Attachment Theory 101: Your Guide to Avoidant Attachment Style
If you speak to any relationship counsellor to list some of the most important factors in a relationship, it is likely that most will identify ‘attachment style’ as a key factor. Our attachment style is determined by our early experiences, and a huge body of research exists to demonstrate that it affects our entire lives - including relationships, friendships and mental health.
You may have read about attachment styles already, but if you are new to this area keep reading for a useful recap. Essentially there are four attachment styles, according to theory, and these are secure, anxious, fearful and dismissing. Securely attached people are more likely to have stable and harmonious relationships (you can think of them as dogs - friendly and relaxed), while those with anxious attachment will be more likely to feel worried and preoccupied about their relationships (you can think of these like a cockatoo - easily startled and a bit highly strung), and might be worried about abandonment.
Those with dismissing attachment are likely to need a lot of emotional space and independence, and might be uncomfortable with strong displays of emotion or conflict (think of these like a cat - a bit standoffish and aloof). Those with fearful attachment are a mixture of the anxious and dismissing types, in that they are quite insecure and uncertain in their relationships, but can also switch off quickly and need distance and autonomy if they feel threatened or unsure (you can think of these types as a rabbit - easily startled and difficult to relax).
A really useful way to think of these four styles is by looking at a graph that represents anxiety and avoidance - secure (dog) is low anxiety, low avoidance; anxious (cockatoo) attachment is high anxiety, low avoidance; dismissing (cat) is low anxiety, high avoidance, and fearful (rabbit) is high anxiety, high avoidance.
This article gives an overview of avoidant attachment - which we can see in the dismissing and fearful attachment types. Both these are ‘high avoidance’ attachment types, and this describes the tendency to turn away from intimacy or connection, and feel somewhat uncomfortable with intimacy and closeness.
What are some signs of avoidant attachment?
If you’re in a relationship with someone you feel might be avoidantly attached, or if you feel you might have this attachment style, you might be experiencing some of the following:
- Challenges with approaching and resolving conflict (preferring to keep quiet and let things resolve themselves).
- Challenges with talking about how you are feeling or expressing vulnerability with partners or close friends (preferring to deal with things privately).
- Feeling like you aren’t sure how to respond when your partner is displaying strong emotions or seems distressed.
- Sometimes appearing aloof or uninterested in friendship or a relationship - or giving people the impression that you aren’t interested.
- In a relationship, needing personal space and time alone - and feeling suffocated if you need to spend all your time with your partner.
It can be really helpful to think of this type of attachment as ‘arms length’ - while some people might be really comfortable being vulnerable and talking a lot about how they feel, for other people this will feel really strange and foreign. They might feel exposed, silly or vulnerable sharing personal things about themselves - and will feel much safer keeping things to themselves and not showing strong emotions.
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How does someone develop avoidant attachment?
For most people with this attachment, their families of origin have a lot to do with their attachment. Growing up in a family that is emotionally unexpressive (where things might not have been talked about), or in a family where there was not a lot of warmth or openness, might result in avoidant attachment. The individual might have seen their parents interacting with little emotional closeness, or they might not have been attended to as children when they have emotional needs - so in some ways, they may have just ‘shut down’ their emotional systems.
We know that children don’t have filters and have big emotions, and often growing up in a family that is avoidantly attached, children learn over time that the best way to receive approval from their parents is to keep calm and not talk about difficult topics. Often a family will avoid strong emotions and talking about difficult things from a fear of conflict or escalation - but unfortunately, as we know, in every person’s life there will be situations that do need to be talked about, and conflicts that do need to be managed.
In adult relationships, many people with avoidant reactions will struggle when they need to talk about things like sex, communication, parenting or emotions - because they may have never done this before. These skills can be learned, but it can be important to remember that someone with this attachment style has had a lifetime of avoiding difficult conversations.
What is the best way to manage avoidant attachment?
If you or your partner have avoidant attachment, the good news is that there are many things that can help. These include:
- Raising awareness - for many people with this kind of attachment, there is little awareness of how this is impacting them. Being able to understand that their preference for not talking about things or dealing with strong emotions is simply that - a preference - can help them to then understand that their partner might need some validation or acknowledgement for their own emotional experience - even if this is hard to understand. Remember, avoidantly attached people likely grew up with the impression that emotions aren’t that important, so it can take a bit of time for them to start to pay attention to emotions, and begin to see the importance of validating and supporting someone they love.
- Open Communication - At the core of avoidant attachment is a fear of strong emotions or of being out of control - and being able to develop skills in talking things through and managing emotions safely is fundamental. Within the relationship, both people should strive for open and honest communication - and it is a safe place to raise issues and concerns, and these will be validated. Over time, an avoidant individual will learn that it is actually easier to raise a concern straight away (rather than sitting on it or hoping it will go away), and will begin to be more proactive about speaking up.
- Personal Space - One thing that probably won’t change for an avoidantly attached person, is the desire for personal space - and that is totally fine. If you are in a relationship with someone with this attachment style, it is good to remember that they will need space and independence at times - especially when things are stressful or difficult. Many anxiously attached people crave social contact and emotional closeness, but avoidantly attached people can be the opposite - and these kinds of high energy, social events can be draining at times. Part of this attachment can involve a fear of being trapped or suffocated by others’ needs, while not being able to speak up for their own - so sometimes being able to recognise this and offer an ‘out’ from commitments or social obligations (eg. a family gathering or a group outing) can be a powerful show of support and understanding.
- Relationship training - Most relationships have one or two arguments that happen again and again. Having the support of a professional to unpack these conversations and encourage both people to see both sides of the situation (and develop empathy for each other) allows for progress to be made. For those with avoidant attachment, it can be really valuable to have a compassionate and empathic person help them to understand themselves better, and also understand the impact that their avoidance has on their partner. This can build up their motivation to solve issues more proactively, as well as show empathy and concern when needed.
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Can avoidant attachment be cured or changed?
Within relationship therapy and counselling, a big idea is that - over time, and with the development of skills, self awareness and strong relationships - we can move from anxious or avoidant attachment, towards secure attachment.
This is what we might call ‘learned’ secure attachment - it is different from regular secure attachment, which develops as a result of stable experiences in relationships from childhood. The ‘learned’ secure attachment is more about having developed insight and awareness into your own attachment, and having developed the skills you need to have stable and harmonious relationships.
This type of change is an interesting one, as it is likely that someone with avoidant attachment may always be ‘somewhat’ avoidantly attached - they may never get completely comfortable with talking about their feelings or with relying entirely on someone else. The change is more in how they respond to things in their relationship, and how well they manage things like communication and conflict. An avoidant person can manage these things very well if they are able to notice both their own responses (avoidance, shutting down, switching off), and still do what needs to be done (take a moment, ask to talk about something, speak honestly).
The same can be said for someone with anxious attachment style - they may always be a bit anxious in their relationships, and feel worried about being abandoned or rejected - but they also have the self awareness and regulation skills to wait before responding, and moderate their response to their partner to communicate how they are feeling.
So - in short - avoidant attachment can certainly be managed, and generally some kind of therapy or coaching is useful for this (self help resources such as books are also useful, but often having a compassionate and trusted person like a therapist or Coach is useful).
One benefit of technology and app-based Relationship Coaching (such as Relish) is that it is now possible for avoidantly attached people to learn about relationships (and issues such as communication, conflict management and intimacy) in a way that is safe and confidential. For some people with this attachment, reading lessons and looking at their partners’ responses to quizzes or other lessons feels more comfortable than diving into relationship therapy with a stranger.
Whatever the medium, we can say with confidence that any attachment issue can be changed and improved - the key things that are needed are insight and a willingness to change how we respond to certain things in our relationships. Research tells us that the very best way to resolve attachment issues is through a trusting, stable and honest relationship with another person - whether this is through therapy or other relationships, this can only be achieved by both people working on good communication and honesty.
If you or your partner are avoidantly attached, it is useful to be aware of some of these characteristics, as well as how other attachment styles interact with avoidant attachment. As noted, Relish is based on attachment theory, and has a number of lessons and quizzes for those with avoidant attachment - as well as for their partners. Topics such as showing support and empathy for your partner, opening up and being vulnerable, and ways of talking about conflict, have all been helpful in filling gaps that might exist in your relationship.
Download Relish today to start a one week free trial - during this trial you can text with a qualified Relationship Coach for one-to-one advice, take therapist-approved quizzes about communication, conflict, intimacy and more, and get access to over 500 lessons and exercises to bring you two closer. Install now!