Avoidant attachment style: Signs, Causes and How to Cope
What is an avoidant attachment style?
Avoidant attachment is a consistent strategy learned in early adulthood to respond to a caregiver who prefers that the child be autonomous and low-need. Consequently in adulthood these people unconsciously tend towards emotional distance and a lack of interdependency with romantic partners. The observable behaviors of this style in adulthood include a preference for being alone much of the time, feeling stress with interpersonal interaction, especially if prolonged or emotionally-laden, difficulty connecting to vulnerable emotions, sensitivity to feeling judged, criticized or “used” in romantic partnership, progressive lowering of interest in sex as the relationship advances (in some, not all), secrecy, discomfort with probing conversations or being questioned too much, difficulty with sustained eye contact (in most but not all), and a tendency to dismiss or minimize the importance of a partner’s requests for emotional or physical connection.
Signs of avoidant attachment style
Spotting signs of avoidant attachment in oneself is very difficult because of self-serving bias (Eterovic, 2020 and George and West, 2012). The self-serving bias is widely acknowledged in social-science research and causes us to unconsciously appraise ourselves as more well-adjusted than we may be across a variety of dimensions. The only true way to find out one’s attachment style is to undergo an interactive testing procedure with a qualified mental health professional. The two tests that have validity and are backed by solid research are the Adult Attachment Projective (AAP) or the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI). While questionnaires to identify adult attachment styles have been developed they are not as accurate as these instruments and cannot correct for self-serving bias.
Identifying an avoidantly attached partner may be easier than correctly classifying one’s own style. Partners of avoidantly attached adults tend to feel like there is a barrier to intimacy with their partner. They also tend to experience being frequently rebuffed when wanting emotional or physical intimacy. They may feel like they are the 3rd or 4th priority to their partner, often below work, friends, children, fitness routines or hobbies. If there is a persistent and consistent pattern of feeling dismissed by your partner, they may have an avoidant attachment style. It’s important to note that everyone at times wants to be alone, finds other people stressful, may prefer not to have deep discussions from time to time. Everyone may also, periodically, shy away from sharing vulnerable feelings. The avoidantly attached person distinguishes themselves by the consistency and magnitude of these issues, again excluding the courtship phase (the first 12-18 months).
Causes of avoidant attachment style
Avoidant attachment style is caused when a caregiver is unable to respond frequently in the following manner to a child’s distress:
- Sensitively (giving the child what they need rather than what the parent wants to provide)
- Without repercussions
For example, if a 2 year old is having a melt-down in the grocery store, a parent of an avoidant child may ignore them, turn their back on them, shame them, wait for several minutes to offer assistance or offer assistance and then later criticize or punish the child for needing help. A parent with a secure attachment will immediately hold the child, speak softly to them, validate their feelings (“I see that you are SO upset!”) and successfully calm them down. If a caregiver fails to provide the 4 essentials of a secure response often enough the child may develop an avoidant attachment. The critical period for consolidating the attachment style is 0-3 with some ability for modification until the age of 13. After that attachment styles can change but it requires considerable effort.
Of course there are many reasons why parents are not able to offer the ideal response often enough to children, including working multiple jobs, suffering from depression or other mental illnesses, living in severe poverty or physically unsafe surroundings, substance abuse or having had an insecurely attached parent themselves.
What triggers avoidant attachment?
Like all types of attachment the patterns the avoidant behavior will be most visible after the initial “limerence” phase of courtship (12-18 months). You can also see a doubling-down on the dismissing and avoidant defenses when you approach these partners for contact, display dependency needs (even healthy ones) or do things that they perceive as attempts to control or intrude on them.
How do I fix an avoidant attachment?
Working on your own avoidant attachment is similar to changing any other quality you may have. First you need to be aware of it, then you need to monitor yourself in situations to see if you can catch the avoidant style showing up. In those moments, when you can, you need to work against your own avoidant defaults. As an example, if your partner comes home and walks over for a hug you may feel an impulse in you to turn away and claim you need to go check the mail. This is because avoidantly attached folks were not approached as often by their caregivers, so they are not accustomed to approach and find it stressful. You will notice the distancing defense in the impulse to go find something else to do to avoid the hug. You may also notice the fleeting thought that the hug is going to be too long and you will feel squeamish and trapped. The way to change these defaults is to say to your partner, “I sometimes feel stuck in your long hugs but I am glad to see you. Can we have a quick hug and maybe cuddle later?” That way you can work against a number of avoidant features– your fear that others will reject you because of your inability to sustain contact, your difficulty with physical approach and closeness and your impulse to move away from these situations. It also helps you speak up for yourself and negotiate, which works against the default assumption that avoidantly attached people have that when approached their only choices are to utterly submit, to outright reject or to avoid/escape. If you continue to monitor yourself when around your romantic partner or children, you will see the avoidant defenses come into play. Your job is to then, in small doses, do the things you are uncomfortable with. This retrains your brain to have other responses available in emotionally or physically intimate situations.