WHAT'S THE SOLUTION?
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. Unconsciously something made you associate connection with pain. But everyone is worthy of love and stability. Always be kind to yourself.
We are every one of us juggling our own quirks, and there is no hierarchy of needs: wanting space is just as valid as wanting closeness. There is nothing wrong with being this way, and no one has to change their own personality or their partner's. However, you are probably here because it has been making your relationships more difficult and you would like to change that. 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, and potentially how to get it in a successful relationship.
I bought into the most dangerous rule: if you’re struggling, don’t talk about it. I created an illusion of who I was supposed to be on the outside — the kind, funny, and charismatic guy with a great career and relationship. But on the other side of that facade hid my shadow — the destructive and manipulative version of myself who couldn't hold up relationships, who lied and cheated. The idea of anyone finding out my truth felt like death.
And then it happened. Someone important to me cracked the illusion wide open, and I couldn’t lie my way out of it this time. To avoid crushing shame, I shut everyone out and ran. One night, while living in the back of my car, my reality hit me like a ton of bricks: I had chosen to completely isolate myself and hide, rather than take ownership of my darkness and face the people I had hurt. It was then that I realized I only had two options: to continue to hide and silently suffer, or shine light into my deepest corners and start talking about it.
It was in that darkest moment that I learned the greatest lesson:The shadow lives within all of us - the part of our psyche that causes self-sabotage. When you try to run from your shadow, it consumes you and becomes the puppeteer… and you a passive player in your own life. It can take over in the form of addiction, infidelity, anger, anxiety, analysis paralysis, avoiding healthy habits, depression, sexual dysfunction or deep unfulfillment… And while truth can sting, the first step in healing your dysfunction is to face these parts of yourself that make you the most human. Facing it is the beginning of awakening your greatest potential…"
“From the dark places, we often get a new sense of priorities. Ultimately, it’s the quality of our relationships that will determine the quality of our lives.” – Esther Perel
Why should I change?
"To resist the lessons hidden in hardships is to resist change and growth that life is offering up to us,
and to hold on to the pain and suffering"
'I don't want to'
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 and not hurting others. Avoidant attachment can protect us from hurt in the short term and allow 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 very large majority of avoidants are not interested in change. They think there is nothing wrong with their behaviour, even if it makes them unhappy and gives them health problems, and they prefer a partner to follow their rules, even if those rules may not be conducive to a loving, stable relationship, can cause hurt in the long term and put the emotional labour for maintaining the relationship on partners.
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?! These psychological defences are incredibly powerful. There is a lot of shame associated with revealing ourselves to another person. The gaze of another can re-evoke crippling feelings and memories. We instinctively expect the other person would be cold, unempathetic or critical just as earlier attachment figures were. Closeness with others risks feeling exposed as an inadequate fraud. "The avoidant feels contempt for himself, and believes he deserves to suffer. The wish is not to be seen, and for this sadomasochistic relationship with the self to remain a private affair." Until we have worked to become accepting our true inner selves, it can feel safer to have contempt for intimate connecting than risk being exposed, and both seeking and depriving ourselves of connection may make us feel elements of anxiety and depression.
There is an additional reason that avoidants are particularly resistant to change: they internalised early on it was safer not to try. There may have been few opportunities with caregivers to experience things other than rejection, criticism, overlooking or commands to contain distress in response to showing their real needs, with the overriding message not to expect help from anybody. With this worldview it would seem absurd to make yourself vulnerable to further rejection or attacks. As a result, avoidants are the least likely to enter therapy, or to really let the therapist in if they do.
But remember, suppressing your needs is not the same as being able to self-validate. We are still hurting at the core. Do not confuse confidence in your own self-reliance with true courage. Suppressing is in fact a short-term strategy that only leads to more pain in the long-term. And though avoidant techniques were once helpful quick fixes 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! What is the cost of this long term? What will life look like if relationships are repeatedly sabotaged or left prematurely? The longer we resist developing, the longer we may be keeping ourselves ultimately unhappy. By working on our patterns we safeguard our future.
You're still hurting - have these patterns worked so far?
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. We often relate easily to friends, around whom we don't feel emotional dysregulation, because unconsciously we are not expecting them to be parents. But we fix wounds from our childhood through our partners. With avoidants, this often involves distancing from an overwhelming situation that we never had the control to run from when younger. The activation of these childhood wounds is terrifying and we do need someone understanding to take care of these impulses, but we also need to own and soothe them ourselves, and learn to put the relationship first.
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. And relationships do not just work perfectly - if we weren't taught them we need to master the skills to make them a success, which are very learnable. If we want to have relationships that will last, it is imperative we are willing to grow, change, and adapt - and choose partners willing to do the same. If we go in expecting everything to be perfect or our partners to solve our problems, the relationship is brittle and will easily fail.
And 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
Might want a family someday, or to get more out of your existing one?
Attachment patterns can also be important to address if you're interested in potentially having a family - fear of being relied upon and low self-esteem may make avoidants fear they are not up to the task, though once self-aware of their patterns they are able to be devoted, sensitive, reliable, resilient, practical and thoughtful caregivers, and gain a great deal from their relationships with their children (with the exception of stronger avoidants who - you guessed it - run away). Studies 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, and that unchanged avoidants can neglect their children's emotional needs - but this only applies when people are unaware of their patterns so is within our power to change. If any intimacy is very difficult for you at present, you might want to consider delaying children a little until you have started some self-development. Birth to age 2 are the critical years for developing healthy attachment. And strong parenting comes out of strong, supportive relationships. These are all things you can nurture and develop.
Half the population has insecure attachment - it's absolutely not reason not to have children: understanding ourselves simply helps us be cognisant of how we show up for them. Once we are aware of and feel more control over responding to our patterns, then we've set the groundwork for great familial relationships. 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 their parents as children, but rather how their parents made sense of those childhood experiences - if the parents were aware of and responded to their own attachment patterns. Understanding yourself gives you a great advantage! It's very valuable to practise getting comfortable with showing love and handling emotions now, so we could happily attend to those of our children, and so end the cycle if we choose. This comes from proactive work, not sudden change.
We're designed to heal
No one was born with their attachment style - they are learned behaviours. If we learned those, we can learn new patterns. We carry trauma forward by taking forward the behavioural coping mechanisms we learned from the past to situations where they are no longer relevant. But the past is gone, and the defence mechanisms of the past aren't necessarily useful in our present. We get to choose whether to bring them with us, or to heal from that trauma.
Because avoidance can come out of undervaluing real loss, often a big loss in our lives kickstarts this process naturally. People who have lost loved ones, for example, can find themselves more able to appreciate and dedicate themselves to relationships afterwards (although initially the reverse can also be true as our internal world becomes too painful to share, and we seek to protect from further pain). But we shouldn't have to wait for such a big life event - a time when it can help to have a supportive attachment figure already in our lives - for change.
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 and your relationships 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 real voyage of discovery is not in discovering new landscapes, but seeing with new eyes"
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.
Change how we think about ourselves, dating and relationships
Ultimately, we can correct what went wrong in our childhoods by first working on our self-compassion and self-belief to give ourselves the emotional interest and validation that we missed out on as a child, then allowing others to do it for us too, and finally learning to give it back in return. As you do so, you will not only heal yourself, you will become fortified by your connections with others. And you will gradually realise that it is actually your ability to emotionally rely on others that makes you strong.
If you regularly experience these feelings within a relationship, the first thing to realise is that, unchanged, these feelings and behaviours are eventually going to appear with any partner. If they haven't appeared yet, it may actually mean your relationship is not very safe or functional. If you are dating hoping to find the person it magically will never happen with then you are fooling yourself. Your brain wants to tell you otherwise specifically as a distancing tactic, because it wants to protect you from getting close to anyone. Ultimately it is not about the other person - although they may be able to help.
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.
It's a two-way street - get help on the journey
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!
"Most of us realise the need to be tethered to at least one other, if not early in life then eventually. People near death never talk about wishing they had travelled to this place or that, or made this amount of money. Their lament, if any, was about their relationships. Many wished they had said they were sorry, told someone they loved them, or just been able to feel closer. So if you're among the sceptics when it comes to committed relationships, I challenge you to speak to elderly people" - Stan Tatkin
Avoidant to secure: the roadmap
PART I: Transform Core Beliefs
(in a professional setting)
Understand your attachment history & reframe
Challenge limiting beliefs
PART II: Adapt Behaviours
- Take Control
Reconnect with your emotions
Come into the present
Recognise & communicate needs, maintain boundaries
Take control of your life
- Out with the Old
5. Spot your de-activating strategies
6. Counter negative thinking
7. Counter emotional shut-down
8. Stop looking for an escape route
9. Nix the phantom ex and perfect partner
- Activate the New
10. Practise vulnerability
11. Lean in & appreciate
12. Become a fixer
13. Work with a supportive partner or spend time on yourself
14. Ask for help
PART III: Strategies for a Partner
Don't take it personally
Communicate needs, avoiding strong emotion or blame
Give them space and time
Stand your ground
Don't try to fix them
Seek outside connection
Focus on you
Be prepared to leave
PART IV: Strategies Together
Avoid the blame game
Get closer indirectly
Avoid pursuer-distancer, affirm each other's way
Supplementary Work - courses, videos, reading
Finally, check out some programs to develop secure attachment. This is not a replacement for therapy, but can support it and contain repeatable exercises and worksheets. Thais Gibson in particular produces lots of great courses through which people have moved towards secure attachment. I can't vouch for the courses below personally - there are loads of courses online and 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
Happiness & Fulfilment - Raj Raghunathan
Connection the Science of Mind to Interpersonal Relationships - Therapist Uncensored
(also check out Thais Gibson's further courses on advanced dismissive avoidant attachment, 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 - recommended course progression for dismissive avoidants is in her course guide. Research other self-mastery courses...)
Elsewhere on this site you will find useful reprogramming video tools, book recommendations, podcasts 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!
“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
– T. Roosevelt
QUICK-FIX: Take the courses recommended for the 'dismissive avoidant'
in the Personal Development School
"Ive felt unloved all my life because I was raised to believe that love had no boundaries and requires selflessness. I was required to show this to my parents growing up but their needs and emotions always came first. Fast forward to adulthood, I've come to not feel loved by my husband or kids or anyone else. I feel people are nice to me only so I will be there when they have needs to be met. Now I find myself raising my children alone and with only a handful of friends who I rarely talk to. I can see now that I haven't felt loved in fact because other people have boundaries and respect their own needs. I didn't know how to love healthily so it's hard to recognise it when I see it. It has been a breakthrough moment to realise this, and now I can separate when people are setting healthy boundaries from my assumptions they are using me. The PDS courses have helped me so much since I signed up, much more than therapy alone. I recommend it to those who are on the fence. Here's to learning what love really is."