Avoidant attachment

What does avoidant attachment look like in adults?

Avoidant attachment shows its face in many adult relationships, including work and friendship but is most obvious in romantic relationships. This attachment style is seen in the desire to move away from people, to use withdrawal, or to avoid experiences that are exposing, vulnerable, or intimate.

However, its important to realize that all of us, occasionally, use these strategies as a part of everyday life. That does not mean that we have an avoidant attachment style. 

In a romantic relationship, avoidant attachment in adults can look like a person who has trouble making eye contact, who avoids intimate conversations, or who is reluctant to share too many details about their personal life or their emotional experiences with their partner.

For some partnerships, this works out fine, but it can also be a source of distress in a relationship. Avoidant attachment styles can sometimes leave the other partner feeling a sense of disconnection or loneliness, even through the relationship looks great “on paper.”

Is avoidant attachment permanent?

It can be helpful to understand your attachment style, in particular if you have a pattern of distressing relationships or have gotten similar feedback from a variety of partners. It’s important to recognize that just because we may act with avoidance with one partner, that doesn’t necessarily mean that is who we are. Relationships are a dance between withdrawal and approach, and all of us will use avoidance and withdrawal to a greater or lesser degree in different relationships. Sometimes a person who has quite a secure attachment style can notice themselves using avoidant behaviours during a relationship with a person who is demanding, or clingy, or anxiously attached.

If you think you may have an avoidant attachment style, look for patterns across the majority of relationships. If you notice that regardless of the setting or the person you are in relationship with, you suppress emotions, hide your private self, withdraw or “hide” during conflicts, or are quick to label others “clingy,” you might consider looking into avoidant attachment in more detail.

People who are avoidantly attached are often highly independent and self reliant, with little feeling of “need” for others.

Photo by Andrew Neel

Why am I avoidant attachment?

Our attachment styles are always based on safety. Even though they don’t necessarily effect our food and shelter and basic survival, our relationships are actually very important to our sense of safety in the world. To feel that we belong is a deeply human need.

However, the people that provide us that belonging are not always completely reliable. The same is true of parents.

Our attachment styles are generated in the first few years of life, when our parents are our primary caregiver. For people with avoidant attachment, there will often be a parental figure who was insufficiently generous with their time or attention to the child. This is very painful to the little child, and avoidant attachment should be understood as a useful, adaptive response to protect ourselves from the pain of neglect.

Think of it like this: rather than keeping their hopes up that today will be better than yesterday and being hurt and disappointed that their caregiver has let them down again, avoidant attachment children use a different strategy. They stop trusting, hoping, or sometimes even wanting the attention that never get anyways. In this way they are no longer surprised, hurt, and disappointed by their parents. And in the meanwhile they learn to “take care of themselves”, and not need anybody.

This is effective. But, it also means that adult relationships can be distressing. Partners want and expect a certain amount of intimacy from each other, and this can be a challenge to the person who has decided for themselves that they won’t ask that from others, and they won’t give it away either.

Is avoidant attachment a disorder?

Avoidant attachment is not a disorder. It is simply one of the many strategies we all use to get on with life in the world. However, avoidant attachment can lead to distressing patterns in our life, and it is also something that can be helped through therapy.

Can avoidant attachment style change?

Avoidant attachment style can absolutely change. In fact, our attachment styles are very amenable to modulation.

To shift our attachment style requires both awareness and safety. Awareness is needed so that we can identify the patterns and behaviours which characterize our avoidant style. Awareness also helps to create insights around why we do this behaviour. Through this approach we can uncover the ways that avoidance helps us to create safety, either for yourself or for the relationship as a whole. (For example, in a volatile relationship, withdrawal that effectively prevents conflicts from escalating is a useful protective mechanism!). Once we understand the mechanics of avoidant attachment—how and why it works the way it does inside of our own life, we are primed for change.

But safety is also essential. Because avoidant attachment is a strategy for creating safety, we can only learn to “turn off” this strategy in environments that are safe enough. An emotionally mature romantic partner might be the very best option, but not everyone has such a person in their life. Fortunately, a relationship with a Clinical Counsellor is also effective at creating the kind of safety required.

Once awareness and safety are in the picture, it becomes possible to experiment with new behaviours, allowing the person with avoidant attachment style to try expressing vulnerability instead of avoiding it, to try pursuing their partners instead of withdrawing, or to try exposing their vulnerable inner self instead of hiding it. If these experiments are successful, change is pretty much inevitable.