One of the most common questions I’ve heard in my work over the last four decades is “Why can’t I find a partner?” This series looks at some of the psychological roadblocks that prevent some people from developing satisfying relationships. I’m looking at the question from the perspective of Attachment Theory, which proposes that human beings have three distinct styles for bonding with others – secure, anxious, and avoidant. The latter two styles are the ones most likely to make it difficult to form stable relationships. This week’s focus is on what those with an avoidant attachment style can do to be more successful in connecting with others.
To recapitulate briefly, avoiders typically grew up with parents who were emotionally unavailable or unresponsive to them most of the time. As a result of their unstable childhoods, avoiders develop a compulsively self-reliant orientation to life based on the idea that they don’t need other people. They may tell themselves that independence and self-sufficiency are more important to them than intimacy, but this is really a defense mechanism whose purpose is to make sure they never again go through the kind of pain that they experienced at the hands of their original caregivers. An estimated 25 percent of the population has this attachment style.
If you see yourself in this description and want to learn how to be closer to others, it’s important that you not deceive yourself about who you really are and what you actually want. In their deepest selves, avoiders want intimate relationships just as much as everyone else, but they self-protectively suppress their attachment systems because they see great danger in getting too close to others. They fear rejection, abandonment and betrayal; or, when their original caregivers repeatedly violated their boundaries, they fear that if they get too close they’ll be engulfed, smothered, and robbed of their freedom.
Another common way in which avoiders deceive themselves is by convincing themselves that the people around them are unworthy of them. If you’re an avoidant type, you may be able to enjoy closeness, but only up to a point. If you’re in a relationship, watch for the tendency to find fault with your partner. Where the anxiously attached person is hypervigilant for signs of distance, as an avoider you’re probably hypervigilant about your partner’s attempts to control you or limit your autonomy. To protect yourself, you may engage in distancing behaviors, such as ignoring your partner, flirting with other people in front of her or him, making unilateral decisions, or dismissing their feelings and needs. You probably also have trouble disclosing your own feelings. You may find it very hard to compromise, and your typical response to an argument or conflict may be to withdraw and become aloof. For all these reasons, your friends and partners may complain that you’re insensitive and overly focused on yourself. Conversely, to you they may seem weak and overly needy, a perception that allows you to feel strong and self-sufficient by contrast.
If you’re avoidant, it’s important that you begin to question both this grandiose self-image, and your tendency to devalue others. These perceptions are distortions: the real issue is always fear. The avoidant style is really a stance that protects a fragile self that is easily hurt by slights and rejections, and is often plagued by feelings of self-doubt and self-hatred. Your most important task is to become conscious of your fears, to learn where they came from, and to question whether they make sense in your current environment. Until you’ve grieved and healed the traumas and pain that produced your avoidant style, you’ll feel as if the dangers of the past still exist in the present.
If the avoidant style is really getting in your way, individual psychotherapy may be able to provide the safe interpersonal environment you’ll need to do this work of self-examination. Ideally, the therapy experience is a reparative relationship in which an atmosphere of safety and trust facilitates honesty, disclosure and self-exploration; and creates the kind of secure attachment that was missing in your formative years. Changing your basic attachment style is a long-term process, but over time, this kind of relationship can do much to lessen the avoider’s conflation of intimacy with danger or entrapment.