Avoidant Attachment: A Brief Introduction
What is Attachment Theory
Attachment theory describes the ways we form bonds and relationships with other people. Our attachment style develops mostly when we are children. We form attachments through the interaction and attention we receive from the key people in our early years. These are usually our parents or our primary caregivers. It is not limited to just what happens when we are kids though. The effects of relationships and partners we have as we mature also shape and influence our attachment styles. Basically, how we experience and contribute to closeness and intimacy with others.
Secure vs. Insecure Attachment
If we have caregivers who are responsive to our needs as infants, we tend to form secure attachments and relationships. This happens when interaction is attentive, confident and takes care of our needs. The majority of people fall into this secure attachments relationship category! Insecure attachment occurs if our caregivers, parents, or attachment figures are inconsistent. Or if they have difficulties managing our behavior, we may develop insecure attachment styles and patterns. We may unconsciously start to create defensive behavior that is unhealthy. This happens, even at a very young age. We try to protect ourselves emotionally from any fear or anxiousness around not receiving the attention we need.
It is important to note there are many factors that influence people’s attachment styles. It is a complex process influenced by everyday and significant events. Trauma, and other individual and environmental conditions also affect attachment. Beware of using attachment as a blame game towards those who raised you! Serious cases of neglect or abuse aside, of course. Human beings are creatures of habit. Your parents and caregivers upbringing will have influenced their parenting styles. Parenting advice, such as how to manage the tantrums of kids during their “terrible twos”, also changes over time. Parenting and caregiving practices can also vary between different social groups. Not to mention the stressors of learning how to look after and respond to a young child or children in life. It is not easy.
There are a few categories within attachment theory. One of these is an avoidant attachment style.
What is Avoidant Attachment
The avoidant attachment style usually occurs in an infant who may have had a caregiver who was absent emotionally or physically. They may have withdrawn or been unavailable when the child needed help and support. The child then develops avoidant attachment traits who become self-reliant and independent. This is to avoid any possible feelings of rejection from an emotionally distant caregiver. They learn to stay quiet on any issues or upsets they may be facing and/or find a way to deal with things themselves rather than seeking help from others.
As an adult, if you display avoidant detachment behavior, you have learned to create ways to separate yourself from any possible fear. Or you may avoid close situations and intimacy to prevent the risks of loss or emotional hurt. Some examples of how you may do this are:
- You may push other people away if they start to get too close. This is like a push-pull dynamic. You think you want someone around, so you pull him or her in. But then, when they are with you, you push them away. Others, especially partners, think you give mixed signals and may tell you so.
- You may be big on boundaries. You may create physical and emotional space from others on a regular basis and avoid too much closeness or intimacy. You may not like discussing your emotions at all or allowing your friends or partners to know when you are upset.
- You may be very independent and self-reliant, believing that you do not need others to achieve what you want in life. You may reinforce your independence with internal dialogue like “I don’t need anyone else”.
- You may choose relationships or romantic partners that you know are not really a good match. Or they may be obviously unlikely to last any significant distance or depth. These may be very short-term, sexual relationships. Or casual flings with people who you know are also unable to commit. People with insecure attachment styles often form relationships with others with insecure styles.
- You may find reasons why a relationship is not going to work or look for fault where there is none. You may be very critical of yourself and others in your interactions.
- You may idealize what “perfect” romantic relationships and intimacy are. Or you may have unrealistic expectations of what a relationship or partnership should be.
- After you finish a relationship, you may spend an extended period analyzing what happened. Then not coming up with any answers, or not acknowledging what contributed to the breakup.
- You may think you want commitment and intimacy with people or your partner. Yet you run for the hills at any serious signs of this in your close relationships.
- It is as if you unconsciously self-sabotage in your relationships with others and your partners.
Attachment patterns do tend to be something that is initially established when we are young. There are many factors that can affect parental and caregiving styles, attachment, and the bonds formed. This does not mean they are set in stone. We can consciously try to make healthy changes to our attachment patterns. This is particularly so as adults in relationships and partnerships with others.
There are also subtypes within avoidant attachment patterns. These incorporate aspects of the other main attachment styles.
Someone with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style will tend to disregard emotions and feelings. These may be their own and others. They may be emotionally distant from other people. They may give the impression they do not care if they, or the person they are interacting with or in a relationship with, is anxious or upset.
Anyone who is fearful avoidant may be your stereotypical love avoidant commitment freak! They dread the very idea of committing to anyone else. They may find themselves in a pattern of never getting past any casual or informal relationships. They may shy away from serious long-term commitment, closeness, or intimate relationships. Fearful-avoidant attachment styles usually develop because of fear in a person. They may be scared of repeating or reliving emotional or physical pain.
Someone with anxious-avoidant attachment is likely to overthink their interactions and relationships with others. This is also known as anxious-preoccupied attachment. They may feel they need to analyze every situation. They may be overly preoccupied with their relationships. They may create situations to get attention if they become anxious and feel ignored. Then when they do receive the attention they seek, they avoid any confrontation.
Other Types of Attachment Styles
There are four main categories of recognized attachment styles. The terms differ slightly depending on the schools of thought. Most are based around the early attachment theorist, John Bowlby. There are three categories of insecure attachments styles — avoidant, anxious and disorganized. The other is the secure attachment style.
With secure attachment, an infant learns through experience that their caregivers understand and meet their needs and emotions. They develop trust that their caregiver will respond to what they need when they need it. They feel safe and protected at all times. They will often use the caregiver as a base or anchor to further explore and grow. They are happy to come back to the caregiver to seek reassurance that everything is ok. A healthy balance of independence and dependence on others as partners in life is developed.
Anxious attachment is also known as anxious-ambivalent attachment. This attachment style may develop when a caregiver’s attention is inconsistent and unpredictable. Sometimes the caregiver may be nurturing and responsive. Other times, they may be insensitive, invasive, or unavailable. Children may develop confusion, insecurity, and distrust of what to expect. Those with anxious attachment styles tend to be clingy and dependent on their partner. They continually hope and strive to get the attention they need. They may become worried and preoccupied with small details.
Disorganized, or fearful attachment styles, may develop from abusive or traumatic interaction with caregivers. Young children rely on their caregivers for their needs. They may sense a caregiver’s behavior is scary or threatening but there are no alternatives available. This can be fear of both emotional and physical discomfort. Those with disorganized attachment have often learned to disassociate and detach from their feelings in relation to other people or their partner.
Avoidant Attachment: Bottom Line
Everyone has difficulties and gets anxious from time to time from navigating the nuances of relationships. Any style of attachment is just one part of the many facets of who we are. Avoidant attachment styles do however indicate insecurities and ways of protecting yourself that are not necessarily healthy for you and others around you. Attachment disorders, including avoidant personality disorder, can result from insecurities around attachment. If you, your partner, or any of people you are in any kind of relationship with show an avoidant attachment style, seek help today.
Adult attachment styles may have been reactive patterns initially formed as children, but you can work on changing your attachment style at any time. Learning anything requires patience and time. Someone with an avoidant behavioral style can transition to a secure attachment style through cognitive behavioral therapy. Observing and learning from securely attached people who can function as working models can help. You also need time to internalize that your own emotional needs are worthy of support.