Although I am featuring a photo of a boy in this article about avoidant attachment, and I featured a photo of a girl in last time’s article about preoccupied attachment, attachment styles can occur in either sex. Also, the passage I quote below uses the “he” pronoun, but in the book it’s made clear that the avoidant child can be male or female.
Avoidant attachment is an insecure style, meaning that somehow things didn’t go well enough during childhood, in regard to attachment to a loving and attuned caretaker. (See my post What Is Attachment Theory? for info on attachment theory, including a list of the four styles of attachment, one of which is the avoidant style. See also my previous post for information about another insecure attachment style, the preoccupied style.)
In What Circumstances Does the Avoidant Attachment Style Develop?
The avoidant attachment style tends to occur when there is not a loving, attuned caretaker. Recall that this can occur if the child’s caretakers are physically absent (perhaps the child has a long stay in a hospital with no family visits) or emotionally absent (perhaps the caretakers are for some reason unable to show the child loving attunement). The child does not feel seen and loved. The child feels abandoned and alone.
(I want to emphasize that parenting is not the only factor here. Genetics play a large part in how a child feels and reacts to their environment. Also, cultural factors can cause people to fall into one attachment style versus another. And life events having nothing to do with parenting can affect how a child feels and behaves.)
What happens when a child consistently fails to get their attachment needs met? Following is an answer from Becoming Attached. This passage refers to the research of Mary Main, a student of Mary Ainsworth (who created the Strange Situation experiment, mentioned in my earlier blog post).
“He has learned to turn himself off. At the slightest hint of pain or disappointment, he shuts down his attachment system and experiences himself as having no need for love. Unlike the ambivalent child, whose attachment antennae are always up and receiving and who seems to have no defenses to ward off painful emotions, the avoidant child, Main believes, has made himself deaf to attachment related signals, whether they are coming from within himself or from someone else. He avoids any situation and perhaps any topic that has the potential for activating his attachment needs.”
In other words, the child learns that attention cannot be obtained. Attention is not possible to get, no matter what you do or how hard you try. Therefore, you need to say “F that” and rely only on yourself. You need to ignore your caregivers, and anyone who tries to get emotionally close to you. You need to forever go it alone.
Even more unsettling is the fact that the child will unconsciously internalize this mental state. As the child repeatedly tries and fails to get love and attention, they will gradually shut off their own access to those hurtful things called feelings. As the young child’s brain develops, it will actually learn to bypass the emotions entirely. Now the child does not feel anything in response to other people. And all of this will happen before the child starts to record memories.
By the time the child is of the age to record memories, they are already avoidant (they avoid all situations where they might have to get emotionally close to someone).
What Is the Avoidant Attachment Style?
Children and adults with the avoidant attachment style go out of their way to avoid closeness in human relationships—including with a significant other, as well as with family, friends, and everyone they meet. In any social situation, they remain aloof.
The avoidant person tends to be extremely self-reliant and independent. This can be a very good thing. However, the avoidant person runs into difficulties as a result of being cut off from their emotions. They can tend toward narcissism, as a result of feeling that they are the only reliable person around, and as a result of not understanding other people’s emotionality. Worse, the avoidant person, being out of touch with their emotions, might not realize there is a problem. Whereas the preoccupied person can clearly see there is a problem, having all sorts of negative feelings all the time, the avoidant person is oblivious, on a neuronal level, to all that.
But everyone needs love and attention. Even if you have shut off your attachment system, you are still a human, with a vital need to connect with other humans. Tragically, people with an avoidant attachment style tend to either remain forever stoically lonely, or swing back and forth between trying to forge a relationship and backing out when things start getting too close for comfort.
It is 100% possible to move from being alone, to being in a safe, long-term, loving relationship with another person. No matter who you are. No matter what your attachment style is. I guarantee this.
Do you believe me?