People with an avoidant attachment style grew up with caregivers who devalued or avoided emotional and physical closeness. Dependency was denied, leaving the child to figure out ways to self-soothe and regulate their own emotions. When the child reached out for closeness, they were met with disappointment or made to feel ashamed.
Using alone time to regulate our emotions
As an adult, avoidantly attached people feel self-reliance is important. We know we can count on ourselves and won’t be made to feel embarrassed or needy.
If someone is not comfortable reaching out for human support and comfort, they often turn to things, according to Marion Solomon and Stan Tatkin in their book, Love and War in Intimate Relationships. If we can’t count on a primary relationship to comfort us, time to self-regulate and engage with things like books, money, cars, art, fitness, etc., becomes imperative.
Interruptions from a partner during our auto-regulation time, feel invasive and irritating. Disruptions are felt as a shock to the nervous system, which makes us want to withdraw more or lash out.
This alone time or need to self-regulate does not seem anti-relationship to the avoidant person. We often think of ourselves as independent or autonomous and even feel a sense of pride in that.
The truth is real autonomy occurs when we have a safe relationship from which to venture and explore.
Introvert or avoidant?
In my seven years of research and writing about introversion and high sensitivity, I have seen both innate introversion and adapted avoidant attachment style contribute to a person’s need to pull away from others. Some people are 100% introverted based on their biology, others have developed avoidant tendencies due to their relationship history and still others are a combination of the two.
Our partners suffer
The partner of the avoidant individual is the one who feels the disconnection. They don’t understand how their partner can be engaged and intimate one moment and disengaged and distant the next.
The avoidantly attached partner happily spends time away from their lover. We can auto-regulate and still feel our partner’s presence by thinking about them.
A more interactive partner does the same regulating but with us present. Our absence is felt deeply when we withdraw.
Secure, healthy relationships or attachments require a degree of co-regulation. The partners can safely rely on each other for calming and responsiveness. If one person consistently uses a psychological system of one to soothe themselves and avoid their partner, the abandoned partner will eventually protest or find someone or something to fulfill his need for comforting.
Avoidant behavior arrives later in a relationship
The avoidant attachment behavior (withdrawal, need for alone time, distancing) may not surface for a while in a relationship. At first, we get enough time to ourselves. New partners may only see each other once a week. At the point when the relationship reaches a level of permanence and the couple is together regularly, the need for withdrawal and distancing surfaces. The old feelings of rejection or dependency denial from our primary caregiver rear their heads and cause us to protect our ability to self-regulate.
Conflict in a relationship may also trigger avoidant behavior. When we feel unsafe we revert to our old safe, familiar habits.
How to move toward security in a relationship with an avoidant person
According to Solomon and Tatkin in Love and War, the more secure partner should modify their voice and forward acceleration (movement toward them) as well as their word choice to prevent their avoidant partner from feeling like the bid to connect is a threat to their (avoidant person’s) autonomy.
Avoidant people get anxious when someone advances on them quickly or loudly. It’s subconsciously perceived as a threat, causing us to protect ourselves by getting away or acting defensively. Previous primary relationships wired this feeling into our brains.
For our part, the avoidant person has to repair quickly when we have hurt our partner by withdrawing or admonishing for an interruption. We also must proactively reach out for proximity and connection more often.
The truth is
The truth is avoidantly attached people want to depend on and love others. We reach out but when we feel someone lets us down or is not available to us, we complain, which often causes our partner to distance themselves. This distancing confirms the avoidant’s belief that we cannot depend on anyone and we slip back into our old self-soothing habits.
Does avoidant behavior sound familiar to you? Do you or your partner withdraw or distance?