The way that parents interact with their infant during the first few months of its life largely determines the type of attachment it will form with them. When parents are sensitively attuned to their baby, a secure attachment is likely to develop. Being securely attached to a parent or primary caregiver bestows numerous benefits on children that usually last a lifetime. Securely attached children are better able to regulate their emotions, feel more confident in exploring their environment, and tend to be more empathic and caring than those who are insecurely attached.
In contrast, when parents are largely mis-attuned, distant, or intrusive, they cause their children considerable distress. Children adapt to this rejecting environment by building defensive attachment strategies in an attempt to feel safe, to modulate or tone down intense emotional states, and to relieve frustration and pain. They form one of three types of insecure attachment patterns to their parent, (an avoidant, ambivalent/anxious, or disorganized/fearful). In this article, we describe avoidant attachment patterns, which have been identified as representing approximately 30% of the general population.
What is Avoidant Attachment?
Parents of children with an avoidant attachment tend to be emotionally unavailable or unresponsive to them a good deal of the time. They disregard or ignore their children’s needs, and can be especially rejecting when their child is hurt or sick. These parents also discourage crying and encourage premature independence in their children.
In response, the avoidant attached child learns early in life to suppress the natural desire to seek out a parent for comfort when frightened, distressed, or in pain. Attachment researcher Jude Cassidy describes how these children cope: “During many frustrating and painful interactions with rejecting attachment figures, they have learned that acknowledging and displaying distress leads to rejection or punishment.” By not crying or outwardly expressing their feelings, they are often able to partially gratify at least one of their attachment needs, that of remaining physically close to a parent.
Children identified as being avoidantly attached disconnect from their bodily needs. Some of these children learn to rely heavily on self-soothing, self-nurturing behaviors. They develop a pseudo-independent orientation to life and maintain the illusion that they can take complete care of themselves. As a result, they have little desire or motivation to seek out other people for help or support.
What behaviors are associated with avoidant/anxious attachment in children?
Even as toddlers, many avoidant children have already become self-contained, precocious “little adults.” As noted, the main defensive attachment strategy employed by avoidantly attached children is to never show outwardly a desire for closeness, warmth, affection, or love. However, on a physiological level, when their heart rates and galvanic skin responses are measured during experimental separation experiences, they show as strong a reaction and as much anxiety as other children. Avoidantly attached children tend to seek proximity, trying to be near their attachment figure, while not directly interacting or relating to them.
In one such experiment, the “Strange Situation” procedure, attachment theorist Mary Ainsworth, observed the responses of 1-year olds during separation and reunion experiences. The avoidant infants “avoided or actively resisted having contact with their mother” when their mother returned to the room. According to Dan Siegel, when parents are distant or removed, even very young children “intuitively pick up the feeling that their parents have no intention of getting to know them, which leaves them with a deep sense of emptiness.”
How does an avoidant/anxious attachment develop in children?
Why do some parents, who consciously want the best for their child, find it difficult to remain attuned or to be emotionally close to their children? Attachment researchers have identified several reasons for parents’ difficulties in this area. In studying a number of emotionally distant mothers, the researchers found that the mothers’ lack of response to their infant was at least partly due to their lack of knowledge about “how to support others.” Some of the mothers lacked empathy, whereas others had failed to develop a sense of closeness and commitment that appear to be crucial factors in “motivating caregiving behavior.” They also reported a childhood “history of negative attachment experiences with rejecting caregivers and role models,” which explained why they had “a more limited repertoire of caregiving strategies at their disposal.”
In other words, the mothers in this study were treating their infants much as they had been treated as children, and their babies were now forming an avoidant attachment to them. Interestingly, a recent meta-review of attachment research has provided other “evidence for the intergenerational transmission of attachment style;” it has also demonstrated important links between parents’ avoidant styles of caregiving and their children’s avoidant attachment, especially in older children and adolescents.
The Avoidant/Dismissive Attachment Style in Adults
People who formed an avoidant attachment to their parent or parents while growing up have what is referred to as a dismissive attachment in adulthood. Because they learned as infants to disconnect from their bodily needs and minimize the importance of emotions, they often steer clear of emotional closeness in romantic relationships. Dismissively attached adults will often seek out relationships and enjoy spending time with their partner, but they may become uncomfortable when relationships get too close. They may perceive their partners as “wanting too much” or being clinging when their partner’s express a desire to be more emotionally close.
When faced with threats of separation or loss, many dismissive men and women are able to focus their attention on other issues and goals. Others tend to withdraw and attempt to cope with the threat on their own. They deny their vulnerability and use repression to manage emotions that are aroused in situations that activate their attachment needs. When they do seek support from a partner during a crisis, they are likely to use indirect strategies such as hinting, complaining, and sulking.
According to attachment researchers, Fraley and Brumbaugh, many dismissing adults use “pre-emptive” strategies to deactivate the attachment system, for example, they may choose not to get involved in a close relationship for fear of rejection; they may avert their gaze from unpleasant sights, or they may “tune out” a conversation related to attachment issues. A second strategy is to suppress memories of negative attachment events, such as a breakup. In fact, adults categorized as dismissing report very few memories of their early relationship with parents. Others may describe their childhood as happy and their parents as loving, but are unable to give specific examples to support these positive evaluations.
People with this type of attachment style tend to be overly focused on themselves and their own creature comforts, and largely disregard the feelings and interests of other people. They also find it difficult to disclose their thoughts and feelings to their partner. Their typical response to an argument, conflict, and other stressful situation is to become distant and aloof.
Dismissive adults often have an overly positive view of themselves and a negative, cynical attitude toward other people. In many cases, this high self-esteem is defensive and protects a fragile self that is highly vulnerable to slights, rejections, and other narcissistic wounds. It exists usually as a compensation for low self-esteem and feelings of self-hatred. According to adult attachment experts Phil Shaver and Mario Mikulincer, avoidant partners often react angrily to perceived slights or other threats to their self-esteem, for example, whenever the other person fails to support or affirm their inflated self-image.
How are patterns of attachment supported by the critical inner voice?
The kinds of negative, distrustful, and hostile attitudes toward other people that are associated with a dismissing attachment style are compounded by destructive thoughts or critical inner voices. The overly positive and seemingly friendly views of self that are experienced by many avoidant individuals are also promoted by the inner voice and are often a cover-up for vicious, self-degrading thoughts. Both kinds of voices, toward the self and others, are part of an internal working model, based on a person’s earliest attachments, which act as a guideline for how to relate to a romantic partner. The critical inner voice can be thought of as the language of these internal working models; the voice acts as a negative filter through which the people look at themselves, their partner and relationships in general.
Although many critical inner voices are only partly conscious, they have the power to shape the ways that people respond to each other in their closest, most intimate relationships. Individuals identified as having a dismissing attachment style have reported experiencing such thoughts as:
“You don’t need anyone.”
“Don’t get too involved. You’ll just be disappointed.”
“Men won’t commit to a relationship.”
“Women will try to trap you.”
“Why does he/she demand so much from you?”
“You’ve got to put up with a lot to stay involved with a man/woman.”
“There are other, more important things in life than romance.”
“You’ve got to protect yourself. You’re going to get hurt in this relationship.”
“You’re too good for him/her.”
How can we transform a dismissing/avoidant attachment into a secure one?
Fortunately, we don’t have to remain trapped within the confines of the defensive attachment strategies we developed early in life. There are many experiences throughout life that provide opportunities for personal growth and change. Although your patterns of attachment were formed in infancy and persist throughout your life, it is possible to develop an “Earned Secure Attachment”at any age.
One essential way to do this is by making sense of your story. According to Dr. Dan Siegel, attachment research demonstrates that “the best predictor of a child’s security of attachment is not what happened to his parents as children, but rather how his parents made sense of those childhood experiences.” The key to “making sense” of your life experiences is to write a coherent narrative, which helps you understand how your childhood experiences are still affecting you in your life today. In PsychAlive’s online course with Drs. Dan Siegel and Lisa Firestone, they walk you through the process of creating a coherent narrative to help you to build healthier, more secure attachments and strengthen your own personal sense of emotional resilience. When you create a coherent narrative, you actually rewire your brain to cultivate more security within yourself and your relationships.
In a previous article, I noted that being involved in a long-term relationship with someone who has a secure attachment style is one pathway toward change. The other way is through therapy; the therapeutic alliance or relationship offers a safe haven in which to explore our attachment history and gain a new perspective on ourselves, others and relationships in general.