Attachment theory seems to be popping up everywhere, from my personal life to my queer community to #therapish Instagram. And for good reason: It can be a helpful framework for understanding our current relationship patterns and the past experiences that shaped them, giving us a pathway toward making meaning—and meaningful change.
What is attachment theory?
Originally conceived in the late 1950s by developmental psychologists John Bowlby, M.D., and Mary Ainsworth, Ph.D., attachment theory was meant to help explore children’s relationships to their caregivers. Later, in the 1980s, Cindy Hazan, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Cornell University, and Phillip Shaver, Ph.D., director of the Adult Attachment Lab at UC Davis, applied the same ideas to adult romantic relationships: How do we “attach” to people tasked with meeting our needs? And how might our relationships with our caregivers in childhood impact how we show up in romantic relationships as adults?
According to Dr. Hazan and Dr. Shaver, there are four adult attachment styles. Each one is most commonly associated with a certain type of relationship with caregivers in childhood. But it’s also possible to have an attachment style that doesn’t line up with your childhood experiences in exactly this way. There are a lot of nuances involved with attachment styles, from how they form to how they manifest. With that said, here are the four attachment styles to know:
- Secure attachment, wherein our emotional needs were met in childhood and, as a result, we’re generally trusting of (and feel safe being vulnerable with) others.
- Anxious attachment, where our caregiver(s) oscillated between responsive and unavailable, leaving us desperately searching for safety.
- Avoidant attachment, wherein our caregiver(s) dismissed or didn’t respond to our needs, resulting in a drive to fiercely protect ourselves by pushing others away.
- Disorganized attachment, where our caregiver(s) were a source of fear because they were unpredictable or abusive, and so we try everything under the sun (both anxious and avoidant behaviors) to get our needs met.
It’s important to note that attachment styles are not psychological diagnoses. Rather, attachment theory is more like a map that can show us our relational fears, where they came from, and what coping mechanisms we’ve developed in order to feel safer. In her book Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma, and Consensual Non-monogamy, registered psychotherapist Jessica Fern explains it this way: “Early childhood attachment experiences become the blueprint for the kinds of connections we go on to expect and seek in our adult romantic relationships.”
Whatever your attachment style, healthy and safe relationships are possible. Sure, secure attachment might make it a little easier to thrive in connection with others. But anxious, avoidant, and disorganized attachers aren’t doomed. Attachment styles are “just variations of the norm and are a mixed bag—they have their advantages and disadvantages,” Amir Levine, M.D., psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Columbia University and co-author of Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—And Keep—Love, tells SELF.
The key is in being aware of how your attachment shows up—and how it interacts with a potential partner’s. Being cognizant of how different we might be from our partners is a great first step in being able to solve (and even prevent) conflict in relationships in general, and attachment is no different, Dr. Levine notes.
What’s the deal with avoidant attachers, though?
Avoidant attachers, with their general likelihood to keep their internal worlds private and shy away from emotionally difficult conversations, can be especially hard to crack. Avoidantly attached people are prone to “shutting down, numbing, rigid compartmentalizing, and pushing away,” Mary Chen, LFMT, tells SELF. And these suppression techniques can feel “exactly like rejection” to their partners, making it hard to approach—and therefore understand—avoidants!
The cold, distant, walled-up avoidant prototype is one I understand all too well—because I, myself, am avoidantly attached. And working through how that developed in my childhood and shows up in my romantic relationships has been my main work in therapy over the past two years. I grew up with parents who were often dismissive or punishing of my emotions, which taught me that vulnerability is unsafe and my emotions should be kept to myself. That meant developing the belief that other people are generally not to be trusted to fulfill my needs. I grew into someone who highly values independence and self-control—and who struggles to reach out when I need support. “I can take care of it myself” became my philosophy.
Now, as an adult, I sometimes feel and act desperate to avoid emotionality, in both myself and others. Vulnerability is hard for me (like really hard—sometimes it even brings up a visceral feeling of disgust). It can take a long time for me to trust and take my walls down. I require more time and space alone to process and regulate my emotions than other people might. When conflict arises, I shut down psychologically and tend to be defensive, sometimes going as far as degrading others for their emotional expression. And I’m also quick to interpret feedback as criticism.
If this sounds like you, too, you’re not alone: According to Hazan and Shaver’s seminal work in the 1980s, in which they analyzed 620 self-reported questionnaires, avoidant attachers make up 25% of the population—and Dr. Levine estimates that number could be even higher now.
Often, those of us who are avoidantly attached can be interpreted as stoic or having our shit together, when in reality, we have deep relational fears (usually of becoming enmeshed with our partners and losing our autonomy) and are in need of care. But our struggle to feel safe enough to share our emotional worlds leaves our partners stumped by our behavior and not knowing how to care for us.
To be clear, moving past this should ideally be mostly our work. Those of us who are avoidantly attached have just as much responsibility as anyone else to understand our relational patterns—in all of their glory and their harm—and to work toward learning new skills to show up more safely.
People who are avoidantly attached can struggle with awareness of how we’re showing up (and why it’s harmful), but Dr. Levine says that it’s a myth that avoidants are less likely to work on healing their attachment than those with other attachment styles. Of course, a great way to understand your trauma and course-correct related behaviors is to work with a therapist (you can even search for therapists who say they have an attachment specialization on Psychology Today’s database). And don’t underestimate the power of safe relationships. “People can attune their attachment systems to the feeling of safety by having healing relationships,” Chen explains. “Any long-term, emotionally intimate relationship—including friendship—can be a good place to practice noticing what you need from someone, and finding ways to ask for it.”
If you want to be in a relationship with someone who is avoidantly attached, especially if you identify as anxiously attached, you might have to put in work too—on both your own relational style and on how to make your avoidant partner feel safer.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s a difference between someone who’s acting like a total jerk (and say, stringing you along with sporadic communication) and someone who has avoidant attachment tendencies but is otherwise a caring and supportive partner. If avoidant behaviors from another person freak out your nervous system or otherwise feel like red flags, that’s a perfectly acceptable reason to end a connection—no matter how much work the avoidant person is putting in! You’re never required to stay in relationships that don’t feel good for you, and attachment differences can be particularly challenging.
But if you’re looking for ideas on how to have a healthier relationship with your avoidant partner, I have great news: It’s possible. Dr. Levine explains that the best way to work with, instead of against, your partner’s attachment is to tend to their internal attachment system before it’s activated.
So, whether you’re avoidantly attached or care about someone who is (or both), let me be the avoidant whisperer and help explain what happens for many of us psychologically in relationships, along with how our partners can support us.
Here’s what to know about how avoidants show up—and how to show up for us.
As with anything else related to human feelings and behavior, avoidant attachers aren’t all the same. The specifics of how avoidant attachment manifests—and how best to work through a relationship with an avoidant attacher—can differ from person to person. But there are still some broad strokes that experts on the subject and avoidant attachers themselves find it helpful to understand.
Our caregivers’ misattunement really hurt us. Fern explains that “parenting that is cold, distant, critical, or highly focused on achievement or appearance can create an environment where the child learns that they are better off relying on themselves.” This lack of sensitivity that we received as children conditioned our brains to see vulnerability as weakness—on a survival level. Everything that came afterward in life developed on top of this foundation. We’re not trying to be difficult in our independence. Our brains just aren’t trained in how to do anything else.
We actually do crave intimacy. “Avoidants do feel intense emotions, including deep and consuming love,” Iris*, 26, who identifies as avoidantly attached, tells SELF. We just need to feel like our independence is intact before we can let our walls down and connect. Dr. Levine, in his practice with clients and in his upcoming book, draws a similarity between gaining the trust of avoidant attachers and winning over outdoor cats: Leave the food out and they will come, he says. In other words, give us time and space to develop trust, insofar as that works for you, and we will eventually feel safe with you.
We feel a lot. Avoidantly attached adults are feeling a lot more than we’re letting on. When we feel emotionally distressed, instead of reaching outward, we tend to delve inward. If we’re shutting down, it’s likely a sign that we’re so flooded with emotion that we feel overwhelmed. “Big emotions can be overwhelming and hard to sort into words,” Iris says. “And I tend to remain quiet about them for that reason.” It can take longer than might be comfortable for you for us to process our feelings and express them clearly. We may need to pause conversations when we feel dysregulated and come back to them later. It’s our responsibility to communicate that—and make good on the promise to return to the discussion. It’s helpful, though, if you don’t push us to talk when we’re activated.
We need help being vulnerable. “When an avoidantly attached person experiences their human vulnerability, it can be really uncomfortable and even flat-out terrifying,” Chen explains. “Their history has convinced them that those needs won’t be met, so they really want to get away from that feeling.” But, of course, vulnerability is a key part of intimacy. On our end, we need to work on unlearning vulnerability as scary. On yours, creating a safe atmosphere for us to practice vulnerability, so long as that’s also safe for you, can help us learn this new skill set.
Yes, we need time and space alone, but that’s about us, not you. The way that avoidants regain a sense of safety is generally through self-regulation. Allowing us time and space alone can help build the trust that we need to connect. Given ample alone time to build safety, Dr. Levine explains, avoidant attachers can (and do) become more comfortable in relationships and desire more intimacy—taking care of ourselves allows us to be able to show up as more present and healthy in our relationships. Communication early on about expectations around time together and apart can help manage everyone’s needs—or let you know if a potential romantic partnership is a mismatch.
We are incredibly sensitive to criticism—real and perceived. Many avoidants have a deep-down fear of being “wrong,” of trying our hardest and somehow still failing. Chen explains that while “being sensitive to criticism is healthy,” avoidantly attached people can be “more dysfunctionally sensitive to criticism when they don’t trust that they’re lovable even when they’re flawed.” She suggests that if someone wants to offer feedback to someone who’s avoidant, they should “find nonthreatening contexts for the conversation” like sitting side by side or going for a walk. And when it comes to delivering your concerns, using “I statements” and finding common ground can keep the conversation from becoming contentious.
It’s worth repeating: In the end, us avoidant people are responsible for our own growth.
A supportive relationship can, as I mentioned, go a long way toward helping avoidants feel more trusting and comfortable with intimacy, but the real work lies with us. And, like most self-improvement pursuits, Dr. Levine says that the first step to healing our attachment is accepting ourselves. “It’s really, really important for avoidantly attached people to understand that, yes, there may be a need to have a little bit more distance from people, but that’s okay,” he says. “You don’t have to beat yourself up for it.”
That’s how I’m working with my attachment: allowing it to be the foundation that it is, while also learning new ways to respond in relationships—through lots of practice. And feeling more deeply understood and receiving compassion from others really goes a long way in creating the safety for me to do just that.
*Name has been changed.
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