We develop our mental models of what relationships look like and how they work beginning in infancy and early childhood; these unconscious patterns of behavior become the basis for how we connect to others later in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Called attachment styles, they are, for the most part, remarkably stable throughout the course of a lifetime. Those raised with a caring, attuned, and supportive mother develop a secure attachment style and feel comfortable in relationships, seek them out, and enjoy intimacy.
Children whose emotional needs aren’t met in childhood develop an insecure style of attachment, of which there are three types: anxious/preoccupied, dismissive- avoidant, and fearful- avoidant. The person with an anxious/preoccupied style doesn’t run from relationships but is very likely to ruin each and every one. These folks want connection but are armored and anxious, reading into every word and gesture as a possible sign of imminent betrayal. Emotionally volatile—they fight back when threatened—their relationships are usually roller-coaster affairs, full of highs and low. When they connect to someone with an avoidant style, cue the violins and reach for a life jacket.
While all three styles are characterized by an inability to manage emotion and self-regulate, it’s those with an avoidant style of attachment who are most likely to be on the run from relationships.
“Every relationship ends the same way. Out of nowhere, I feel the demands on me are overwhelming and that I’m boxed in and there’s no air anywhere. I get to feeling that there’s someone better out there, someone who could make me happier and, then, before I know it, I am out of there. I don’t know. Maybe I’m not ready to commit?”
Different Motivations and Patterns in Avoidance
You can think of attachment style as an unconscious defense mechanism adopted by a vulnerable child in the early years of life. Instead of being consistent and in sync with the baby’s moods, imagine a mother who’s intrusive and ignoring by turns. She’s never reliably there when the infant needs comforting. She’s often unaware that the baby is trying to self-calm when she turns away after playing or laughing and instead puts her face close to the baby’s face and starts talking in a loud voice. When the baby starts crying or pushing her away, the mother gets angry and shouts at her. How does the infant react to this mother’s shifts in mood and inattentiveness? By armoring herself and avoiding contact. If these interactions are the normal state of affairs— the child’s vocalizations or expressions neither returned or tended to or the mother’s actions so overwhelming that the child feels the need to withdraw—the baby simply pulls back to protect herself. These are the childhood roots of an avoidant style of attachment.
Two Kinds of Avoidance
While people with either of the two avoidant styles have difficulty knowing what they’re feeling and tend to act as if they’re in a relationship while remaining emotionally detached, they do so for different reasons.
The dismissive-avoidant sees him or herself as fiercely independent, self-sufficient, and doesn’t believe that happiness depends on other people. While they think highly of themselves, they don’t think much of other people, especially those who, in their eyes, wear their emotional neediness on their sleeves. They structure what connections they have around activities, rather than intimate exchanges. They maintain distance even while appearing to be in a relationship. He’s the guy who keeps his secrets safe and lies about talking to his ex; she’s the gal who doesn’t answer your texts and says she needs her own space. Research shows that they’re likely to be active on the dating scene because no relationship they have lasts very long.
“My relationship with my ex was like being on a joyride with a reckless teenager. It was scary one moment and then exhilarating the next. Every time I thought we were actually getting closer, he’d push back hard. And then he’d belittle me for crying, for being so emotional and needy. It took a while but I finally got the message. He just didn’t want closeness.”
The fearful-avoidant is different because he or she actually wants to be in a relationship but, as the label indicates, he’s worried about getting hurt so withdrawing and putting distance between him and the object of his affection is the best line of defense. Trust is the very biggest of his or her issues and when the fearful-avoidant is triggered, watch out!
The War of the Roses
It won’t surprise you that avoidants tend not to be attracted to other avoidants. A secure person might be initially attracted to a dismissive-avoidant, mistaking the self-reliance as strength, but it won’t take him or her long to figure out that they’re not on the same page when it comes to intimacy. Securely attached people usually aren’t attracted to DIY projects.
But hold on to your hats when Anxious Sally meets Avoidant Harry and get ready for real fireworks. (The same holds true for Avoidant Sally and Anxious Harry, by the way.) This is the relationship packed with negative energy and can go on for years, even though it makes both partners unhappy. All of Sally’s efforts to get closer will be rebuffed by Harry which then triggers Sally’s reactivity big-time. Often, the fighting (and the make-up sex) will be mistaken for true passion, and that only spurs Sally on more to get the intimacy she wants from him. The two get back on the roller-coaster for another go. In the end, Sally will never get the closeness or reassurance she craves because her need for intimacy is enough to make Harry reach for his running shoes.
The problem is this: Intimacy can’t be achieved unless both partners want it. And that means that if you’re seeking it, the person on the run isn’t the one.
Photograph by Noah Stillman. Copyright Free. Unsplash.com