Avoidants can’t change their attachment style, or can they? What does it take for an avoidant to change?
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”.
We both laughed. I was serious about not cursing though.
Avoidants can change their attachment style if they are receptive and willing
Anyone can change their attachment style with intense self-work and/or therapy. Just reading a few articles doesn’t change your attachment. You need months and sometimes years of working to change your attachment style.
Self-work and therapy are not the only ways to attachment style changes. Adult attachment research shows that attachment style change can change as a reaction to current circumstances. Circumstances like a break-up.
One study titled Attachment Styles and Personal Growth following Romantic Breakups draws a direct link between attachment styles and personal growth following a dissolution of a valued romantic relationship. Notice, that the study says “valued” romantic relationship.
Researchers found substantial evidence that attachment-anxious individuals experience greater personal growth following a break-ups compared to avoidants.
Because they scrutinize their self-perceived shortcomings and blame themselves for the end of the relationship, they are more motivated to work to better themselves. They develop more new interests, and change things that need changing.
Avoidants on the other hand tend to be more defensive about their role in the break-up and suppress breakup-specific thoughts and feelings. They deprive themselves the opportunity to look honestly at their role in the break-up and ways that they can improve themselves for the better.
Based on this, researchers have concluded that: the pain of break-ups has the potential to exert a transformational effect on attachment-anxious individuals; but not so much on avoidants.
Avoidants’ attachment deactivation following a break-up, may facilitate emotional recovery, but at the expense of cultivating a meaningful narrative and positive changes in one’s life.
It is possible to have more than a primary and secondary attachment style in one lifetime
It is important to point out that attachment styles are not neat little boxes that fit perfectly. Instead they are somewhat fluid with most insecurely attached people presenting primary and secondary attachment style.
For example, you can be an anxious-preoccupied; and also be a fearful avoidant leaning anxious at times. You can be a fearful avoidant and also a dismissive avoidant depending on the relationship. Your primary attachment style is however still the default reaction when you’re triggered.
Someone with attachment anxiety can also be securely attached if:
- The relationship provides stability, trust and security
- You are not emotionally invested in the relationship or attached to someone.
It doesn’t mean their attachment style has changed and they will no longer be anxious in relationships, it just means their attachment anxiety isn’t partly or fully activated.
Why and how does attachment style change?
New studies on attachment styles also show that not everyone who had insecure parenting style grows up to be an insecurely attached adult; and not all adults who had stable and nurturing parenting grow up to be securely attached adults. Since adult attachment is a relatively new field, more research needs to be done to understand the specific factors that cause some people to end up securely attached; despite an insecure parenting style. And some people to be insecurely attached despite being raised by stable and nurturing parents and caregivers.
What we know is that our attachment style can change later in life. For example, a long-term relationship with a securely attached partner can transform someone with attachment anxiety; or attachment avoidance to a securely attached partner. An affirming and nurturing relationship with a securely attached therapist, coach or mentor can also move one from an insecure attachment style to a secure one.