Avoidant Attachment in Adults: Is It Bad?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Attached" by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is avoidant attachment in adults a bad thing? Why do avoidant attachers act the way they do? Is it possible to change your attachment style?

About 25% of the population are avoidant attachers. These people often have trouble maintaining a long-term, stable relationship because they push their partners away, idealize self-reliance, romanticize past relationships, and fall into the “one-and-only” trap.

Keep reading to learn more about avoidant attachment in adults and how they can work to improve their relationships.

Your Life as an Avoidant Attacher

Avoidant attachment in adults is relatively common. If you’re in the 25 percent of the population with an avoidant attachment style, you aren’t free of the basic tenets of attachment theory. All humans—including you—need physical and emotional proximity to an attachment figure. However, your behavior is probably stopping you from finding a stable, happy relationship and fulfilling your deep-seated desire to connect with a partner in a meaningful way. 

Any avoidant reading this will likely wonder if they’re the exception to the rule—is it possible they were born without that particular gene? But research shows that even avoidants have a desire to attach to others:  

The research: As a way of accessing the unconscious minds of avoidant attachers, psychologists have them participate in word recognition tests. In these tests, words flash quickly across a screen, and researchers record how long it takes the subjects to recognize and report each word.

They’ve discovered that avoidant subjects’ brains are highly tuned in to words that express need, desire, closeness, dependency, or marriage. The avoidants describe these words as having threatening or negative connotations. But avoidants are much slower to notice words that express separation, abandonment, or loss, and those words don’t incite any strong emotion or reaction.  

However, when the subjects are distracted—they’re instructed to simultaneously perform another task, like solving a simple puzzle, while the words flash across the screen—their reaction to all these words is equally fast. 

The conclusion? When avoidant attachers’ brains are distracted by other activities, they can no longer suppress the impactful concepts of separation and loss. In other words, an avoidant attacher’s desire for human connection is always present, and it takes focused brain effort for them to suppress it. Avoidants aren’t granted an exception from the biological desire to attach; they’re just skilled at sidelining it. 

How Avoidant Attachers React to Their Partners 

If you have an avoidant attachment style but believe you genuinely desire a close, intimate relationship, it’s worth taking the time to examine how you behave when other people try to get close.

First off, understand that you are always maneuvering for independence and negotiating how to keep your relationships at a comfortable distance. This occurs on an everyday basis in even the smallest of ways. 

Just like anxious attachers use “activating strategies” to try to bring their partners closer (like texting or calling multiple times a day or repeatedly telling their partners how much they love them), avoidant attachers use “deactivating strategies” to keep a romantic partner at arm’s length. It’s their way of turning off their natural attachment mechanism. It’s apparent in their communications, actions, attitudes, and beliefs. 

If you’re an avoidant attacher, you experience the following fairly often: 

  • You feel deeply lonely even when you’re in a relationship. You constantly wonder if there isn’t someone better out there for you. 
  • You connect with your romantic partner at certain times, but you always keep a modicum of mental and emotional distance. You feel threatened by a high level of intimacy. 
  • When you’re in a relationship, you relish opportunities to do things without your partner, either socially or at work. 
  • You often fantasize about an escape route to get out of your relationship. 
  • You have extremely inflexible ideas about what you’re looking for in a partner (for example, you might believe he or she has to be well-educated, under the age of 40, never married, successful in business, and willing to live in the countryside). 
  • You tend to hyper-focus on your partner’s small imperfections: the ways he or she chews food, dresses, or talks. You can’t ignore his or her flaws. 
  • You idealize a past relationship: “I’ve never been able to get over Joe/Josie, and that’s why I can’t commit to Juan/Juanita.”
  • You often fall into relationships that can’t go anywhere, like with someone who is married or lives halfway around the globe. 
  • Even after you’ve been with someone for years, you’ll still think you’re not quite ready to commit. 
  • You keep secrets from your partner and answer questions vaguely as a way of maintaining a sense of autonomy.  

Avoidants and the Self-Reliance Trap

Many avoidant attachers were brought up to be highly self-reliant. Their parents taught them lessons like “you can only depend on yourself” and “always pack your own parachute.” 

Western culture tends to reinforce these beliefs. We idealize the self-reliant, autonomous heroes who row solo across the Atlantic or explore the Amazon jungle with only a backpack and a camera. They’re the stuff of great magazine stories, but these models of self-sufficiency and independence aren’t necessarily happy, well-adjusted human beings. 

While it’s great to be confident in your ability to take care of yourself, it’s also a burden. Studies show that a strong belief in self-reliance is linked to a low level of comfort with intimacy and closeness. In other words, extremely self-reliant people tend to be avoidant attachers. 

Avoidants often can’t tell the difference between self-reliance and independence. As a result, they are less likely to seek support from others or engage in self-disclosure. They tend to be extremely self-focused. Since they believe they must take care of all their own needs, they often ignore the needs of their partner. In fact, they get defensive if their partner asks for help or attention (after all, in the avoidant’s mind, their partner should take care of themselves). 

Avoidants and the Ghost Partner Trap

We’ve already noted that avoidants often idealize a past relationship. That’s because after that relationship has ended, they no longer feel threatened by the intimacy of it, and suddenly, they can remember all the positive qualities of their ex-partner. The glass is now half full, not half empty. 

However, if an avoidant’s newfound longing becomes so intense that they try getting back together with their ex, they find that history repeats itself. Once again, they’ll get caught up in a cycle of getting closer, then pulling away. The avoidant’s behavior is predetermined because they don’t realize their unstable emotions are internal. 

On the other hand, if an avoidant doesn’t try to renew that old relationship, he or she may obsess over that person endlessly—to that point that any new potential partner doesn’t have a chance. 

Avoidants and the One-and-Only Trap

Another classic avoidant strategy is believing that the perfect partner exists and must be found. If you’re an avoidant, this allows you to meet someone and initially decide they’re amazing, then as you get closer to this person, slowly start to uncover their flaws until you realize they’re not actually “the one.” The initial thrill of having found the perfect partner fades away, and suddenly you’re looking for a ticket out. 

How Trauma Can Help Avoidants   

Avoidants are caught in a never-ending struggle. Deep in their hearts, they yearn for intimacy, yet they constantly suppress their natural human urge for attachment. They don’t think their inability to sustain a loving, fulfilling relationship is based on their own inner turmoil. They always assume the problem lies with their partner’s unworthiness—they just got involved with the “wrong” person. 

Typically, avoidants don’t turn their attention inward until they experience some life-changing trauma—perhaps an illness, accident, death of a family member, or even a severe bout of loneliness or depression. Traumatic events like these may unseat the avoidant’s belief system and provide a catalyst for increased self-awareness.

How Avoidant Attachers Can Help Themselves

An avoidant attacher who wants to change their beliefs and attitudes toward intimacy and relationships (without waiting for a life-changing trauma to shake them up) should take these steps:

  1. Recognize your deactivating strategies—in what ways, subtle or not, are you pushing your partner away? 
  2. Stop believing that self-reliance is king. Instead, start focusing on mutual support. 
  3. Find a partner who has a secure attachment style and model your behavior after theirs. 
  4. Pay attention to how often you misinterpret other people’s behaviors. 
  5. Practice daily gratitude for your partner’s positive attributes and actions. Make a list of the great things they do and are. 
  6. Stop daydreaming about your “ghost partner,” whether it’s the ex you wish you hadn’t left or the perfect partner you haven’t yet met. 
  7. Use distraction to your advantage. Avoidants find it easier to get close to their partners if there’s a distraction involved—if the two of you are engaged in a mutual activity, like going for a hike or cooking dinner. Use these distractions to help you enjoy intimate moments.   
Avoidant Attachment in Adults: Is It Bad?

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  • Why your partner behaves the way they do
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  • How to distance yourself from unhealthy relationships

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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