If you’ve ever dated an emotionally unavailable partner, you might have been dealing with an avoidant attachment style without even knowing it.
Attachment theory is fascinating.
Pioneered by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby, the theory suggests that the way we relate to our early caregivers influences our lifelong relationship style.
Think about that. The first five years of our lives are so powerful that we carry forward the trust we established with the ones who raised us — or the lack thereof.
The implications are enormous.
For those who grew up loved, cared for, and with caregivers who readily and consistently responded to their needs, attachment theory offers comfort.
This secure attachment from infancy and early childhood predicts happy, healthy relationships down the road.
For those of us who did not have the idyllic and consistent childhood of the securely attached, it may seem like we’re screwed.
Luckily for us, secure attachment style can be learned.
But first, we need to recognize the other attachment styles to figure out how our early years might still be impacting our relationships.
If we don’t have a secure attachment style, we fall in one of these other categories:
- Anxious Attachment
- Avoidant Attachment
- Fearful-Avoidant Attachment
I’ve written recently about what anxious attachment is, how to recognize the signs, and how to fix it.
I’ve shared information on secure attachment style and how to develop it.
Now, let’s dive into avoidant attachment, how to recognize it, and what we can do to repair it.
What Is an Avoidant Attachment Style?
Avoidant attachment style is sometimes referred to as dismissive attachment.
This name suggests much of what causes this insecure attachment style.
For the avoidantly attached, the parent or other caregiver likely encouraged independence, dismissed feelings and emotional forms of expression, and had strict household rules.
They weren’t consistently comforted in times of stress, and they were often shamed for their emotions. Furthermore, they were expected to be perfect to earn affection.
This rigid parenting style creates distrustful children who grow into adults who may find intimacy challenging. They learned in those early years to strive for perfection, toughness, self-reliance, and independence.
They also learned that their emotional experience wasn’t valued, validated, or even heard. It is perhaps unsurprising that people with avoidant attachment style grow into adults who struggle to navigate relationships.
Why listen to me? I was a master’s level licensed therapist who worked with couples, and families and specialized in trauma recovery and empowerment. I now write content about relationships and psychology. My work has been featured on Elite Daily, Your Tango, Positively Positive, Mamamia, and The Good Men Project.
Signs of an Avoidant Attachment Style
It’s important to understand the signs of avoidant attachment.
Not only can this help us identify our own relational style, but it can help us determine the relational style of those we partner — making us more empathetic and understanding partners.
1. They Have Charisma
Many avoidantly attached people are easily to get along with. They are likeable, friendly, and sociable. They are fun to be around and don’t generally lack for friends or partners.
This may be surprising when you consider that they are also insecurely attached.
2. They Are Confident
While anxiously attached people are riddled with insecurity, the avoidantly attached person is often confident.
Their self-worth is high. They hold themselves to a high standard — and it often extends outward to others. While they can be highly critical of themselves, it’s because they expect a lot from themselves and tend to achieve a lot as a result.
3. They Are Emotionally Unavailable
Their charm and charisma are often part of their allure.
Yet, they tend to avoid emotional intimacy. Happy to keep relationships on the surface, they will dodge deeper conversations, feelings, and relationship experiences.
They will likely exit relationships that attempt to go deep. And they can appear to thrive within shallow relationships.
4. They Are Fiercely Independent
The avoidantly attached adult is incredibly self-reliant.
They don’t depend on others, and they likely seem strong, capable, and resourceful.
While these all seem like positive qualities, they are often unable to ask others for help, to admit to struggling, or to lean on others for support.
Sadly, many are so fiercely independent that they’re happy to rescue others while being unable to allow anyone else’s assistance in their times of need.
5. They Tend to be Successful
Many avoidantly attached adults are incredibly successful. They have likely invested time and energy into personal and professional growth.
Because they usually feel confident, they often do well in their careers.
This may not seem like a bad thing, but the truth is that some avoidant partners are also workaholics who use their success as a buffer against emotional intimacy.
6. They Are Conflict Avoidant
Because their feelings were often dismissed, the avoidant child becomes a conflict avoidant adult.
They tend to withdraw from others rather than relying on other people for support.
They are also unlikely to address a problem directly, preferring more passive aggressive forms of communication to draw attention to problems. On the other end of this spectrum is denying problems entirely.
7. They Are Often Dismissive
Based on their own experience, the avoidant partner can see other partners as clingy when they desire emotional intimacy.
Because they have learned how to be entirely self-reliant, they may not understand other people’s need for closeness.
They are also so achievement-focused and successful that they can see themselves as highly capable while seeing other people as incompetent and imperfect.
The bar they set is high and helps them avoid closeness with others.
8. They Are Fearful
With all these traits, it may seem counterintuitive that the avoidant partner can also be fearful. Yet, it’s true that avoidantly attached individuals often have a heightened fear of rejection.
Their refusal to let anyone get close to them is often a defense mechanism they use to protect themselves from rejection.
9. They Are Commitment-Averse
The avoidant partner will dodge commitment whenever possible. They keep control in their relationships by being the person who cares less.
Interestingly enough, more men than women are avoidant partners — which could speak to the cultural dynamic that encourages men to suppress their feelings while allowing for women’s emotions to be accepted and validated.
How to Deal with an Avoidant Partner
It can seem enormously difficult to deal with an avoidant partner. The more you try to love them and the closer you try to get, the more likely they are to push you away. It’s challenging but not impossible. Here’s what you need to know.
Let Them Know You Aren’t Going Anywhere
Avoidant partners fear rejection and preemptively try to prevent it.
Let your avoidant partner know that you love them and aren’t going anywhere. They don’t trust easily and need to see that they can trust you not to abandon them.
Because avoidant people were often shamed for their feelings and held to a standard of perfection, criticize them is the worst thing you can do.
Instead of criticizing them and trying to make them do what you want, try being supportive of their choices instead.
This shows respect for their wants and needs — something they aren’t used to receiving.
A clingy partner isn’t likely to last long with an avoidant one. Instead, be independent and allow some space in the relationship. Make time in the relationship for each person to do their own thing and indulge their own interests.
Don’t Chase Them
If an avoidant partner is avoiding, chasing them down isn’t going to make them want to be closer. It will just make them feel crowded and pressured.
Avoidants are sometimes adept at the chase, preferring partners who are often unavailable themselves or equally avoidant of deeper emotions.
They don’t, however, enjoy being pursued.
Realize It’s Not Personal
It often feels personal when an avoidant partner tries to keep distance from you.
Remembering that it has everything to do with their early childhood attachment and nothing to do with you as a person could help you be more compassionate to their responses to love and affection.
Remember that your avoidant partner is more critical of themselves than you can ever be of them.
Practice Positive Reinforcement
Just as you shouldn’t criticize your avoidant partner, you do want to draw attention to their positive behaviors.
This can help build trust in the relationship and show that you appreciate what they bring to the relationship.
This is also a healthy way to recognize their good qualities rather than constantly focusing on their challenges.
Be Clear About Boundaries
Loving and choosing to be with an avoidant partner doesn’t mean tolerating abuse or disrespect. Be clear about what you want and need as well as what you will and won’t accept in the relationship.
You can accept that an avoidant partner has limits without violating your own.
An avoidant person has a baseline belief that other people can’t be trusted. So, be trustworthy. Show them they can count on you.
Do what you say you will and show up for them. Consistency will help them learn to trust you.
If you get emotional with an avoidant, you’re going to trigger their flight mode. Instead, be calm rather than emotional when discussing relationship issues or even sharing your strong feelings.
This will allow them to engage with you without activating their early warning system of intimacy and/or rejection.
If your avoidant partner is aware of their issues and working on them, don’t rush them or judge them for the struggle. It’s hard, but not impossible, to change attachment styles.
Be patient with them, and let them know you support their growth.
What If YOU Have an Avoidant Attachment Style?
For the person who has just identified their avoidant attachment style, there are things you can do to become more securely attached.
For instance, stop avoiding relationships. That sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Yet, studies found that avoidants who stopped avoiding relationships became more securely attached over time. It takes practice, but it can help you see that not all partners will leave, betray, crowd, or reject you.
Practice Talking About Emotions
The core belief of the avoidant person is that your emotions aren’t valued or important.
That doesn’t stop you from feeling emotions. It just prevents you from expressing them.
Learn to talk about your emotions by practicing being more open with partners.
Don’t Believe Everything You Think
Avoidants have a lot of negative self-talk. And life events often reinforce it. If you’re avoidant, you learned early on that other people won’t support you.
Later, your reactions to intimacy may have reinforced this belief system. You’ll need to learn that you can’t believe everything you think.
If your default thoughts about yourself and others are negative, you’ll need to learn to stop and replace these thoughts with more positive ones. It won’t come naturally. That’s why it’s so important to practice.
It’s hard to change your attachment style.
When your innate sense of the world develops even before your earliest memories, it’s challenging to change it.
Seeking professional help can help you learn to navigate life without avoidance being your only response to the world around you.
Understand Your Partner’s Attachment Style
Just as you would hope someone would take the time to understand where you’re coming from, consider your partner’s attachment style.
Avoidants often struggle with anxiously attached partners, but both people are responding to their early childhood conditioning.
Taking the time to understand where your partner is coming from can help empathy flow in both directions.
Ask for Space When Needed
Instead of shutting down and withdrawing when triggered, ask for space.
You can do it by letting your partner know that you need time to decompress – and that it’s nothing personal.
Learning to ask for what you need with a partner willing to honor it will help you learn to trust your partner and the relationship.
All this while giving you the chance to regulate your emotions without responding impulsively to them.
Write It Down
One of the most powerful exercises an avoidant person can do is to write down their feelings. Journal how you feel. Write letters to your partner.
If you have trouble expressing yourself, take the time to write it.
You may find that writing your emotions — even if you don’t share what you write — can be a powerful way to express them and practice better communication.
I love the advice of practicing one vulnerable action a day. As a person whose therapist told me I need to practice asking for help, I wholeheartedly endorse rehearsing vulnerability.
Avoidants can try this daily by asking for help, admitting to having a hard time, spending time with someone when their instinct is to avoid, or even trying to collaborate with others rather than working alone.
By integrating vulnerability into your life with safe, supportive people, you’ll learn how to share your emotions and depend on others without the experience of rejection, criticism, or judgment.
Our childhood experiences are powerful. Our relationships we had with our caregivers heavily influence the way we look at the world today.
We think we can leave childhood behind and choose our own destiny.
And we can. The truth is that it’s possible to understand our early attachment and to do the work to become more securely attached.
It won’t rewrite history, but it could be the determining factor in a happier, healthier future.