5 Signs of Avoidant Attachment Style: How to Understand a Partner Who Needs Space
Updated: Nov 16, 2022
Can you remember the last time you interacted with an infant? Did you smile, make a funny face, or play peek-a-boo? How did the baby react to your changes in expression?
These interactions between infants and caregivers highlight how humans are biologically hardwired to connect and attach to other humans from the start. Babies depend entirely on the adults around them to survive. They seek signs that they are safe, valued, and loved. When these needs are unmet, infants respond with big emotions that require care and attention to soothe.
We all begin life with these basic human attachment needs that do not disappear. Though we may grow into adults who are not entirely reliant on caregivers for survival; adults do require love and safety, and still need to feel like they matter to those close to them.
Adults who tend not to seek comfort and security from relationships -- or even avoid relationships entirely -- have learned this behavior through lived experience. It is not an indication of any flaw of character. Moreover, just as they have acquired these traits through lived experience, they can change with intentional effort and support.
Overview of Avoidant Attachment Style
Avoidant attachment style originates from early attachment relationships that were unavailable to the child’s emotional needs; or where these needs were dismissed or unacknowledged by primary caregivers. The child was, therefore, forced to distance emotionally from these relationships and find ways to self-soothe and survive without external validation, support, and love.
These individuals grow up learning to rely on themselves for comfort and safety, unable to trust relationships as a security source. They learn strategies to avoid relying on anyone to meet their needs, or they disconnect from these needs entirely. Deep-seated beliefs that they are unworthy of love are at the root of these strategies, making rejection feel inevitable as relationships grow deeper.
A common misconception about avoidant attachment holds these traits to be a product of neglectful, or even abusive, caregiving. However, these extreme examples fail to capture the many subtle or systemic roots of avoidant attachment. For example, social norms that value strength and "toughness" as traits for boys can stigmatize vulnerable emotions and teach boys to suppress softer expressions of feeling. Furthermore, the capacity of parents to express their own emotions can limit those with even the best intentions. A mother who struggles to acknowledge her own emotional experience will undoubtedly find it difficult to attune to that of her child.
What follows are five common traits of an avoidant attachment style that you might recognize in yourself or your partner.
Prioritizing Independence over Partnership
From afar, adults with avoidant attachment styles appear very capable and confident. They tend to have high self-esteem, which allows them to reach great achievements professionally or in other facets of life. They readily accept challenges without any need for help or assurance.
Growing up without the emotional attunement and care we all need from early attachment figures, these individuals learned how to survive without relying on anyone. And while this self-reliance may come with the positive benefits mentioned above, avoidantly attached adults often struggle to build and maintain close relationships.
Adults with avoidant attachment traits often feel profoundly uncomfortable with emotional closeness and intimacy, having never relied on relationships for support and security in childhood. They learned to minimize their reliance on others and, in some cases, have learned to detach from these emotional needs altogether.
As a result, these adults use many strategies to maintain distance in relationships, as it is difficult to trust them as a source of safety. Furthermore, they often experience the emotional needs of their partners as overwhelming. Being depended on for emotional support feels stifling to their individuality, and avoidant partners often dismiss these needs as "clinginess."
Tendency to Withdraw in Response to Big Emotions
Our relationships with caregivers are where we learn how to understand and manage our emotions from a young age. Children who do not have adults willing or capable of helping them make sense of their emotional world are left to cope with their feelings alone. Later in life, these adults continue to seek solitude to process their emotional experiences.
Avoidant partners often lack the familiarity and understanding of their emotional experience, which can make the highly emotional nature of a romantic partnership very intimidating. They may struggle to navigate conflict or respond to intense emotional expressions from romantic partners as these dynamics signal the same impulse to retreat from the intensity to self-regulate. These individuals who feel so capable and self-sufficient in other areas of life may feel a sense of inadequacy in emotionally intimate relationships when they struggle to meet the needs of their partners. Consequently, individuals with avoidant traits often fall into relationship patterns where their withdrawal to self-soothe and process their emotions creates additional ruptures.
Difficulty Identifying and Communicating Feelings
Emotional responsiveness from caregivers in early attachment relationships helps children learn to recognize, label, and respond to their feelings. Growing up in an environment lacking this modeling leaves children to make sense of their emotions on their own.
Emotions can be complex and overwhelming for anyone. Children, unsurprisingly, do not possess the tools to manage more difficult feelings alone. As a result, emotional detachment often becomes a primary coping strategy to cope with this discomfort. Disconnecting from emotions becomes necessary to manage the overwhelm of intense or confusing feelings that can be debilitating without support.
As adults, these individuals often struggle to recognize, organize, and understand their emotions, which leaves them limited in their capacity to manage conflict with their partners. After years of detaching from complicated feelings, it becomes hard to recognize and label emotional states – especially when they are at their height. As a result, communicating needs and feelings in close relationships is challenging. How can you talk about feelings when you don’t feel anything?
Even when aware of their emotional needs, avoidantly attached individuals may disregard the value of expressing their emotions. Repeated experiences of unacknowledged feelings in early relationships instill lasting beliefs that emotional expression is neither safe nor productive. Instead, they tend to defer to passive communication strategies, such as quietly sulking to avoid complaining.
Discomfort with Intimacy
People with an avoidant attachment style have never experienced relationships as sources of safety and acceptance for their emotional needs. Emotional connection feels risky when they anticipate that their partner will not accept or validate their feelings or that they are unworthy of this kind of care altogether. Moreover, the emotional depth of intimate relationships is unfamiliar territory for avoidant partners, for which they feel ill-equipped to navigate.
Therefore, as relationships deepen, these individuals use strategies to keep people at arm's length. Though on the surface, they may have many friendships, they will avoid any bids for emotional closeness within these relationships.
In romantic partnerships, this discomfort with intimacy presents itself in many ways. Avoidant partners may struggle to commit to a relationship, choosing instead to distance from relationships when things get serious. In some cases, avoidant partners might respond to deepening intimacy within a partner by finding reasons to end the relationship entirely. They may become annoyed by their partners' habits or lose their sense of attraction.
Beyond the discomfort of intimacy, individuals with avoidant attachment styles often experience emotional closeness as an inhibitor to their individuality, which they hold as a greater priority. This perception can lead avoidant partners to dismiss their partner's feelings or keep secrets from them to maintain a sense of freedom within relationships.
Valuing Alone Time
This one should be obvious based on the nature of the traits above. Avoidant attachment style develops through experiences that instill a sense of safety in solitude. Relationships were unreliable sources for meeting basic attachment needs, and these individuals learned to find comfort in alone time. Therefore, adults with avoidant traits value alone time highly and have a greater need for space from partners in romantic relationships.
What Do You Do About An Avoidant Attachment Style?
Now that you know some of the broader signs that indicate traits of avoidant attachment style, the question becomes, "what do I do about it?"
It is vital for those with avoidant attachment traits to remember that you have a biological need to bond with other humans as a survival instinct. Although you may have learned to suppress this need, your nervous system is hardwired to form emotional connections with others. As such, you are capable of restoring this part of your attachment system, and you can learn how to reconnect and find comfort in relationships again. Our attachment systems are continuously evolving and can shift drastically with intentional effort.
Check back for how to “earn” secure attachment in your life.