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Medically reviewed by Melissa Bronstein, LICSW
Psychologists often use attachment theory to explain the emotional bonds and relationships between people, particularly among parents and children or adults and their romantic partners. Created by British psychologist John Bowlby, attachment theory suggests that everyone is born with an innate (natural) need to form bonds with others.
According to the theory, there are four different types of attachment styles including secure, avoidant, anxious, and disorganized. When someone has avoidant attachment, they tend to have difficulty with intimacy and close relationships.
Not only do people with avoidant attachment resist investing time and energy in relationships, but they also usually avoid emotional intimacy. They also may work hard to maintain their independence, autonomy, and control—often at the expense of their relationships.
Research suggests that about 25% of people have avoidant attachment. Knowing the signs of this attachment style and what might be triggering these behaviors can help you understand how to cope and navigate your relationships.
Types of Avoidant Attachment
If you have an avoidant attachment style, you may feel uncomfortable around other people and avoid having close or intimate relationships with them. Avoidant attachment can take two different forms: dismissive attachment and fearful attachment.
If you have a dismissive avoidant attachment style, you may feel confident that you are competent and worthy of love. But you tend to have a negative view of people around you and resist the idea of becoming attached or close to others.
For instance, you may believe that people aren't trustworthy or dependable, which may cause reluctance to form close relationships with them. You also may not see close relationships as important and strive to remain independent and in control.
Those with fearful attachment tend to view attachment in a negative light. Not only do they have a negative view of others and their trustworthiness, but they also may not believe they are worthy of love and affection. They also may be less likely to reach out to others when they are stressed or need support.
If your avoidant attachment style has fearful undertones, your fear of being hurt or being vulnerable with others may keep you from opening up and building close relationships with them. Combine this with the belief that you do not feel you are lovable, and it can be more challenging to form bonds with others.
Signs of an Avoidant Attachment Style
If you have avoidant attachment, you may dodge close relationships and instead prefer to live an independent lifestyle. These other signs may also point to an avoidant attachment style:
Denying your need for closeness
Finding it hard to trust others
Limiting your ability to develop intimacy
Fearing rejection, betrayal, or social exclusion
Avoiding meaningful social situations
Using distancing techniques or excuses to limit interactions with others
Experiencing distressed or dysfunctional relationships
Being emotionally unavailable
Not wanting to be vulnerable with others
Wanting to be self-sufficient instead of relying on others
Feeling uncomfortable with closeness
Causes and Triggers
Psychologists theorize that attachment styles are formed during your early years based on the style of care and parenting you received, as well as the consistency of that care. But your attachment style is not a fixed trait or characteristic. In fact, your attachment style can develop and change based on other relationships in your life and how they affect you.
Researchers suggest that people tend to keep a mental record of their relationship successes and failures. How much comfort and support they received from each interaction then plays into their attachment style. This development of attachment style typically begins with your parents and continues with your close friends and romantic partners as you get older.
In other words, it is entirely possible for kids with an avoidant attachment style to grow up and have secure attachments as adults. Likewise, those with a secure attachment style in childhood can develop an avoidant or anxious attachment style later in life, especially if they lived through negative experiences. Some life events that can trigger an avoidant attachment style are your parents' divorce, abandonment by parents or romantic partners, or the loss of an important loved one.
Effects of Having an Avoidant Attachment Style
When someone has an avoidant attachment style, it can make relationships challenging not only for the avoidant person but also for their partner(s). The relationship can become stressful or dysfunctional and may lack intimacy or closeness.
If you have an avoidant attachment style, you may experience some difficulty with being emotionally available or vulnerable with your partner and other loved ones. You also may find excuses for not spending time together such as long work hours or being too busy with other responsibilities.
People with an avoidant attachment style also are more accepting of and more likely to participate in casual sex—especially because there are no emotional strings attached. Those with avoidant attachment typically have a higher number of sexual partners. But, they also may be more prone to mental health conditions like depression and social anxiety, particularly if they have a fearful avoidant attachment style.
If you have avoidant attachment, it's possible to experience several health issues, too. In fact, research has shown that those with avoidant attachment styles tend to experience more physical responses to stress. This can lead to issues that disrupt their endocrine, immune, and autonomic nervous system functioning, which may increase the risk of illness and infection.
People with an avoidant attachment style also tend to be less altruistic (considerate or compassionate) in some situations. One study found that those with this style of attachment donated less money to human and animal-related charities. But they were more willing to give money to charities that did not foster emotional closeness or humanitarian efforts.
How To Cope
If you notice that you or your partner have an avoidant attachment style, start by being accepting of who they are and how they communicate with others. This means giving yourself a break, too, if you are the one who tends to be more avoidant.
Recognize that regardless of a person's attachment style, they are still important, enough, and worthy of love. Likewise, their way of communicating and relating to you is not a reflection of who you are, your personality, or your value either.
Keep in mind: you cannot change another person's behavior, but you can change how you respond to their actions. Asking for what you want or need is perfectly acceptable and a healthy thing to do in a relationship. If you are an avoidant person this may be asking for more space. Or, if you are in a relationship with someone who has an avoidant attachment style, let them know what you need and what your desires are for the relationship.
That said, it also may be helpful to adjust your communication style. For instance, if you are in a relationship with someone who experiences avoidance, start by being sensitive to their need for autonomy and independence. On the other hand, if you have avoidant attachment, it can be important to tell your partner how much you value them even if you need space from time to time. Communication and working together to understand each other better is key here.
How to Change Your Attachment Style
Your attachment style is not set in stone. One study found that with effort and determination, people can change their attachment style. And while you cannot change another person's behavior, you can make a conscious choice to change your own and be successful at it.
The first step may be acknowledging what you want to be different in your life. Here are some possibilities:
I want to discuss my feelings and private thoughts with my partner
I want to be someone who knows how to depend on others
I want to be able to discuss my problems and stressors with my partner
I want to go to my partner or someone else for help when I need it
I want to be the type of person who expresses who I am and what I need
After you have set your goals, then you need to take steps to make them a reality. Start small by picking one of your goals and trying to make it a reality in a reasonable way. For instance, if you want to learn how to ask others for help, set a small goal to ask someone for assistance with something small—like carrying the groceries in from the car. Then, consider how that made you feel. If it's something that feels good, slowly continue to ask for more support.
You also may want to think about how your current attachment style affects your existing relationships and ask yourself what can you do to change the outcome. It may even be helpful to explore which events in your childhood or past relationships could be fueling this attachment style. Sometimes understanding what is behind your unconscious reactions and behaviors is the first step to changing them.
Of course, you do not have to do all of this on your own. It can be extremely helpful to enlist the assistance of a mental health professional. Look for someone who uses either dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
With DBT, you will learn how to cope with distress, consider other perspectives, and better regulate your emotions. Meanwhile, CBT can help you look at and challenge your negative thoughts and actions and work to modify or change your attachment style to be more secure.
How to Support a Partner With Avoidant Attachment
While being in a relationship with someone who has an avoidant attachment style can be challenging, there are ways to make it work. For instance, one study found that giving your partner moderate to high levels of practical support (or, acts of service) may help overcome their defenses.
Not only are you doing something tangible for them, but you also are giving them evidence that you are available to them and care about their needs. Plus, researchers noted that people with avoidant attachment styles also experienced less distress and increased self-efficacy from this approach.
Meanwhile, another study found that experiencing positive relationship events, like validating the relationship daily over a 21-day period reduced avoidant behavior. Other tips for supporting them (and yourself) include giving them the space they need, being patient, trying to understand their views, doing things without them, recognizing your value is not tied to the relationship, and refusing to interpret their avoidance as rejection.
A Quick Review
Attachment theory is based on the idea that everyone has a natural desire to bond with other people. But those who have an avoidant attachment style tend to avoid close relationships or bonds. People who have an avoidant attachment style tend to be untrusting of others and want to keep them at arm's length. But this type of attachment style can come with negative consequences like health issues, depression, anxiety, and distressed relationships.
That said, attachment styles are not set in stone and can be changed if the person is willing to put in the work. If you have an avoidant attachment style and you want to change how you interact with others, getting the assistance of a mental health professional can be helpful.
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