“He’s an avoidant,” my friend told me. “A what?” I asked. “An avoidant,” she repeated.
I’d just been dumped by a guy I’d been dating in Bali. We’ll call him Mick because that was his name. Mick was Dutch and, like me, was taking some time out from work to “find himself” in what I like to call the island playground for adults. We’d only been dating for a couple months, but, without 9-5 jobs and endless free time on our hands, it had seemed like longer.
Throughout it all though, Mick had been hot and cold. And I, unfortunately, had loved it. Now, though, he was ending it – via text, apologising for his recent silence and explaining that he’d been busy with an app he wanted to make. He said he wanted to focus on it and I could call him if I wanted to talk about it.
While it was vague – as per his usual communication style with me – it was clearly a breakup text. I decided I wouldn’t call him and instead replied something polite. Because you see, as I would later learn, I was an avoidant too – in part, at least.
I’ll explain: an avoidant is one of the three types of attachment styles identified in Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love. Its authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller expanded on John Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment, which stated that the earliest bonds children had with their caregivers had a huge impact on their relationships later on.
Levine and Heller identified three main attachment styles: secure, anxious and avoidant, based on how comfortable you are with intimacy and how preoccupied you are with the relationship. (You can take a test to find out which attachment style you are here.)
Those with a secure attachment style tend to have a good view of themselves. They feel comfortable displaying interest and affection; are fine being alone and independent and are good at drawing boundaries and sticking to them. As a result, they have healthy, long-term relationships.
Meanwhile, adults with an anxious attachment style find it harder to maintain relationships. Though they crave closeness and intimacy and don’t like being alone, they’re also highly emotional, overly sensitive and needy, which can push any romantic prospects or a partner away.
And finally, those with an avoidant attachment style also struggle with relationships – though, for different reasons. Avoidants tend to suppress their own emotions so, when their partner tries to get emotionally close, they dub them clingy. Avoidants also tend to withdraw from difficult conversations and situations and have a strong sense of independence.
After reading the book, I initially thought I had an anxious style. Later, through therapy, I discovered I had a combination of the two insecure styles: I was an anxious-avoidant, also called fearful-avoidant.
Everything started to make sense. No wonder how I had struggled so much in dating when friends around me had had one long-term relationship after the next. Knowing about the different styles also helped to make breakups less difficult. If a partner had been clearly exhibiting avoidant characteristics, I could better understand where their head was at. It really was them – not me.
Though, in saying that, I also realised it was actually me in some cases. The book stresses that those with an insecure attachment style (anxious or avoidant) should really only be dating those with a secure style. “Mismatched attachment styles can lead to a great deal of unhappiness in marriage, even for people who love each other greatly,” the book puts it.
Of course, those with an insecure style could date each other, but it would take some work. They would struggle with communication and wouldn’t be able to give each other the space or intimacy the other needed.
Funnily enough, anxious and avoidants do often wind up dating each other. Because secures are so good at relationships, they’re rarely in the dating pool – leaving it filled with only the insecure styles.
If you’re reading this and have identified yourself as one of the insecure styles, you might be feeling a sense of doom and gloom. (Learning I was an anxious-avoidant, I did.) But don’t worry – you aren’t stuck with that style forever. New research suggests attachment styles are in fact malleable – you can become more or less secure depending on your experiences and whether or not you make a conscious effort.
The take-away here, and I’m paraphrasing the book, is that relationships are one of the most rewarding experiences you can have in life. But despite how important they are, many of us still know very little about the science behind them. While we often let ourselves be guided by myths and misconceptions, the one thing we really need to understand is that relationships shouldn’t be left to chance.