Are you an avoidant type or in a relationship with someone who is?
Dating an avoidant partner, or being one, is more common than you think yet many ask me: “What is avoidant attachment in relationships?”
Want to learn how to change your existing beliefs? Curious to finally find happiness and security in your relationships? Keep reading.
What is avoidant attachment?
We all have an attachment style in relationships, avoidant being one. In fact, our attachment styles start from infancy. Here’s what you need to know.
Background on the theory of attachment
How did attachment theory evolve?
The theory of attachment was developed by John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst. His studies attempted to comprehend the distress of an infant separated from its parents.
Bowlby’s colleague, Mary Ainsworth, was the first to systematically define these infant-parent separations. Then, her apprentice Mary Main further built upon Ainsworth’s work to define the four attachment categories in relationships we use today:
- Anxious: Adults who struggle with feelings of unworthiness
- Avoidant: Adults who avoid commitment rooted in feelings of fear
- Disorganized: Adults with insecurity and unpredictable behaviors
- Secure: Adults with a positive self-image and who are open to romance
In 1987, Hazan and Shaver observed that romantic love is the same “affectional bond” that we share with our parents on a biosocial level. An adult’s security within relationships is a partial reflection of their past experiences with their primary caregiver.
You see, it’s our earliest relationships that define our expectations, beliefs, rules, and scripts about intimate relationships as adults.
Avoidant attachment in children means that children reject their caregiver even if they want to be close to them or reject physical contact.
An avoidant child might have a child-caregiver relationship in which, when the adult leaves, the child doesn’t appear too distressed about the separation. When the adult returns, the child actively avoids seeking contact and turns their attention to other things.
There are two types of avoidant attachment, fearful-avoidant and dismissive-avoidant, which we’ll look at below.
In general, avoidant adults tend to be emotionally unavailable. They put distance between themselves and their partner, because of discomfort with too much closeness.
Why? They have likely been taught that talking about feelings is unacceptable and would lead to being burdensome.
They often struggle with understanding what they are feeling on a deeper level and might be confused about what they really want or how to articulate it. Avoidant individuals might be afraid of being abandoned and so they abandon their relationships first.
With this in mind, what are some signs of a person with an avoidant attachment style? That’s what we’ll look at next.
Signs of avoidant attachment
What is it like to have an avoidant attachment style? Here are some telltale signs that you may be avoidant or dating someone who is.
- You tend to enter a relationship quickly. But after 3-6 months, you start focusing on the flaws in it. And you can’t take your mind off all the opportunities out there.
- At the same time, you’re often described as having a fear of commitment. But your lack of commitment is actually a symptom of the fact that you take commitment incredibly seriously.
- You are sensitive to even simple requests because you feel that partners usually demand too much of you.
- And as you feel that you will get blamed for things that don’t work in the relationship, you try to avoid too much responsibility.
- You feel emotionally distant, but your feelings can get intense in a way that might scare you.
- You might struggle with fears of failure or perfectionism. However, you act the opposite to avoid being seen as weak or vulnerable.
- The types of people you’re drawn to are “challenging” and make you work for it. That’s because deep down, you believe you have to earn love and approval.
- But if a partner is “too nice” (giving you love and affection freely), you question your ability to make them happy and see them as boring.
- You might have addictions, like food abuse, alcohol abuse, work addiction, and so on.
Recognize yourself or your partner in these avoidant attachment signs? Well, to fully understand avoidant behavior, you need to understand the different avoidant attachment styles.
The two avoidant attachment styles
There are two styles within avoidant attachment: fearful-avoidant and dismissive-avoidant. While both are avoidant types, their behavior tends to differ.
I’ve always found that “fearful-avoidant” sounds too judgy. That’s why I like to call these individuals “Spice of Lifers,” people who want connection, but also fear it.
Who is a Spice of Lifers?
They tend to be suspicious and distrustful of their partner’s love, as well as their own ability to sustain a healthy romantic relationship. They are often overly sensitive towards even benign requests for emotional contact.
To understand an example of someone with Fearful-Avoidant Attachment, let’s take Anna. Anna is passionately expressive, so creativity and art may appeal to her.
Anna deeply yearns for love but is desperately fearful of it. She desires deep connection but is scared of being abandoned or rejected.
As a result, Anna tends to sabotage her relationships. She gets annoyed when her partner asks anything from her and her behavior is unpredictable.
Her feelings go from hot to cold before a relationship really begins.
She goes from being loving and interested in her partner, to distant, apathetic, and numb towards them for no reason at all.
Anna falls into a cycle of short relationships that burn brightly but fizzle out quickly. As she continues this behavior, we could describe her attachment style as “fearful-avoidant.”
In short, Anna wants connection but fears it. She doesn’t trust her partner or herself so she jumps from one relationship to another.
I refer to these folks as “Rolling Stones.” (Because who wants to be referred to as “dismissive-avoidant”? That’s right, I don’t believe we need these negative labels.)
As the name suggests, these individuals are cut off from their emotions. They are unable to reach the same loving and reciprocal emotional “volume” that their partners are capable of and deeply desire.
For someone with Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment, let’s take the example of Amy.
Amy is independent and most of her social interactions are with amicable acquaintances.
Despite falling headlong into relationships, after three months, she feels overwhelmed. Amy inevitably pulls back and finds relief in some distance.
She finds comfort in being in control, but this transforms into vulnerability, anxiety, and fears of abandonment. At the same time, she becomes intensely jealous if her partner moves on, so she’ll go above and beyond to regain their undivided attention.
This usually spirals down into the anxious-avoidant trap. If Amy were to maintain this position, we might describe her attachment style as “dismissive-avoidant.”
In short, Amy needs control to feel comfortable with intimacy. She is a master at keeping partners not too close, but not too far, giving them just enough to keep them hanging on.
So, now you know what avoidant attachment is and your avoidant attachment style. But how is it formed? Let’s take a look.
How is the avoidant attachment style formed?
Attachment styles are developed through the relationships we have with those who took care of us as children and our adult relationships. So what forms avoidant attachment specifically?
Those who form insecure attachment styles in childhood typically grew up in environments that were emotionally dismissive, enmeshed, or a combination of the two.
What does this mean?
Dismissive households lack emotional contact and disqualify emotions that are unpleasant like invalidating negative feelings as unacceptable.
Enmeshed homes, on the other hand, disregard personal boundaries and allow little to no privacy. This includes unregulated emotions like shame, anger, depression, anxiety, fear, explosivity, and unresolved grief.
These types of environments can lead to confusion and anxiety around understanding one’s own physical and emotional cues. People who grew up in these households have trouble distinguishing and expressing their feelings correctly. That’s why many of them become emotionally unavailable.
Take a look at this quick video for more on this:
On the other hand, some adults may develop avoidant behaviors. For example, a secure type can become avoidant, or vice versa, based on their experiences with an avoidant/secure partner.
That’s how avoidant attachment is formed. But how does it affect your relationships?
How does avoidant attachment affect relationships?
Emotional unavailability is easy to spot in relationships. Many of us have dated someone who uses avoidance to manage their feelings as a coping mechanism.
When you bring up a triggering issue with an emotionally unavailable person, they tend to clam up, ignore you, or change the subject. They might even make a joke, try to act tougher, or deny your observations altogether writing them off as unimportant.
As you can imagine, these behaviors can drastically affect relationships.
What does it look like to date an avoidant partner?
Do you, or your partner, play hard-to-get? Research shows that people with insecure attachment styles typically play this dating game.
It can take the form of “breadcrumbing” or “benching” a partner. This gives avoidant individuals control while giving the partner just enough to keep them holding on.
Now, it’s not so much about the relationship but rather helping the avoidant person feel in control. Remember, some avoidants act out of fear so they’re simply doing what they think is necessary to protect themselves.
Sound familiar? Here are six signs to tell if you’re in a relationship with an avoidant adult. I’ll explain what they do and why they do it.
1. They keep you separate from most relational aspects of his life.
For example, you feel like your partner’s friends don’t take your relationship seriously because they refer to you by bro-ish nicknames like “hips” or “deep throat.”
Why? Pet names are endearing, but immature code names objective and dehumanize people. They use these to create emotional distance, since getting too close is threatening.
2. Requesting (even small) gestures of reassurance might be received as huge and unreasonable demands.
It’s like they have a disproportionate reaction to any expression of need or desire for assistance.
Why? Avoidant people are hypersensitive to issues of control or manipulation. From childhood, they were taught that uncomfortable feelings come from failing someone. They perceive requests as criticisms for their own actions, thus you’re being too demanding.
3. They avoid any discussion of the relationship advancing or even defining it in a concrete way.
You sense they do not want the relationship to grow and they are stringing you along with empty promises.
Why? They are afraid that defining a relationship spells the end of it. If the relationship grows, then so might your expectations of them and they cannot deal with the pressure.
Also conflict-avoidant, they directly avoid discussing anything that might lead to fighting. Their empty promises are their attempt at pleasing you, but they often act in passive-aggressive ways contradicting what they said.
4. Ex-partners are active in their life and on their social media.
They might see them act flirty with others online. Or, they keep their phone private then tell you there is nothing to worry about. Basically, you feel like a backup plan and that you’re competing with others.
Why? They want to remind you of your place. Some may do this to provoke you to express deeper feelings first, so they don’t feel like the vulnerable one in the relationship. Others may feel validated by the spectacle of your insecurity.
5. They turn you into their therapist but ultimately friend-zone you.
You think that supporting them unconditionally will make them feel closer and more intimate with you, but it ruins a chance for romance.
Why? For avoidants, friends are more important than romantic partners. They do this because they love and respect you. This even shows they wish to keep you around and they feel dumping you in the friend zone is the safest way to do that.
6. They express avoidance via catchphrases like “there’s no such thing as true love” and “monogamy goes against human nature.”
Spending time to validate their claims through research and evidence, they try to prove things like “relationships never work.”
Why? Avoidant people’s egos need to be reinforced and supported. It’s likely this person views love and connection as bad, disappointing, or downright dangerous.
Those are the most common avoidant behaviors. But why do avoidants act this way? Let’s take a look.
Why do avoidant partners behave the way they do?
Do avoidants fall in love?
Here’s the thing:
Avoidant individuals need (and want) closeness and love just like the rest of us.
Research shows that avoidant children are distressed by the separation from their caregiver even though they don’t show this with their behavior.
And while avoidant individuals can be happy individuals and their relationships can be satisfying, research shows that secure types are happiest in their relationships and lives.
At the same time, avoidant individuals keep their partners at arm’s length with their avoidant behavior.
Worst of all: They’re often stuck in an avoidant cycle.
Let me explain:
We tend to pair with people who confirm our pre-existing beliefs about relationships.
That’s why anxious types tend to date avoidant individuals. This goes both ways since secure types often date other secure types.
When avoidant individuals feel stressed, they withdraw from their partners emotionally. This “distancing” strategy allows avoidant people to maintain sufficient autonomy and independence so they can regulate their emotions and handle the source of distress on their own.
The problem is their partners (who, again, are often anxious) start to feel rejected, alienated, and increasingly anxious, so they begin pushing for more contact, which only scares their avoidant partners away even more.
In this short video, I talk more about avoidant behavior:
Now you know what triggers an avoidant. So, how can avoidant individuals break free from these behavioral patterns? That’s what we’ll look at next.
How do you overcome avoidant attachment in relationships?
Here’s some good news. Your conditioning can be undone and your brain can be rewired.
The most important information you need to overcome avoidant attachment already exists inside you. Although, learning how to access those parts of yourself isn’t easy. It’s difficult to uncover hidden parts of your identity, especially when you've been taught your whole life to do the exact opposite.
However, with the right tools, it is possible.
Those with avoidant issues, whether single or in a struggling relationship, can find solutions through therapy or adult relationship programs like my own program, Avoidant Attachment 101.
For instance, my student Irena used to struggle with intimacy issues. She had been studying my content for over a year, but realized that she needed more of a push. Thanks to enrolling in my course she found a community of others who have an avoidant attachment. As a result of going through the course, she stopped intellectually detaching and got more in touch with her emotions.
Jordan, on the other hand, was in a relationship that had come to a head. He decided to dig in and understand what was really going on with their “push and pull” dynamic. He found one of my videos on the avoidant-anxious trap and felt it spoke to his situation. Thanks to the course, he finally got an understanding of what was happening in his relationship and could start correcting his behavior.
And if you want to know how this specifically applies to Rolling Stones and Spice of Lifers, here’s how each style can overcome avoidant attachment in relationships.
How Rolling Stones can overcome avoidant attachment
Here’s the thing:
If you’re a Rolling Stone, you probably don’t like being verbally called out -- this will likely activate your defenses.
Why? The person who’s calling you out is asking you to engage on a level your emotional capacity cannot yet safely accommodate.
Therefore, a non-verbal approach is better. Various forms of “transitional objects,” labeled by psychodynamic theorist DW Winnicott, is essential in working with dismissive avoidance.
In short: metaphors are the way to go.
This helps you construct a new story. In addition, body activation and even creativity can address compulsive mechanisms.
For example, I have my clients do a lot of scribble drawings and gaze into the scribble and describe projectively what we might see. We might create stories about whatever emerges, or even bring them into the body and see where they go.
Scribbles? Really? Hear me out.
At first, this might seem unrelated to the romantic problem that brought you into therapy or coaching, but in truth, this is a far safer way for dismissive individuals to open up.
You feel in control as you talk about something else that doesn’t make you vulnerable. By not exposing anything “real” about yourself, it’s less threatening.
How Spice of Lifers can overcome avoidant attachment
Just like Rolling Stones, Spice of Lifers can overcome their fearful-avoidant attachment in relationships.
Fearful-avoidance requires the establishment of safety while sorting through anxiety and other confused feelings and emotions.
These confusing emotions lead to the swinging back and forth of emotional flooding (intense distrust and fearfulness) and also the dissociative states (numbing out and turning off).
For this emotional swinging, psychoeducation can be really useful. Because it uses facts and information, it can help you make sense of your experiences on the level of raising consciousness and reframing your negative self stories.
Additionally, fearful avoidants need a lot of consistency and a flexible structure. It's likely you, as a Spice of Lifer, have experienced chaotic and unpredictable circumstances and relationships in your life, so you can benefit from stability.
Want to learn more? Watch my quick video here:
How to know if an avoidant partner loves you
However, if you’re dating someone with an avoidant attachment style, rather than being an avoidant, it can be incredibly confusing to understand if and when your partner loves you. And also -- if they’re willing to change.
Look, it’s hard to depict whether to wait it out or invest your heart with an avoidant partner. Until then, look for these six signs:
Six signs an avoidant partner loves you
The first is that they break their own rules, whether they are aware of it or not. For instance, if they declare strong boundaries but suddenly start breaking them for you, it’s a good sign they care.
Next, they ask to wait to have sex or to take things slow. This means they love you because those with avoidant attachments have a tendency to be hypersexual.
If they leave you alone in their home or apartment, that’s a big sign they care. This type is extremely private, so leaving you unmonitored access to their most personal space is huge and a sign of trust.
There’s nothing scarier than making any sort of commitment, so when they make plans and travel with you, they are very serious about you. Note to self, they might scrutinize your every word and move on this trip because it is one of their biggest tests for long-term compatibility.
The next sign that an avoidant loves you is that they introduce you to their family or kids. Avoidant types hesitate to introduce partners to the important people of their lives for two main reasons. One, they don’t see you lasting long-term and two, they’re afraid it will drive you off.
A last reason to validate their love is if they display acts of service, sex and physical touch, and gift-giving. You may recognize these as some of The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. These acts display real affection from avoidants, whereas “words of affirmation” were on the bottom of their list.
How to date a partner with an avoidant attachment style
If you know a Rolling Stone or Spice of Lifer loves you, I’m sure you’re wondering: how do I date them? After all, they’re easily triggered.
I have a few pointers to promote avoidant attachment relationship success. Loving someone with avoidant attachment isn’t always easy, but these will help you navigate the relationship. If you know that your avoidant partner is deeply willing to commit, take the following steps:
- Know your value and avoid seeking validation. Avoidant individuals will easily feel bored if you appease them.
- Have strong boundaries. Not only will this help you in your relationship with an avoidant, but to avoid your own wellbeing from suffering, you need to know what you will and won’t tolerate.
- Keep your own hobbies and pastimes. By doing so, you don’t risk getting into a cycle where you “run after” your avoidant partner, who dismisses you for doing so.
- Express your needs directly and clearly with specificity. You will often get excuses if you don’t, so be frank with your avoidant partner.
- Try not to judge them. Avoidants often feel judged and like they need to prove themselves, so minimize the risk of triggering them to withdraw.
- Pose a bit of a challenge. You don’t want to play games, but being a bit aloof will make it easier for avoidants to approach you.
- Don’t be afraid to say no. Avoidant individuals need strong boundaries and you saying no shows them that you have them.
Now, this is only the beginning. For a truly satisfying relationship (on a secure level), your partner needs to want to change their behaviors too. Remember, though -- try not to sound as if you’re judging them as this can easily trigger them.
Ultimately, people with any attachment style can change -- and that also applies to avoidant individuals.
Over to you!
There you have it! Now you know all about avoidant attachment in relationships.
You’ve learned what avoidant attachment is, how to identify behaviors, and how to overcome it.
As an avoidant individual, you can use strategies to let go of your current wiring. I do recommend therapy-based tools to help you get there, like the exercises I share above.
And for other attachment types who are in a relationship with an avoidant type, what it comes down to is being consistent, yet flexible and helping these individuals tame their insecurities of fear and doubt.
Avoidant individuals can find love and connection, especially with a partner who understands what they need.
Next, I’d love to hear from you:
What’s the #1 thing you learned today?
Let me know in the comments below.