We all know someone like this: free, independent, and strong. Nothing ever seems to bring them out of balance. They’re always doing exciting things, traveling to exotic places, living abroad, or indulging in the coolest hobbies. They never seem to need anyone and do not seem be influenced easily by what others might think of them.
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Whereas these characteristics seem to be very positive, popular, and worth pursuing, there is sometimes a catch: people with these characteristics might find it quite hard to commit themselves to a romantic relationship. Their independent lifestyle might be fuelled by something that is called “avoidant attachment”.
What Are Attachment Styles?
Attachment has originally been used to describe the bond between infants and their caregivers1. However, it has been shown that attachment style is relatively stable over time – that is, the attachment style a person develops in infanthood could stay with them throughout adulthood.2 It has therefore been suggested that attachment style plays a role in adult romantic relationships.3 The idea is that early experiences people have about the availability and sensitivity of their caregivers become coded into their psychology and come to be what’s known as “attachment working models”.1 These attachment working models influence people`s thoughts, behaviour, and feelings about themselves and others. So if a caregiver has been available and sensitive to a child`s needs, the child might think of himself as lovable and of others as reliable and trustworthy, and subsequently develop a secure attachment style. However, if this was not the case, the child may develop one of the less positive attachment styles.
Relationships And Avoidant Attachment
Avoidant attachment is characterised by a fear of intimacy and a denial of attachment needs, and has its roots in relatively rejecting and cold caregiving .3,4 People with avoidant attachment characteristics might find it difficult to show their emotions openly to their partner. They might also find it difficult to communicate to their partner that they and their relationship are important to them.
People high in attachment avoidance characteristics use so called “deactivation strategies”, such as being emotionally unavailable, and denying that they need the other person.3 This can lead to conflict in the relationship, as the partner in the relationship may feel that the avoidant person is not interested in them and the relationship. However, for people with avoidant attachment styles, this is not usually the case.
How To Have A Happy Relationship With An Avoidant Individual
Avoidant attachment style has consistently been linked to less positive relationship outcomes .5 However, it has also been shown that avoidantly attached people who are in a stable relationship for a longer period of time become more securely attached – that is, they are more able to open up and trust their relationship partner.6
Yet, for this shift in attachment style to happen, avoidantly attached individuals and their partners need to stay in a relationship for a relatively long period of time. So, what can avoidant individuals and their partners do to stay happy and satisfied in their relationships?
1. Accept that people might have different attachment needs
It might be helpful to reflect on both your attachment needs and your partner’s attachment needs, and accept that they are likely to be different from each other. After all, you are two different individuals, and probably differ in many other aspects as well! A difference in attachment needs (i.e. how close you want to be to each other) might appear more difficult to bear than other differences, as it may seem like an indicator of how much one is loved by their partner. However, remember that our attachment needs may be more indicative of experiences we had in the past, rather than the extent to which we love our partner!
2. Acknowledge that avoidant individuals may be slower at building trust and opening up in a relationship
Good things need time. People high in attachment avoidance are likely to need longer to build trust and to open up in relationships. Therefore, a slower start into a relationship that allows both partners plenty of autonomy is recommended. Remember that good things come to those who wait.
3. Remember the avoidant individual’s need for independence
Avoidantly attached individuals need independence in a relationship. They probably want to continue doing spending time on their hobbies, seeing their friends, and traveling on their own even while they are in a relationship. This does not mean that they do not love their partner! Respecting this need for independence will lead to less conflict in the relationship.
Many avoidant individuals want to enjoy the privilege of being in a romantic relationship and getting to know another person on a very special level. At the same time, the partners of an avoidant individual get to enjoy that they have a fascinating partner who has more interests than “just the romantic relationship”. Although a relationship with an avoidant individual may require some extra work and time, with adequate understanding the relationship can flourish and grow like any other.
1Bowlby, J. (1969/ 1982). Attachment and loss: Vol.1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
2Fraley, R.C. (2002). Attachment stability from infancy to adulthood: Meta-analysis and dynamic modeling of developmental mechanisms. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 6, 123-151. Doi: 10.1207/S15327957PSPR0602_03
3Mikulincer, M. & Shaver, P.R. (2007). Attachment processes and couple functioning. In M. Mikulincer & P.R. Shaver (Eds.), Attachment in adulthood: structure, dynamics, and change. New York: The Guilford Press.
4Shaver, P.R. & Mikulincer, M. (2002). Attachment-related psychodynamics. Attachment and Human Development, 4, 133-161. Doi: 10.1080/14616730210154171
5Li, T. & Chan, D.K.S. (2012). How anxious and avoidant attachment affects romantic relationship quality differently: A meta-analytic review. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 406-419. Doi: 10.1002/ejsp.1842
6Feeney, J. (2008). Adult Romantic Attachment-Developments in the study of couples relationships. In J. Cassidy & P.R. Shaver (Eds.) Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications. New York: The Guildford Press.
Olivia Bolt, Ph.D., completed her Bachelor and Master studies in Psychology at the University of Basel (Switzerland) before earning her doctorate in social anxiety disorder from King`s College London. She is currently pursuing a second Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University, focusing on relationship satisfaction in couples. With experience working across different age groups and settings, Dr. Bolt's research interests encompass compassion-focused therapy, mindfulness, attachment, mother-infant relationships, romantic relationships, and anxiety disorders.