I’m often asked by my clients, “Can someone with an avoidant attachment style change?”. Yes. Avoidants can change their attachment style.
A client (I’ll call Joe) was torn between staying in contact with his ex and doing no contact. He wanted my advice and help. We talked a little bit about his relationship history: his recent break-up, the regrets he had about the break-up; and what he had learned about himself since the break-up.
One of the things he was concerned about was that the same pattern repeated itself in all his relationships. His exes always ended the relationship. The main reason for the break-up was communication. They wanted him to open up more, he shut down instead. They asked to stay in contact, he cut off all contact. He tried to move on but ended up getting back together with his exes. The relationship lasted a few months and they broke up again, and for the exact same reason. After 2 or 3 break-ups, they moved on, or he moved on. But the break-up a month ago, made him realize that he needed to change.
Joe: “I just didn’t want to deal with it”. I shut down emotionally but sometimes I fought back. There would be yelling and cursing. At some point I’d tell myself enough is enough and walk out. We would not talk for days, sometimes weeks.
Me: “And how did you guys work it out?” I asked.
Joe: “We didn’t. We’d go no contact for 4 weeks, sometimes 6. She reached out first and sometimes I did, and we just went on as normal.”
Me: “Until the next fight?” I interjected.
Joe: “Yeah. Until the next fight.”
Me: “Would you say that not talking for days or weeks helped?” I asked.
Joe: “Maybe it did. I don’t know”.
Me: “How do you think it helped?”
Joe: “I guess not talking for a few days or weeks helped calm down the emotions”.
Me: “Did you ever talk about what happened?”
Joe: “No. I guess we both wanted to move on from it.”
Me: “Except that you didn’t”.
Joe: “What do you mean?”
Me: “It kept happening again and again.”
Joe: “That’s why I’m talking to you, right?”
Me: “Right. What would you want to change about how you deal with relationship problems?”
Joe: “Work things out. I want to sit in my own s**t and clean up the mess like a grown up man”.
Me: “Starting with not emotionally shutting down, I guess?”
Joe: “Yes. She deserves better. I really love this woman, Yangki. I don’t want to lose her because I can’t keep my f*&%*g s**t together.
Me: “I can tell you love her. But easy with the swearing”.
Joe: “Oh s**t! Sorry. I apologize”.
What does it take for an avoidant to change their attachment style?
Avoidants can change their attachment style if they are willing to do the work. But just reading a few articles and watching YouTube videos doesn’t change one’s attachment. You need months and sometimes years of healing your attachment wounding, learning a different way to relate, learning new and healthier relationship building skills, and being able to put what you learned into practice (consistently).
You can do this through DIY self-work and therapy, therapy and self-work are not the only ways for an avoidant to change their attachment style. We know from newer studies on adult attachment styles that a long-term relationship with a securely attached partner can over time transform someone with an anxious attachment or avoidant attachment to a securely attached partner. An affirming and nurturing relationship with a securely attached romantic partner, therapist, coach or mentor can also move one from an insecure attachment style to a secure one.
In attachment circles this is what is known as “earned secure attachment”. An earned secure attachment or “earned secure” is a term used to refer to individuals who experienced insecure parenting in childhood but develop a secure attachment after working on their childhood attachment trauma and insecurity.
How you can help an avoidant change their attachment style
Understanding how individuals with insecure individuals can become securely attached as a result of a close long-term relationship with someone who is securely attached and can serve as a secure base is important if you’re trying to help an avoidant to change their attachment style. Trying to make them acknowledge they’re avoidants by lecturing them on attachment styles, sending them articles and videos about an avoidant attachment style if it doesn’t push an avoidant further away, will not motivate an avoidant to want to change.
Security comes from believing that you can count on others to be available, emotionally responsive, consistent and trustworthy. For an avoidant to change to secure, you must create the conditions that show availability by checking in with them to see how they’re doing, being responsive when they need comfort and support, being consistent in how you show them that you care and nurturing trust.
That said, it is not your job to fix an avoidant attachment style; that is an avoidant’s job. An avoidant needs to do the “emotional work” to heal their attachment wounding. Your “job” as someone who wants a relationship with an avoidant is provide them with the security that they need to to experience what a “safe relationship” looks and feels like.
To be able to be the “safe base: from which an avoidant can lean to be secure, you need to start with yourself. Don’t just look at an avoidant as the only one with a problem. You both are insecurely attached, the only difference is one wants too much space and no closeness, and the other wants too much closeness and no space. Both are equally unhealthy, so you both equally need to work on healing your attachment styles.
Can an avoidant attachment style change temporarily?
Yes, an attachment style can change temporarily. Attachment styles (unless clinically diagnosed as a disorder) are not fixed like a “personality” type. Instead, they exist on a spectrum of high/low anxiety and high/low avoidance.
- Secure attachment – low anxiety and low avoidance
- Dismissive attachment – low anxiety and high avoidance
- Fearful attachment – high anxiety and high avoidance
- Anxious attachment – high anxiety and low avoidance
It’s important to point out that attachment styles are not neat little boxes that fit perfectly. Certain experiences can push us further to one end of the spectrum. For example, you can be an anxious-preoccupied in one relationship and an anxious fearful avoidant in another relationship. You can be fearful avoidant in one relationship and lean dismissive avoidant in another relationship. It is also possible for an anxious attachment or avoidant to present a secure attachment if the relationship provides security, safety, consistency, stability and trust.
Your default attachment style is one you are in most of your relationship. The exception is when one does the work to permanently change their attachment style to secure attachment; but even then it’s only “earned security”. The triggers may still be present but one learns to manage them better.
To get a better idea of how often each attachment style comes back, I have written detailed articles on individual attachment styles: why they come back, what makes them come back and how long it takes them to come back. You will find the links at the bottom.