Is avoidant attachment style more prevalent than it used to be? It seems so. Many people I meet and counsel have an “ avoidant streak” rippling through their character. I wouldn’t expect a lot of those people to be in therapy at all, since they don’t usually trust in the good will of intimates (like therapists get intimate), and they generally maintain independence, self-reliance and emotional distance. But there they are.
There they are, more and more, describing their struggles to connect and their overwhelming sense of being put upon and unacceptable. They got me thinking that their troubles, though probably rooted in their childhood reaction to their parents, were being exacerbated or even created by the cruel time in which we live. The leaders and leadership structures of the world right now do not invite trust. Everyone, down to the counter server and the communion server, seems to be playing by a ruthless, negative playbook. Flip to the macro and Putin is threatening nuclear war while climate change rolls over Puerto Rico. You probably feel at least a little insecure, yourself.
What is attachment style?
I was doing some research on what I was experiencing and came upon a scholarly paper by Mario Mikulincer (Israel) and Philip Shaver (California) which summarizes the outworking of attachment styles and hints at why I might see adults getting caught in their childhood avoidance or developing levels of avoidance they never had (Title: An attachment perspective on psychopathology).
You may be quite familiar with attachment theory, by now, since John Bowlby started teaching about it in the 1970’s and 80’s. I appreciated the authors’ succinct way to recount how our attachment experiences result in attachment styles – how we see ourselves and habitually behave in the world.
Interactions with attachment figures who are available in times of need, and who are sensitive and responsive to bids for proximity and support, promote a stable sense of attachment security and build positive mental representations of self and others. But when a person’s attachment figures are not reliably available and supportive, proximity seeking fails to relieve distress, felt security is undermined, negative models of self and others are formed, and the likelihood of later emotional problems and maladjustment increases.
When testing this theory in studies of adults, most researchers have focused on the systematic pattern of relational expectations, emotions, and behavior that results from one’s attachment history – what Hazan and Shaver called attachment style. Research clearly indicates that attachment styles can be measured in terms of two independent dimensions, attachment-related anxiety and avoidance. A person’s position on the anxiety dimension indicates the degree to which he or she worries that a partner will not be available and responsive in times of need. A person’s position on the avoidance dimension indicates the extent to which he or she distrusts relationship partners’ good will and strives to maintain behavioral independence, self-reliance, and emotional distance.
I found it enlightening to see myself plotted on a four-quadrant chart created by anxiety and avoidance axes when it came to my attachment style. The way you can see if you are more or less one way or another is to see what you do when you are threatened or distressed. People who score low on anxiety or avoidance are generally secure and tend to employ constructive and effective emotion-regulation strategies when life gets hard. Those who score high on either the attachment anxiety or the avoidance dimension (or both) suffer from insecurity and tend to rely on “secondary attachment strategies,” either deactivating or hyperactivating according to their childhood attachment system or the one they’ve recently developed to cope with threats.
I am mainly interested in the avoidance axis today, since I suspect when the CIA reports how many more assets are being killed than usual and Donald Trump had top-secret papers in Mar-a-Lago for a year it makes you want to avoid something! People who should be trustworthy aren’t. A great many people are so avoidant they trust no one. This is not new to the planet, but it is seismic right now.
According to Mikulincer and Shaver, people scoring high on avoidant attachment tend to rely on deactivating strategies – not seeking “proximity, denying attachment needs, and avoiding closeness and interdependence in relationships.” These strategies originally developed in relationships with attachment figures who disapproved of or undermined closeness and expressions of need or vulnerability.
Attachment style may be mostly about baby you, but not completely. It is too limited to think it is something an individual carries inside and needs to deal with personally. One’s style arose in a relational setting, in a system, first off, with parents, and our habits can develop in new contexts. A marriage or workplace could change us. Donald Trump lying and calling people losers could change us.
Bowlby claimed that “meaningful relational interactions during adolescence and adulthood can move a person from one region to another of the two-dimensional conceptual space defined by attachment anxiety and avoidance.” Recent research keeps showing how our attachment style can develop, subtly or dramatically, depending on our current context, recent experiences, and recent relationships. There are studies that focus on highly stressful events, such as exposure to missile attacks, living in a dangerous neighborhood, or giving birth to a physically challenged infant which indicate avoidance is related to our present distress and the poor long-term adjustment that contributed to it. Our environment may deteriorate or we may create a dysfunctional environment which develops more avoidance.
Becoming less avoidant
Insecure attachment sets us up for other issues with both mental and physical health and strains all those relationships we hunger to have. Creating, maintaining, or restoring a sense of attachment security should increase resilience and improve mental health. Mikulincer and Shaver say,
According to attachment theory, interactions with available and supportive attachment figures impart a sense of safety, trigger positive emotions (e.g., relief, satisfaction, gratitude, love), and provide psychological resources for dealing with problems and adversities. Secure individuals remain relatively unperturbed during times of stress, recover faster from episodes of distress, and experience longer periods of positive affectivity, which contributes to their overall emotional well-being and mental health.
Whether an avoidant person moves toward security depends on how they travel three significant pathways.
View of self. The lack of sensitivity and responsiveness in your parents may have destabilized your self-esteem, or made you over-dependent on the approval of others. Insecure people are likely to be overly critical, self-doubting and likely to defend themselves by committing to perfection to counter how unworthy and hopeless they feel. Avoidant people praise themselves before someone doesn’t. Or they might deny weaknesses or needs because no one will care. The zeitgeist contributes to their view. Criticism is rampant right now. Perfection is a national obsession.
Emotional regulation. Hopefully, available attachment figures taught you to share your feelings and learn how to regulate them in relationship to others. Relatively insecure, avoidant people tend to cordon off their emotions from what they think and do. They may look secure and composed but they leave suppressed distress bubbling inside, which may erupt when crisis unleashes it. Then they need the coping skills and relational support system they didn’t imagine they needed.
Problems with relationships. It is no surprise that problems with our first relationships lead to learning a relationship style that has or creates problems. The avoidant person’s “deactivation” strategy for self-preservation creates issues. They generally have problems with nurture since that is a basic instinct formed with mom and dad. They may seem cold, may be unreasonably introverted, or may be overly competitive for what they see as the scarce resources of affection.
The neuroscience of attachment processes describes how the human brain evolved in a highly social environment. Our basic functions rely on social co-regulation of emotions and physiological states. So, like I said before, we should not see each other as separate entities whose interactions need to be interrogated and reconfigured according to theory. We should accept our fascinating interrelatedness as our normal starting point. When we do that, it helps us to see why separation, isolation, rejection, abuse, and neglect are so painful, and why insecurity-provoking relationships often cause or amplify our mental disorders. The pandemic left many avoidant people hesitant to ever leave their homes. Teletherapy is a good option for them, but it may also deepen their avoidance.
Our attachment styles develop. We can change for the better. Great thinkers and practitioners are providing us a lot of help to do that. For instance, I discovered the Attachment Project website a few weeks ago. I probably sent its link to everyone I thought might be leaning toward an avoidant attachment style (here it is). I would not put TOO much stock in this unattested and anonymous site, but it does some nice work to summarize different attachment styles and explain how people who could be characterized as “avoidant,” for instance, tend to behave and relate – and suffer. Please don’t use it to label yourself, we are in a dynamic process, here, getting worse off and better off all the time. But no matter your style, the site might help you get an inner dialogue going — and mentalizing is fertile soil for God to plant something whole and joyful.