Avoidant attachment is an attachment style a child develops when their primary caretakers are unresponsive to their emotional needs. The caretaker may ignore or reject the child when they seek comfort in distress.
Avoidant attachment is an insecure attachment style.
An avoidantly attached child is independent and self-reliant. They learn not to rely on the caretaker and maintain an emotional distance. They have difficulty trusting others.
As adults, avoidant individuals hesitate to get too close to others. They have difficulty showing vulnerability or developing intimate relationships.
Two types of avoidants
There are two types of insecure-avoidant attachment – dismissive avoidant attachment and fearful avoidant attachment.
A lack of trust in others marks both styles of avoidance.
Avoidant people are uncomfortable depending on others or allowing others to depend on them.
As a result, they distance themselves from others.
However, the two avoidant styles differ in attachment anxiety, whether they feel lovable or worthy of love.
Individuals with dismissive-avoidant attachment styles are low in anxiety.
They feel they are worthy of love but dismiss the importance of relationships due to their lack of trust in others.
On the other hand, those with a fearful avoidant attachment style are high in anxiety.
They don’t think they deserve to be loved and avoid closeness out of fear of rejection.
In children, fearful-avoidant attachment style is also known as the disorganized attachment style.1
When relating to others, dismissive-avoidant people are often angry and dismissive, while fearful-avoidants are withdrawn.2
Even though there are two forms of avoidance, dismissive-avoidant is often what people mean when they mention avoidant attachment.
Causes in children
Avoidant attachment develops when a child’s emotional needs are consistently unmet.
This can occur if the parent or primary caregiver rejects the child or is emotionally unavailable.
Children develop a sense of distrust and learn to steer clear of depending on others.
Examples of parenting practices that can cause this include
- Ignoring the child when they are in distress.
- Discouraging the child from crying through scolding or punishment.
- Shaming or making fun of the child when they cry.
- Showing disapproval when the child expresses negative emotions.
- Not hugging the child or having any physical touch.
- Invalidating the child’s feelings when they feel hurt.
- Teaching children, “Boys don’t cry.”
- Child abuse, including physical, verbal, and sexual abuse.
When parents are unresponsive, children doubt whether their parents or others will be there to help when they face challenges.
These children tend to develop a compulsive need for self-reliance3 but they may do so for different reasons.
Some children develop a dismissive attitude, while others develop a fearful attitude.4
Dismissive-avoidant children have a positive view of themselves but a negative view of others.
They avoid close relationships because they do not place great value on being accepted by others.
Instead, they downplay the importance of relationships and focus their energy on remaining independent and invulnerable to negative feelings.
Fearful-avoidant children have a negative view of themselves and others.
They blame themselves for being unlovable.
They may desire intimacy but are highly anxious and maintain distance for fear of rejection.
Reasons why parents reject or are emotionally unavailable include
- Mental illnesses, such as depression
- Substance abuse, such as drug use or alcoholism
- Had parents who rejected or were emotionally unavailable themselves
- Distressed by life problems such as marriage discord or financial hardship5
Causes in adults
In children, avoidant attachment behavior often serves as an adaptive coping mechanism to the lack of care from the attachment figures.
However, in adults, the cause of avoidance may be less direct or straightforward.
While childhood experiences in formative years do contribute, they are not the sole determinants of adult attachment styles.6
Relationships later in life also matter.
Ongoing experiences in interpersonal relationships, including those with parents, close friends, and romantic partners, also strongly influence an adult’s attachment style.
Moreover, the impact of early life experiences can extend indirectly into adulthood.
For instance, a lack of emotional support during childhood can hinder social competence development and result in lower-quality friendships, which in turn can contribute to avoidant attachment styles in adults.
An overview of the attachment theory
The attachment theory explains how the close emotional bond between babies and their primary caregivers affects the child’s development, behavior, and relationships.
Psychoanalyst John Bowlby initially proposed this theory, which psychologist Mary Ainsworth and other theorists have expanded upon since then.
According to this theory, babies naturally need to be with their caregivers for safety and survival.
How a baby acts when upset depends on how well they’re cared for during distress.
This pattern of behavior is called an attachment style.
If a child receives consistently warm and responsive care, they feel loved and well-cared for.
They are more likely to develop a secure attachment.
This means they feel safe and can count on their caregiver for help and comfort.7
This early relationship creates an internal working model representing themselves and others and helps shape the child’s thoughts about the world. It affects how they act and grow.
However, if they’re not well-cared for, they don’t expect help and may develop insecure attachment styles.
Other attachment styles
There are four types of attachment styles in children.
- Secure attachment style
- Ambivalent attachment style (insecure)
- Avoidant attachment style (insecure)
- Disorganized attachment style (insecure)
Scientists have found that this attachment theory may also apply to adults.
As with child attachment, an adult attachment style affects interpersonal functioning, emotion regulation, and well-being.
It also affects how you feel, think, and behave in intimate relationships.
The four main attachment styles in adults are:
- Secure attachment style
- Anxious attachment style
- Avoidant attachment styled
- Fearful attachment style
What is an anxious avoidant attachment style?
The term “anxious-avoidant attachment” is commonly used today but wasn’t part of the original attachment research.
Attachment styles can have different names depending on the study, which can be confusing.
Using a two-dimensional model can make it easier to grasp.
- Attachment Anxiety: This dimension concerns how people see themselves and whether they feel worthy of love. Anxious people often feel like they’re not worth loving.
- Attachment Avoidance: This dimension is about how people see others and whether they want to be close to them or keep their distance. Avoidant people prefer to stay away from others.
So, the four main attachment styles are:
- Secure: Positive views of both themselves and others.
- Anxious: Negative view of themselves but positive views of others.
- Avoidant: Positive view of themselves but negative views of others.
- Fearful-Avoidant: Negative views of both themselves and others.
When people talk about “anxious-avoidant attachment,” they usually refer to the fearful-avoidant style. You can have anxious and avoidant attachment traits in this style, making it a mix of the two.
Signs of an avoidant
Here are some avoidant attachment signs in adults.8–10
- Keep distance from others
- Push others away when they get close or show a desire for closeness
- Lack of emotional closeness in relationships
- Fears of intimacy
- Difficulty trusting others and opening up
- Unlikely to seek help in stressful situations
- Trouble expressing their emotions
- Seem distant or unloving
- Self-reliance bordering on isolation
- Confident in their ability to deal with problems themselves
- Dismiss threatening events or needs for emotional support
- Minimize the impact of emotions in social interactions
- Suppress outward displays of emotions
Effects on relationships
Studies show that avoidant attachment styles can negatively impact adult relationships.
Attachment styles affect people’s emotional regulation.
Dismissive avoidant people tend to use deactivating emotion regulation strategies: these people use emotion suppression as their coping strategy.
They don’t share their emotions and avoid deep conversations.
This makes it hard for their partners to know what they’re feeling.
They act like it doesn’t affect them when there’s an argument or criticism.
This keeps them in control but also makes them seem distant.
They strive to minimize emotional involvement.
They also don’t offer support when their partner is in emotional distress.
Partners of avoidant adults feel like they are the only ones putting in the effort to make things work.
It’s like a one-way street.
While you’re doing all the work, they’re just along for the ride.
Relationship problems tend to arise when one partner is avoidant and the other is also insecurely attached.
If you have an anxious attachment and want more emotional intimacy, your partner’s distant behavior can frustrate or even reject you.
If you are avoidantly attached, the relationship can lack emotional closeness and support.
How to prevent
Preventing avoidant attachment involves proactive steps from the parents since early childhood.
Providing consistently responsive parenting is the key to helping your child develop a secure attachment.
Here are some ways to achieve that.
- Provide reliable care to your child so they know they can count on you for emotional support.
- Validate and empathize rather than discourage or dismiss their feelings.
- Allow them to express negative emotions.
- Coach them to recognize and understand their different feelings.
- Model how to express and regulate your own emotions healthily.
How to heal from
Here is some advice on how to overcome an avoidant attachment style.
Therapy for avoidant child
If your child has avoidant attachment, the best approach is to consider seeking therapy treatments for them.
Therapy doesn’t have to be expensive.
There are often free therapy you can find in your local community.
If you are an adult with an avoidant attachment style, healing begins with admitting and accepting your avoidant attachment style traits.
While this may sound obvious, it can be challenging for an avoidant person to admit to their vulnerabilities because they have been denying the effects of their past all these years.
It is imperative to take this first step.
Acknowledge your attachment style’s influence on your relationship if you want to improve it.
To change it, you must be committed to doing so.
No one can change you. Only you can.
When things get tough, stick to your commitment and don’t give up.
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 mental health professional help is still the best way to address attachment issues.
How to cope with an avoidant relationship
Often, people with avoidant partners feel like 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.
It can be frustrating if your partner has an avoidant attachment style.
Partners with avoidant attachment styles in relationships may deny having a problem or refuse to seek treatment.
It’s not personal
Although it feels personal, avoidant individuals keep their distance or push others away due to their childhood experience, and it is not a personal reaction to you.
Encourage your partner to seek therapy and commit to the hard work.
A person can’t change unless they are willing to do so.
Counseling can help them explore ways to create healthier relationships and rebuild a secure emotional connection with others.
Don’t forget about your own needs. It takes two to make a serious relationship.
It’s not all your responsibility.
Your partner must also be prepared to participate and contribute for this to work.
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