Avoidant Attachment Style: What It Means & How to Deal With It
You’re at the start of a new relationship with someone you really like. The first few weeks, even months of seeing this person truly ignites something inside you. But then, out of nowhere, something inside you shifts.
You still have feelings for this person, even caring about them deeply, but things suddenly feel too serious. You’re suffocating, and you worry you’re losing your independence to this person. If you continue to let them in, you fear it’ll make you too vulnerable. The more they try to get closer to you, the further you pull away.
Eventually, you convince yourself that this relationship wouldn’t work out in the end anyway, so you sabotage it. Maybe you stop returning their texts, or you say something unforgivable that you don’t even mean. And instead of walking away from that relationship feeling upset or sad, you instantly feel relieved.
Is reading this like a page straight out of your dating memoir? Consider that to be the recipe for an avoidant attachment style.
What Is (and What Causes) an Avoidant Attachment Style?
Our attachment style gets formed by the experiences we have in early childhood.
“For individuals growing up in hectic, disorganized, or chaotic environments, attachment issues can arise,” explains Dr. Steven Powell, psychiatrist and clinical specialty advisor of Hims & Hers. “It has been found that a lack of attention and responsiveness by one’s mother is a key contributing factor to developing an avoidant attachment style.”
This neglect can come in many different forms – if you were always made to play on your own, if your sadness was ignored or minimized, or conversely, if your happiness wasn’t an important factor to your parents.
Because these individuals learn early on that their emotional needs will be disregarded by their primary caregivers, it creates the belief that these needs won’t be met by relationships formed later on in adulthood.
“People with avoidant attachment learn to rely only on themselves and have little interest in reaching out to others for support or assistance,” says Powell. “Not showing the need for outward affection, closeness, or love is a defense mechanism, although the underlying need is still there.”
Signs of Having an Avoidant Attachment Style in a Relationship
“A large part of being in a relationship is closeness, and when individuals do not feel that they need others, are afraid to commit, or feel that they have to protect themselves, it becomes a big barrier to intimacy,” explains Powell.
People with an avoidant attachment style will intentionally distance themselves from a romantic partner if they feel the relationship has become too close or intimate, and even self-sabotage their relationships.
“They have a tendency to run away or shut down when things start getting too serious for their liking,” explains sex therapist Robert Thomas. “Oftentimes, their partners then feel guilty or at fault in these situations. This kind of behavior is just their insecurities manifesting — pulling away, isolating themselves, or bringing their walls up to affection helps them feel safe.”
These particular individuals certainly won’t express love and emotion verbally. They might even intentionally change the subject or shut down if they feel the conversation they’re involved in is moving toward a heavily romantic territory.
“In romantic relationships, avoidant/dismissive individuals are likely to express their love through instrumental care rather than through vulnerable expression,” explains clinical psychologist Michael Kinsey. “That is, the avoidant adult does not place a high value on emotional expression, so love will be expressed purely as practical help.”
What to Do If You Have an Avoidant Attachment Style
“Healing and growth really come from leaning into emotional pain when overwhelms rigid defenses,” says Kinsey. “Usually inappropriate anger is a sign that an avoidant adult is struggling to recognize a more vulnerable feeling. Amplifying these moments with a therapist, friend, or partner and attempting to reflect on the context and significance of the pain is the best way to soften the rigid facade. As you might expect, something significant often needs to occur — whether a trauma, depression, panic attack, etc. for the avoidant adult to really be motivated to face their feelings.”
And avoidant individuals shouldn’t fear that they’ll never be able to form a healthy, love-filled relationship ever in their lifetime. In fact, over time, Powell suggests it is possible “to improve and develop healthy relationships.”
“This comes from the journey through life and interactions with positive experiences and individuals,” he says. “It is important for those with attachment issues to process their childhood and to understand how this has affected them in adulthood. Psychiatric and psychological care can be very helpful and is often needed for complete understanding and improvement. Working to understand the impacts of childhood can ultimately result in healthy relationships as an adult.”