“Space. I need space.” My husband looked like he was suffocating. We were in the midst of a disagreement about dishes (always dishes!), and it wasn’t going well. I wanted to move in closer, connect, figure it out. He wanted to run. Everything about his body said flight. Ten years ago, I would have moved to close the gap in lightning speed. He would have been halfway out of the room. But now we knew better. I knew I could stay at the distance we were at without reaching out. He knew he could have some distance without running. He edges on the avoidant. I edge on the anxious. These are our attachment styles.
What are they? According to Sharon Martin, LCSW, in “What’s My Attachment Style and Why Does It Matter?” our relationships with our first caregivers – usually our parents, but not always – are foundational for the relationships we’ll have in the future. Caregivers should make children feel safe and secure. From them, children learn that how to trust and bond. If their caregivers are there for them, children feel they can go out into the world with confidence, knowing their caregivers will provide a sense of safety and security. When caregivers are not responsive, the child grows up to have an insecure attachment style.
The Gottman Institute details different attachment styles in “Your Attachment Style Influences the Success”:
- Anxious Attachment – develops when a caregiver has been inconsistent in their responsiveness and availability, confusing the child about what to expect. As an adult, this person acts clingy at times and finds it difficult to trust their partner.
- Avoidant Attachment – develops when a caregiver is neglectful. These are the children that play by themselves and develop the belief that no one is there to meet their needs. As adults, they typically label themselves as very independent.
- Disorganized Attachment – develops from abuse, trauma, or chaos in the home. A child learns to fear the caregiver and has no real “secure base.” (Only 3% of people are this one.)
If you’d like to find out more about your attachment style, there are quizzes in the books Attached and Wired For Love. There is also a longer online assessment through Dr. Chris Fraley. You can track your results over time and see if there are any changes.
Also important to note that some researchers refer to attachment styles as “traits” or “states.” This means they are not fixed and immutable. They can change depending on the situation or relationship.
In my marriage, realizing that my husband is avoidant bordering on secure, and I am mostly secure with some anxious, has been super helpful in understanding our dynamic. While we both used to be more insecure in our attachment styles, over time this has been slowly changing (very slowly!) to something that has become more secure.
Securely Attached People
In “Portrait of Marriage. (Yes, It’s Mine.)”, Carmen Spagnola describes what a securely attached person would be able to do. This person would be connected to their body, feelings, needs. They would confident about speaking their needs, engage interdependence without fear, integrate love and sexuality, and many more.
For an avoidant person, this can be incredibly scary. On the one hand, an avoidant desires—craves—intimacy and connection. On the other hand, she or he has learned to build a wall between themselves and others, creating protection against further trauma.
Avoidant Men and Toxic Masculinity
Here is the avoidant man: the strong silent type coupled with intense work drive, resolutely independent, steady and unemotional, has strong specifics about what he likes, is mysterious or aloof. Spagnola says, “[I]f the avoidant partner is male, he is venerated as a man of strength, dignity, and a commendable stoicism.” Sound familiar? This paints a partial picture of toxic masculinity where the man has been iconized by these seemingly “good” traits, but in reality, never gets the intimacy he truly desires.
When I first read the book Attached, I was blown away. While some of the following strategies don’t apply to my husband, some definitely did. Deactivating strategies, as described in Attached, are things avoidants do – usually unconsciously – to take them out of a relationship and put some distance there.
If you are avoidant, you might recognize some of these:
- Saying (or thinking) “I’m not ready to commit”—but staying together nonetheless, sometimes for years.
- Focusing on small imperfections in your partner: the way s/he talks, dresses, eats, or (fill in the blank) and allowing it to get in the way of your romantic feelings.
- Pining after an ex-girlfriend/ boyfriend.
- Flirting with others—a hurtful way to introduce insecurity into the relationship.
- Not saying, “I love you”—while implying that you do have feelings towards the other person.
- Pulling away when things are going well (e.g., not calling for several days after an intimate date).
- Forming relationships with an impossible future, such as with someone who is married.
- “Checking out mentally” when your partner talks to you.
- Keeping secrets and leaving things foggy—to maintain your feelings of independence.
- Avoiding physical closeness—e.g. not wanting to share the same bed, not wanting to have sex, walking several strides ahead of your partner.
The other side of this is that relationships and intimacy—while truly desired—can be very intense for avoidants. They have disconnected themselves from their feelings and needs, so when they are face to face with feelings and needs, they can get overwhelmed. The intimacy can be really scary.
One key point in all of this is how my husband’s relationship to emotions has transformed over the years. Because I tend towards being anxious, I also tend to need more reassurance around our relationship (motherhood has transformed much of this for me, but that’s another article). In the beginning, we would have an argument and literally 2-3 months later, intense emotions would surface for him. It drove me nuts. I initially coded it as withholding, dishonesty, etc. Nothing positive. I couldn’t understand why and how I could feel something so immediately and directly whereas it took him weeks to feel the same.
Over time, I began to trust that my husband wasn’t lying. After all, we enjoyed each other’s company, and he made it clear he wasn’t going anywhere even if he did have a need for space. And you know what? The more I created that space of trust, the more quickly he was able to feel his emotions and share them with me. That meant, I was no longer with a stoic man, I was with a real man.
Needs vs. Neediness
After our son was born, my husband was overwhelmed with the incredible volume of needs our son had. On the one hand, intellectually, he understood it was completely natural and normal. On the other hand, it also occurred to him as unrealistic and frankly, we just seemed needy to him. After reading an article online, he had a sudden revelation: needs were natural and normal. It might seem obvious, but internally, he was coding not only our needs, but his own needs as being needy. It was huge. Can you imagine how he received the both of us when we needed something? It had shifted.
Now, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t get overwhelmed when the two of us need something. But it does mean he has a new context for it. The second part is that he has revamped his own relationship to his needs. They still sometimes occur as scary and overwhelming, but more and more he is able to notice his needs, recognize that articulating them before he explodes is valuable, and actually ask for what he wants. Huzzah!
It would be inauthentic to say that my husband never wants to run to the next room (or next country), but in a recent disagreement, I noticed a profound difference or years past when he would have disappeared. I sensed the tension in his body and the effort it took for him to stay. I didn’t move closer or try to touch him (for him, touch can be very intense when we are disagreeing). My work has been to resource myself without relying on him for all of that while his work has been to step closer and flex the muscle of feeling uncomfortable and not running. Whew! A lot of work, but the connection is beautiful.
Moving Towards Secure Attachment
Everyone wants to be secure, right? It is possible even with insecure attachment styles, whether that’s anxious or avoidant. It takes knowing your patterns and doing the work. For me, it was trusting myself and my husband to be there, acknowledging the stories I built in my mind weren’t actually true, and recognizing that my needs for closeness weren’t neediness. For my husband, it has been to connect with his emotions and needs, which sometimes means taking space to feel them. When he’s overwhelmed (which happens more easily to him than to me), he simply can’t feel himself. With some space (we’re talking hours now, not days or week or a foreign country), he can feel himself. He has a commitment to get back to me and share with me. The result: it’s not perfect, but it has enabled me to love him more, be less fearful, and know that his need for space isn’t about me. In short, we both get more of what we want as we co-create our relationship.
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