A few years ago, 32-year-old Kari* formed "a deep emotional bond that began to border on romantic" with a woman she met over Twitter. She was in a relationship at the time so she didn’t take it further. But after leaving her boyfriend earlier this year, Kari decided to reconnect with her.
"Things quickly became intimate between us," she recalls. When the woman sent her a thoughtful gift in August, Kari decided "it was time to really try and make something out of this and show her I care."
Kari promised to travel across the country to visit the woman for her birthday (COVID permitting). She’d take her to a spa and a fancy hotel, they’d explore a quaint town together. "I told her I'd handle everything – the planning, the finances. I was getting a bonus at work so it wouldn't be a financial burden." The pair stayed in touch in the weeks leading up to the birthday and Kari confirmed the trip was still happening.
The kicker? "Her birthday came and went and I planned nothing, did nothing, said nothing."
Kari is giving us an insight into the mind of an avoidant woman, an attachment style more typically associated with people who identify as men, whether it’s the elusive dreamboat on Hinge who ghosts you several dates in or the commitment-phobic boyfriend who pulls away, claiming to feel "suffocated", every time you initiate closeness.
In the 1950s, British psychologist and psychiatrist John Bowlby developed attachment theory, a framework for understanding how our earliest relationships with our parents or primary caregivers can affect our lifelong social and emotional development. It has since been applied to adult relationships, notably by psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr Amir Levine and the psychologist Rachel Heller in Attached, a guide to using attachment theory to find love. By identifying your own attachment style and that of your partner or potential partner, Levine and Heller argue, you can build stronger, more fulfilling relationships.
There are three main attachment styles: secure, anxious and avoidant (take the test yourself to find out your own). Secures are comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving, while the anxiously attached are preoccupied with their relationships and struggle to feel secure with their partner. Avoidants like Kari are independent, emotionally distant and tend to equate intimacy with a loss of independence.
"Children who have some of their needs met but many neglected tend to develop an avoidant style," explains clinical psychologist Bhavna Jani-Negandhi. As a result of their experiences, these children learn to rely on themselves to meet their own needs and come to believe that they don’t need others for intimacy and emotional support.
As adults, avoidants may select emotionally unavailable partners or be emotionally unavailable themselves, says chartered clinical psychologist and Counselling Directory member Dr Jane Major. They may "struggle to voice their needs and emotions or share their vulnerability due to a, perhaps unconscious, fear of being exploited, abandoned or left alone with unbearable feelings, based on past experiences."
While Kari says she "had every intention and every desire to follow through", she couldn’t. The woman ended things soon after. "She said she couldn't do this anymore – I’d hurt her too deeply and had shown no accountability." Kari apologised and reluctantly accepted her need to move on.
Then, a few weeks ago, the woman reached out about her dog passing away, giving Kari a final chance to make things up to her. "I didn't respond." Kari explains herself: "It wouldn't have been fair for me to emotionally engage her, it would’ve been selfish, bordering on taking advantage of her painful experience, because I knew I’d just continue to lean in to my avoidant attachment style."
Kari first discovered she was avoidant when she started therapy 12 years ago. The therapist thought learning about attachment styles would help her understand some of her "bad interpersonal behaviour" (Kari's words) which tainted her earliest friendships and evidently continues to blight her romantic life. "Everything in my life suddenly made sense – why I couldn't form the same close bonds as others, why I never reached out or felt lonely, why I was obsessed with video games."
The day after Kari ended things with the woman, she brought up her avoidant attachment style in therapy again. "Now, I realise there are some complex and difficult things I need to tackle before engaging others in the future. It was a painful lesson that I wish I never had to learn – or at least, not with another person that I cared about involved."
Kari says it was "the worst thing I've ever done to someone" and left her feeling the lowest she’s ever felt. Yet each time a relationship, like that one, ends, she admits to feeling "relieved and happy to be alone again. I get exhausted and am glad that they have some perceived fault I could hyper-focus on so I don’t have to carry on the relationship."
Kari pinpoints the origin of her own avoidant behaviour to her relationship with her mother: a "career-driven [and] emotionally aloof" woman who gave birth to her too young and, as the sole provider for the household with a prestigious marketing career, was unable to care for her during the early years.
As a kid, Kari was constantly labelled a "flake", "aloof" and "unreliable". She never showed up for plans with friends, even if she really wanted to go. "My friends joked that they always had to physically come and get me. My mum even paid me to leave the house."
Kari’s avoidant attachment style also affects her familial relationships – she missed her grandfather passing away because she "felt uncomfortable about the emotion involved with [her] family" and several adult friendships have dissolved, too.
"I've burned many friendship bridges down when the issue of accountability for my unreliability comes up and my inability to reciprocate feelings in a traditional way." She’s had to learn to manage expectations with new people who come into her life – they need to know that she’ll rarely attend birthday parties, go to the cinema or show affection towards them (despite perhaps wanting to). Warning people of what they can expect from her as a friend – that is, very little – "is key to living a happy life for me, so I try to invest in explaining myself to people I want to keep around.
"It doesn't matter if you're my soulmate or the coolest person in the world. My brain simply doesn't know how to attach and all I can do is work to reduce the harm it can do."
Although Kari’s story is testament to the fact that women can have an avoidant attachment style, avoidant behaviours are typically associated with men. Psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member Anne Glynn says that while avoidant attachment appears to be more common in men, she’s worked with "a significant number" of avoidant women. "In most cases they will have experienced childhood trauma, such as sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment, parental violence or the death of a parent."
Glynn has also worked with several men in relationships with avoidant women, "who have suffered because of their attempts to maintain intimacy and trust with them." The reason that avoidance is more typically associated with men, Glynn believes, is because some of the attitudes we associate with this style can seem 'masculine', such as toughness, lack of emotion and independence.
"We all recognise the stereotype of the hard-to-pin-down 'commitment-phobe' and this term is usually reserved for men. We imagine that women will want to seek relationships, love, commitment, intimacy and motherhood and it is perhaps unsettling for us to think of women who don’t conform to our expectations," Glynn concludes.
But as with any behaviour that you’re committed to stamping out, it’s possible to change your attachment behaviours. Therapy is highly recommended, says Barbara Honey, senior practice consultant at Relate, to understand how you first developed this trait. "Taking small risks, like daring to express an emotion or gradually allowing yourself to get closer to someone" can also help avoidants change their patterns.
And if you’re in a relationship with an avoidant, "you may frequently find yourself anxious and afraid that your expectations of security and clarity are unreasonable." Glynn reassures: "They aren’t. Levine and Heller [the authors of Attached] say, 'You are only as needy as your unmet needs'."
As for Kari, she encourages her fellow avoidants to try therapy and be completely honest in their sessions. "Maybe one day you’ll be able to form neurotypical emotional bonds, maybe you can overcome the vast distance between you and others. I haven't reached that part of my journey. I don't think I will. For now, communication is the key to my happiness and the key to not hurting others around me."
*Surname withheld to protect interviewee’s identity