An avoidant attachment style is often the result of unboundaried, inconsistent, abusive, or unreliable parenting. It could also come from fantastic parents who did all the right things but were nonetheless emotionally unavailable. In any event, the child learns to value autonomy, independence, security, and protection over things like vulnerability, connection, and intimacy. The outcome is usually an exceptional human being by any external measure of talent or material success, which makes an avoidant a very attractive prospect for a relationship.
In fact, many children develop the “good and perfect” persona as a bid for attention in a dysfunctional family system. Their inherent desire for healthy human attachment motivates them to become strong, intelligent, funny, or charismatic. And in many cases, this drive wholly replaces their need for genuine connection. They become perfectionists, top-performers, and gold-star addicts who use external validation as a substitute for emotional sustenance.
Sometimes avoidant attachment is a survival mechanism, adapted out of necessity to escape a shitty childhood. When the people whose job it is to love you are abusive or can’t be trusted, growing up real fast is your one-way ticket out of that hellhole. Armor up. Be resilient. Don’t feel, don’t trust, don’t rock the boat. Nose to the grindstone, and don’t look up until it’s safe.
Avoidants are survivors, but they inevitably catch a bad rap because their wounding makes them look like successful people who can’t be bothered to love you. Not true. They are in a special kind of personal hell that other people will never understand — that they themselves have trouble articulating because of aforementioned trauma response.
Unfortunately, many people have to adapt to emotional malnourishment during their formative years. Then they’re vilified as adults who are ill-equipped to ask for the help they don’t know they need. It’s like Dr. Jonice Webb wrote in Running On Empty, “You would need emotional awareness to recognize that you have no emotional awareness.”
Partnering With An Avoidant
The anxious-avoidant pair is a well-documented phenomenon in the dating world. You may read that an anxiously attached partner has an abandonment wound that creates an insatiable craving for connection. Ironically, because of their abandonment, this person may also have very little experience with healthy intimacy.
They chase emotionally unavailable partners first and foremost because their childhood adaptations make them uniquely suited to the task. They’re fucking built for that. But secondly, they may want a partner who will never demand emotional maturity from them — something they low-key don’t actually have.
It makes a lot of sense, and I’m on board with all that.
But I’d like to present here an idea I’ve never heard before: that avoidants are, by design, just really attractive human beings. Their heightened sensitivity to emotional risk demands compensation in order to compete in the dating world. It’s not unlike the more obvious compensation of a blind person with remarkable hearing or an amputee who can play guitar with his feet. Disadvantages often build our strengths.
But the avoidant’s disadvantages are virtually invisible.
When we cast a longing gaze in their direction, we see nothing but shine and sparkle. They’re strong leaders, innovative thinkers, smart investors, hard workers, great planners — charming, confident, passionate, skilled, and usually successful and sexy to boot. Gimme one of those!
The Avoidant Illusion
It is such a thrill to land a shiny partner like this. We brag to our friends, “Girrrl, he’s the CEO of his company,” or “Bro, she literally owns nine rental properties.” Or whatever fill-in-the-blank accomplishment. We are so wildly impressed with their resumé and how much they have it all together.
By every outward appearance, they may seem like the healthiest person you’ve ever dated. They make everything easier. They’re just so good at life!
Oftentimes people are married with kids long before it finally dawns on them that their avoidant partner has the emotional aptitude of a clam. Do you see? Being attractive is their evolutionary advantage. Like a peacock with brilliant plumage you could easily worship, even though it’s just another bird.
Let’s Not And Say We Did
At some point, the topic of emotional starvation comes up, but the avoidant doesn’t wanna talk about it. They never wanna talk about it.
They might exclaim things like, “I don’t even know what you’re saying!”, “Why do you keep bringing this up?”, or the classic, “What do you want me to say?” People like to call this gaslighting, stonewalling, emotional abuse or abandonment. To be fair, it may be some of those things. But the real problem is that you are asking the avoidant to set aside their five hundred gold medals to discuss the one thing they really suck at.
In many cases, vulnerability, authenticity, and emotional exposure produce a visceral fear response in their body. The repeated relational trauma of their upbringing makes true intimacy unbearably stressful (think PTSD from a relationship war they escaped as a child). The very prospect of discussing their feelings can be triggering.
If you’ve ever asked an avoidant partner to go to therapy, you already know. They’re often physically shaken by the threat like you asked them to saw their own leg off with a rusty pocket knife. Sometimes they begrudgingly attend one of the least productive therapy sessions of all time (through obvious fault of their own). Then they may carry the experience like a dead rat by the tail to be thrown at you during a later argument.
Avoidantly attached partners can be easy targets for judgment and resentment. They are successful at so many of life’s endeavors that their emotional distance can feel like intentional withholding. Personally directed neglect from the one you love most in life — perhaps the worst emotional pain this world has to offer.
To The Avoidant
I see you. I am so impressed by all that you became in order to adapt in a family that failed you emotionally. You are a survivor. Out of necessity, you became your own hero at a tender age. You are strong, you are resilient, and you are truly an amazing human being. That’s why people are drawn to you. There is so much beauty, strength, and inspiration inside you.
Consider the possibility that you were perhaps hurt by someone who didn’t know any better when you were a child. They may have loved you very much but simply did not know how to be the parent you needed them to be. Please forgive them, if for no other reason than to be free from the poison of resentment.
Know that, if you had to hide your feelings, caretake others, pretend, dissociate, numb out, neglect yourself or adapt in some way to protect your heart, there’s a good chance that armor is still keeping people out. And it hurts them.
They want to connect with you and love you. The real you, the flawed you, the human you — not just your trophies and accomplishments. I know that such intimacy is connected directly to the pain of your childhood, even if you’re completely unaware of it.
No matter how deep down below your consciousness that pain is buried, it is actively preventing you from forming deeply satisfying, intimate relationships with other human beings. And that “I don’t know what you mean” shit is not a winning argument. It’s the sound this problem makes when you get too close to it.
You didn’t receive the nurturing you needed to become emotionally competent. This was not your fault. But refusing to acknowledge that there is a problem or ask for help is completely up to you. And it will be the reason why good people walk out of your life.
If you ever wanna peel back those callouses and feel real love on the inside of your chest, you’re gonna have to lay down your weapons, strip down to your wounded child, and allow someone to teach you to be fully human. I highly recommend it. Because, without love, your obituary will be nothing more than an expired resumé.
To You Who Love An Avoidant
Your partner is an absolutely wonderful human being, but there are some things you must know about them. They carry their past like a Gucci handbag, and although you would never suspect it, that motherfucker is heavy as hell. You wouldn’t know because they don’t wanna be a burden on you. They will only show you their wins.
You see, your partner learned some funny things about relationships when they were young. They learned that vulnerability is weakness, emotions are burdensome, and people can’t be trusted. No, people will use you, hurt you, try to control you, or abandon you. That’s what they experienced, firsthand.
As you can imagine, this makes being in a relationship pretty stressful — like returning to the scene of a crime. They have a conscious fear of being trapped and a subconscious fear of being left. Total mindfuck, right? This is why your partner needs their autonomy and personal space to avoid feeling smothered and burning it all to the ground.
Your partner really, really wants to love you, but they may not be equipped to do that in a way that makes sense to you. The language of love and sincerity may not have been spoken in their home. Or perhaps they had to build a wall around their heart when love was not safe for them.
At times, it may seem like they’re buried alive inside their own life, if that makes any sense. Like, they’re here, but they’re not here. It’s sad, I know. But you have to know this one very important fact:
YOU CANNOT SAVE THEM.
If your partner is unwilling to admit there is a problem and receive help, there is not a single thing on earth you can say or do to help them. You can’t love someone into a state of emotional health. Your best bet is to leave so you can stop eating breadcrumbs and going to an empty well for a drink of water. You can’t live on attractive.
On the other hand, if your partner is genuinely interested in healing, the best thing you can do is embark on your own healing journey. You can’t have a relationship with one healer and one person who thinks their shit don’t stink. Everyone has room to grow. Don’t let them go it alone. Show them that vulnerability is courage. Don’t tell them. Show them.
Because that’s what they’ve needed their whole life.
Intimate relationships are the beating heart of emotional development – the leading edge of human maturation. As such, they will take you outside your comfort zone and reveal inconvenient truths about you. Healthy relationships require humility and a commitment to personal growth. If one or both people are unable to admit their human frailties and make consistent efforts to evolve, the partnership is doomed to suck, end, or both. For sure.
A terrible relationship is not a random coincidence. Neither is a healthy one. Most satisfying, long-term relationships are between people who value growth over comfort. Short-term relationships are for people who value comfort over growth.
If you want a fulfilling relationship that lasts, be sure that both you and your partner are fully committed to ongoing improvement. Notice that I didn’t say commit to being your best self. The ego can turn that into a stagnant “This is as good as it gets” in a jiffy. No. Growth and improvement are the secret to longevity. Anything that’s not growing is dead. And you can’t have an awesome relationship with a dead person.
A Final Word
Lastly, you must know that there are malignant narcissists and people with various personality disorders walking amongst us. Although functional members of society, some of them can be dangerously antisocial, manipulative, and abusive. These are not people you can work things out with. They require psychological intervention by medical professionals – something they are, by their very nature, very resistant to. This means you should run, not walk, but run away from these volatile human beings.
They will bring you down much quicker than you can help them up.
It may be that you were raised in a dysfunctional family and therefore have a hard time recognizing potentially abusive behavior as such. If this be the case, I urge you to connect with a good therapist or relationship coach. They will be able to assess the situation and give you unbiased, professional guidance that could literally save your life. Relationships are hard enough already. You don’t need to shack up with an actual lunatic.
You always have other options.
*If you don’t know your attachment style, take this easy quiz.*
11 thoughts on “Understanding Avoidant Attachment”
This is SO on point THANK YOU! This knowledge has helped me see the chaos and drama of my romantic partnerships in a whole new light – way more compassion for both myself and my partner. I feel like I might be a mix of both which is hella funky to figure out at times!
Wow, this is incredibly written and brutally honest. Thanks for sharing both perspectives so that we can not just know what’s going on with our partners but also do the work for ourselves to become more healthily secure.
Thanks for reading, Maggie. Not understanding each other’s attachment style is at the root of SOOOO many arguments and frustrations between anxious-avoidant pairs (which are extremely common). It’s also tough because it’s hard to find much written compassionately and truthfully about avoidant folks. I’d love for the whole world to read this article!
Boy, I could have used this information 30 years ago. My ex was an anxious attacher until he landed me and then became avoidant. I too am mainly avoidant, so we ended up living in avoidant parallel for 23 years. After the marriage ended, I landed with a full on anxious attacher who is living in deep co-dependence with his adult kids. It becomes more difficult with relationships later in life. Here we’re adding the blowback from his parenting style (grown kids who will likely never leave the nest) and mine (grown kids for whom it’s difficult to come back to the nest.) Very hard not to run sometimes, but we’re both motivated to try to figure it out. My kids and I are the so-called Avoidants, but we’re the ones going to therapy. How did that happen?
Haha. Life is a long journey, my friend. And what a windy road too! You’re self-awareness is great and I’m so happy to hear that you’re working on it. So many people just give up. Thank you for being brave 🙏🏼.
I’m sober, end of my long marriage left me more anxious in dating than I ever imagined. I’ve worked and worked on this shit! ACA, counseling, hypnosis. coaches, Still working on it! There’s a guy in my life…. we dated 2 years ago. He’s always told me I’m the one that “got away” . He’s definitely avoidant. Wants me to give him a chance. Best sex I’ve ever had. But its easy for me to confuse that intimacy with real intimacy!
How do I find peace with these long pauses between communication with him (usually a week or two) ?
PS- I found you thru ADULT CHILD POD. You said that Anxiously attached need to take good care of themselves, soothe themselves, So much of what you said HIT ME, I needed to hear it! Not feel so driven to just fill this lonely hole with a warm body!
Finding peace with unacceptable behavior or unmet needs is EXACTLY the problem of anxious attachment. You’re not supposed to be ok with self-abandonment (read my recent article on that, please). The solution is to realize that his needs are not more important than yours, or vice versa for that matter. It may take some challenging, uncomfortable work for both of you to navigate toward a win/win solution (of getting both your needs met) without getting triggered, shutting down, or rolling a hand grenade into the middle of it all, but that’s the only way this will work – feeling mutually valued and respected. You both need to be able to get your needs met in healthy ways. Perhaps consider couples counseling to facilitate this process.
The bottom line is, if you can’t negotiate a relationship where both of your needs are respected and satisfied, then it’s doomed to failure. Often this requires that you do some serious soul-surgery (on yourself) and he works on his shit as well. When you are healthy and he is healthy, you can have a relationship. Until then, it’ll be a trauma-bond, emotional entanglement, or a hostage crisis… not an actual relationship. Hope that helps ❤️
What about disorganized/anxious avoidants?
We all fall more or less on an attachment spectrum. These labels of anxious/avoidant/disorganized can be helpful, but also misleading if we get our identities too tangled up in them. I’ve written these articles…
…and you may relate to various elements in each. But if you’d like to do a deep dive into understanding all of the things that you maybe didn’t even wanna know about your attachment challenges, I encourage you to pick up Pete Walker’s phenomenal book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. That book will likely tell you everything you want to know. And if not, you may be asking the wrong questions. Good luck, Reba!
This shit is amazing.
And the best comment ever award goes to… 🏆