Published on July 2, 2020
The avoidant attachment style is one of the three insecure adult attachment styles identified in psychological literature. Parents who are strict and emotionally distant, do not tolerate the expression of feelings, and expect their child to be independent and tough might raise children with an avoidant attachment style. As adults, these children appear confident and self-sufficient. They do not tolerate emotional intimacy and might not be able to build deep, long-lasting relationships. It is, however, possible for these individuals to change and develop a secure attachment style.
Have you ever wondered why some people do not want to depend on or truly connect with anyone, even when in a relationship? Most of us aim to build strong relationships throughout our lives. We are ‘hungry’ for love and affection. Why? Because emotional intimacy has many advantages: we are able to share our thoughts and feelings openly, we receive support and reassurance, we feel heard, appreciated, valued, and consequently, we feel calm and safe.
Emotional closeness can provide us with a feeling of stability – we are not going through life alone; we have someone to rely on. If we feel safe and valued by others, we are also able to maintain a higher self-esteem and a positive outlook on life. If you are someone that needs to have close relationships and wants to rely on others (and have others rely on you), you have probably wondered why some people lack these basic human desires. How do they even make it work?
The truth is, this is most often not a conscious choice. The way we form relationships as adults has a lot to do with the way we formed our first social bonds as children – the ones with our caregivers (usually parents). Attachment theory is well-known and researched in the field of Psychology. Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby and his attachment theory shed light on and explain this phenomenon.
Attachment theory suggests that our early relationships with our caregivers (in childhood) set the stage for how we build relationships in the future (in adulthood). The behavior of our caregivers is the first example of social interactions that we are presented with. It thus becomes informative of how relationships work. Are other people going to take care of me? Can I trust them? Can I rely on them? When raising a baby in a secure environment, where the caregivers are emotionally available and responsive to the baby’s needs, the answers to these (subconscious) questions will probably be yes. This is what we call a secure attachment.
However, when the child perceives that their basic and emotional needs are not met, they will have a hard time trusting people. Social bonds might be perceived by such children as not safe or stable. This is how a child forms an insecure attachment. Let’s get back to that person you know, who is self-sufficient and does not (want to) rely on others. Based on attachment theory, we would categorize his or her attachment style as an insecure attachment style. It is known, more specifically, as avoidant/dismissive.
Don’t know your attachment style? Take our short 5 minute quiz to find out now. It’s completely free.
The development of an avoidant attachment style in a child has much to do with the emotional availability of their caregivers. The caregivers do not necessarily neglect the child in general; they are present. Nevertheless, they tend to avoid the display of emotion and intimacy and are often misattuned to the child’s emotional needs. Such caregivers are reserved and seem to back off when the child reaches out for support, reassurance and affection.
The caregivers are likely to become more distant as the situation gets more emotionally dense. They might become overwhelmed and want to get out. This is when their unavailability would be most evident. The child expresses a need for closeness, but instead of receiving it, they perceive that the door is shut in their face. Parents whose children become avoidant might not only avoid expressing their own feelings. They might also disapprove of and not tolerate any notable display of emotions from their children, regardless of whether it is negative (sadness/fear) or positive (excitement/joy).
When such display of emotions occurs, caregivers can become angry and try to disrupt the child’s behavior by telling the child to toughen up. The parent expects the young child to behave independent, serious, and reserved. Being raised in such an environment is likely to cause an avoidant attachment style. Most often, the caregivers have this attachment style themselves. Since the parent was raised that way, they pass it on, unintentionally, to the next generation.
Adults with the dismissive/avoidant attachment style seem to be pretty happy about who they are and where they are. They might be very social, easy-going, and fun to be around. In addition, these individuals might have a lot of friends and/or sexual partners. Generally speaking, they are not alone or lonely.
Dismissive/avoidant adults tend to be independent. Their self-esteem is high and they do not rely on others for reassurance or emotional support. Such individuals might invest in their professional development and are likely to build up their confidence on each personal success. They seem to be in control.
For avoidant adults, social interactions and bonds remain on the surface. In order for a relationship to be meaningful and fulfilling, it has to become deep. That’s when you would ‘hit a wall’ when dealing with an avoidant person. These individuals will let you be around them, but will not let you in. They tend to avoid strong displays of closeness and intimacy. As soon as things get serious, dismissive/avoidant individuals are likely to close themselves off.
At this point, such people might try to find a reason to end a relationship. They might be highly annoyed by their partner’s behavior, habit, or even physical appearance. Consequently, they start drifting off and distancing themselves from the partner. Adults with this attachment style believe that they do not need emotional intimacy in their lives. This is a direct result of their upbringing. Their caregivers showed them that people cannot be relied on. Whenever they sought emotional support in the past, it was not provided. They simply stop seeking or expecting it from others. It’s as if they have ‘turned off the switch’.
From the outside, an adult with an avoidant attachment style might look confident, strong, and together. This does not mean, however, that this person is not suffering or making those around him/her suffer. To the avoidant adult, emotional closeness and intimacy are often off the table. Not because they will not reap benefits, but because they do not know how.
Either way, not being able to build a deep, meaningful, and long-lasting relationship can be painful for people with this attachment style. It can also be heart-breaking for the ones who love them. Furthermore, having an avoidant attachment style as a parent is likely to affect your child’s attachment style. If you have it, you will probably pass it on.
If you recognize the dismissive/avoidant attachment style in yourself or in someone you care about, what can you do? The key is to admit and realize that the ‘switch’ on emotional intimacy has to be turned on. This might be challenging and require a lot of effort.
What do I feel? The avoidant adult needs to start paying attention to the emotional and physical sensations that come up around (emotional) intimacy. Self-reflection might help one make sense of and analyze existing patterns.
What do I need? Another essential step is exploring, understanding, and eventually expressing emotional needs.
What should I do? At some point, the avoidant adult might be able to start working on building closer relationships with people. They could follow a step-by-step approach to letting others in and responding to the emotional needs of close ones.
Obviously, working with a therapist on this pattern would potentially be the most beneficial way to move forward with earning secure attachment. If that’s not an option for you, we have simple online courses for you to move forward.
Harvard Medical School’s Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology, Dr. Daniel P. Brown, provides a practical online course that will help you get on the path to healing insecure attachment. Based on his award-winning book, Attachment Disturbances in Adults, the course includes a test to define your own attachment style, as well as lectures and experiential exercises for developing secure attachment.