonstrate that you’re dependable. This will happen over time. Don’t try and force your partner to express their feelings (although you can encourage it). Be understanding of their responses. But at the same time, don’t compromise your own needs.
And if you’re the Avoidant? Well, it’s not easy to change your attachment style.
Attachment patterns become deeply ingrained, especially over time. If you’ve been in several romantic relationships before, the repetition of behaviors – and possibly the repetition of failed relationships – poses a big challenge. But there are some things you can try.
- Be objective, about your partner’s behavior as well as your own. When something’s going wrong, take a step back and look at the situation.
- Start to recognize your old, unhelpful patterns of behavior and set some new ones. Identify what your emotional needs are and find ways to assert them.
- Find ways to increase your self-esteem. This can help you avoid taking things too personally or feeling the need for constant reassurance from your partner.
- Take a risk and be honest and authentic. This means with your partner, but also with yourself.
- Accept other people for who they are. Stop looking for faults. And accept your own faults while you’re at it, even as you seek ways to improve those that are destructive or getting in the way of what you want to achieve.
- Find ways to compromise. Think about “we,” not just “I” and “you.”
- Reflect on your past. Understanding previous close relationships, romantic and otherwise, may help you understand why you behave the way you do. A therapist may be able to help you through this process.
Other Types of Attachment Styles
There are two other main attachment styles – Anxious, and Secure. Unfortunately, Avoidants may choose someone with an Anxious style, which can create difficulties.
One challenge is that there tends to be more Avoidant Attachment style singles. This is mainly because those with a Secure style are more likely to be in a relationship. They’re comfortable with themselves and others, they’re not searching for the Perfect Partner, and so they’re not single as long. This can increase the chance of bad spin cycles for singles. Anxious people may date Avoiders, which can pose some real challenges for love longevity.
Someone with an Anxious Attachment style has a strong desire to be close, and they’re able to experience true intimacy. It’s just that they have so much focus on the relationship that every little dip or misunderstanding can feel like a disaster. They tend to jump to conclusions and take things that don’t matter to heart. Sometimes they can feel jealous of their partner’s other relationships, such as close friends.
Someone with an Anxious style may fall into the trap of manipulation and game-playing in order to get reassurance from their partner. Withdrawal, threats, and finding ways to provoke jealousy can all become bad and destructive habits. Those with an Anxious style will worry about a relationship ending, but the way they behave can actually be a reason for that to happen.
Someone with a Secure attachment style is able to be intimate without worrying unduly about the relationship or misunderstandings. They’re open and able to give love and warmth easily. They tend to have good self-confidence and esteem, without the need to seek conflict or be defensive or passive if disagreement happens.
They’re accepting of their significant others’ qualities, even the less attractive ones. They’re also responsive to the needs of their partner without compromising on their own. They’re good at problem-solving, apologizing, and forgiving.
Avoidant Attachment: Bottom Line
Someone with an Avoidant Attachment style isn’t subject to a life of solitude or disconnected, rocky relationships. It may not be easy, but with time, understanding, and a shared willingness to make it work, an Avoidant can have an intimate and secure romantic relationship. As a result, they may find it easier to have close relationships of all kinds.