As with all the attachment styles, avoidant attachment forms depending upon how our physical and emotional needs were met.
We develop an avoidant attachment when our needs were consistently not met. This can be for a number of reasons. The carer may not have known how to respond due to a lack of confidence, they may have been very triggered by crying or other expressions of emotion and shut down. There may have been substance misuse or mental health issues which muted the responses. The carer may have been advised to not respond or not spoil the baby, this approach was well documented in the 70’s and unfortunately continued for years.
When a babies cries are not answered, if a young child gets no attention, if they are hurt or scared, then sending out a distress signal does not work. These children have to find some other way of dealing with their distress themselves, therefore developing coping mechanisms. Some get very used to self soothing, rocking themselves to settle down. Some get attached to a toy or blanket, basically using something in their external world to help soothe whatever distress they are feeling. Another way they cope is to just shut down their needs, cut off from feelings and not show any outward sign of distress. All of these coping mechanisms serve a purpose but have consequences for emotional well being.
The main difference between an avoidant and an an ambivalent attachment style is consistency. With avoidance, the lack of attention or care was consistent. There is no point having adaptive behaviour if there is no response coming.
What does an avoidant attachment look like?
Children who learn to self soothe develop a high level of self-reliance. So then as adults, they learn quickly that the only people they can depend on is themselves. They will get so used to doing things for themselves it barely occurs to them to seek help.
- They can have issues with authority as they are used to making decisions for themselves.
- They can be very particular about the way they like things done and hate their routines being broken. These children can be labelled as oppositional, when in effect they are just used to being solely in charge of themselves. It can feel quite threatening if they feel someone else wants to take their control away, as it’s been their main source of survival.
- As they grow up they can be seen as inflexible or controlling, they often have one way of doing things and it may never occur to them that there might be other ways. This can be a difficult learning curve when interacting with others.
- For the children who learn to shut down and minimise their needs and feelings it can be a lonely and disconnected existence. We can’t discriminate between the feelings we want to cut off from and the ones we like, we cut off from both the negative and positive. Of course, there are degrees of cutting off but in the extreme.
- Children and adults with an avoidant attachment find it difficult to connect with others. They also find it difficult to read expressions and gauge moods.
- They find social situations overwhelming and confusing, as the rules of engagement can seem like a mystery. In groups they may watch others and learn the rules that way, however, if there is a sudden change in activity or emotion within the group, they don’t pick it up and can seem out of step with everyone else.
- They will probably prefer isolation to group events and can come across as rude or overly blunt.
- Growing up they find regulation difficult and tend to rely on external things for regulation.
- They can come across as controlling, as they may need things to be a certain way in order for them to feel safe or calm.
- They might always be a different body temperature to others, needing windows open when everyone else is cold. This is because body temperature is part of our regulation system, if we are very disconnected we don’t get reliable messages from our body, or our temperature control is offline.
- They may have a high pain threshold, as they don’t feel and register pain. They may have bumps and bruises they don’t recall getting.
- They can also be quite hurtful to others, but be completely at a loss as to why they have caused offence. Empathy is a connected felt sense, they may seem cold and uncaring but in fact it’s just a lack of empathy.
People with a very pronounced and dominant avoidant attachment style can be misdiagnosed with Aspergers or Autism quite easily. The ability to detach and avoid also displays itself through behaviours. As the title would suggest, they are experts at sidestepping and avoiding difficult emotional situations. They don’t even have to try, it’s like automatic guidance system. Anything they are likely to find difficult, a radar will go off and they will skilfully avoid it, purely because they know they do not have the means or capacity to deal with it.
As with all the attachment styles, we can relearn different ways of doing things. We can awaken our physical and emotional feelings, and widen our window of tolerance to cope. This attachment style also has it’s advantages; it means we have people who are much more likely to meet others needs rather than their own, or we have people who can go through really difficult experiences and come through relatively unscathed.
As with all the others, it’s only a problem if it gets in the way of living the life you want, in the way you want to.