What It Means To Have An Avoidant Attachment Style (& How To Change It)

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Avoidant Attachment Style: Definition, Causes & What To Do

If you have an avoidant attachment style, you probably feel the walls closing in when emotional topics come up or when someone starts wanting to get too close. You might even feel guilt or shame without being able to identify the source.

Do you shut down when your partner talks about their needs? Do you have trouble expressing your own needs, preferring to silently wish for a life you feel you can’t have? Do you feel uncomfortable when relationships become too intimate?

If you love the idea of your partner, but feel stifled by their presence, or idealize past relationships, you might have an avoidant attachment style, and it’s not your fault.

RELATED: 9 Anxious Attachment Style Signs & What To Do For More Secure Relationships

What is an avoidant attachment style?

According to John Bowlby's attachment theory, humans develop a way of relating to others in childhood based on their relationship with their parents. This style of connection carries itself into adulthood and affects adult relationships.

According to Bowlby's research, one can develop one of four attachment styles, each of which are considered either secure or insecure.

In families with secure attachment, parents are attuned to children’s emotional and basic needs. The parent responds to the child and nurtures their needs while supporting healthy exploration and independence.

If parents were absent, hovering, or unpredictable, we adapt to those behaviors as a matter of survival.

An avoidant attachment style is insecure.

How an Avoidant Attachment Style Develops

When parents or caregivers are not present, not attuned to, or emotionally unavailable for their young children, they send the message, “No one is here for you. You are on your own.”

In childhood, this manifests as:

  • Limited nurturing contact; consistent non-responsiveness
  • Emotionally or physically absent neglectful caregivers
  • Adverse reactions by parents to crying or other expressions of emotions or needs
  • The expectation of premature independence and self-reliance

The above scenarios often lead to children keeping their unmet needs quiet, and the feeling of shame in expressing or having needs at all.

As a result, children often push their needs and emotions deep down to avoid disappointment or negative fallout in the home. Or they become highly self-sufficient; feeling they always met their own needs the best to avoid any dependency on others.

What an Avoidant Attachment Style in Relationships Look Like

Individuals with avoidant attachment adaptation may have the desire for a relationship, but often a co-existing fear of true, connected intimacy. When things start to get serious, they might even want to ghost their potential (or actual) partner.

Because of their fear of connection and the risks involved, they might bail out of relationships that reach a certain point altogether.

There are key signs of an avoidant attachment style:

  • Casual sex rather than deepening intimacy
  • Preferring solo activities that can be done without anyone else participating
  • Staying single or having short-term relationships when commitment is too scary
  • Strict boundaries and often secretive with a high need for privacy
  • Difficulty sharing emotions or needs
  • Fault-seeking in their partners
  • Shut-down when confronted by their partner’s needs

If you are the partner of an avoidantly attached person, you know how tough it can be to connect with them. It can feel like running into a brick wall over and over again. Be patient with your love.

You might feel like your partner is holding back because they don’t trust you, but it’s crucial to recognize that it’s not about you. These are deep patterns that existed long before your relationship began.

You might gain the trust of an avoidantly attached partner with time by being steady and reliable. While demanding that they share their emotions and needs will often cause the avoidant partner to close down, you can encourage them to share their feelings and give them a safe place to have their needs met.

Gentle and regular reminders to your partner that they are safe with you in every way is invaluable and opens the door for them to feel supported. It’s important that they find you safe enough to re-open their longing for connection and to find the relationship nourishing.

When they do begin to share their emotions, it could feel awkward at first. This is a big (and difficult!) step for your partner. Resist shaming or guilt, which can trigger old behaviors.

Give them time to get used to expressing themselves and to access their sense of empathy as they heal toward secure attachment.

RELATED: The Devastating Way Your Childhood Bonds Can Make-Or-Break Your Adult Relationships

How to Change an Avoidant Attachment Style

Changing your attachment style is not easy, but it is possible to move toward secure attachment and develop deeper intimacy in your relationship.

1. Try to be objective during disagreements

Take a step back and look at why the problem is truly happening rather than shifting the blame to your partner. Turn the focus to the partnership and how to nourish it — not just “me” and “you.”

2. Consider unhealthy patterns in previous relationships

This will let you gain awareness of where things went wrong. Were you open and honest with your partner, or did you hide your feelings at all costs? Did you keep secrets or not “let your partner in?”

3. Learn to take small, gradual risks with your partner to increase connection

An attuned partner will appreciate your efforts and realize that you are reaching outside of your comfort zone.

4. Listen with your heart to your partner’s needs and your own

Practice listening deeply, both to your internal needs and desires and those that your partner shares with you.

Small, gentle steps toward secure attachment behaviors can develop into helpful habits for a stronger and more loving relationship that lasts.

RELATED: The Anxious-Ambivalent Attachment Style In Relationships (& How To Make It More Secure)

Diane Poole Heller, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist who helps individuals and couples understand and decode the attitudes and behaviors that were instilled in them from childhood so they can enjoy enduring love, intimacy, and happiness. Connect with her on her website to take a free attachment styles quiz, or pre-order her upcoming book, The Power of Attachment: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships.