The 2 Avoidant attachment styles—How to tell them apart

There is a tendency to swear off dating those with an avoidant attachment style. After all, isn’t emotional availability a prerequisite to a loving and healthy relationship? For someone with a secure or anxious attachment style, it can be hard to understand why someone would avoid closeness. Isn’t that what love is all about?

Looking at the two different avoidant attachment styles can help us to develop a deeper understanding of avoidant attachment and the ways it shows up in our adult relationships.

It is not as simple as someone choosing to be emotionally unavailable and independent, looking down on those who want and need other people. There is a hell of a lot more more beneath the cool exterior and “I don’t care” attitude that some folks with an avoidant attachment style may embody. By understanding the two types, we can begin to understand what is really going on when avoidance emerges in response to closeness.


The Theory of Avoidant Attachment

The Strange Situation Technique used by researchers is at the heart of attachment theory. A mother would leave their baby in the room with a researcher and researchers would then study the baby’s reaction when the mother left and returned.

The avoidant babies were the ones who appeared unmoved when their mother left them alone with the researcher, and again, unmoved when she returned. Did these little babies really not care? And what can this tell us about adults with this attachment style?

The research question was this: Are avoidant children are actually less distressed than the anxious or secure children? Or, is their behaviour is covering up their real feelings of vulnerability?

Turns out —it could go either way. That is where the two types of avoidant attachment come in.

The Two Types of Avoidant Attachment

It can be easier to understand the two types of avoidant attachment if we look at how attachment is influenced by two dimensions: attachment-related avoidance and attachment-related anxiety.

You can take this survey online if you are curious where you land. People who score high on the anxiety variable tend to spend a lot of time worrying about whether or not their partner loves them. People who score high on avoidance are independent and tend to keep to themselves.

When we look at attachment on these dimensions, we can see how there are two attachment styles that score high on avoidance: fearful-avoidant and dismissing-avoidant.

Someone who is dismissive scores low on attachment-related anxiety whereas someone who is fearful scores high on attachment-related anxiety. If we go back to the research question, we can see that some children are covering up feelings of anxiety with their avoidance (fearful-avoidant), and others are not (dismissing-avoidant).


Fearful-Avoidant

Someone who has a fear-avoidant attachment style tends to have a strong mistrust of other people while at the same time, views themselves as unworthy of love. That means that they have not only a negative perception of themselves, but also of others. This can make the world of relationships a painful and confusing place. For these folks, avoidance as a defence mechanism isn’t adaptable (as it is with a dismissing-avoidant style).

In relationships, those with a fearful-avoidant attachment style tend to be warm at first, and can have a difficult type suppressing their emotions, struggle with boundaries, and be hyper-sensitive. Emotional explosions or uncontrollable outbursts are not uncommon for those with this attachment style. When the relationship becomes difficult or they fear or sense rejection, these folks can quickly withdraw from closeness. Relationships for these folks can be tumultuous with extreme highs and lows.

There can be two opposing forces at play for these individuals which can make relationships incredibly painful and confusing. On one hand, they want a romantic relationship and tend to spend a lot time thinking about their current relationship or desiring one. On the other, they can be fearful of being betrayed and hurt and may pull away when emotional intimacy increases.


Dismissive-Avoidant

When it comes to attachment-related thoughts, those with a dismissive avoidant style are able to suppress their thoughts and feelings. If stress, conflict, or relationship instability threatens the attachment with another person, these individuals are really good at redirecting or turning off thoughts an even reducing the physiological arousal that might come up in relationship with others. In other words, for these folks, avoidance is adaptive.

For the dismissive-avoidant, learning to turn off and unplug emotionally when the going gets tough in relationships is something that has served them. In childhood, they most likely had a caregiver who was neglectful, dismissive, or rejecting. Early in life these individuals learn that connection is not safe or available so they learned to disconnect and rely on themselves.

These folks tend to be cold at first and may shy away from connection, though they can warm up as a relationship progresses. They also tend to be very cognitive and you may notice they are more likely to use “I think” rather than “I feel” language to describe their experiences. Dismissive-avoidant individuals can be quiet, not as sensitive or aware of the needs of others, and are less likely to people please than those with a fearful-avoidant attachment style.


When I look back on my dating experiences, I am almost certain I have dated folks with both of the avoidant attachment styles. Before I knew about attachment, I just assumed that they were playing me. That it was all a game to get me to sleep with them or fall in love with them, the prize was for them to walk away, unscathed. I couldn’t help but think that these partners were manipulative and cruel. I didn’t think that their behaviours could be rooted in pain and vulnerability.

If you are in a relationship with someone who has an avoidant attachment style, it can be useful to understand which type of avoidant that person is. Similarly, if you are dating or getting to know someone, there are often early signs (or conversations) you can have to give you clarity. It can be easy to think there is something wrong with us when someone pulls away but the more I understand avoidant attachment, the more I realize it doesn’t have much to do with me at all.

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References:

Adult Attachment Theory and Research: A Brief Overview by R. Chris Fraley: http://labs.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm

Come Here, Go Away: The Dynamics of Fearful Attachment by Hal Shorey: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-freedom-change/201505/come-here-go-away-the-dynamics-fearful-attachment

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