The Avoidant Attachment Style
by Jane McChrystal.
In Part 1 of this series I wrote about how Marcia faced the problem of her ‘anxious attachment style’ and found a way to have better relationships after her split from Matt. Maybe you know someone like Marcia, but are still wondering about your own attachment style. The so-called ‘anxious attachment style’ is one of three that researchers Cindy Hazan and Phil Shaver have identified. They call the other two avoidant or secure.
Fletcher’s insecure, avoidant attachment style might be familiar to you. People who are avoidant are just as likely to experience difficulties in relationships as anxiously attached individuals, but their problems are different. This difference depends on the way their parents reacted to them as children when they needed comfort or protection.
Fletcher is a 42 year old web designer. He describes himself as “laid-back”, unlikely to make a fuss, and his decision to come to counselling was not an easy one. He rarely talks about himself and often finds it easier to engage with others on-line through social media. He was in crisis when we met in my consulting room. His husband, Alex, had just announced the end of their relationship after 12 years. He was deeply shocked by the announcement, but still presented his usual, imperturbable front to the world. Fletcher and Alex had celebrated their Civil Partnership in 2009. Shortly after the ceremony Alex was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness which required intensive treatment and a long stay in hospital. Fletcher’s reaction to the diagnosis was typical of an avoidant individual.
Fletcher: Alex’s illness was a surprise. He was a healthy guy- good diet, regular sessions at the gym and all that. He was in hospital for 6 weeks after the diagnosis. He’s self-employed like me, so I made myself useful right away. Kept the routine stuff going and took on extra work to make up the lost income. There was no time to get down. When Alex came home he needed a lot of rest, so I just got on with everything.
Calm and matter-of-fact as he talked about recent events, it would have been easy to overlook the real feelings of hurt and despair that brought him to see me. His story was clear and factual, focusing on the practical ways he negotiated the couple’s experience of illness, while playing down its emotional impact. It was left to me to imagine the anxiety that the threat of losing his partner must have caused him.
I asked if he had any ideas about Alex’s reasons for ending their relationship. His answer was to the point as usual.
Fletcher: It was Louis (a mutual friend) who said he should do it. Alex spent a lot of time with him while he recovered. He said I was never there and it showed I didn’t care much. Alex agreed- he thought I wasn’t around enough to take care of him.
Here’s his response to my question about Louis’ view of their relationship
Fletcher: Different emotional planets.
John Bowlby’s theory of Attachment had helped me to understand the link between Marcia’s clinging, demanding behaviour in response to the threat of losing Matt as a reactivation of patterns developed in childhood. Under similar, more intense stress Fletcher showed the kind of behaviour usually adopted by avoidant attachment individuals. He became absorbed in the practical aspects of Alex’s care, enabling him to distance himself from the painful feelings associated with it, while cultivating the image of himself as a provider, someone able to take care of business.
In Mary Ainsworth’s laboratory experiment, where anxiously attached children showed resistance to their mother after separation, the avoidant children ignored their mother on reunion with her. The avoidant children showed distress when their mother left the room but continued playing in the same way as they had when she was in the room. In contrast, the children with an anxious attachment style easily lost interest in play while their mother was away.
Did Fletcher’s childhood provide any clues to his development of an avoidant attachment style? The American attachment expert, Mary Main, tells us that children become avoidant when their attempts to get close to their parents under stressful circumstances are met repeatedly with rejection or denigration. Children of these parents are often made to feel valued when they conform to the family’s definition of success – maybe by passing exams or excelling at sport.
Fletcher was the middle child in a family of 5 brothers and sisters. His father was a sergeant in the army and the family moved around a lot. Aged 13, Fletcher was sent to a boarding school for the children of forces’ families. He said his mother always had her hands full with caring for the home and her children. Everyone was expected to help. Fletcher’s father wasn’t around much but he ensured the children carried out the tasks they’d been assigned and inspected the standard of their work. They were always well-fed and smartly turned out. I asked Fletcher if he could recall any upsetting experiences as a boy.
Fletcher: Every day after school I’d do my jobs at home and then do different things for my neighbours to make a bit of money. One day I got home and dad was in unexpectedly. I was going outside to clean my pet rabbit’s hutch in the garden when dad said “Don’t bother, Son, Snowy’s not there anymore, next doors’ dog got her this afternoon”. I was normally a happy kid, but it hit me really hard and I cried and cried. Dad sat there for a while and then said “Cheer up, Fletch, it’s not like Auntie Pam died or anything”. I can’t remember what happened after that.
Fletcher’s parents clearly cared about their children and worked hard to give them the best they could. However life was quite tough and there wasn’t much time to spare for attending sensitively to the emotional needs of each, individual child. In Fletcher’s sessions we looked at how his unease with painful feelings made it hard for him to acknowledge the anxiety and fear aroused by Alex’s illness and identified the way he searched for reassurance by meeting Alex’s needs as he saw them. Therapy gave him a safe place to express the sadness and fear associated with the idea of losing his relationship with Alex, somewhere he could be free from the pressure to perform or seem completely in control. As he became more open, he was able to let Alex know how troubled he had been by his illness and admit the feelings of despair aroused by the prospect of separation. Fortunately Alex appreciated his sincerity and recognised the effort he had put into mending their relationship. They are still together.
Although Fletcher’s avoidant attachment style presented a problem during Alex’s illness, it served a useful purpose the year before, when they both became unemployed at the same time as a result of the recession. Alex became paralysed with anxiety, whereas Fletcher calmly set about making arrangements for the change to self-employment and searching his networks for new opportunities.
Remember – none of the attachment styles is a guarantee of relationship success or failure. Knowing your style, though, can provide you with invaluable insights into your strengths and vulnerabilities within relationships.
In the next article I’ll write about the experiences of someone with a secure attachment style. After reading it, you might have a better idea of which style you associate most closely with your own. I’ll also be giving some pointers to how you can use your attachment style to achieve relationship success.
Jane McChrystal, December 2011
Jane McChrystal is a London-based Psychotherapeutic-Counsellor
Part 3 – The Secure Attachment Style