Here's What Having An Avoidant Attachment Style Really Means + How To Work Through It
Attachment styles relate to how we approach intimacy and relationships, often stemming back to our earliest experiences with parents or caregivers. Avoidant attachment style is a common, if less than ideal, attachment style. Here's why some people form this attachment style and how to work through it as an adult, according to experts.
What is avoidant attachment?
The four attachment styles are secure attachment, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, and fearful-avoidant (aka disorganized) attachment.
The avoidant attachment style is the second most common out of the four types and involves a tendency to form insecure relationships out of a desire to remain independent.
As clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., previously wrote for mindbodygreen, "Those with this style often seem to have strong self-esteem and a very independent streak. However, their hyper-independence and strong defense mechanisms make it difficult to connect on an intimate level."
Manly adds that people with this attachment style are most comfortable with superficial hookups or short-term relationships, while any long-term connections tend to be detached and self-focused in nature. "An attitude of aloof superiority can often be evident in those with a dismissive-avoidant style," she explains.
Signs of avoidant attachment:
Struggling with being emotionally vulnerable
Feeling dependent on someone can bring up fears of pain and rejection because the more vulnerable they become, the more open or likely they are to get hurt. This can result in shutting down or leaning away from a partner when they feel they're "getting too close," or in general, struggling to express true vulnerability.
As therapist and relationship expert Ken Page, LCSW, says, one of the biggest ways this can manifest is by avoidant people ignoring, repressing, or not communicating their own needs. They may even truly believe they don't have needs because they've become so disconnected from relying on others.
Difficulty in handling conflict
For people with an avoidant attachment style, conflict (or any negative emotion) is often met with hostility. In fact, one 2017 paper on apologies and attachment styles1 found that those exhibiting avoidant attachment behaviors "tend to use distancing strategies when they, their partners, or their relationships are distressed."
This might look like your partner is avoiding conflict, being passive-aggressive, stonewalling, or otherwise shutting down attempts to communicate openly.
Unwilling to rely on others
Because avoidants have historically been let down, they feel most comfortable handling their problems on their own (and without talking about it), Page explains. He adds that this can also manifest intro control issues, such as eating disorders, as a way to self-soothe and control their own needs.
Trouble reading emotions
In the aforementioned 2017 study on attachment styles, researchers also found that avoidant partners are less accurate than the average person when it came to guessing their partners' emotional state. Interestingly, stressors worsened their ability to interpret emotional states, which translates to avoidants being even less likely to decipher their partner's words or behaviors correctly in the middle of a conflict.
Repressing or hiding negative emotional states
As he explains, "When instructed to suppress their thoughts and feelings, [avoidant] individuals were able to do so effectively. That is, they could deactivate their physiological arousal to some degree and minimize the attention they paid to attachment-related thoughts."
Feeling repulsed by intimacy
According to Page, some other signs of an avoidant personality are instances in which they seem turned off by intimacy—whether that's avoiding physical contact, avoiding eye contact, being generally repulsed by people, or feeling like you need to get away from people a lot, he says.
This "repulsion" is also common when a partner expresses their needs to an avoidant (i.e., if the avoidant can handle everything themselves, why can't everyone else?).
Striving for independence above all
People with avoidant attachment have had to fight hard to become the strong, independent people they are—so they're not often quick to give that up. As Page tells mindbodygreen, "Feeling like your sense of independence is so hugely important" is a major sign of an avoidant personality.
Uncomfortable feeling needed
Relating back to numbers 3 and 6, people who have an avoidant attachment style prefer not to rely on others for as much as possible, favoring their independence and "no-strings-attached" mindset—and that translates to not wanting to be relied on, either, Page says.
Avoidants may be quick to find others (particularly those with anxious attachment) needy, clingy, or "too much" because they've become so used to never expressing their own needs. So, when someone expresses their needs to them, it can seem ridiculous, cringey, or even suffocating.
Attraction to unavailable people
Last but not least, Page calls out a paradoxical phenomena he's seen time and time again with avoidant clients; attracting unavailable people. As he tells mindbodygreen, getting into unstable relationships is a subconscious effort to stay in the familiar zone of not needing to rely on anyone, be vulnerable, or experience healthy love.
These relationships with emotionally unavailable people, in a roundabout way, mirror the very deprivation they grew up with, he adds, because the avoidant knows deep down that the relationship will never truly require them to drop their guard.
Why avoidant attachment happens
Attachment styles are formed in our earliest years based on the kind of care (and consistency of that care) we received from caregivers. And according to Page, if you have an avoidant attachment style, "You come from an environment where the level of care and responsiveness was just not adequate—and so you have to essentially swallow your needs, your struggles, your desires, in order to maintain the minimum level of connection that exists."
And we're not talking about basic needs like food, shelter, and water, but emotional needs, like feeling understood and loved as you are. "You have to not only feel like you're going to be cared for but also feel like you're being seen and being cherished. Those are the components of the recipe that helps someone relax and begin to trust the world, their relationships, and themselves in a deeper way," Page notes.
Unlike anxious attachment, which makes one hyper-dependent or "clingy" in relationships, avoidants learn not to cling at all. "So you've got pain but you learn to be an island, like the Simon and Garfunkel song," Page explains, adding, "and that really affects romantic partnerships and about 30% of the people."
How to prevent it
If you're a parent raising a young child, it's important to understand the factors that influence healthy attachment so your child can grow up with a sense of trust, belonging, and connection.
There's a book Page recommends, which he says outlines those factors well, called The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, by clinical psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, M.D.
"What he says," Page explains, "is the two great keys that will help a person raise a child that has a generally healthy sense of self is to, one, teach them mastery—that they can handle problems. And two is that the child has a felt sense that the parent enjoys who they are."
And how do you convey to a child that you enjoy who they are, you ask? "It involves deeper listening. It involves going into the child's world. It involves, for a parent, understanding that play is not a luxury—it's where the child's self is formed in the world," Page says, adding, "And being present with your child in their play, letting it go wherever it goes as a way to build their imagination, their creativity, their sense of groundedness in the world, builds their sense of trust."
How to unlearn avoidant attachment
While learning to reframe your attachment style can require time and effort, it's not impossible, and your relationships will thank you for it. As Page explains, the biggest things you can do to get started are cultivating relationships with people you can truly trust, as well as focusing on the inner work of connecting to your own needs (and learning to voice them slowly but surely).
In an effort toward personal growth of any kind, mindfulness is also always required. After all, you can't unlearn patterns if you don't notice them in the first place.
To that end, marriage counselor Linda Carroll, M.S., previously wrote for mindbodygreen, "Practicing mindfulness is essential for any change. In relationships, shifting from reactiveness to responsiveness can lift us out of our early attachment patterns toward a healthier, more secure style."
As you start to notice when your avoidant tendencies are popping up, you can work to adjust your behavior. Page adds that working with a therapist you can trust is not only a good way to open yourself up to another person but, further, to learn to tap into your own repressed needs and feelings.
"I cannot overemphasize how important it is to find people who cherish you and that you can trust and how much more important that is than just trying to do it on your own," Page tells mindbodygreen, adding, "Psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually, 'lifting yourself up by your bootstraps' never works because we are interdependent teams, first and foremost."
Finally, he says, avoidants must learn not to be ashamed of their needs and even to validate, honor, and champion them. To that end, he says, "The distance you keep from your own heart is the very distance you keep from your intimate relationships," and when you're connected to the desires in your own heart, "you're going to be able to embrace that in your intimate relationships."
It's also important to note that these attachment styles exist on a spectrum of sorts, and few among us are 100% secure, according to Page. If lingering avoidant tendencies remain, it's not the end of the world, especially if you've communicated your feelings to your partner. Page tells mindbodygreen that having a trustworthy and reliable partner who understands your need for space and independence can help you open up more in time.
What are the characteristics of avoidant attachment?
The characteristics of avoidant attachment include not relying on others, not expressing needs, difficulty maintaining intimate relationships, struggling with conflict and vulnerability, and being turned off by clingy partners.
What is avoidant attachment style in adults?
Avoidant attachment style in adults describes a pattern of relationship behavior in which the avoidant prioritizes independence over intimacy, due to feeling like they cannot trust or rely on others to have their needs met.
Can someone with avoidant attachment fall in love?
Yes, someone with avoidant attachment can fall in love, though they may not want to and wind up pushing love away. However, it is possible for them to overcome their avoidance with intentionality.
All of us deserve healthy relationships in which we feel connected, trusting, and open, no matter what our early years looked like. While your childhood may have resulted in an avoidant attachment style today, that doesn't mean you can't work to move toward secure attachment going forward.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.