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The psychological explanation for withdrawal and emotional numbing in relationships.

Attachment theory is one of psychology’s prevailing relationship frameworks. It originated from the work of psychologist and child development expert, John Bowlby, in the 1950s. Since then, attachment theory has gained popularity and become a popular topic in relationships, trauma recovery, and self-development.

Bowlby referred to attachment as “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” Everyone needs emotional bonds to thrive. But traumatic experiences early in life affect the way those bonds are formed. The effectiveness of Bowlby’s model is thanks to the four different attachment styles — ambivalent attachment, avoidant attachment, disorganized attachment, and secure attachment — and the way in which these styles affect adult relationships.

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The way in which we receive and give love largely depends on our attachment style. Each style has associated behaviors and coping mechanisms. Avoidant attachment, as the name implies, leads to behaviors such as withdrawing from love, avoiding intimacy, and putting up emotional walls.

It’s tricky to detect. However, in order to have intimate, deep connections and fulfilling relationships, this attachment style has to be identified and overcome. So what are the signs of avoidant attachment? And how do you start the healing journey?

What Is Avoidant Attachment?

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Bowlby’s work, and subsequent research in the field of psychology, highlight a strong link between the quality of caregiving a child receives, and the child’s future relationships. Born into the world completely dependent on others to survive, the way in which our needs are met, or unmet, has strong repercussions throughout life. A person’s early environment will shape the traits they develop, conforming roughly to one of the four main attachment styles.

Avoidant attachment is caused by caregivers that are neglectful of an infant’s needs. Over time, a child in this situation begins to internalize the belief that their needs won’t be met, or aren’t important. Parental behaviors, from not responding to cries, or ridiculing them for being upset, all reinforce the child’s belief their emotions and needs aren’t important. Parents who set exceptionally high standards for their children, who are emotionally distant or cold, all contribute to this attachment style’s development.

Infants as young as one year old have been found to attempt self-regulation and self-soothing — to meet their needs independently — when a caregiver fails to support them. According to research, children with avoidant attachment “may view others as untrustworthy and develop positive but unrealistic self-perceptions, with an excessive focus on their ability to overcome difficult situations on their own.”

How Avoidant Attachment Impacts Adult Relationships

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Internalized patterns continue through various stages of development. Someone who excessively focuses on independence may go on to become incredibly successful in business, for example. But high levels of independence don’t relate well to intimate relationships, which require interdependence and vulnerability. Unsurprisingly, someone with an avoidant attachment style will translate as emotionally unavailable.

That doesn’t mean people with avoidant attachment styles lack emotion, quite the opposite. “The avoidant person quickly presumes that others are keen to attack them and that they cannot be reasoned with, Alain de Botton writes in The Course of Love, adding:

“One has to escape, pull up the drawbridge and go cold. Regrettably, the avoidant party cannot normally explain their fearful and defensive pattern to their partner, so the reasons behind their distant and absent behavior remain clouded and are easy to mistake for being uncaring and unengaged, when in fact the opposite is true: the avoidant party cares very deeply indeed, it is just that loving has come to feel far too risky.”

Afraid of repeating the trauma of neglect, someone with an avoidant attachment may withdraw, what psychologists call deactivating their attachment system. They distance themselves and rely on self-regulation, a practice they had to adopt when young. This is an unhealthy coping mechanism. Psychologist Hal Shorey explains how deactivation leads to “low sensitivity to social cues, blunted emotions, and ignoring or suppressing negative social perceptions.”

Due to fear around expressing emotions, avoidant attachment styles tend to suppress their thoughts and emotions, while struggling to express their needs or show vulnerability. Outwardly, it may appear someone is “held together.” Inwardly, this is a facade to avoid their deep wounds of rejection.

How to Heal Avoidant Attachment

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The promising news is that attachment styles are not life sentences, but deeply ingrained behaviors that can be changed. With care and attention, people with avoidant attachment can transform the way they relate, and cultivate a secure attachment style. Because avoidant attachment is oxygenized by suppression, even the willingness to acknowledge issues is something to celebrate, the first step of a healing journey.

Attachment styles are intertwined with trauma, and for many people, therapy is the most effective solution. However, therapy isn’t always easy to access or affordable, and in those cases, there are steps to be taken inwardly:

  • Start with compassion: all infants deserve love, care, and attention. That’s sadly not always the case, and behaviors developed while young, in order to survive, deserve compassion.
  • Meet your inner child: as an adult, you have the opportunity to “reparent” yourself, to meet the wounds head-on, and to overcome limiting behaviors, thoughts, or emotions that prevent you from giving or receiving love. That starts with integrating your inner child.
  • Acknowledge your desire for love: a basic need for love and intimacy may be buried under layers and layers of defense mechanisms, in the form of justification, excuses, or avoidance tendencies. Being able to begin to acknowledge a desire for love allows you to begin exploring all the things preventing you from that.
  • Be mindful of the ways you withdraw: the more awareness you bring to the way avoidant attachment affects your relationships, the more you can start to notice patterns and make different choices. In the beginning, that may just be noticing what triggers withdrawal or suppression.

Some experts have argued the therapeutic relationship is successful in healing attachment wounds by reenacting a parent/child relationship, this time focusing on a healthy dynamic. The same, in theory, can apply to other relationships, be it friendships or romantic relationships. Because avoidant attachment wounds are interpersonal, much of the healing occurs in relationships.

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That requires an understanding partner, someone you’re able to communicate with openly and explain the work you’re doing to overcome emotional blockages. Having the courage to express avoidant tendencies is an empowering step: not only in self-awareness but in alleviating potential feelings of rejection in a partner who translates withdrawal as a lack of caring.

For avoidants, this is significant, because it’s the beginning of stepping outside of the belief of having to always be independent, and starting to turn to others for help. In turn, that can promote healthy co-regulation, the ability for two people to work together to overcome difficult emotions or stressful situations.

Independence, in modern times, is held high on a pedestal. But the truth is, we are all stronger together. Learning about your attachment style, and working to overcome its limitations, is success in its own right.

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