How having an avoidant attachment style has kept me safe and ultimately single
I’m reading this book called Attached – The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find and Keep Love by Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S. F. Heller, M.A and I sort of hate it because I can't deny that it’s got me fairly pegged. Turns out I fall into the category of a person with “avoidant” tendencies - highly independent, self-sufficient and autonomous, which doesn’t, or at least hasn’t yet translated into a meaningful, long-term relationship. Assessing my relationship track record, it’s interesting to reflect back on past partners and to understand to a certain degree why we, or more often than not “I,” parted ways.
The Avoidant, the Anxious and the Secure
As a person with a predominantly avoidant attachment style, I’ve often found myself in a waltz with people that the book refer to as “anxious” partners - seemingly hypersensitive individuals whose behaviors activate in me a perceived impingement upon my psychic and physical territory, which usually results in me cutting loose and hitting the road. I can also see that the handful of times I’ve had my heart crushed beyond recognition it was pulverized by another “avoidant,” who’s skittish tendencies clashed with my own in an effort to remain cage-free while simultaneously triggering in me an anxious response. Had these intimacy-repellent men not axed me first, I more than likely would have let them go eventually because that’s what people with avoidant tendencies do - we find ways to disengage and minimize closeness to avoid the sensation of being trapped.
How we develop attachment patterns
Where do these attachment tendencies come from? According to Attachment Theory, pioneered by British psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, the first moments, hours, days and weeks of a newborn’s life are critical in the development of their attachment patterns and suggest that a person’s long and short-term interpersonal relationships are derived from a strong emotional and physical attachment to at least one primary caregiver... generally one's mother. I recently learned that my first week of life was spent in a hospital incubator recovering from severe jaundice, handled and bottle fed every few hours in between rounds of phototherapy. I didn’t breastfeed, and instead went immediately to the bottle, so by the time my mom brought me home I was already a miniature-sized autonomous unit. Although I love my family dearly, I wouldn't say that I grew up within an overly intimate, emotionally nurturing or affectionate environment. So knowing how I initially came into the world and the family culture in which I developed, it’s no surprise that I would grow into a fiercely independent, self-sufficient and sovereign being that in general would trend more toward short-term relationships or the psychological comfort of flying solo.
The importance of self-acceptance and compassion
It’s embarrassing to admit that I’m a person with avoidant tendencies and I feel guilty for the impact my behavior has had on some of my past relationships, but recognition and understanding are the first steps toward seeing patterns, making new choices and creating new possibilities. Self-acceptance is critical, as is having compassion for the baby girl, the child, the teenager, and the woman I've become. We've done the best that we could with the tools and circumstances we were given, and although attachment styles are considered to be stable, scientists believe that they are also malleable. It feels vulnerable to share these insights into my attachment style and patterning, especially when those who know me best will undoubtedly agree that I have a fairly solid record of being avoidant. Down the hallway of my deepest insecurities I can hear their voices echo "she can't commit, she's flighty," or "she's flaky" - sentiments I've heard many times over the years and have always been very sensitive to.
Where to now?
With this knowledge, where do I go from here? What do people hard-wired to lean more in the direction of avoidance do to create the intimacy and love they simultaneously crave and desire?
Dismantle the belief that the grass is always greener
It's not. My family calls this phenomenon "red ball, blue ball, green ball." She's playing with the red ball and then NOPE! She's over the red ball and is on to the blue ball. NEVER MIND! Done with blue... on to green. Whether I’m referring to a partner, a job, the town in which I’m living or the activity I’m involved in, I tend to experience low-grade restlessness and a feeling that just over the next hill or around the next bend there’s something better, more right, more real and more in alignment with my highest good. Pursuing this path has made for an extremely colorful life filled with many different experiences and adventures, but it also maintains a subtle level of dissatisfaction with the present moment and the current blessings right in front of my face.
Take a breath and remind yourself that your'e not trapped
Perhaps the most telling avoidant tendency I feel is that the walls are constantly closing in around me whenever people get too close or when they ask for too much. A friend wants to know what time we’re meeting tomorrow… the feeling of walls closing in. My neighbor wants to make plans to play music…. the feeling of walls closing in. Someone needs a ride to the airport… walls. Whenever my freedom is seemingly threatened I experience the knee-jerk response of feeling like I need to protect my time and space when really, my community is simply making an attempt to know me, to be with me and to create intimacy through shared experience. In short, they're merely attempting to be my friend.
Let go of the myth that you're better off alone
For a long time I’ve nurtured the idea that I’m too much of a unicorn to be matched up with another person in any kind of sustainable way. I’m too challenging, too strong, too independent, too much of this and too much of that. It’s a brilliant avoidant strategy because it perfectly insulates me from intimacy and closeness. It’s a self-perpetuating myth that simply isn’t true. Yes, I may be challenging and strong and independent, but I’m not better off alone. I may be hard-wired for avoidance, but I’m also human and for as much as I resist it, I crave intimacy, touch, affection, love, kindness and emotional connection like oxygen.
Stop doing it all by yourself
It’s easier to just do things my own way. Then I don’t have to deal with the inevitable inconvenience of other people’s shit. I get things done quicker, more efficiently and without having to compromise. This is a great attitude if you live on the moon, but I live in the world, with people, and doing everything as a lone wolf removes the richness of collaboration and the experience of shared joy and connection. Doing everything by myself is safe, but it’s lonely, and in life, a burden shared is a burden halved. As Chris McCandless wrote in his journal before he died in the book and movie Into the Wild, "Happiness [is] only real when shared."
The future looks bright
According to the book Attached, I will ultimately do well with a partner who comes equipped with a “secure” attachment style – someone comfortable with intimacy, who naturally seeks closeness and who doesn’t see vulnerability as a trap. A person who can provide a secure base for me to return to after my avoidant attachment system inevitably kicks in. Someone who after full disclosure of my avoidant nature can be patient and compassionate and who will, as my friend Josh says, “let me buck.” With deeper introspection, by staring some challenging self-truths in the face and acknowledging and sitting in the sump of my discomforts, I’m hopeful that a rogue baby unicorn like myself can find longstanding love in in this life – love with space, air, light, openness, freedom and a mutual understanding of each other’s attachment styles and tendencies.
Photo by Denys Nevozhai