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Understanding Avoidant Attachment

Posted June 26, 2023 | Written by Stephanie Underwood, RSW

A man standing overlooking a lake with mountains in the background.

Part One of a Mini-Series on the Avoidant Attachment Style


KEY POINTS

  • There are four adult attachment styles; secure, anxious, avoidant, and fearful-avoidant.

  • An avoidant attachment style is formed when a child's primary caregiver is consistently unresponsive or emotionally neglectful.

  • Some characteristics of avoidant attachment include a fear of emotional and physical intimacy, a fear of commitment, a tendency to withdraw, and a strong desire for independence.

  • Deactivating strategies are behaviours or tactics often employed by individuals with avoidant attachment styles to distance themselves emotionally from their partners.

  • Avoidants may seek "space" following conflict to protect themselves from these perceived threats and regain control over their emotions.

  • Communication, awareness, and patience as ways to navigate a relationship with an avoidant partner.


 

If you've ever experienced a partner who seemed to pull away just as you grew closer or experienced a sudden breakup that left you with a whirlwind of questions and insecurities - you might have encountered an avoidant attachment style.


This post will demystify the avoidant attachment style, exploring its roots, characteristics, and manifestation in relationships. We'll discuss what deactivating strategies are and how these are employed by avoidant attachment. We will explore why individuals with this attachment style often seek 'space' during conflicts and how their behaviours can leave their partners perplexed and emotionally distressed.


Introduction to Adult Attachment Styles


Let's begin with a brief overview of what adult attachment styles are. Adult attachment styles are patterns of expectations, beliefs, and behaviours in interpersonal relationships that result from internalizing one's early experiences with caregivers. Originally proposed by psychologists Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby, these attachment styles are formed in childhood and often continue into adulthood, influencing our romantic relationships, friendships, and even how we parent our children.


There are typically four main attachment styles:


  1. Secure attachment: Individuals with a secure attachment style generally have positive views of themselves and their relationships. They feel comfortable with intimacy and autonomy and are usually resilient and effective in dealing with stress and adversity.

  2. Anxious-preoccupied attachment: These individuals often strongly desire intimacy but worry about their partner's reciprocation ability. They may have a negative view of themselves and can be overly dependent on their relationships for their self-esteem.

  3. Dismissive-avoidant attachment: People with this attachment style often have a positive view of themselves but a low opinion of others. They may avoid close relationships, preferring to see themselves as independent and self-sufficient.

  4. Fearful-avoidant attachment: Also known as disorganized attachment, these individuals have a negative view of themselves and others. They desire close relationships but may struggle with trusting others and fear being hurt. Essentially, this attachment style is a combination of anxious and avoidant attachments. Depending on the situation, the individual with this attachment style will either become anxious or avoidant.


An Avoidant Attachment Style in Childhood


An avoidant attachment style is formed when a child's primary caregiver is consistently unresponsive or neglectful. This lack of emotional support can cause the child to learn that their emotional needs will not be met, leading them to become self-reliant and independent. As adults, individuals with an avoidant attachment style tend to avoid close emotional connections, seeing intimacy as a threat to their independence.


Some common traits of adults with an avoidant attachment style include:


  1. Difficulty with emotional intimacy and Physical intimacy: Individuals with an avoidant attachment style tend to avoid sharing their emotions with others, even in close relationships. They may feel uncomfortable with displays of affection or struggle with expressing their feelings.

  2. Fear of commitment: Avoidant individuals may struggle with committing to long-term relationships, which requires vulnerability and emotional investment.

  3. A tendency to withdraw: When faced with conflict or emotional stress, avoidant individuals may withdraw and shut down emotionally. They may also struggle with effectively communicating their needs and emotions to their partner.

  4. A strong desire for independence: Avoidant individuals highly value their independence and autonomy, often preferring to rely solely on themselves rather than seeking support from others.


In a relationship, an avoidant attachment style can manifest in several ways. For example, an avoidant partner may seem distant or emotionally detached, avoiding conversations about their emotions or feelings. They may also hesitate to share their thoughts or feelings, even during intimate moments.


If you are in a relationship with an avoidant partner, it is essential to understand that their behaviour does not reflect your worth or value as a partner. To have a fulfilling relationship with an avoidant partner, creating a safe and secure environment is crucial where they feel comfortable sharing their emotions. It's equally important for you to feel respected in the relationship and that your partner also meets your needs.


Deactivating Strategies


Deactivating strategies are a coping mechanism employed specifically by the avoidant attachment. Coping mechanisms are the methods a person uses to deal with stressful situations, problems, or difficult emotions. They're the tools and strategies that help us navigate our daily lives and deal with the physical, mental, and emotional challenges we encounter.


In the context of avoidant attachment, deactivating is a strategy that serves to deactivate or downplay the attachment system, helping the person maintain emotional distance and a sense of independence in their relationships. These strategies are typically subconscious, automatic responses activated when the person perceives a threat to their independence or feels overwhelmed by emotional intimacy.


Deactivating strategies can take many forms, including:


  1. Withdrawal: The individual may physically remove themselves from situations where they feel too much emotional closeness or intensity, like arguments or emotionally-charged conversations.

  2. Suppression of feelings: They might downplay or ignore their feelings, particularly those related to attachment or intimacy.

  3. Focus on imperfections: The individual might focus on their partner's flaws or shortcomings as a way to decrease their own feelings of intimacy or connection and as a way to confirm their need for independence.

  4. Avoidance of commitment: They might avoid or be hesitant about making long-term commitments or plans in the relationship.

  5. Rejection of help or support: The individual might refuse assistance or support from their partner, preferring to handle things independently.


It's important to note that these strategies are not intended to harm or manipulate the other person. Instead, they serve as protective mechanisms to maintain emotional distance and cope with deep-seated intimacy and dependence fears. However, while these strategies may provide temporary relief for the avoidant individual, they often contribute to relationship distress and dissatisfaction for both partners.


Avoidant Behaviour in Relationships


When a conflict arises in a relationship, emotions run high and the demand for emotional closeness and communication increases. This situation can be overwhelming for avoidant individuals and trigger their fears of vulnerability and dependence. In response, they may instinctively seek "space" to protect themselves from these perceived threats, regain control over their emotions, and process the situation. This need for space is not about punishing their partner or avoiding resolution but rather a self-protective measure they've learned to rely on.


Even though Avoidant individuals often need to process their feelings during a conflict, it's essential for the Avoidant's partner to balance catering to their need for space and ensuring their needs for connection and emotional support are met. Relationships are about negotiation, and the concept of 'space' is no different. Both partners must discuss their needs openly. This includes the amount of healthy space, alternative forms of support, and strategies to ensure both partners feel heard and validated. Just as the anxiously attached partner might provide the avoidant partner with space during an argument, the avoidant partner can also try to keep their avoidant tendencies in check. They can reassure the anxious partner to prevent a destabilizing hot-and-cold environment. This balanced approach fosters mutual understanding, respect, and care, which are crucial for a healthy relationship.


Navigating a Relationship with an Avoidant Partner


Understanding the traits of an avoidant attachment style and learning effective communication strategies can help partners navigate a relationship with an avoidant partner and create a fulfilling and meaningful connection.


Here are some tips to help you navigate a relationship with an avoidant partner:


  1. Patience: Building trust and emotional intimacy with an avoidant partner may take time. Allow them to open up at their own pace, and avoid pressuring them to share their emotions before they feel ready.

  2. Educate your partner on Attachment theory: If you have a partner that is open to personal development, you can your partner learn about his attachment style.

  3. Communicate effectively: Avoidant individuals may struggle to communicate their emotions or needs effectively. Encourage open communication by actively listening and validating their emotions.

  4. Respect their need for independence: Avoidant individuals highly value their independence, so respecting their boundaries and avoiding being too demanding is essential. However, it is important not to enable the avoidance of the avoidant, and ensure that their need for space does not negatively impact the relationship (more on this in the next blog post).

  5. Practice self-care: Being in a relationship with an avoidant partner can be challenging, so it is crucial to prioritize your own self-care needs. This may involve seeking support from a therapist or engaging in self-care activities that help you manage your emotions. Get emotional support for yourself outside of the relationships - through friends or family members.

  6. Understand that your partner withdrawing has nothing to do with you.

Developing healthy communication and coping skills, such as expressing emotions openly, actively listening to a partner's needs, and working together to resolve conflicts, can help foster a stronger, more intimate connection between the Avoidant and the Non-Avoidant partner.


Understanding the unique challenges that individuals with avoidant attachment styles face in the early stages of dating can provide invaluable insights into how to navigate these obstacles and work towards building a healthy and fulfilling relationship. By identifying and addressing these unhealthy coping mechanisms, individuals with avoidant attachment styles can learn to forge stronger emotional connections and ultimately find the love and companionship they desire.


In the forthcoming second instalment of our mini-series, dedicated to the exploration of Avoidant Attachment, we will dive deeper into the mysteries surrounding this particular attachment style and debunk some prevailing myths and misconceptions that often obscure our understanding of it.




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