Your life has been a string of relationships where you crave closeness but veer away from it almost as quickly as you find it. You discover you can’t settle into a relationship with a partner because he/she either does not live up to your expectations or they are going out to spend time alone with your friends. Because your partner doesn’t include you in every aspect of his/her life, you fear rejection and cling to them; behavior that ultimately drives them away.
If the above paragraph describes you, then you may be someone who has an avoidant attachment style.
Last week we discovered the four different types of attachment styles: secure, avoidant, anxious and fearful. This week we are going to focus on avoidant attachment style and how having this kind of behavior can influence not only your life but those around you as well.
Please remember, even if you do recognize yourself in this article, there is hope.
What is the Definition of Avoidant Attachment?
Avoidant attachment is a way of thinking and behaving that is characterized by the need to protect oneself and stay away from relationships while craving to be in a long-term intimate relationship.
People exhibiting this relationship style are desperate to form what they consider to be the perfect relationship. They set up unrealistic and fantasy driven expectations for their partners and have a deep emotional hunger.
Those living with avoidant attachment styles are looking for someone to not only rescue them but to complete them. They are seeking safety even though they no longer need someone else to meet this need as adults.
The Chaos That Ensues Because of Avoidant Attachment
These folks exhibit behaviors that show they are desperate and insecure. They lure a partner by looking like someone who desires a relationship with them, then take steps to push the new partner away. They refuse to become even a little bit reliant on their partners for emotional support. They choose to be jealous of their partner’s friendships and withhold their affection from their partners fearing rejection.
People who exhibit avoidant attachment behaviors feel unsure about their partner’s feelings towards them, and these emotions cause them to feel unsafe. They interpret any independent actions by their partners as the fulfillment of their fears that they are not really whom they appear.
This push and pull behavior strains any relationships an avoidant person may have and thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy when their partners give up and leave.
Bowlby, Ainsworth, and Attachment Theory
In a recap from last week, the four attachment styles identified by Mary Ainsworth, a psychologist working alongside John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory. Bowlby’s attachment theory states that children are born biologically pre-programmed to form attachments to others to survive.
Bowlby proposed that the relationship between a very young child and the primary caretaker is responsible for how the child would shape future relationships, their ability to focus, their awareness of their feelings and their ability to calm themselves down.
A child’s attachment to their caretaker provided the platform on which children build resilience, the ability to rebound when bad things happen.
Mary Ainsworth did a series of tests using the Strange Situational Procedure to measure how children behaved under different forms of maternal rejection. Using this procedure, Ainsworth found the four attachment styles which are the topic of this series of articles.
Plausible Causes of the Avoidant Attachment Style
Through Mary Ainsworth’s research, it became apparent that adults learn their attachment style in infancy in reaction to the parenting style of the primary caregiver (For the sake of time and clarity the primary caregiver will be known as a mother from here out).
The results of the observations of mothers and their children found that parents of children who have developed an avoidant attachment style are emotionally unavailable to their child most of the time. The mother did not respond well or ignored their children when they came to them looking for attention. This lack of response from the mother was especially apparent if their child was ill or had fallen and caused themselves pain.
Parents of children with an avoidant attachment style also were observed discouraging their children from crying and expecting premature independence from their kids. This discouragement from crying and expecting children to behave above their abilities tells the child that their feelings and needs aren’t important.
The cognitive dissonance this behavior from inattentive mothers causes is remarkable. The child learns early in life that to expect attentive interactions with their mother is to risk being rejected. So, these children learn not to cry outwardly for attention, and that if they wish to remain close to their mother, they must suppress their natural desire to seek out her comfort.
Unfortunately, children with an avoidant attachment style tend to become disconnected from their body’s needs and rely heavily on soothing themselves. This behavior tends to push the child towards having little desire to seek out others for help and support.
The Visible Effects of Avoidant Behavior in Infancy
A student of Ainsworth, Mary Main worked closely regarding the Strange Situational Procedure. One observation these researchers made was that children with avoidant attachment style did not show stress when their mother left nor did they show any emotion when the mother returned.
This puzzling behavior held the psychology world hostage for a time until Mary Main suggested a possible theory. She surmised that the obvious uncaring of the children to their mother’s absence and return was a conditional strategy learned in early infancy in response to maternal rejection.
Main suggested that this avoidance strategy served two needs.
One, it allows the child to keep a distance from the mother that is close enough for protection but far enough to avoid being verbally or physically punished (rejected).
Two, by organizing themselves into a coordinated avoidant behavior they directed attention away from what they could not get from mother, which is to be close to her. The child’s new behavior avoids the situation of being overwhelmed and distressed by the rejection of mom. They would instead turn to self-soothing, self-reliant behavior to feel like they are accepted and loved.
How Avoidant Type of Attachment Style Effects You Today
The first way this type of attachment influences your adult life is in how you feel about personal boundaries. People who have an avoidant attachment style value their space. To keep this space, they enforce boundaries about themselves and to their partners.
These boundaries can be both physical and emotional as they may choose to sleep in a separate room or hide emotions from their partners.
Secondly, people with this attachment style also don’t disclose their deepest feelings to others and have a sense of strong emotional independence. They avoid sharing their inner world because to do so would bring them closer to their partners, something they try to avoid.
This attachment style also causes people to prefer casual over intimate sex because they don’t want to care about their partner’s feelings after sex and wish to maintain their freedom to leave the relationship.
A third-way avoidant attachment style effects us in adulthood is that avoidants treat their partners like people they are doing business with instead of as intimate lovers. They feel solely responsible for their own well-being and seldom discuss their emotions with their partners. They interpret their partner’s regular need to speak about how they are feeling emotionally as their partner being needy.
A fourth-way avoidant style influences adults is an avoidant’s deep-seated need to love as others do. This need creates a conundrum in the avoidant’s mind because they miss their partners when they are away but feel trapped when they return.
Don’t Despair; There is Hope!
If you found yourself reading your lifestyle in this article, don’t despair. There are ways to help yourself mitigate the damage done when you were a child.
Although we are going to offer these four tips, you may need to seek out a mental health professional to help. They can help you find your way through the maze of emotions that have held you captive since childhood.
There is an article in Psychology Today written by Dr. Hal Shorey that speaks about four ways to help you change your attachment style should you find that you did recognize yourself. Below is an explanation of what Dr. Shorey has to say about overcoming an avoidant attachment style.
One, Write down positive affirmations and read them out loud to yourself often. The positive affirmations you choose do not need to be long phrases; they can be short statements like “I am lovable” or “I am worthwhile, and I am enough.”
The reasoning behind reading positive statements to yourself is to replace the old comments that you believe about yourself that you learned in childhood. These negative tapes are playing in the background of your mind and continually reinforce the rejection you felt as a child. By reading these affirmations out loud, you are replacing old statements with new ones.
Two, learn to become your own cheering section. In infancy, when our attachment style was forming, people who have an avoidant style were criticized and rejected. Cheering yourself on and giving yourself pats on the back reinforces the fact that you do not deserve only negative criticism.
Positive self-talk reinforces the truth that you deserved good statements then, and that you deserve to positive, affirmative messages given you now.
Statements like “I can do this” and “I have what it takes” stated out loud to yourself will help give you a more optimistic outlook on who you are as an adult. Positive self-talk will also help you bond with someone else. This bonding happens because you feel better about who you are and that gives you scaffolding onto which you can build your knowledge of what others want as well.
The benefits will come even if you don’t agree or believe what you are saying in your positive self-talk at first. If you persist, you will find these new prophecies about yourself will begin to come true.
Three, use a mirror to connect with yourself. This part of the work to overcome avoidant attachment style is perhaps the hardest because for avoidants. However, the procedure is simple. All you need is a quiet room away from prying eyes, and a mirror.
Once you are in front of your image, begin the procedure by telling yourself how much you genuinely love you. You can also tell you that you believe in your ability to succeed in all you wish in life.
At first, you may find yourself wracked with giggles, but by continuing to tell yourself positive things while looking into your eyes, subtle changes will start to happen. Your behavior toward and expectations of others will change as you reinforce these positive messages.
The premise is simple. You did not receive the positive messages you needed from mom in infancy to allow you to feel safe and wanted. Your emotional health became compromised because your primary caregiver did not meet your needs.
Speaking to yourself while looking into your eyes saying, “I love you,” fulfills this long, unmet emotional need.
In effect, you become your mother offering yourself the emotional support you always needed.
Four, use visualization to work with your inner child. Typically, children form a secure attachment style by interacting with their caregivers who hold them and support them as they mature. These moments of intimacy between mother and child build up a reservoir of memories for the child, now an adult, to turn to when they are distressed in adulthood.
Those who exhibit avoidant attachment style did not receive the interactions they needed from mother to build up their reservoir of memories. This lack of care leaves these avoidant adults seeking out partners and friends to comfort them when they feel anxious or otherwise distressed.
One way to mitigate the effects of childhood neglect of our emotional needs is to create memories now.
To build the good memories, you need to get in touch with the little child that resides inside all humanity. Making good memories can mean physically going somewhere to enjoy entertaining your inner child such as a park, or visualizing yourself playing on a beach or in a meadow.
Make sure to introduce yourself to your inner child and listen to what he/she is trying to tell you about how they feel and what they want. Tell this small part of you that never grew up that you are the adult version of that child and thank them for helping you achieve what you have so far in life.
It is guaranteed, if you spend enough time with that little tyke that resides in your soul, you will grow to love them as though they were a child outside of yourself. When you do, you have witnessed a miracle. Instead of being the needy person desperate to find someone to fulfill you and then feeling trapped, you will discover that you love yourself and thus enough.
After all, that inner child is you. To love him/her is to enjoy who you were and are today.
Next week’s article will cover the attachment style called anxious/insecure.
It is the sincere hope of this author and the Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Foundation that you are enjoying these articles and learning from them.