When we look at some of the areas that people with an avoidant attachment style struggle in, it’s easy to focus on extremes or exaggerate the way they interact with you. But your spouse can be avoidantly attached to you and still be a faithful, committed, reliable person in the marriage.
In this article, we’re going to look at the challenges that having an avoidant attachment presents in marriage. The section towards the end is especially important because it examines how an avoidant attachment style develops in childhood. Someone with this attachment style may behave in ways that seem like they are intentionally doing things to hurt you, and it is easy to take personally. But in most cases, there is no intent to harm or be difficult in the marriage. We really encourage you to listen to them with compassion and understanding.
Avoidant Attachment and Needing Others
The default posture of an avoidantly attached person is to not depend on others. There are a number of reasons they may have this fear. It may be because they are distrustful of close relationships or are afraid of relying on anyone else. It may also be because they don’t want to experience the pain of rejection. They may feel pressured to give the other person the level of support they receive. They may avoid being close enough to receive support from another because they don’t want to offer support in return and have their efforts rejected. This may be because there have been times when they have depended on someone else and it has led to disappointment.
A person with an avoidant attachment style places a lot of value on independence and being self-sufficient. They may consider that to need someone else is to show weakness, so they sometimes develop alone wolf mentality. They may also seem to be very much in their head and working through problems rationally.
Attachment In the Brain
To fully understand the avoidant attachment style, we need to look at how attachment in general develops in childhood. When a child is with their parent and they experience a moment of threat or uncertainty or distress, their attachment system is activated. What this means is the part of the brain that is responsible for tracking and monitoring the safety and availability of their primary caregiver is turned on. The moment of fear prompts the child to re-establish if their parent is safe and available and can meet their needs. When the parent affirms this, the child’s brain turns the activation off.
A child whose caregiver is not available learns to prevent their attachment system from activating. They don’t let themselves get upset or distressed or needy towards a loving significant other. Therefore, they develop an avoidant attachment style: first towards their caregiver, and later on towards their spouse.
An avoidant attachment can have a significant impact on a marriage. An avoidant spouse may do the following things:
- Averting their gaze from what they consider to be an unpleasant emotion in an attempt to prevent intimacy or connection.
- Tuning out a conversation related to commitment topics
- Accusing their spouse of wanting too much from them when the spouse is asking for deeper emotional connection (Catlett, 2015)
- Turning towards busy work in the home or at work when conflict with their spouse threatens their sense of safety in the relationship, or using sulking or hinting or complaining to seek support from their spouse during a conflict or when in crisis.
All of these responses are geared towards keeping that attachment system deactivated. They’ll deny or minimize their vulnerability and repress their emotions as a way to manage emotions that have been aroused.
They Operate Independently
Because of the “not needing” others attitude and fiercely independent coping style that comes with keeping their attachment system deactivated, people with an avoidant attachment style are often very self-reliant. This desire for independence can cause the following things to happen:
- They may put up unnecessary boundaries in a marriage, like sleeping in different beds, or not sharing information that would be better shared. Again, this is not about an intent to deceive but the avoidance of intimate connection. For some, disengaged sex may be easier than intimate sex. It can be difficult for them to think about being concerned with their spouse’s feelings during or after sex.
- They can develop habits like making dinner independently after their spouse goes to bed, or exaggerating their work schedule rather than simply asking for alone time from their spouse.
- They may say “I love you” and mean it but actually be dissociated from the emotion of love. Some avoidants are dissociated from most of their emotions as a way of maintaining emotional distance and not feeling needy. Again, you can see that this supports their need to feel independent.
Avoidant Attachment In Marriage
If you’re reading this post and thinking that your spouse has an avoidant attachment style, we have a bonus guide much like our bonus guide for the previous post on anxious attachment. The exercise will help you understand the attachment challenges you are facing and how you can learn to behave in a way that builds your marriage up rather than depleting it. You can get the bonus guide by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Avoidant Attachment Affects Career
It’s interesting to note that you will often find avoidantly attached people in litigation, scientific fields or those kinds of occupations where avoiding the feelings of others can be beneficial, or where performance is not based on group effort. These occupations allow them to work in an environment where they can do their job without being involved with the emotions of others, which a career that involved a lot of people work would require them to do.
Avoidant Attachment Affects Spirituality
Looking at people with an avoidant attachment from a spiritual perspective, they often seem to have difficulty experiencing warmth, intimacy or closeness with God. They may see God as distant or impersonal or generally uncaring. This kind of information is helpful just to note that their avoidant attachment isn’t something that singles out their spouse for special treatment but is a pattern of avoiding deep connection across significant relationships.
How Does Avoidant Attachment Develop in Childhood
As children, avoidant adults often experienced a certain level of unresponsive behaviour towards their distress or need for comfort from their parents. This can happen on a scale from mild and continuous unresponsive behaviours through to more severe forms of neglect. For example, their parents may have been unresponsive when the children were distressed or in need of comfort. Going back to the idea of activating the attachment system in the brain: these are the moments when the child feels the need to reach out to be affirmed that the parent is available and safe and responsive.
If the child experiences rejection in those moments when they need reaffirmation due to being emotionally upset, the child will learn to suppress their emotional neediness. That natural desire has to be put aside when frightened, in distress or in pain, because if they are not upset then at least they can be close to their parent physically, even though they are not available to meet their emotional needs. In other words, I’ll put my distress away so I can be near you.
Sometimes you see children who’ve developed this attachment style actually backing up towards their parents. It’s the pursuit of some feeling of closeness without being seen. By not outwardly expressing feelings, they can at least partially gratify one of their attachment needs, which is to remain physically close to the parent. In these situations, the child learns from repeated, painful interactions with attachment figures (parents) that their distress leads to rejection or punishment.
Some children learn to rely heavily on self-soothing and self-nurturing behaviours. They attempt to meet their attachment needs on their own since they cannot rely on an attachment figure to meet them.
Children with an avoidant attachment style learn to appear very independent and to not need support from others. Later in life, this translates to not seeking authentic, vulnerable intimacy in marriage
How to Shift to Secure Attachment When You Are Avoidantly Attached
If you are listening in today and recognizing that you are avoidantly attached, your spouse may be feeling anything from content but wishing for more of a connection with you all the way to highly distressed and feeling very rejected. But the good news is that you can change your attachment style to your spouse: there are ways to help yourself as an individual and things you can work on as a couple.
Things To Work On Together
We have more content on what to work on together in our bonus material for this article. But one of the first things you’ll want to do is to own how this attachment style shows up in your marriage. Knowing that this is what happens, owning that and being willing to face it and work on it together is a huge gift to your spouse.
One of the things you can work on together is really thinking about “we” instead of me and you. If you are avoidant you can just start prompting yourself to think about things in your marriage interdependently rather than independently. Think less about doing things efficiently and more about doing things together. You can invite your spouse to gently call you out on this as well: they may be a very useful barometer on when the independence is trumping connection.
As you experience more connection, notice what that’s like. It feels better. There’s warmth there and a deeper joy.
Another thing to work on together is cultivating emotional intimacy. You can invite your spouse to ask what you are thinking. You can urge yourself to share more vulnerability with your spouse as well, knowing that they are a safe person. This is how you make yourself more comfortable with vulnerability and start to disconfirm the idea that when you are distressed your attachment figure (spouse) will reject or punish you for showing that distress.
Things to Work On Yourself
For yourself, it becomes important to learn to accept your spouse for who they are. Sometimes when you are avoidant, you can build a case against your spouse to justify the distance between you. It may feel more comfortable to create distance, but it supports avoidance. When you challenge yourself to accept and appreciate your spouse more deeply, it puts you back into a better position for developing closeness and fostering connection.
Sometimes in this attachment style it’s hard to know how to be close to your spouse because you’ve been conditioned towards independence. This might sound odd but try activating your attachment system by thinking about losing your spouse and the devastation you would feel. That punch in the gut feeling is often followed by a desire to be close to your spouse — to make sure they are safe and available and they feel cared for. Now: how can you demonstrate more of that reaching for connection in other moments?
Attachment is a spectrum where you have anxiously attached on one end and avoidantly attached on the other with secure attachment in the middle. If you are avoidantly connected, you may want to try thinking about how you could foster anxious attachment in yourself. And try a little of that so that you land somewhere in the middle.
So as you reach for the uncertainty of connection it really compels you to step away from the “I don’t need anyone — I am an island unto myself” position and towards some interdependence and just that idea of, “I need you and you need me and that’s good!”
 Jeb Kinnison, “Type: Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Style,” Jeb Kinnison, March 10, 2014, https://jebkinnison.com/bad-boyfriends-the-book/type-dismissive-avoidant/.
 R. Chris Fraley and Claudia Chloe Brumbaugh, “Adult Attachment and Preemptive Defenses: Converging Evidence on the Role of Defensive Exclusion at the Level of Encoding,” Journal of Personality 75, no. 5 (October 2007): 1033–50, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2007.00465.x.
 Jeremy McAllister, “Ending the Anxious-Avoidant Dance, Part 1: Opposing Attachment Styles,” GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog, May 18, 2017, https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/ending-anxious-avoidant-dance-part-1-opposing-attachment-styles-0518174.
 Kinnison, “Type.”
 Mockingbird, “Attachment Theory and Your Relationship With God,” Mockingbird, October 26, 2016, https://mbird.com/2016/10/attachment-theory-and-your-relationship-with-god/.
 Lee A. Kirkpatrick and Philip R. Shaver, “An Attachment-Theoretical Approach to Romantic Love and Religious Belief,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 18, no. 3 (June 1992): 266–75, https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167292183002.
 Jason D. Jones and Jude Cassidy, “Parental Attachment Style: Examination of Links with Parent Secure Base Provision and Adolescent Secure Base Use,” Attachment & Human Development 16, no. 5 (September 3, 2014): 437–61, https://doi.org/10.1080/14616734.2014.921718.
 Jones and Cassidy.