In Attachment Theory, there are four attachment types: secure, anxious (also called preoccupied), avoidant (also called dismissive), and anxious-avoidant (also called fearful-avoidant). In this post, I’d like to discuss avoidant attachment. Mark Manson has made a great outline of the different attachment types here if you’d like to learn more. You can take a short quiz to find out your attachment type here. Note that avoidant attachment is different than Avoidant Personality Disorder.
My good friend (also a therapist) and I were chatting the other day about a woman we’ve known for about a decade who recently got divorced. She is tall, strikingly beautiful, and very very avoidant. She waited until 40 years old to get married. The man she chose is even taller, strikingly handsome, successful, with great values, and adored her. They had one healthy, adorable child together, and yet, despite an outward appearance of marital bliss she asked for a divorce a couple of years later. She told my friend that it wasn’t necessarily him that was the problem, rather marriage itself and being so family oriented didn’t suit her. It felt like a prison somehow. The new guy she is with is clearly avoidant too… because he is currently married to someone else. This felt much safer for her.
Usually, it’s men that are more avoidant than women. I think this may be one of the reasons that so many plots of erotic novels that women read revolve around the female protagonist turning a stoic, avoidant man, into a securely attached loving partner that she can actually have a mutual connection with.
I also wonder if those who are avoidant grew up receiving less unconditional love. Based on the research I've seen about how baby boys and baby girls are treated - baby boys are picked up and comforted less often than baby girls, for example - it would make sense that men tend to be more avoidant than women. Throughout their lives, men are also rewarded for "doing" rather than "being" - receiving love and affection is more conditional and performance based - another general difference between the sexes. My sense is that a securely attached or anxiously attached person has more of an understanding of unconditional love because someone in their lives modeled it and perhaps they received some of it, thus when problems arise, they want to move towards others and feel more connected to them. Because love from other people has historically been reliable. The more reliable it has been, the more securely attached the person is.
As someone who moves between avoidant and secure attachment, I understand the feeling of being trapped in a relationship. I’m an artist and somewhat introverted, so regardless of my attachment style, I need a fair amount of alone time to create. And while I enjoy connection and do not find it hard to trust others, I need a lot of space to feel fully like myself. I most likely fall into the Hakomi Character Strategy known as self-reliant with some industrious/overfocused mixed in. When something goes wrong, I turn to myself. When I need to feel centered, I spend time alone. Most of my favorite things to do are solitary. And I need to feel productive.
I move into secure attachment when I am with someone who is more avoidant than myself and I become avoidant when I am with someone who is less avoidant than myself. When I’m with someone who is securely attached, it can start to feel co-dependent from their side and then suffocating… and that’s about the time when I start looking for the exit. Paradoxically, I felt like I was growing when I was with someone who was more avoidant because I had enough space to feel more securely attached. But really it just made me feel more secure in my avoidance. At some point, I’d be left feeling so little connection I’d finally start looking for the exit in that situation, too.
I used to wonder why how some people could be so happy spending so much time together, but lately, I’ve started asking myself what would happen if I just asked for more space. My fear around asking for more space goes back to me thinking that the other person will either reject the request and thus me, or that they will accept the request but slowly start to withdraw their love because they think I am withdrawing mine. I’ve finally admitted to myself that I have a hard time letting love in, too.
Not very long ago I was having dinner with my parents and my dad looked me straight in the eye and said, “Listen, it took me 45 years to figure out how to let love in and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree… you’re a lot like me, and I don’t want it to take you as long.” Dammit he’s right, I thought. My dad had a hard time explaining why he’d run when someone got close, all he knew was that his heart couldn’t help but open when he met my step-mom. Aside from seeing it modeled growing up, I think I have an impulse to run because it starts to feel like someone is trying to take something from me. On a nervous system level, that feeling registers as a threat.
My friend the therapist thinks it takes about six to eight years to heal and shift an attachment style. She says, “All attachment is based on your nervous system. When you get activated, your nervous responds as it would to a threat, either with elevation (anxious) or shutting down (avoidant).” She said that a securely attached person will feel a bit of anxiety and then want to talk about the issue or they’ll think back on good memories so don’t start to emotionally spiral in the moment.
When securely attached people start moving into a defensive space, they can self-regulate and bring themselves back to themselves. I am able to do this, but so far only by myself. I have to remove myself from the situation, regulate, and then come back to the situation. It’s a process that I either have to let others participate in or ask for their patience and then communicate around what I’m doing so they don’t get activated.
The other thing I am working on is finding somewhere to put the love that others give. I think growing up in a competitive environment like I did doesn’t help. Because when someone shows up later on and just wants to love you, it’s hard to know where to put it. When you’re used to watering a cactus and someone suddenly starts handing you buckets and buckets of water to quench the garden you don’t have, you can feel overwhelmed. You wonder, does this mean I can plant a garden? If I do, how steady is this water supply? Like rewiring a nervous system, a good garden takes time, care, and mindfulness.
If you are avoidant or are in a relationship with an avoidant person, an exercise that may be helpful is to look at yourself as 100 units of energy. How many units or what range of units must be put into your own pursuits and self-regulation and how many units or range of units are available for your relationship? If you have children, that is a third category that you must allocate units to. If you require 70 units and can give 30 units to your relationship but your partner requires 50 units from you, you might be feeling the urge to run. If your partner can work with 40 units from you and you think you can meet them at that level most of the time, that could become a goal to make the relationship feel more harmonious and fulfilling for both of you.
Other questions to ask yourself and your partner might be: how many units do you need when you’re under personal or professional stress? How long can you or your partner last when you or they are requiring more of their own units for themselves or needing more from the other? How are or how might children have an effect on your relationship because of their unit requirements?
If you want to lower your personal unit requirement, you have to really look at what is going on for you when you feel your nervous system getting activated. Most likely, there is some pattern of emotion or behavior that kicks in with it. You have to grab the tail of whatever it is that feels self-sabotaging or negative and follow it back to its source. Because it’s not natural to self-sabotage. Maybe “flight” was a useful survival strategy at some point in your life but if it’s not serving you now, if it’s not getting you the results you want, you have to look at it and work towards having a different reaction.
This article from The Atlantic discusses what "unattachment" or extremely high avoidance looks like. It also illuminates some of the origins of Attachment Theory: 30 Years Ago, Romania Deprived Thousands of Babies of Human Contact, Here's What's Become of Them.