Science

Understanding Attachment Styles - Avoidant Attachment

At its core, avoidant attachment involves the minimization of stress in order to paradoxically keep caregivers close.

Avoidant/Dismissing Attachment Style

  • Strong sense of independence and self-sufficiency that can lead others to experience loneliness and emotional distance in their presence
  • Minimize the importance of close relationships and the communication of emotion
  • Tend to suppress and hide feelings
  • Deal with rejection by distancing themselves
  • Uncomfortable with closeness with others

At its core, avoidant attachment involves the minimization of stress in order to paradoxically keep caregivers close.

In the strange situation experiment, the gold-standard protocol developed to measure attachment in infants, infants are exposed to a stressful separation from their caregiver and their behavior is carefully observed and classified into four attachment categories: secure, avoidant, anxious, and disorganized. These categories describe different relationship patterns that first emerge as adaptive survival strategies early in life. In the strange situation experiment, anxious-avoidant infants are marked by behaviors that minimize overt displays of need for protection and caregiving. Often, when exposed to stress, avoidant infants do not protest, cry, or display fear.

Instead, an infant using avoidant strategies might shift focus to quietly playing with her toys or hands. Feelings such as fear and anger are shut off in a paradoxical attempt to keep the caregiver nearby.

These infants may appear to be “cool as a cucumber” on the outside, but in fact, when their vital signs are measured, these infants display internal signs of discomfort such as elevated heart rate and breathing. Thus, the infant appears “put together” on the outside while simultaneously experiencing internal distress. By minimizing external displays of stress or need, the avoidant infant can be “okay” and not risk parental rejection or negative emotional experiences; the downside of this survival strategy, of course, is that the infant is ultimately “swirling” on the inside, and left to deal with hard situations alone.

Attachment is complex, and we each have a unique story of developing nuanced relationship patterns inside our early caregiving constellations. However, it may be helpful to reflect on some of the early experiences connected with avoidant attachment.

In avoidant attachment, caregivers may have struggled to tolerate their own distress associated with their infant’s emotions. In order to avoid their own distress, avoidant caregivers may have attempted to “deactivate” infant distress by dismissing and minimizing emotions and experiences, thus creating an experience of rejection or insensitivity for the infant. An avoidant caregiver may even become harsh, angry, critical, or shut down when confronted with “too much” emotion from their child. Essentially, the child’s emotions create a bind for the caregiver; on the one hand, the caregiver’s brain and body are activated by the needs of the infant (this is the inherent design of the attachment system to keep children safe!), but on the other hand, the caregiver may not have the emotional regulation skills to handle the activation. Thus, a process of parallel dysregulation ensues and threatens the relationship.

Ironically, the caregiver may use harsh or insensitive behaviors to “quiet” the infant's emotion, so that the caregiver can continue to care for the infant. There is an innate “survival wisdom” to the parents’ attempts to get the infant to “be okay.” For the infant, however, this experience equates to the “punishment” of or extinction of any behavioral displays of emotion or need, creating an environment where it may not feel safe to reach for, move toward, and rely on caregivers for soothing and comfort. The infant then “settles for” keeping their caregiver close physically rather than seeking emotional contact.

Attachment patterns tend to be enduring across the lifespan unless we do the work of earning secure attachment.

When the avoidant infant grows up, patterns of minimizing go with her. Adults relying on avoidant relationship patterns may use strategies such as intellectualizing (explaining rather than feeling feelings), minimizing (“it really wasn’t that bad”), and avoiding closeness (“I’m just a loner”).

For avoidant adults, intimacy can actually be quite activating (as opposed to soothing) and thus relationships are approached from a vantage point of self-protection. Shutting down emotion is “effective” in establishing the illusion of felt safety (the experience of feeling rather than just being safe) with the unintended consequence of creating emotional inaccessibility to others.

Avoidant adults may also struggle to discuss or acknowledge early pain and hurts and may develop relationships in which intimacy, openness, and trust are difficult. Self-sufficiency often feels like a safer choice for an avoidant adult, making avoidant attachment a prolonged experience of unacknowledged loneliness.

Attachment Styles Are Adaptations

Taking a compassionate approach to all attachment adaptations is important.

Remember, avoidant attachment is an adaptive survival strategy. It made sense as a way to keep caregivers close early on, and we can honor our young body and brain’s efforts to keep us safe. Avoidant infants were often left alone to fend for themselves and may as adults unknowingly carry the weight of “not being too much” for others.

In fact, we often rely on those with avoidant strategies to keep us physically safe---as they can often be courageous and protective under stress. Honoring the experience of avoidant attachment is one way to move toward security. Read more here about the work of earning security across the lifespan—it’s never too late to modify and re-adapt to more healthy, happy, and whole attachment strategies!

About the author

Kelley Munger

Partner - Atlanta GA

Kelley holds a BA in English from Auburn University, an MA in Teaching from Lee University, and an MA in Counseling Psychology from Covenant Seminary. She completed her PhD in Early Intervention and Special Education at the University of Oregon in 2019. Kelley is a researcher and licensed therapist working in the areas of trauma, adult attachment, special education, and human development. She is passionate about leveraging the power of relationships to promote developmental flourishing across the lifespan.

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