WHAT'S THE SOLUTION?
"It is hard for anyone to be totally authentic and open in a new relationship. Keeping things light, surface, and non-threatening is more common behavior. But, as love grows, successful couples begin to deepen their communication and take more risks in sharing their vulnerabilities and flaws. They are willing to be known in more vulnerable ways and to listen more deeply to each other. That richness of depth in communication and sharing becomes the couple’s signature of love.
Without the courage or capability to go beyond superficial interactions and allow their core selves to connect, the relationship will fall prey to shallow connections over time. Soon, they are more likely to share who they really are with others, rather than with each other. Fearful of scarring the relationship further, they stay with comfortable and non-threatening words and behaviors. Over time, their interactions become predictable rituals, requiring less and less effort. To others, they may appear to be totally compatible, but they are really just repeating known and secure habitual behaviors. In time they will become susceptible to new and more intriguing experiences."
The only way we fall in - and sustain - deep, long-lasting love,
is by being willing to make ourselves truly vulnerable together.
If you're thinking - "this sounds like me" - well congratulations, you're normal!
A quarter of the population classifies as avoidantly attached. That probably means lots of people you know (particularly as groups of friends may reinforce each other's similar patterns). Attachment styles are also fluid - they are simply dynamic patterns of interacting with each other and not inherent, unchangeable traits. Studies show that over time, 30% of us change our dominant attachment strategy. For example, after a relationship that brought out anxious patterns that left you feeling vulnerable, you may unconsciously respond in your next relationship by protecting yourself and presenting as particularly avoidant.
It's also important to remember that attachment styles were not in our control, and are not our doing. If you see yourself in these descriptions and patterns, take heart. This defensive process is a normal reaction to a situational stressor in childhood, and by adulthood typically operating at a deeply unconscious level. As a vulnerable child you likely experienced pain that made you feel rejected at the core, and had to suppress your feelings. But everyone is worthy of love and stability. Always be kind to yourself. And remember, no one is ever really 'normal' (whatever that is) no matter what we like to present - we are every one of us juggling our own quirks. There is no hierarchy of needs, and wanting space is just as valid as wanting closeness. The biggest step forwards is simply awareness - so the best thing about learning about our attachment style is it can help us understand and unapologetically embrace what it is we need.
WHY SHOULD I CHANGE?
An avoidant type admits:
“As a person with an avoidant attachment style I can tell you most of us won’t be that motivated to change our attachment style (unlike other attachment styles). This is because people with this style don’t experience much subjective distress (it’s more subconscious) and we use coping strategies like repression, denial and disassociation. So there is no incentive to change. Even though I am fully aware about attachment theory and have a lot of knowledge about it I still am reluctant to change it.”
No one needs to work on their attachment style if they're genuinely happy as they are, and are aware and open about their different wants and needs so not hurting others. Avoidant attachment protects us from hurt and allows us to keep focus, so has its advantages. And it was a survival adaptation that we learned kept us safe, so our subconscious can fight very hard against letting go of it. The conundrum for us avoidants is that solving this requires getting close to the very emotions that our whole system is designed to suppress. Why would we go through that pain when we can just carry on suppressing?!
But remember, suppressing your needs is not the same as being able to self-validate. We are still hurting at the core. Though avoidant techniques were once helpful strategies to protect ourselves from being hurt by people, they’re also strategies that keep us from having loving, close relationships with a secure attachment. Humans need emotional connections, and denying yourself that in an attempt to appear independent can do much damage. Safe doesn’t always mean happy!
Sometimes we can be very good at taking care of ourselves when we're by ourselves, but when we find a partner everything seems to go to pieces. This is because relationships awaken our primal attachment triggers. Being in a relationship brings up everything within us that needs to be healed, so a relationship is the real test of whether or not we’ve moved beyond our core wounding issues. Regardless of what happened, relationships are great teachers of what our needs are and what we need to work on to be happy - if we can work out those lessons. But if we don’t take full responsibility for our own healing, we’ll simply go on to repeat similar patterns in our next relationship. Lots of people aren't aware of how or why they behave as they do, and so just victims to their repeating patterns. If you are it puts you at a huge advantage in relationships.
"It becomes apparent that being avoidant isn’t really about living a self-sufficient life; it’s about a life of struggle involving the constant suppression of a powerful attachment system using (also powerful) deactivating strategies. Because of their power it’s easy to conclude that these behaviors, thoughts, and beliefs are impossible to uproot and change. But this is not the case. What is true is that people with an avoidant attachment style overwhelmingly assume that the reason they’re unable to find happiness in a relationship has little to do with themselves and a lot to do with external circumstances—meeting the wrong people, not finding “the one,” or only hooking up with prospects who want to tie them down. They rarely search inside themselves for the reason for their dissatisfaction, and even more rarely seek help or even agree to get help when their partner suggests they do so. Unfortunately, until they look inward or seek counselling, change is not likely to occur."
- Attached by Levine & Heller
Attachment patterns can also be important to address if you're interested in potentially having a family - low self-esteem may make avoidants irrationally fear they are not up to the task, when they can in fact often be the most devoted, sensitive, reliable, resilient, practical and thoughtful caregivers, and gain a great deal from their relationships with their children (with the exception of some more extreme avoidants who - you guessed it - run away). A study found parents with more avoidant attachment styles did experience greater stress after the birth of their child and perceived parenting as less satisfying and personally meaningful - but this can change. And remember that while insecure styles are often passed down families in cycles, the best predictor of a child’s security of attachment is not what happened to his parents as children, but rather how his parents made sense of those childhood experiences - if they were aware of and responded to their own attachment patterns. It is very valuable to practise getting comfortable with showing love and handling emotions now, so we can happily attend to those of our children, and so end the cycle if we choose. This comes from proactive work, not sudden change.
No one was born with their attachment style - they are learned behaviours. If we learned those, we can learn new patterns. The defence mechanisms of the past aren't necessarily useful in our present, and we get to choose whether to bring them with us. But most people (particularly with avoidant attachment) never become aware of their attachment style, let alone work on it. So they can go through their lives confused about their behaviours and their inability to get what they believe they’re after. Now you’re in the know, you can choose to be the exception! If you find that your attachment patterns are making you unhappy, or stopping you from getting what you truly want, then the great thing is that you can choose to change things.
“We are fundamentally designed to heal. Even if our childhood is less than ideal, our secure attachment system is biologically programmed in us, and our job is to simply find out what’s interfering with it—and learn what we can do to make those secure tendencies more dominant.”
- Diane Poole Heller
HOW DO I DO IT?
The biggest step is simply awareness. But changing our attachment patterns takes work.
And no one changes from fundamentally insecure to secure under conditions of fear, disapproval, or threat of abandonment. Only through acceptance, respect, support, and safety will anyone gain the security to climb the emotional mountain to becoming more secure - on your own with a therapist, and/or in a secure relationship.
Being an avoidant does not mean you are not capable of transforming into a secure partner. It just means you will need to step out of the comfort zone and keep trying until it becomes comfortable. This will include learning how to express yourself and your feelings towards your partner, taking the step to be open and vulnerable with them as you both create the safe space for it. It also means accepting once and for all that your partner does have your best interests at heart and does not want to smother you, because you are not fighting alone for self-preservation - you are part of a team. Being in a relationship is about creating a strong, reliable bond on the basis of supporting each other's needs, for you both to stand taller and stretch yourselves independently while also allowing for either of you to fall with the confidence the other is really there to catch them.
So changing our relationships requires a change in our beliefs, and a change in the way we see ourselves in relationships:
“Once the lust phase of the relationship is over, reality sets in and attachment patterns surface. That’s when two people need to either grow and be mirrors for each other to heal their wounds or they continue repeating the same patterns. Without awareness, communication and a team effort to work on the relationship challenges, the relationship either becomes toxic or eventually falls apart”
- in other words, teamwork makes the dream work.
If you want a commitment to work, you need to be assertive - not passive. You will need to talk things out and give a genuine effort to make things work - often the opposite of what your instincts are telling you to do. If you aren't both pulling your weight, the relationship will shrivel up into a very resentment-filled, hateful mess.
But it helps to remember that relationship dynamics are a two-way street and we each need to take responsibility for our own feelings. Working on avoiding attachment triggers is something that can come from both sides and should not mean one person taking blame. As avoidant partners we can recognise that our fears of engulfment come ultimately not from our partner, but are created by a need to set limits so we feel safe. But similarly, if our partner is feeling anxious about our behaviour, they need to understand and sympathise with these learned behaviours, also consider their own attachment patterns, to resist blame, learn to self-soothe and take responsibility for their own needs until we are able to return. Without each taking personal responsibility, we can each blame the other and feel helpless, victimised and stuck.
Attachment theory is also a really useful thing for partners to understand, so they don’t take things personally, are better equipped to understand how to provide for an avoidant's needs so they are less likely to feel trapped, and to establish emotional security and and trust for both of you together, rather than just themselves individually. Partners can also look into and take responsibility for how they may be contributing with their own attachment patterns. So if you're addressing this inside a relationship, then the more open you can be with your partner about your process, the better. It may seem exposing, but they will appreciate your honesty, can support you on your journey, take responsibility for their own attachment needs, and be an important part of the solution as there are some great strategies for them to follow!
OK ENOUGH WAFFLE, GIVE ME THE TECHNIQUES...
So glad you asked. Here's your Roadmap:
PART I: Challenge Core Beliefs
(in a professional setting)
Understand your attachment history
Connect with your ‘inner child’
Challenge limiting beliefs
Work on individuation
PART II: Adapt Behaviours
Reconnect with your emotions
Come into the present
Recognise & communicate needs
Learn to spot your de-activating strategies
Lean in & appreciate
Nix the phantom ex and perfect partner
Work with a supportive partner or spend time on yourself
Ask for help
PART III: Strategies for a Partner
Don't take it personally
Communicate your needs
Be patient & don't push too hard
Give space and time
Stand your ground
Don't try to fix
Seek outside connection
Focus on you
Be prepared to leave
PART IV: Strategies Together
Avoid the blame game
Get closer indirectly
Supplementary Work - courses, videos, reading
Finally, you might want to try some programs to develop secure attachment. This is not a replacement for therapy, but can support it and contain repeatable exercises and worksheets. I can't vouch for these personally - please do your own research - but here are some that could be worth looking into:
Understanding Avoidant Attachment - Heirloom Counselling
Developing Secure Attachment - Lisa Firestone
Making Sense of your Life - Dan Siegel
Inner Bonding - Margaret Paul
(also check out Thais Gibson's further courses on discovering your needs, reprogramming beliefs, self-esteem, eliminating guilt & shame, conflict resolution, reparenting the inner child, understanding your life mission, healing self-sabotage, healing enmeshment etc). Read Lisa Firestone's presentation
Elsewhere on this site you will find useful reprogramming video tools, book recommendations and links - immerse yourself. The more we can delve into and understand our style, that of our partner, and strategies around them, the better equipped we are to enact lasting change for a happier life.
So what are you waiting for!