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Avoidant Attachment: 13 Causes, Signs & How It Affects Relationships

| Attachment Theory | Attachment styles | The two-dimensional model | What is avoidant attachment style | Causes | Signs | How to heal avoidant attachment in yourself | How to cope with an avoidantly attached spouse |

Often, people who have spouses with avoidant attachment styles feel as though they are the only ones invested in the relationship. While they love their partners, they can’t help but feel that their relationship is one-sided. They are the only ones putting in any effort. 

In order to better understand avoidant attachment style, let’s take a closer look at the attachment theory.

Attachment Theory

The attachment theory explains how emotional attachment between infants and their primary caregivers affects the child’s development, behavior, and relationships. This theory was originally proposed by psychoanalyst John Bowlby and has been expanded upon by other theorists since then. 

According to Bowlby, infants have an inborn need to be with their caregivers to survive. 

The type of attachment behavior exhibited by babies during distress depends on the quality of their care, and this pattern of behavior is referred to as attachment style. 

When a child receives consistent warm and responsive care, they are more likely to develop a secure attachment. The child feels safe and secure and can rely on their caregiver for support. 

A child’s internal working model, which represents the self and others, is formed from this relationship. It influences how they view themselves and others, affects their behavior, and shapes their development.

man and woman sit on opposite side of bed back facing each other

Attachment styles

Early emotional experiences shape children’s beliefs about trustworthiness and responsiveness. If they are treated consistently and responsively, they develop the expectation of being supported and available when they need it​1​.

If, however, the caregivers do not respond consistently to the children’s needs, they will not expect support when needed and develop insecure attachment styles.

There are four types of attachment styles in children. Only one of them is a secure attachment type, while the rest are insecure.

  • Secure attachment style
  • Avoidant attachment style
  • Ambivalent attachment style
  • Disorganized attachment style (Disoriented attachment style)

Scientists have found that attachment theory can also be applied to adults.

As with child attachment, adult attachment styles play a significant role in interpersonal functioning, emotion regulation, and well-being. Adult attachment styles affect how people feel, think, and behave in intimate relationships.

The four adult attachment styles are:

The two-dimensional model

A two-dimensional model is used in conceptualizing adult attachment.

One dimension of this model is attachment-related avoidance. It indicates the extent to which people organize their attachment-related thoughts, feelings, and behaviors around defensive goals.

People who are high on avoidance are uncomfortable relying on others or allowing others to rely on them. People who are low on this dimension are comfortable using others as a safe haven and a secure base

The other dimension, attachment-related anxiety, represents the extent to which individuals are concerned about rejection and abandonment.

There are two distinct types of avoidant attachment – dismissive avoidant, who are low in anxiety, and fearful avoidant, who are high in anxiety.

Dismissive avoidants disregard the importance of relationships, whereas fearful avoidants avoid closeness out of fear of rejection.

When it comes to relating to others, people with avoidant dismissive attachment styles are often angry and dismissive, while fearful-avoidants are withdrawn​2​.

In general, avoidant attachment refers to the dismissive avoidant attachment style.

What is avoidant attachment style

Avoidant attachment style is an insecure attachment style. Avoidantly attached people generally have a dismissive attitude towards close relationships. They are often uncomfortable with intimacy and may seem emotionally distant. They may also have difficulty trusting others and may be hesitant to get too close. People with this attachment style tend to be independent and self-sufficient. They are often uncomfortable with depending on others and may have difficulty showing vulnerability.

What causes avoidant attachment

When a person’s needs are consistently unmet, mistrust develops, and they learn to avoid relying on others. Avoidant individuals often had relationships with attachment figures who were not responsive to their needs​3​.

In childhood, a child develops distrust in others’ intentions and compulsive self-reliance when their attachment figure is consistently unavailable. A mother’s depression or a father’s absence might contribute to this. Avoidant attachment in children is an adaptive response to the lack of care.

In adulthood, a person may perceive that the social world around them is threatening or unhelpful. Therefore, they do not rely on support from others to cope with life’s challenges. Their avoidant behavior is a defense mechanism.

Attachment in adulthood is primarily influenced by the following four categories.

– Childhood attachment experiences with parental care, sensitivity, and other factors that may affect the quality of the environment (e.g., maternal depression, father absence).

– The development of an individual’s social competence

– An individual’s peer relationships​4​.

– An association with certain genetic polymorphisms​5​

Adult attachment is strongly influenced by one’s interpersonal experiences. 

Childhood experiences with primary caretakers can directly affect one’s attachment, but it can also indirectly influence it through the development of worse social competence and lower quality friendships.

As important as early caregiving experiences are, other relationships throughout life are also important​6​.

Throughout life, adult relationship experiences with parents, close friends, and romantic partners can strongly influence adult attachment​7​.

Some studies have found a connection between childhood difficult temperament and adult avoidant attachment​8​

Parental hostility, criticism, avoidance, coercive discipline, and a lack of playfulness may result from the child’s fussiness, irritability, and distress proneness​9​ although the results are not conclusive due to the small sample sizes.

Signs of avoidant attachment style in adults

Avoidant adults may demonstrate the following characteristics​10–12​:

  1. keeping distance from others 
  2. push others away when they get close or show a desire for closeness
  3. lack of emotional closeness in relationships
  4. fears of intimacy
  5. difficulty trusting others and opening up
  6. unlikely to seek help in stressful situations
  7. trouble expressing their emotions
  8. seem distant or unloving
  9. self-reliance bordering on isolation
  10. confident in their ability to deal with problems themselves
  11. dismiss threatening events or needs for emotional support
  12. minimize the impact of positive emotions in social interactions
  13. suppress outward displays of emotions

How to heal avoidant attachment in yourself

Acknowledgement

Healing begins with admitting and accepting your avoidant attachment style.

While this may sound obvious, it’s actually very difficult for an avoidant person to admit to their own vulnerabilities because they have been denying the effects of their own past all these years.

Therefore, it is imperative to acknowledge the influence your attachment style has on your relationship if you want to improve it.

Commitment

In order to change it, you must be committed to doing so. No one can change you. Only you can.

Even when things get tough, stick to your commitment and don’t give up.

Therapy

Avoidant attachment affects one’s ability to form close and healthy relationships. 

It takes relationships to heal relationships, which is why therapy can be helpful. Psychotherapy provides the space and opportunity to form safe relationships with someone trustworthy.

Even if you wish to work on your own, getting professional help is still the best way to address attachment issues.

Couple therapy

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is a highly documented method of repairing romantic relationships. EFT is based on an attachment perspective of adult intimacy. It has been found to be effective when used in couple therapy​13​.

How to cope with an avoidantly attached spouse

It can be frustrating if your partner has an avoidant attachment style. They may deny having a problem or refuse to seek treatment.

Encourage them to seek therapy and to commit to it. It is impossible for a person to change unless they are willing to do so.

Counseling can help them explore ways to create a closer relationship and rebuild a secure attachment bond with others.

Also See: Fearful Avoidant Attachment

References

  1. 1.
    Ainsworth MDS, Blehar MC, Waters E, Wall SN. Patterns of Attachment. Psychology Press; 2015. doi:10.4324/9780203758045
  2. 2.
    Bifulco A, Moran PM, Ball C, Bernazzani O. Adult attachment style. I: Its relationship to clinical depression. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. Published online February 1, 2002:50-59. doi:10.1007/s127-002-8215-0
  3. 3.
    Shaver P, Hazan C. Being lonely, falling in love: Perspectives from attachment theory. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality. 1987;2(2):105–124.
  4. 4.
    Fraley RC, Roisman GI, Booth-LaForce C, Owen MT, Holland AS. Interpersonal and genetic origins of adult attachment styles: A longitudinal study from infancy to early adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 2013:817-838. doi:10.1037/a0031435
  5. 5.
    Chen FS, Johnson SC. An Oxytocin Receptor Gene Variant Predicts Attachment Anxiety in Females and Autism-Spectrum Traits in Males. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Published online May 26, 2011:93-99. doi:10.1177/1948550611410325
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    Lewis M, Feiring C, Rosenthal S. Attachment over Time. Child Development. Published online May 2000:707-720. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00180
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    Pierce T, Lydon JE. Global and specific relational models in the experience of social interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 2001:613-631. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.80.4.613
  8. 8.
    Lee CL, Bates JE. Mother-Child Interaction at Age Two Years and Perceived Difficult Temperament. Child Development. Published online October 1985:1314. doi:10.2307/1130246
  9. 9.
    Grossmann K, Grossmann KE, Spangler G, Suess G, Unzner L. Maternal Sensitivity and Newborns’ Orientation Responses as Related to Quality of Attachment in Northern Germany. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. Published online 1985:233. doi:10.2307/3333836
  10. 10.
    Mikulincer M, Shaver PR. Boosting Attachment Security to Promote Mental Health, Prosocial Values, and Inter-Group Tolerance. Psychological Inquiry. Published online August 13, 2007:139-156. doi:10.1080/10478400701512646
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    Florian V, Mikulincer M, Bucholtz I. Effects of Adult Attachment Style on the Perception and Search for Social Support. The Journal of Psychology. Published online November 1995:665-676. doi:10.1080/00223980.1995.9914937
  12. 12.
    Vrtička P, Sander D, Vuilleumier P. Influence of adult attachment style on the perception of social and non-social emotional scenes. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Published online May 24, 2012:530-544. doi:10.1177/0265407512443451
  13. 13.
    Johnson SM, Whiffen VE. Made to measure: Adapting emotionally focused couple therapy to partners’ attachment styles. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. Published online 1999:366-381. doi:10.1093/clipsy.6.4.366

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