Having an avoidant attachment style is surprisingly common. Estimates vary, but around 20% of the population have this kind of attachment style1. Unfortunately, lots of people don’t know how to have a successful relationship with someone who is avoidantly attached.
In this article, we’re going to look at triggers for avoidant attachment. I’m going to explain what makes someone with an avoidant attachment style want to pull away (and what they might be thinking or feeling) and how you can deal with those triggers if you have an avoidant attachment style yourself.
But first, let’s just do a little bit of a recap about what an avoidant attachment style is and what it means to have an avoidant attachment in relationships.
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Your attachment style is based on what you have learned about other people and what you can expect from them2. The vast majority of us learn our attachment style when we are very young, usually in the first few years of life.
It can change over time, but that usually means that you’ve suffered a severe traumatic event (moving you towards a less secure attachment style) or you’ve put a lot of effort into overcoming avoidant attachment or anxious attachment.
People with a secure attachment style learned that others can be trusted to care for them and help meet their physical and emotional needs. Those with one of the insecure attachment styles learned that they couldn’t.
An avoidant attachment style is an insecure form of attachment where you learned that others would not meet your needs. Rather than keep trying to get those needs met, which seemed futile, you learned to shut others out and meet all of your needs yourself.
In adulthood, this typically means that you struggle to open up to others emotionally and you try to pull away when you see problems or things get too intense3.
Dating someone with an avoidant attachment style can feel quite lonely. You keep trying to reach out to them and form a closer connection, but it feels as if there’s an invisible wall that stops you from getting through.
As well as not letting you in, someone with an avoidant attachment style might not reach out to you very much. This can leave you feeling as though they don’t care about your feelings or as if you don’t matter.
So far, having an avoidant attachment in relationships sounds pretty awful, but it doesn’t have to be. Most people with an avoidant attachment style do care about the person they’re dating and they can have fulfilling, if not super-close, relationships until something triggers them to pull away.
Here are some of the most common things that can trigger someone with an avoidant attachment style to pull away from you.
Some people find that having a big argument about something can help to clear the air and helps everyone to feel as though they’ve had their say. Unfortunately, this works very badly for many other people, especially those with an avoidant attachment style.
Huge blazing rows are one of the hardest things for someone with an avoidant attachment style to deal with. There’s a huge amount of emotion flying around, which they hate. They just want the whole situation to be over as quickly as possible so that they can relax again.
Someone with an anxious attachment style might find comfort in the process of making up after a row. They love the feeling of coming back together and the feeling of closeness and the displays of affection and renewed commitment4.
People with an avoidant attachment style don’t find comfort in that part either. In fact, they often feel trapped because they want to go and be alone with their feelings.
Someone with an avoidant attachment style might seem like they don’t really understand what is expected of them in a relationship. From the outside, it can look as though they’re just happily carrying on in complete ignorance of the ways that they’re not giving you what you need.
Under the surface, there’s often something very different going on. Many people with an avoidant attachment style are acutely aware of the unspoken expectations being placed on them, and they feel crushed by the weight of them.
We know that a secure attachment style is the one most likely to lead to happy, successful relationships5. That’s great, but it does mean that anyone with an avoidant attachment style or an anxious attachment style feels as though they are somehow “faulty” and can be under strong pressure to change toward something more “normal.”
This pressure can sometimes seem stronger for people with an avoidant attachment style. Where people who are more anxious might receive sympathy, those who are avoidant are often told that they have to open up or be more emotionally available.
When you have lots of expectations of your avoidantly attached partner, especially if you don’t put them into words, they can feel resentful. It feels as if they’re being expected to change a fundamental part of who they are in order to become who others think they should be.
It’s probably understandable that they will rebel against this unwritten contract that doesn’t meet their needs and they don’t believe they ever actually signed up for.
Someone with an avoidant attachment style learned over time that no one cared about their feelings or needs. They will often have internalized this as a deep feeling that they’re not worthy of love or care. When they are shamed or hit with personal attacks or cruel comments, this activates those feelings in two ways.
Firstly, if they didn’t experience people caring about them, they don’t really believe that others want to help them learn or be better. Unless you’re really clear about being constructive, they are likely to interpret your criticism as an attack rather than talking about a problem.
Secondly, they are reminded of those feelings of being broken or unworthy. They feel deeply hurt and powerless to change. With all of these negative feelings swirling around, it’s not surprising that they start to shut down.
Someone with an avoidant attachment style hates feeling trapped. If they feel as though they can’t get the physical or emotional space they need, they will often do anything they can to create it. This will often mean driving others away.
If your avoidantly attached partner starts being mean and pushing you away (rather than pulling away themselves), this is often a sign that they are feeling trapped. There’s still no excuse for deliberately hurting someone you love, but it can sometimes help to understand where it comes from.
Another huge worry that people with an avoidant attachment style have that others might not understand is something called engulfment6. Engulfment, in this context, is where your personality and individuality are swallowed up into a shared identity based on the relationship.
If you have an anxious attachment style, you might struggle to understand why this is even a problem. For you, being seen as “X’s partner” is a badge of honor. For someone with an avoidant attachment style, however, it can be a very different experience.
Deep down (and often subconsciously), many people with an avoidant attachment style feel that they weren’t looked after properly because they weren’t good enough or they were defective. They’ve had to fight to see their identity as valid and important. Anything that threatens that identity is incredibly hard to deal with.
If they start to feel as though their ‘relationship identity’ is encroaching on their ‘personal identity’, they will often pull away and put up more emotional barriers.
This might seem counter-intuitive, but there’s almost nothing scarier to someone with an avoidant attachment style than someone who sees through the strong, capable mask and sees the hurt and fear that’s so deeply hidden.
If they feel as though they are too exposed, they will feel vulnerable and they might retreat to protect themselves.
You might think that people with an avoidant attachment style have no problem with boundaries. After all, you constantly feel as if there’s a barrier between you. Unfortunately, having an avoidant attachment style often means that people are incredibly sensitive to how others respond to their boundaries.
When someone has an avoidant attachment style, they’ve probably spent years with the people close to them telling them that they’re too closed off, they need to open up more, and that their boundaries are too firm or in the wrong places. To them, this sounds an awful lot like “you’re broken and you need to change.”
No wonder they can sometimes be fierce in defense of their boundaries. So many people are telling them, either explicitly or through their actions, that they are wrong to have them. Treating their boundaries with anything other than the utmost respect can be one of the strongest avoidant attachment triggers.
People with an avoidant attachment style do have needs, and sometimes they will need others to help make sure that those needs are met. When they recognize this, they absolutely hate it.
Often, someone with an avoidant attachment style will go to great lengths to “even the score,” doing favors for someone who has helped them to try to show that they give more than they take. This lets them feel safer because they feel as though they are needed more than they need the other person.
If this is your attachment style, you probably already knew most of the triggers for avoidant attachment. What might be helpful is some ideas for how to deal with your avoidant attachment and overcome those triggers.
Here are some valuable things that you can try.
As always, we can’t start to fix a problem until we understand it and recognize when it’s harming us. People with an avoidant attachment style often struggle to understand their own emotions. You might have pushed them away so hard that even you can’t see them.
Taking the time to understand what you’re feeling and what leads you to feel the need to pull away is the essential first step toward overcoming avoidant attachment. Activities such as mindfulness and journaling might not feel natural to you, but they can really help7.
One of the challenging things for someone with an avoidant attachment style is that they don’t feel like other people give them enough space. Rather than waiting for others to give you space, give it to yourself.
This is a way of demonstrating to yourself that you care about your own well-being and that you are in control of the situation you find yourself in. You can set boundaries, such as “I need to be alone for a while now” and enforce them.
We’ve already said that unspoken expectations are a strong trigger for many people with an avoidant attachment style, so try bringing them up for discussion. In many cases, your partner might not even have realized that they have these expectations of you or that those expectations might not be universal.
This is one of the difficulties with language. We all use the same words, but we can often mean subtly different things by them. When we talk about being in a “relationship” or having a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”, for example, we will all have subtly different understandings about what that means.
For some people, being in a relationship means that you speak to each other daily and meet up at least twice a week. For others, it just means that you don’t sleep with anyone except each other. For polyamorous couples, it might be ok to have sex with others but they want a loving text each night before bed.
Talking to your partner about those unspoken expectations can reduce the pressure on you to conform to someone else’s needs without taking your own into consideration. It can also help them to understand the pressure that they’ve been putting on you.
This is a slightly contentious piece of advice for someone with an avoidant attachment style. Often, you will be seen as having too many boundaries and you’ll be pressured into reducing them.
Trying to adjust or reduce your boundaries when others are actively pushing on them, or even ignoring them, is incredibly difficult. If you have an avoidant attachment style, it’s verging on impossible. How can you be expected to remove something that makes you feel safer while you feel actively under attack?
The simple answer is that you can’t, and you probably shouldn’t. If you push yourself to lower your barriers at a time when you don’t feel safe, you’re going to be constantly on the alert and ready to slam them back up higher at the first sign of trouble.
Instead, try being really clear about your boundaries and pay attention to the ways that your partner shows that they respect them. This last part is key. If you’re used to others pushing your boundaries, you’re going to be primed to see that. If you’re actively looking for signs of respect, you’ll probably see far more of them.
Having these clear, explicit boundaries also makes you feel safer8. Boundaries around actions (things you will or won’t do, or things you will or won’t tolerate other people doing around you) can make you feel safe enough to lower your emotional barriers. This makes it easier for you to talk about your feelings.
If you have an avoidant attachment style, you will sometimes pull away, both physically and emotionally. Even if you’re trying your best and working on your triggers, there will still be some things that will make you feel the need to pull back into yourself to feel safe again.
This can leave you feeling inadequate and ashamed of yourself, especially if you actually love your partner. And feeling inadequate and ashamed is another trigger, as we’ve already discussed. So you can find yourself in a vicious cycle of withdrawal.
Head this off before it starts by setting up a way to come back to your partner before anything goes wrong. Think about what would make it easier to reach back out. Could you use a specific phrase so that they understand you’re struggling without you having to say it? Could you write a draft email apologizing for pulling away, ready for you to send when you need to?
Planning a way back, and ideally explaining this to your partner, can help you to limit how much you pull away and keep a small sense of emotional connection even while you’re retreating. If you’re struggling to come up with ideas, a great therapist or relationship coach might be able to help you out.
Someone with an avoidant attachment style can still love their partner, and they can be hurt and upset when they leave. They probably won’t show those feelings, however. They might have mixed feelings because they have lost someone they love but they are not under emotional pressure anymore.
Someone with an avoidant attachment style is afraid of being vulnerable and open to others and especially needing someone else. They learned in childhood that others won’t meet their needs and they are now determined not to need anyone else again.
Someone with an avoidant attachment style won’t necessarily get annoyed more easily than other people, but they might get annoyed by different things. They will find constant requests for attention or affection irritating or stressful, but they might hide their feelings of frustration or annoyance.
Someone with an avoidant attachment style might reach out after a period of no contact. Going no contact reduces the pressure on them, making it easier for them to feel safe in the relationship. On the other hand, they are less likely to “miss” someone else because they’re so independent.
Having an avoidant attachment style is tricky, especially in a world that is (rightly) starting to talk more about our feelings and trying to have healthier relationships. Finding the things that make you want to pull away and trying to deal with them can help you to have deeper and more meaningful relationships without having to compromise yourself or your needs.
What are your thoughts? Do you have an avoidant attachment style, or have you dated someone with one? Let us know your experiences in the comments below. Avoidant attachment styles are quite common, so it’s also helpful to share this article.