What is avoidant attachment? If you want to be in love but then always walk away, or are in a relationship with someone who keeps pushing you back? Then it’s something you need to know about.
Attachment in psychology refers to the way we form relationships. How do we ‘attach’ to others, how do we create bonds?
Attachment theory is a school of thought that states that from birth to at least the age of seven, we all need one caregiver we can rely on to give us unconditional love and safety. This allows us to feel secure, and to begin to venture out into the world, knowing we have that secure base waiting for us.
Without this love and safety, we grow up with problems with relating, or unhealthy ‘attachment styles’. These are most obvious in our romantic relationships, but can also affect our relationships with family, friends, and colleagues.
[Do you feel so entirely alone in the world that it worries you? Time to talk to someone who gets it? Book a Skype therapist now, Be talking as soon as tomorrow.]
What is avoidant attachment?
Avoidant attachment means that your lack of healthy bonding as a child has made you very suspicious of relationships. You react to intimacy by backing off and, well, ‘avoiding’ it.
If you are seen as aloof and called ‘emotionally unavailable’ then you might have avoidant attachment.
Relationships in your life are kept business-like, even if it’s a romantic attachment. Or perhaps you prefer to avoid commitment altogether.
Symptoms of avoidant attachment
The signs and symptoms of avoidant attachment can look like the following:
- holding independence as the most important
- believing you don’t actually need anyone at all
- avoid talking about your emotions
- not liking physical affection or having rules around it
- refusing to talk about your past
- having very strong personal boundaries you don’t negotiate
- shutting down if someone pushes you to ‘get deep’ or be emotional
- being so cold you are accused of being mean
- constantly finding faults in others (a great way to keep them at bay)
- having an ideal past partner you use to compare others to unfavourably
- if you are in a romantic relationship, you sometimes feel stifled
- perhaps more prone to casual relationships then commitment
- or avoiding relationships altogether.
The ‘Strange Situation’
The different attachment disorders were named after a 1970s study carried out by psychologist Mary Ainsworth.
The study was called the ‘strange situation study’. In it, a parent was left with her one year-old child in the room. The child explored the room with the parent watching. Then a stranger was put into the room to talk to the parent before approaching the child. The parent was ordered to then leave the room quietly, to see how the child would react being left with the stranger. Finally, the parent was allowed to re-enter the room to comfort the child.
Ainsworth identified a group of children she then called ‘anxious-avoidant, insecure’. These infants did not show distress when the parent left or returned. And sometimes they even ignored the caregiver. Ainsworth’s research showed that these same children were often pushed away by their parents when seeking attention or to have their needs met.
It was theorised this was lack of emotion was the child’s mask for distress. This assumption was later proved in studies that measured the heart rate of such children, and found it to be elevated.
Why do I have avoidant attachment disorder?
What the above study proposes is that as a child you decided that it was pointless to communicate your needs as it had no effect on your caregiver. Your way to survive was to act as if you had no needs at all. This meant you could stay close to your caregiver, who you did need for survival, and not be pushed off.
But it also means you grow up into an adult who doesn’t see his or her needs as worthwhile, doesn’t communicate these needs, and doesn’t react to those they are in relationships with.
Avoidant attachment style vs avoidant personality disorder
Note that having an avoidant attachment style is different than ‘avoidant personality disorder‘, or AvPD.
A personality disorder is an entrenched way of seeing the world that starts in adolescence. If you have AvPD your lack of interest in relationships will seriously affect all areas of life. It means you struggle to understand how other people act and think. You might, for example, not pursue life goals or a big career, as the interaction required seems too overwhelming.
An avoidant attachment style just affects your romantic relationships or close other relationships, and means you aren’t comfortable with intimacy.
What do I do if this is me or my partner?
If you are in a relationship with an avoidant, pushing them to communicate and emote like you do is not helpful. Attachment issues don’t change overnight, and your partner will need to commit to a process of personal growth of their own volition.
But, often, so will you. Interestingly, it is those with a corresponding attachment issue, ‘anxious attachment‘, that are attracted to avoidants. This means you have your own issues with relating, and might be either too clingy and demanding, or tend to push and pull.
If you are pretty sure you are an avoidant, then you are on the right track by assessing your own ways of relating. There will need to be a lot more self reflecting, as well as a journey of learning to recognise your own needs and communicate them. And you’ll need to learn to accept other people for who they are, and navigate compromise in relationships.
Therapy is a great place to start to look at these patterns. A therapist not only helps you process the childhood experiences behind your ways of relating, but to try out new approaches in a safe, non-judgmental space.
Harley Therapy puts you in touch with top London therapists who can help with avoidant attachment issues. Not in London or the UK? Try our booking platform, with affordable Skype therapy you can access from anywhere.
Still have a question about avoidant attachment? Post in the public comment box below.