Have you ever been in a relationship where the longer you stay in it, the more disconnected it feels? In fact, it borderlines on abuse. Over 25% of people are impacted by an Avoidant attachment adaptation. Learn to recognize the traits of an Avoidant and what you can do.

What is Avoidant attachment?

Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, authors of Attached, tell us there are two main attachment styles: Secure and Insecure. When the caregiver is receptive and attentive to a child’s needs, it is most likely he will develop a Secure attachment. When the caregiver is less attentive and more distant, normally an Insecure attachment style is formed – Avoidant, Ambivalent/Anxious, or Disorganized.

While Avoidant attachment sounds like an oxymoron, we should understand the words in the literal sense. They mean, as suggested, to avoid becoming attached.

Rooted in childhood

This type of attachment wound normally occurs when the mother is emotionally unavailable. She may be present, but she may not be there when the child needs connection. She may be busy doing tasks. She may also leave the child to play alone for extended periods. The child learns to withdraw and meet his own needs. This way he can stay close to her but have no expectations concerning connection.

The greater the adaptation, the more the adult Avoidant appears to the outside world as a person who does not need others and who functions autonomously. In fact, he often feels alone, isolated, and unable to depend fully on a primary attachment figure.

Coping strategies

As a result of early brain wiring, the Avoidant desensitizes his emotions when his primary attachment figure leaves or he leaves. There is no longing that is characterized by the Anxious Ambivalent type. And the Avoidant will adapt very quickly to something he has always done – to autoregulate, skipping over the part where he misses a spouse or partner.

What is autoregulation? This is a strategy that is employed to self-soothe the nervous system in order to gain feelings of safety. In other words, the child is playing alone in his room with his toys and he is unaware that he is with another person. Because autoregulation does not require people, it tends to be dissociative, energy conserving, and by definition serves only internal needs.

Examples of adult autoregulating activities include:

  • Technology – excessive gaming, television, iPad or phone use.
  • Exercise.
  • Eating and drinking.
  • Alcohol and drugs.
  • Obsessing.

Note: Autoregulating activities are often addictive in nature.

Relationship expert and psychotherapist, Stan Tatkin, says: “This turning to the self for all things foreshadows future relationship troubles on a variety of levels, most of which involve approach by a primary attachment figure.”

Interpersonal dynamics

The Avoidant’s behaviour is often mystifying to his spouse or partner at first, particularly when it moves from a two-person psychological system to one-person psychological system so rapidly. But after a while, patterns begin to emerge.

Reducing emotional proximity

For the Avoidant, the ball naturally rolls in the direction of autoregulation as the relationship evolves. By screening out bids for connection or interaction, the Avoidant is unaware of any breach in the attachment system. However, when the spouse or partner is becoming too close – perhaps she is seeking connection or support – a threat response is triggered, which results in the Avoidant making use of deactivating strategies to put a wall up. These strategies suppress the attachment system, the biological desire to seek closeness with a loved one.

  • Withdrawing or “checking out” (glazed or closed eyes, turning his back, focusing on technology).
  • Deflecting or projecting (moving the focus, bringing up failures or weaknesses of the other person).
  • Baiting (creating an undesirable picture, “you’re starting a fight” “you’re ranting”).
  • Fixing (offering pragmatic solutions instead of emotional support).
  • Delaying (continuing with activity without responding, it feels like being ignored).
  • Secretive (keeping things foggy or confusing).
  • Gas-lighting (dismissing or invalidating emotions/feelings, “there’s something wrong with you”).

Note: Depending on how early the neglect, Avoidants may experience strong reactions to voice (prosody) and appearance can be altered, with near vision evoking feelings of invasion and far vision inducing disgust and aversion.

After the relationship has been fractured by any of these responses, the Avoidant will often continue to withhold or deny emotional connection. He will return to autoregulation immediately and repair is off the table. (There is no need, right? He has regulated and his spouse or partner’s emotions are well…her emotions so she needs to deal with it.)

How does it feel for the spouse or partner? There is no being seen, being heard, being understood, being part of the conversation. Spouses or partners of Avoidants often feel invalidated – both inside the home as well as outside of it. In social situations, the Avoidant will tend to ignore his spouse or partner – he does this by ignoring (huddling) or looking at his spouse or partner with disdain when she attempts to enter the conversation. This feels like rejection and the nervous system responds. It can often lead to social anxiety.

Reducing physical proximity

The Avoidant’s attachment adaption is rooted in a fantasy of omnipresence and permanence.  While the mother may not have been “there” emotionally, the child could rely on her physical presence. After the “honeymoon” period of a romantic relationship, the Avoidant will often prioritize things that take him away. The fantasy of omipresence allows him to spend extended time away from his spouse or partner, without awareness of separation or loss. In the Avoidant’s mind, his spouse or partner is always there, is always around, and will never leave him.

In fact, often the Avoidant’s defense is so rapid and effective that he is unaware of distress when he leaves for a day or a week. The shift to autoregulation is immediate. He may claim to feel relieved or excited by brief or even extended separations. And he certainly will not feel the need to make connection during these absences.

How does it feel for the spouse or partner? To start with, physical distancing is by and large accepted by the Avoidant’s loved one. After all, this is just a part of the Avoidant’s job or personality, right? But if this behaviour continues, it begins to bring up feelings of neglect and abandonment. When the spouse or partner attempts to communicate these emotions, she is often shamed as being weak because many other spouses or partners can cope with it. The difference being, these are often securely attached couples who can connect and coregulate.

Further, lack of healthy fear of loss through illness, death, separation or divorce means that when life-threatening events do occur, the Avoidant is once again unable to connect with his spouse or partner. He abandons her (to process shock or grief alone) because of his belief system that she will always be there.

Creating an “enemy” state

Those who were once in the Avoidant’s “inner circle” begin to find themselves at the fringe of his life.

  • The Avoidant talks to other people, rather than his spouse or partner, about important issues.
  • Those in the inner circle are often the last to hear about news or events, frequently learning from another source.
  • In an emergency, it is unlikely he will be there (emotionally) for his spouse or partner. But the opposite applies to those outside of the inner circle.
  • Shaming and verbal abuse have replaced intimacy and connection.

How does it feel for the spouse or partner? It can take years for an Avoidant’s loved one to realize that she has been relocated, that she is now the enemy. Often it is a process of stealth. As painful as this realization may be, it is often harder to leave.

Attachment trauma therapist, Alan Robarge, tells us of the double-bind experience of needing to ignore and betray oneself when attempting to stay in relationship with someone who no longer treats one as someone worthy and deserving.

“If [partners] don’t call attention to it. If it is assumed…if we are to conclude that we are just going to ignore it, it will be experienced as ‘oh, we are to ignore me’ – my needs, my requests, my need for what I know to be possible. And if I agree to ignore that. I am simultaneously agreeing and colluding to ignore me. That’s the betrayal.

“Choosing self-betrayal and denying oneself is not something that you can just accept and be okay with. It will bring up feelings of shame and grief. And unless addressed, you will constantly find yourself marinating in a repetitive scenario of suffering, which is extremely masochistic.”

The good news is there is hope for spouses or partners living with Avoidants! Here’s some advice to consider:

  • Don’t poke the bear. Avoidants find it hard to be talked to too long and to be with too long. Ever wondered why he emotionally leaves the relationship after a few days on romantic break? Loved ones need to learn to “catch and release;” check in, state the need, and move on.
  • Don’t feel punished. When Avoidants need to withdraw it is based on fear or vulnerability. Try to stay present and not withdraw as well.
  • Use distraction strategies. Working side by side on a project, sharing in cooking activities, or playing together with a pet can help the Avoidant remember that the closeness will be okay.
  • Put in place boundaries. Ground rules need to be laid about how this “two-person” relationship will work. If the Avoidant is unwilling, then you need to say “pass.”

If you think you are in a relationship with an Avoidant and have concerns, seek out a therapist.

Want to learn more? Here’s several more traits of the Avoidant.

  • Blocked childhood memories. The Avoidant is often vague and idealistic about the way he was raised. Experts explain this as a lack of autobiographical memories.
  • Delaying tactics. When entering a romantic relationship, the Avoidant may delay introducing his loved one to a circle of friends until feelings of permeance start to settle in. This includes not acknowledging her presence or showing affection in public, which can cause feelings of rejection and confusion. This behaviour can present in other areas of life, particularly when making life-changing decisions.
  • Overly positive view of himself. The Avoidant looks like a narcissist; he can do no wrong and is unaware of his faults and failings. On the flip side, he may have a negative, cynical attitude toward other people. (Watch out for those “conspiracy” theories!)
  • Low empathy and sympathy. These qualities are for lesser creatures.
  • Enforced boundaries. Loved ones find their “stuff” can not merge with the Avoidant’s “stuff” (emotional nor physical). He may also hide information from his loved ones.
  • Preference for casual sex. It’s all about connections. Avoidant’s don’t want to feel concerned about his spouse or partner’s feelings in the lead up or during sex. Casual encounters also conform to “idealized” or fantastical notions of a perfect relationship.
  • Finding fault. The Avoidant often picks up on a fault of annoying behaviour and this will come up over-and-over when a loved one tries to communicate a concern.
  • Too much is…well, too much. When a person within the inner circle becomes attentive and fussy, it is often received with coldness. The Avoidant is scathing and dismissive; viewing this behaviour as weak and needy.

© Fel Stewart, 2019