You hate weddings and loathe Valentine’s Day. You gag at PDA. Every time you start to get close to someone new, you lace up your New Balances and sprint in the opposite direction. If you just won this round of bingo, it’s possible you have what relationship researchers, therapists, and internet quizzes everywhere are calling an avoidant attachment style. And you’re probably looking for a way to overcome it.
While social scientists continue to coin more style varieties, there are four core attachment styles: secure, anxious, disorganized, and avoidant. These categories aren’t rigid definitions of how people relate to one another, but they can provide insight into our relationship patterns—romantic or otherwise.
As you’ve probably guessed, someone with an avoidant attachment style generally has a fear of commitment. Christene Lozano, certified sex therapist and founder of Meraki Counseling, tells Bustle that an avoidant attachment is synonymous with what’s commonly referred to as “intimacy issues” and applies to someone who has difficulty fostering emotional closeness with other people.
But let’s get something straight: Having a certain attachment style does not make you a bad person in need of “fixing.” And your attachment style is influenced by things that are mostly out of your control. That being said, there might be times when your instinctive way of relating to other people gets in the way of something good. Maybe you just met someone you really like, but something made you run. Maybe you have a pattern of pushing partners away with your seeming lack of interest or aloofness. Whatever it may be, there are ways to overcome an avoidant attachment style in your relationships, and learn to embrace the love and care from the people around you. The best way to do that is to understand where your avoidant attachment might be coming from in the first place.
Avoidant attachments develop early.
Chances are, your commitment-phobia didn’t just appear out of nowhere. Seattle-based relationship, intimacy, and sex therapist Claudia Johnson tells Bustle that the avoidant attachment style is often a symptom of having grown up with parents or caregivers who were themselves avoidant with you during your early life. Anyone whose guardians were uninvested in their emotions is more likely to exhibit signs of an avoidant attachment as an adult.
Johnson gives an example: If you came to your mom with a stomachache and she told you to figure it out for yourself, your spongy child-brain absorbs that avoidant behavior.
“You're essentially learning that you cannot rely on your caregiver,” Johnson says. “Regardless if you're happy or sad or whatever is going on for you, the parent is going to be, like, *shrug*.”
Those kids learn to not share or open up out of fear that their needs will go unmet anyway. As a consequence, they “learn to self-soothe in ways that may not be ‘productive’ or ‘healthy,’” Johnson explains. The independence they develop early on can come at a price—sometimes pushing people away in an effort to keep themselves safe.
Your avoidant attachment might be negatively impacting your partner(s).
Lozano explains that you may exhibit different attachment styles with different partners or in different kinds of relationships, and that attachment styles influence all of our relationships, not just our romantic ones. But she notes that they usually impact your romantic relationships the most because of the sheer amount of time that you and your partner spend together.
In a romantic relationship, the consequences of an avoidant attachment tend to revolve around your perceived need to keep partners at arm’s length. What happens for a lot of avoidant folks, Lozano says, is that their compulsive need to maintain distance can actually feed their partner’s anxiety and make their partner more “clingy”—repulsing an avoidant partner even further.
The anxious partner exhibits what you might call a “fear of abandonment,” and is often consumed with worry that their partner will leave them (and the more avoidant their partner is, the more real that worry can become.) They “chase,” Lozano says of the anxious partner. But it’s exactly that insecurity and sense of dependence that can trigger an avoidant person’s flight reflex. “They run,” she says of the avoidant partner. And thus, the cycle continues.
Johnson says that for some folks with avoidant attachment styles, a partner who validates them, acknowledges them, and honors them can actually be really disorienting—even if those same behaviors seem positive to a more securely- or anxiously-attached person. Because those supportive and loving behaviors weren’t previously the norm, the avoidant partner might run—leaving their partner confused and hurt.
In a similar vein, your avoidant attachment might also mean that you dodge commitment by way of chronic infidelity or the abuse of a partner’s trust.
There is a difference, however, between avoidant attachments and ethically non-monogamous relationships, Lozano says. “Being fluid with your relationships or having an interest in non-monogamy does not necessarily mean you have a disorganized or avoidant attachment style.”
For one thing, secure, ethical non-monogamous relationships are not based in fear. An avoidant person’s desire for non-monogamous relationships is often rooted in the desire to have a “back-up” relationship in line for whenever their current one inevitably fails.
“There's a lot of people that can be in a very healthy, thriving non-monogamous partnership or are open or poly, and they have very secure attachments,” Lozano says. Ultimately, a preference for non-monogamy that blossoms from a sense of security in oneself and one’s partner is very different from a preference that blossoms from a desire to scout out future prospects.
How can I overcome my avoidant attachment?
Both Lozano and Johnson emphasize that your attachment style is more nuanced and complex than any internet quiz can decipher for you—and even if you exhibit behaviors of an avoidant attachment in one relationship, you’re not trapped there in every other relationship.
Johnson says she’s heard clients say things about their potential partners like, “If they're not a secure attachment, I don't want to get involved with them.” But secure attachment is not static, she says. “It's all fluid. Depending on who you're interacting with, you may be more avoidant, you may be more anxious.”
Still, avoidant tendencies can do real damage to relationships—and, like any other insecure attachment style, you can overcome those tendencies with compassion and curiosity for yourself and how you’ve been impacted by your past relationships.
The primary relationships you had when you were young offer clues about the attachment style that you’ve come to embody as an adult. You just have to listen for them. “When you were feeling sad as a little kid, who did you go to?” Johnson asks. “Or when you had good grades, who did you celebrate with? How was that received?”
Chances are, adults with more avoidant attachment styles learned early on in life that it was safer to hide their vulnerabilities from the people they loved. “We all carry our wounds,” Johnson says. For avoidant adults, those wounds propel them in the opposite direction from intimacy and closeness.
Lozano and Johnson agree: The best thing you can do to overcome your avoidant attachment is to accept that your feelings—your joys, fears, hopes, and grief—make you a stronger, more compassionate partner. Once you do that, you may find that you had nothing to hide after all.
Christene Lozano, certified sex therapist and founder of Meraki Counseling
Claudia Johnson, certified relationship, intimacy, and sex therapist