What Does It Mean To Be Avoidant In Relationships? Experts Explain

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Intimacy is the arena in which all of our deep seated emotional tendencies seem to play out — and that is true even if we seem to struggle with reaching intimacy in the first place. But having "avoidant" tendencies in relationships is not uncommon, when it comes down to it, and it's also not a be-all-and-end-all life sentence if this is how you often function in love.

So, first things first, you might have heard people talk about their "attachment styles" in a relationship before. But where did it come from? Very generally, attachment theory refers to a psychological model about how our attachment to a primary caregiver impacted our personal development. It was applied into a framework about how people act in romantic relationships by Cindy Hazan and Phillip R. Shaver in the 80's. Whether or not you are able to form secure attachments to people can, theoretically, inform all sorts of things about who you are, how you act, and how you perceive your place in the world. In particular, it informs how you tend to behave in regards to romantic love.

Having avoidant tendencies, on the simplest level, means that receiving love and affection makes you uncomfortable, therapist Rachel Bauder Cohen, MSW, LCSW of Seaside Counseling Center, tells Bustle.

"You (often unknowingly) steer clear of situations that will put you in direct line of affection because you can 'handle things by yourself,'" Cohen says.

Avoidant tendencies might show up by you being extremely independent, so much so, that you may be uncomfortable with having to rely on someone, Cohen says. It might take you longer to trust and open up to others. It can also mean someone really needs to earn your trust, respect, and love because you don't just show those to anyone.

You might also have many superficial relationships, but struggle with deeply attaching yourself to someone, Cohen says.

"Struggles associated with love avoidant tendencies [can be things like] feeling lonely, depressed, and not understood," Cohen says. "You may be extra hard on your loved ones and find yourself constantly let down when you choose to trust someone."

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If you have avoidant tendencies, as counselor David Bennett of Double Trust Dating tells Bustle, it also might mean that you may get into relationships, but the relationships tend to lack a strong emotional connection, or deep intimacy.

Having avoidant tendencies doesn't mean you are unable to be intimate at all, but it might be challenging to connect at times, Bennett says. If someone has avoidant tendencies, they might keep relationships on a relatively surface level. There is hesitancy towards commitment and someone can often send mixed messages through their behavior and communication. There might be fear around things getting too serious or vulnerable. Avoidant tendencies can show up in different ways.

"They might like to do a lot of the fun things, but perhaps won't be too available when you need someone to really talk to," Bennett says. "They may focus more on casual sex, rather than seeing sex as a form of intimacy. They also may idealize past relationships, or even an imaginary ideal relationship. This can result in being very picky and a perfectionist, which allows them to avoid deeper relationships."

And while someone who has avoidant attachment tendencies often gets the reputation of being a person who totally "avoids" love, Elizabeth Sabine, MEd, registered clinical counsellor at Peak Resilience tells Bustle it's not so black and white.

"We all want love, but the ways that our caregivers responded to (or didn't) respond to us and our needs helps us to develop ways of coping, protecting ourselves from being hurt, and of going about getting our needs met," Sabine says.

Clinical counsellor Lauren Phelan, MA, of Peak Resilience says that for this reason, she finds it helpful to think about attachment styles as existing on a continuum rather than as rigid categories.

"Some of us may have more avoidant tendencies than others in intimate relationships, and these can be learned (adaptive) patterns that protected us in earlier relationship from being hurt or overwhelmed," Phelan says. "Those of us who are more avoidant still want to feel connection and closeness, but it may feel less safe for us, so we do it from a distance."

Cohen says to approach a shift in your tendencies, try things like journaling, as it's important to open up and be honest with yourself, before you expect to be that way with someone else.

"Lean in to your positive, established relationships," Cohen says. "If you already have someone in your life that has shown you that they are trustworthy, try opening up about something that is hard for you."

Cohen also says that seeking help from a professional to dig deeper around relationship patterns is a really good idea. If you feel you have behaviors that get in the way of having the connections you want and deserve, guidance is out there.

Experts:

Rachel Bauder Cohen, MSW, LCSW of Seaside Counseling Center

Counselor David Bennett of Double Trust Dating.

Elizabeth Sabine, MEd, Registered Clinical Counsellor at Peak Resilience.

Clinical Counsellor Lauren Phelan, MA, of Peak Resilience.

Study

Love and Work: An Attachment-Theoretical Perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 59(2):270-280 · August 1990. Cindy Hazan and Phillip R. Shaver.