Attachment is a type of emotional bond between two human beings that is associated with intimate relationships, such as those between mothers and children. People show different types of attachment that develop during early childhood and tend to remain stable during adolescence and adulthood.
In a very high proportion of cases babies form secure attachments, but others do not, but show insecure attachment; this in turn can be divided into ambivalent and avoidant attachment. In this article we will describe the main characteristics of avoidant attachment in children and adults .
A psychological aspect that affects us throughout our lives
John Bowlby, a psychologist and psychiatrist influenced by psychoanalysis but also by ethology and evolutionism, developed the theory of attachment, according to which we humans are phylogenetically predisposed to form emotional bonds with those who care for us and provide us with security. Attachment has been studied above all in babies, but also in adults.
Different authors have made classifications of attachment patterns based on their observations and research. In the 1960s and 1970s Mary Dinsmore Ainsworth carried out pioneering studies in the field of attachment using the experimental paradigm of the “strange situation” , with which she evaluated the behaviour of children when they were separated from their mother.
Thanks to his famous research Ainsworth identified three patterns of attachment: the secure, the avoidant or rejecting and the ambivalent or resistant . These last two can be categorized as “insecure attachment”. While 65% of the babies showed a secure attachment pattern, 20% of the babies were classified as avoidant and 12% as ambivalent.
Research has shown that the type of attachment remains stable throughout life in most people, although it can sometimes be modified, for example because of the educational style adopted by the parents or significant life events, such as the death of an attachment figure.
In 1987 Cindy Hazan and Phillip R. Shaver studied adult attachment through multiple choice questionnaires and found that the proportion of secure, avoidant and ambivalent attachment patterns was very similar to what Ainsworth had found in infants.
Avoidant attachment in children
In the experiment of Ainsworth’s strange situation, the children with avoidant attachment were easily annoyed, did not look for their mothers when they needed them , seemed indifferent to their absence and ignored them or behaved ambivalently when they returned. However, sometimes they were very sociable with strangers.
In contrast, babies with a secure pattern of attachment were confident about exploring their environment and returned to their mother from time to time, seeking security. If the mother left the room the little ones would cry and complain, and when she returned they were happy. They also had a lesser tendency to get angry.
Ainsworth hypothesized that the attitude of these children concealed states of emotional distress; later studies showed that their heart rate was high, which supported the hypothesis. According to Ainsworth the babies with avoidant attachment had learned that communicating their emotional needs to the mother did not work and therefore they did not.
This was due to the fact that they had had experiences in rejecting their approaching behaviour and promoting attachment on the part of the main attachment figure. She also stated that their needs had often not been met by their parents.
The behaviour of babies with this type of attachment is paradoxical in the sense that it allows them to maintain a certain closeness to those close to them which gives the baby a sense of security while preventing them from responding with rejection of the approach , according to Ainsworth.
Several investigations have studied the characteristics of attachment in adults through self-report questionnaires. Avoidant attachment is divided into two distinct patterns during adulthood: the avoidant-spectacle and the avoidant-fear . The presence of one or the other pattern is probably due to specific life experiences.
The avoidance-dispective style manifests itself in an exaggerated need for independence and self-sufficiency, as well as for avoiding dependence on one’s own. Many people with this pattern of attachment believe that interpersonal relationships are not relevant and deny needing intimacy with others, so they try not to develop it too much.
People with this type of attachment often hide and repress their feelings, distance themselves from others when they feel rejected by them and behave in a way that prevents suffering such rejection. Different authors consider that the avoidance-pattern has an emotional protection function.
Similarly, those who are classified in the category of avoidance-fearful attachment say that they want to have intimate interpersonal relationships but have difficulty trusting others and depending on them for fear of being emotionally hurt. Consequently, they feel uncomfortable in intimate situations.
This pattern has been identified most frequently in people who have experienced significant grief or trauma during childhood and adolescence. In many cases they feel dissatisfied with themselves and with the people with whom they have developed attachments.