In previous posts, we took a closer look at the secure attachment style and the anxious attachment style. Another of the three insecure attachment styles is called avoidant attachment. While anxious attachers typically cling to their loved ones, often excessively, avoidant attachers seem to do the opposite. They prefer some distance and rather than clinging harder when the relationship is threatened, they tend to back off to protect themselves.
I mentioned in the post on anxious attachment that those with the anxious attachment style typically have a unique strength- that ability to sense emotional cues in others or threats in the relationship. Avoidant attachers have a different strength- they are often great at being self-sufficient and independent.
What do avoidant attachers need?
Avoidant attachers need healthy attachments just as much as anyone else, but they seem to ignore their needs (as well as their fears) about relationships and take on a defensive and detached approach, attempting to ensure for themselves that if the relationship fails, they will be fine. Emotional intimacy with others may lead them to feel uncomfortable or to put up more rigid boundaries to keep people at arm’s length. The difficulty with this kind of attachment style is not only that you could end up pushing people away, but that you as the avoidant attacher often end up feeling consistently and deeply lonely. You avoid emotional closeness, but deep down you need it, leaving you in a lonely and difficult paradox.
How do our experiences play a part in our attachment styles?
Again, we don’t know exactly how or why attachment styles form within each person. Some say it’s genetic, some say it’s evolutionary, some say it’s based on nurture. But either way, I think our experiences likely play a part.
Imagine that you were just crazy about your first girlfriend or boyfriend, deeply loved him or her and became very attached and very trusting. Then imagine something in that relationship went wrong; your partner began betraying you in some way, maybe having secret affairs or becoming abusive. The affairs or the abuse would be incredibly hurtful each time, because this was someone you loved and trusted and cared for, and who cared for you.
As you experience that kind of betrayal, you might learn that people, even romantic partners, can’t be trusted, and that intimacy is followed by betrayal. If that’s the case, you’d probably start putting up boundaries, keeping yourself from any intimacy to protect yourself, because you don’t want that hurt and pain that you’ve learned happens next!
Strategies avoidant attachers use
In order to create or maintain that safe distance in romantic relationships, Attached authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller name some common strategies avoidant attachers find themselves using (the full list can be found on page 117!):
Focusing on minor or unimportant imperfections in your partner
Piring after a former “lost love”
Flirting with others when in a relationship
Implying that you have feelings for someone without saying it
Pulling away when things go well
Forming relationships with impossible partners (like someone already married)
Being secretive or vague to maintain a sense of independence
Avoiding physical intimacy
Avoidant attachers, like other insecure attachers, find themselves in a tough spot. They deeply want and need close and intimate relationship, but their fear and discomfort can prevent them from finding it.
The book Attached offers several ways in which avoidant attachers can recognize and prevent their own relationship-sabotaging behavior, and if you are interested in learning more about attachment in general, your own attachment style, or how to create and maintain healthy relationships, call one of our therapists any time! We would love to walk through the process with you.