Navigating Avoidant Attachment in Romantic Relationships
Attachment theory proposes that humans seek close, emotional bonds from birth. Then, based on their primary caregiver’s level of responsiveness they develop similar expectations for others (i.e. caregivers, friends, romantic partners). Those expectations make up what’s called an attachment style.
These attachment styles are continually under development but begin to take shape in our infancy. As infants we learn to use signals for closeness, such as crying or reaching, to have our needs met by our caregivers. Early experiences with caregivers can shape lifetime perceptions about whether an individual feels worthy of being loved and whether their closest relationships will be available to help them when needed (Stanton et al., 2017).
Children that are securely attached have caregivers that respond to their expression of needs in a timely and consistent way; they feel that they have a secure base and establish basic trust in others (Broderick & Blewitt, 2020). As a result, a securely attached child can cope during moments of distress because they fundamentally know that they can turn to others for support.
What is Avoidant Attachment?
In contrast, an avoidantly attached child typically has a depressed or withdrawn caregiver that does not consistently meet their needs. Withdrawn caregiving includes behaviors such as not making eye contact, not holding the child often, and frequent negative emotions.
As young as infants, when children find that their signals for closeness are ineffective they will begin to withdraw to cope with the distress of their caregiver’s non-responsiveness. Then, during future moments of distress, the avoidantly attached child does not expect their caregiver to be a source of help. As a result, the child will suppress their negative emotion to disguise their need for help even to themselves (Broderick & Blewitt, 2020).
Our attachment styles grow with us as we age. Research has found that our attachment styles tend to stay consistent over time and reinforce themselves as we transition from childhood to young adulthood.
Securely attached teens use active and internal coping skills, such as seeking emotional support from friends or thinking through possible solutions to a problem, as they age into adulthood. In contrast, avoidantly attached teens use avoidance strategies, such as abusing alcohol, to help them ignore the source of stress or release emotional tension through behavioral outbursts, for example, slamming doors (Seiffge-Krenke & Beyers, 2005).
What is My Attachment Style?
Read each of the three passages below and choose the one that is closest to how you think about your romantic and/or close relationships.
“I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them. I don’t worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.”
“I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like… I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.”
“I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others. I find it difficult to trust completely… I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.”
If you answered 3, you may have an avoidant attachment style. If you answered 2, you may have an anxious attachment style (more on this in future blog posts). And, if you answered 1, you may have a secure or earned secure attachment style (adapted from Broderick & Blewitt, 2020).
Avoidant Attachment in Romantic Relationships
Avoidantly attached adults fear intimacy in romantic relationships despite a desire for closeness. They expect their partners to overwhelm them with demands and withdraw during times of conflict or stress. Therefore, they avoid and resist creating the deep connection they long for.
Highly avoidant partners are perceived to be less sensitive, engage in less self-disclosure, provide less physical comfort to their partners, have less sex with their partners (although they are more likely to engage in casual sex), and experience less relationship satisfaction (Stanton et al., 2017; Overall et al., 2015).
Highly avoidant partners overestimate the amount of negative emotion, such as hurt or sadness that their partner is experiencing. Therefore, they are more likely to withdraw or react with hostility when their partner is expressing what they think is a minor issue. For example, a highly avoidant partner may misinterpret their partner’s disappointment about a lack of quality time as a personal attack and could further withdraw or become aggressive when receiving a request for connection (Overall et al., 2015).
Earned Secure Attachment
The attachment style that an individual establishes in infancy is not their fate. An attachment style can change over the course of a lifetime through the influence of peers, mentors, and romantic partners.
Positive relationship experiences have the power to counter the negative expectations that avoidant individuals have about their worth or belief in other people. Earned secure attachment occurs when adults can realistically reflect on their difficult past with a degree of generosity for their caregivers’ emotional absence.
In one study, avoidantly attached individuals that participated in intimacy-promoting activities, such as partnered stretching, engaged in more self-disclosure and increased the quantity and quality of the time spent with their partner in the weeks following the activity. This research points out that even if avoidantly attached individuals report that they do not enjoy the intimacy promoting activities, they experience increased relationship satisfaction because of them (Stanton et al., 2017).
If you find that you or a loved one are avoidantly attached, try to incorporate positive relationship experiences that are gently intimate into your routine.
Some examples of activities to try include:
Going for a walk together
Engaging in light partnered stretching (look for free videos on YouTube!)
Making a new recipe together
Going on a double date
Taking a drawing class together
As humans, we all desire closeness. If you find that your attachment style is creating a negative impact in your relationships, know that change is possible with the right support.
About the Author
Hello! My name is Kelsye Turner. I am the Client Care Coordinator for Dr. Jessica Aron’s practice. I attend Wayne State University’s Master’s Program in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and I am eager to explore topics related to my coursework with this blog. Stay tuned for more posts exploring topics related to attachment styles and romantic relationships, friendships, and parenting.
Broderick, P. C., & Blewitt, P. (2020). The life span: Human development for helping professionals (Fifth edition). Pearson.
Overall, N. C., Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., & Fillo, J. (2015). Attachment insecurity, biased perceptions of romantic partners’ negative emotions, and hostile relationship behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(5), 730–749. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0038987
Seiffge-Krenke, I., & Beyers, W. (2005). Coping Trajectories from Adolescence to Young Adulthood: Links to Attachment State of Mind. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 15(4), 561–582. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1532-7795.2005.00111.x
Stanton, S. C. E., Campbell, L., & Pink, J. C. (2017). Benefits of positive relationship experiences for avoidantly attached individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(4), 568–588.https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000098