Have you ever been told you have an avoidant attachment style? Or maybe there’s someone in your life who is an avoidant, and you’re trying to understand them better.
In either case, if you have any experience with avoidant attachment, you know that intimacy and relationships can be really challenging. And I don’t just mean romantic situations.
These challenges likely permeate all aspects of your life – friendships, family life, and even your professional relationships.
And while avoidant attachment styles can manifest in different ways for different people, there are some common triggers we can examine that will help us understand this attachment style better.
In this article, we’ll start with a deep dive into the two main avoidant attachment styles, common triggers, and coping strategies you can use to learn to form healthier, more secure attachments to people.
But first, the basics.
What Is An Avoidant Attachment Style?
Avoidant attachment is one of the four main attachment styles identified in attachment theory, which describes how people form emotional bonds and relationships with others.
An avoidant attachment style refers to a person’s tendency to avoid or minimize emotional closeness and intimacy with others.
If this is you, you might have difficulty trusting others and forming deep emotional connections. You may feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed by emotional intimacy, which makes you create emotional distance in your relationships.
Overview Of Attachment Theory
Let’s do a quick examination of attachment theory, which will help us frame the rest of the discussion.
According to attachment theory, humans have an innate need for emotional connection.
A person’s primary caregiver – typically a parent – serves as a trustworthy base from which they can explore the world and seek comfort in times of distress.
The quality of this early caregiver-child relationship shapes an individual’s attachment style, which influences their behavior and expectations in future relationships.
The four main attachment styles are:
How Do Avoidant Attachment Styles Develop?
People with avoidant attachment styles learned early in life that depending on others for emotional needs may lead to disappointment or rejection.
As a result, they develop strategies to maintain emotional distance or self-sufficiency in close and professional relationships. It’s a learned form of self-protection.
If a parent was consistently unavailable or rejected you in some way growing up, you might develop an avoidant attachment style as a safeguard against future hurt and rejection.
By minimizing your attachment needs to others, you protect yourself from recreating that earlier experience.
But an unfortunate byproduct is that a lot of people who adopt avoidant attachment styles struggle with important relationship skills like building trust and intimacy and communication.
Ironically, but maybe not surprisingly, this attachment style also makes people reluctant to seek help.
Types Of Avoidant Attachment Styles
There are types of avoidant attachment styles: dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant (also known as anxious-avoidant).
It’s also worth noting that people can express a combination of both attachment styles. For example, I tend to exhibit characteristics of dismissive-avoidant attachment in my personal relationships, but trend more towards fearful-avoidant when dealing with the general public.
People are complex. It’s okay if there’s not an exact right “fit” for your attachment style. You can still glean important insights.
I’m going to take a deep dive on the causes and characteristics of each. If you prefer to jump to the avoidant attachment triggers section, please do!
If you’d like to explore avoidant attachment styles in more detail, I recommend this introductory video:
Causes of Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Style
Adults with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style were likely anxious-avoidant as children. Growing up, these children weren’t allowed to express themselves. The caregivers of such children are more often than not uncomfortable with emotions, quieting or stopping their “improper” behavior.
Essentially, this attachment style develops because the child’s parents were dismissive and poor responders, resulting in unmet needs.
Additional causes include:
When caregivers consistently fail to meet the child’s emotional needs, the child may learn to suppress their attachment-related emotions and develop self-reliance as a way to cope with the lack of support.
Overemphasis on Independence:
If a child is consistently praised or rewarded for their independence, self-reliance, and competence, they may develop a dismissive-avoidant attachment style. The child learns to prioritize self-reliance and minimize the importance of emotional connection and dependency on others.
Modeling of Dismissive Behaviors:
James Baldwin famously said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” In the case of avoidant attachment styles, that can, sadly, play out in truly detrimental ways.
When children observe parents and caregivers minimizing or dismissing emotional needs and avoiding emotional closeness, they may internalize these behaviors as a model for their own interactions in relationships.
Traumatic experiences, such as neglect, abuse, or significant disruptions in the child’s early environment, can also contribute to the development of a dismissive-avoidant attachment style. These experiences can lead the child to disconnect from their emotions as a way to protect themselves from further harm or disappointment.
Characteristics of Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Style
Now that we’ve looked at some of the root causes, let’s examine how dismissive-avoidant attachment styles manifest in everyday life.
Adults with dismissive-avoidant attachment might have one or more of the following traits:
- Preference for being alone, independent, and “free.”
- Private and secretive.
- Downplaying relationships and reliance.
- Believing you function better by yourself.
- Appearing confident, not needing affirmation or support.
- Having many friends and brief, casual relationships. However, these are often shallow as they do not want to be close to anyone.
- Difficulty dealing with conflict.
- Possessing a negative view of people seeking support. Seeing them as needy, immature, dependent, and emotionally unstable.
- They might develop narcissistic tendencies.
Now let’s address the second avoidant attachment style: fearful-avoidant.
Causes of Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style
Fearful-avoidant attachment (also called disorganized attachment) is the rarest attachment style, but shares a few similar characteristics with dismissive-avoidant attachment.
The root causes of fearful-avoidant attachment styles are complex and usually a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and interpersonal factors.
Some common causes of this attachment style include:
Early Traumatic Experiences:
Traumatic or highly distressing experiences during early childhood, such as abuse, neglect, or unpredictable caregiving, can contribute to the development of a fearful-avoidant attachment style.
Inconsistent or Unpredictable Caregiving:
Inconsistent caregiving is when the caregiver alternates between being responsive and unavailable. It can create confusion and insecurity in a child who may develop a fearful-avoidant attachment style as a result of not knowing what to expect from their caregiver.
Is Mom going to be loving and attentive today or cold and irritable? This leads to an unhealthy mixture of anxious and avoidant behaviors.
Fearful or Disorganized Attachment Patterns in Caregivers:
Similar to dismissive-avoidant attachment styles, If the caregiver has unresolved trauma, unresolved attachment issues, or displays fearful or disorganized attachment behaviors themselves, the child may internalize these patterns and develop a similar attachment style.
Genetic and Temperamental Factors:
Some researchers suggest that certain genetic and temperamental factors may contribute to the development of fearful-avoidant attachment.
For example, a child with a natural tendency toward hypersensitivity, high harm avoidance, low novelty-seeking, or an overactive behavioral inhibition system may be more prone to developing fearful-avoidant patterns in response to challenging early experiences.
Other environmental factors, such as a lack of social support, disruptions in the child’s environment (e.g., frequent moves, changes in caregivers), or exposure to highly stressful circumstances.
Any combination of these factors could lead a person to develop a fearful-avoidant style. But how does this all play out in the real world?
Characteristics of Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Styles:
Fearful-avoidant types tend to have a low sense of self-worth, believing they aren’t worthy of deep relationships or friendships. In this way, they fear both autonomy and intimacy.
Other characteristics of the fearful-avoidant attachment style include:
- Having a strong desire for emotional connection, but fearing it at the same time.
- Struggling with emotional regulation.
- Lacking healthy coping strategies during stressful times.
- Holding e a negative view of themselves and of others.
- They may dissociate as a coping strategy in stressful times.
- Distancing themselves from their partners but still fretting or experiencing anxiety regarding that person’s trustworthiness or commitment to them.
- They may have people-pleasing tendencies and poor boundaries.
Now that we’ve explored the two main avoidant attachment styles, let’s examine common triggers, followed by strategies you can implement to cope with avoidant responses.
14 Common Avoidant Attachment Triggers
Certain behaviors and situations trigger people with avoidant attachment styles, leading them to react in unhealthy and sometimes hurtful ways.
Do any of these resonate with you?
1. Dependency On Others
If your needs weren’t met as a child, you might not trust others and prefer to be self-reliant and independent. So, when you are forced to depend on someone, it can trigger you.
For example, your car is in for service, so you rely on your colleague to get to work. As a result, you feel like a burden and are convinced your colleague sees you as one, too.
2. When Someone Close To You Criticizes You
As a child, your emotional needs weren’t met in a healthy manner, and you felt defective or unimportant as a result. So, when a colleague, friend, or family member criticizes you – even constructively – it reminds you that you are flawed.
This also manifests as avoidant behavior in anticipation of criticism or feedback. For example, if you’re given an opportunity to present a creative project at work, you may decline because you don’t want to put yourself in a position to receive criticism or judgment.
You prefer to avoid the situation altogether.
3. Someone Wants To Get Too Close
If someone is interested in you and wants to know you better, you might perceive this as a threat. This person might learn more about your personality and behavior, which you believe they might not like. If they see the truth, they might reject you and hurt you more, which terrifies you above all else.
Emotional intensity can be disconcerting for people with avoidant attachment styles. They may shy away from a friend or potential romantic partner who divulges too much or shares deep secrets and emotions.
It’s not uncommon for avoidants to ghost in situations like this.
4. An Overly Demanding Partner
An overly demanding partner can trigger exhaustion and frustration, especially if you weren’t allowed to be demanding as a child.
Firstly, you don’t know how to deal with it because you don’t have the know-how, and secondly, you feel forced to give them a lot of your emotional energy. This can feel extremely foreign and suffocating, especially to people with dismissive-avoidant styles.
If you were taught to suck it up and rely on yourself growing up, watching another person do the opposite can be both uncomfortable and off-putting. If you’ve been taught that needing someone is weakness, you’ll react badly to it.
5. Feeling Out Of Control Or Unpredictable Situations
If you grew up without your needs being met, the chances are you’ll prefer situations where you have more control or independence as an adult.
So, when something or someone comes along that you didn’t anticipate, it can derail you – especially if you feel trapped. In such instances, you might find excuses to create distance between yourself and the “chaotic” person.
This can also manifest in behaviors that are more risk-averse than the average person. You like your structure and routines. Any deviation is unsettling.
6. Feeling Trapped By A Time-Consuming Relationship
As an avoidant, you might struggle with the fact that relationships require an investment of your time.
This makes sense since your caregiver didn’t invest time in you or meet your needs. So, when you have a partner who wants to spend “too much” time with you, it can make you feel entangled and unable to do the things you want to do.
7. When A Partner Wants To Open Up Emotionally
Emotional expression is like a foreign or advanced language to some avoidant types because we don’t know how to regulate emotions well.
So, when a partner starts sharing deep thoughts and feelings, it is like going into unchartered territory with too many variables. And we know if you can’t “control” it, it’s better to avoid it.
8. Worrying About Being Judged For Being “Too Emotional”
Avoidants feel emotions; they just struggle to accept or regulate them because they don’t know how.
In the past, it wasn’t safe for you to express feelings. So as an adult, when you express your feelings, you feel like you’ve just exposed a vulnerable part of yourself that might be judged.
It’s a risk a lot of avoidants aren’t willing to take, so they become walled-off as a safeguard against future vulnerability.
9. Feeling Pressured To Open Up Emotionally
Sometimes we’ll find ourselves in a situation where we are asked to share our emotions. It could be a team-building exercise, a support group, or a partner that keeps nagging you to talk about an issue.
But, again, avoidants don’t like so much emphasis on emotions because they make you feel weak, uncomfortable, and desperate for an exit.
So when confronted with this kind of pressure, avoidants may pull away or literally retreat (ex. leaving and going for a drive).
10. When Someone Ignores Your Boundaries Or Personal Space
Avoidants are super protective of their personal space. So, when someone ignores your boundaries, it can rattle you.
Instead of dealing with it in a healthy way by communicating, you retract more, or even lash out.
11. High Expectations
Another avoidant attachment trigger is feeling too much is expected of you. This is because avoidants are used to being self-sufficient and independent, knowing no one will ever meet their needs. As such, you don’t want the responsibility of meeting someone else’s needs or expectations.
12. Being Rejected By A Friend Or Partner
Avoidant personalities, particularly fearful-avoidants, need a lot of affirmation and approval to know they are safe in a relationship. So, when a close friend or partner rejects you, it feels like you’ve been abandoned.
Your resulting feelings confirm why you shouldn’t allow anyone to get too close to you emotionally, which makes opening up in the future even more difficult.
13. Emotional Volatility And Erratic Behavior
People with avoidant attachment enjoy certainty. If someone’s behavior is unpredictable, it triggers the response to create a safe distance between you and that person.
It reminds people of painful childhood memories that involve emotional volatility and instability from caregivers. And that can be very triggering for people who already don’t trust others.
In a way, it reaffirms their avoidant behavior. You might think, “See, you can’t depend on anyone.”
14. Dealing With Loss Or Grief
Coping with loss or grief can also be a major trigger for avoidants. This is especially true for people who experienced neglect and abandonment in childhood.
The loss itself is triggering, but then there’s the added layer of wanting to be self-reliant and not depend on anyone for comfort.
In a situation like this, you might avoid seeking emotional support altogether or processing grief openly. So what do we do?
Bury it, keep a stiff upper lip, and move on without truly addressing the impact on our lives.
15. Physical Contact
For some avoidants, particularly dismissive avoidants, too much physical touch can feel like an invasion of personal space, triggering another “pull away” response.
You might feel like it’s too much, and for partners, it can be misinterpreted as rejection. I’m a little bit like this.
I tend to recoil from light, physical touches. I feel uncomfortable and have to consciously remind myself to consider how that is interpreted by my husband or whoever is trying to be affectionate toward me.
Awareness is really important, which is why next we’ll discuss how to deal with avoidance triggers in your daily life. This is helpful for avoidants, but also people who have someone in their life with an avoidant attachment style who they’d like to understand better.
Strategies for Dealing with Avoidance Triggers
The great news is that attachment styles aren’t fixed for life, so you can consciously work toward developing secure attachment and enjoying intimacy.
However, doing so will take a concerted effort on your part to unlearn your responses to avoidance triggers.
Here are some coping strategies for you to consider:
1. It Starts With Self-Awareness:
The first step is to identify your biggest avoidant triggers. Pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in different relationship situations.
What situations triggers you the most? When do you feel yourself start to withdraw and pull away? Record these observations somewhere like a journal. You’ll use them later.
2. Consider Therapy:
Book an appointment with a therapist. Bonus points if you can connect with someone who is experienced with helping people form secure attachment styles.
Let’s also acknowledge for a moment that the idea of paying someone to make you talk about your deepest, darkest fears and emotions is akin to a personal hell for most avoidants.
But it’s okay. Training for a marathon isn’t always fun either, but the pain is in service of a greater good, so we do our best.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and its offshoot, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), are great options for addressing avoidant attachment and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Through therapy, you can manage your perceptions and responses to situations and learn practical self-soothing skills and emotional regulation.
3. Gradual Exposure:
Start gradually exposing yourself to situations that trigger avoidance, such as sharing emotions or seeking support. This is something you can even work on under the supervision of your therapist.
Once you’re aware of your avoidant triggers, you can experiment with exposing yourself to them in very small doses. It will be uncomfortable, for sure, but as they say, growth happens outside of your comfort zone.
4. Learn How To Communicate Effectively
The ability to have an open, honest discussion about feelings is the key to emotional regulation, something avoidants have to proactively work on. It just does not come naturally to us.
Effective communication is a building block for healthy relationships. It includes active listening, clearly expressing your needs, and speaking assertively without being passive or aggressive.
Admittedly, this is hard. It may require both you and your partner (or close friends and family) to put in some extra work.
Here’s a great video on communication with both avoidant types and stonewalling that I hope you’ll find insightful.
5. Challenge Negative Beliefs:
This is another thing your therapist will likely work with you on – identifying and challenging the negative beliefs that perpetuate your attachment style.
Question the negative beliefs you hold about emotional intimacy or dependency. Challenge thoughts like “I can’t rely on others” or “Being vulnerable is a sign of weakness.”
It is such a powerful thing to be able to call yourself out.
If you find yourself saying things like, “I can’t depend on people,” try to refute that. Is there a time when you could rely on someone? What happened? How did they come through for you?
Or you can challenge yourself to say, “People have let me down in the past. There are other people out there who will probably let me down in the future, but that doesn’t mean everyone is like that.”
If it were true that nobody can rely on anybody, how would we function as a society? This kind of all-or-nothing thinking is often a defense mechanism. At our core, we just don’t want to be hurt, and thinking of things in black and white terms is just easier.
If you’re interested in this topic, here are a few books you might enjoy:
- Don’t Believe Everything You Think by Joseph Nguyen
- Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before? By Dr. Julie Smith
- Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want by Nicholas Epley
6. Develop and Maintain Healthy Boundaries
Set healthy personal boundaries for yourself and others to protect your personal space without isolating yourself. As you learn healthier communication strategies, you’ll feel more confident expressing your needs, desires, and limitations in all types of relationships.
Regularly reflect on your boundaries and assess if they align with your current needs and growth. And then be open to adjusting your boundaries as you develop healthier attachment patterns and deepen your understanding of your own emotional needs.
Flexibility can be hard for some avoidants, so this might be another “stretch” activity, but it will help you on your journey to create more secure attachments.
7. Look After Yourself
Another coping strategy for overcoming avoidance attachment is self-care. When you attend to your emotional, physical, and mental health, you are in a better space to work on yourself and your relationship.
Now when I say self-care, I don’t mean booking a fancy massage or paying for an exorbitantly high haircut.
All of these give you a strong foundation from which you can tackle these big challenges. If your blood sugar is spiking constantly, you’re sleep-deprived, cranky, or any other version of “out of sorts,” you are more likely to regress into old, negative patterns.
You may also want to learn some self-soothing techniques. Here’s a great video to help you start:
You Can Learn to Manage Your Avoidant Attachment Triggers
Once you’re aware of your specific triggers, you’ve taken the first step towards managing them. It’s not an easy or fast process, but the rewards are healthier, more secure attachments and more fulfilling relationships.
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