AVOIDANCE and Fear of Dependency

“Whenever we get close, one of us pulls away”



Hi, I’m Shelley Treacher from the Stress and Anxiety Podcast.

Today, we have a spotlight on relationship.

Last week, I talked about the avoidant side of comfort eating or any compulsion. This week, I’m talking about avoidance in relationship.

Carl Jung has been quoted to say,

“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakes.”


How Your History Affects Your Relationships

It’s generally accepted in psychotherapy and counselling that our adult relationships, including the one we have with ourselves, reflect our earlier relationships, the relationships that we were brought up with.  Of course we can also be influenced by relationships that we pick along the way.

I talked in a previous podcast called Crack Your History Code about the types of attachments that we form in early childhood. Here’s a brief summary:

There are two different kinds of attachment. One is secure and one is insecure.


Secure Relationship History

  • In secure attachment, our needs are mostly met by our primary caregivers or the people who look after us when we grow up.
  • Things that we need, things that we want, they instinctively provide for us, and then they respond to what we need.
  • Having had this kind of attachment, we would grow up to be quite secure in the relationships that we bond in later in life.
  • We would know how to express our needs, to ask for what we want, and how to deal with conflict.
  • With secure attachment, we expect to be responded to, and for things to go well.
  • If they don’t go well, we expect to be able to cope with that.


Insecure Relationship History

The second form of attachment is insecure. I imagine that most people listening to this wouldn’t be listening to this if they didn’t have some kind of form of insecure attachment.

So please don’t feel ashamed if you feel that you may fall into that category. So many of us do. And certainly the only people that I seem to get on with have some kind of insecure attachment in their history. Because potentially, empathy comes with insecurity. How else is someone to understand where you’re at? And that, I think, is the cornerstone to a good relationship.

  • Insecure Attachment is where our needs weren’t really met as children.
  • Where our parents were either in their own worlds and didn’t respond to our needs at all.
  • Or they sometimes responded here and there and we never really could predict when they were going to respond and when they wouldn’t.

These two types have two different names. The first is Avoidant, the second is Ambivalent (or Anxious). I’ve talked quite a lot in this podcast about ambivalent attachment or anxious attachment, as it’s otherwise known. So today I’m going to talk about avoidant attachment and how that shows up for the compulsive eater, but also for people who are having difficulty in relationship.


What is Avoidance in Relationship?

How we relate is hugely affected by what kind of attachment history we have. It affects communication, it affects conflict, and of course it affects intimacy and sex.

Stan Tatkin, in his book ‘Wired for Love’, says,

“Attachment theory explains our biological need to bond with others.”

He says that, “it gives us an instructional blueprint that informs our relational wiring.”

Primarily what it informs is our sense of safety and security. Whereas with ambivalent or anxious attachment that can leave us anxious or ambivalent in relationship, with avoidant it causes us to remain distant. The fear is of losing independence and so closeness is minimised.

I’ve talked so often about the insecurity system in our bodies, the fight, flight, freeze, fawn response that we have. This can be triggered so easily in relationship. With any kind of insecure attachment, the brain is scanning for that trouble.

This is where somebody has come from a very rigid childhood, where the parents were distant, and avoidant themselves. This is where your primary caregivers, your parents, your grandparents, whoever brought you up, would be more concerned with themselves, wrapped up in their own world, and not able to see outside of them.

So this child expected not to be paid attention to, not to be understood, and not to have needs met. The memory of this can be triggered in any situation where you might not expect to be understood, be afraid to be intruded upon, or be expected to do something for other people.


What Triggers Avoidance?

The things that can trigger avoidance might seem innocuous to anybody else, but can be little phrases like,

“We need to talk”.

This can trigger off something really terrified in the brain of the avoidant.

As can booking a holiday with somebody, booking time off, or even a song that triggered off something random.

  • These people might have trouble being talked to, being held or being touched for too long.
  • They don’t expect things to be available for them unless they do it themselves.
  • Typically, they might feel overwhelmed by being demanded upon or feeling trapped or caught.
  • They expect not to be allowed to be themselves.
  • And Stan Tatkin calls them islands because above all, they fear depending on anyone.

But the problem here is that they do have unmet needs, like all of us.

We all need bonding for survival and happiness. But the person who’s brought up to be avoidantly attached feels compelled to push people away, especially when intimacy and closeness start increasing. So if you’ve ever been in a relationship with someone who seems to pull away after you get close, this may be what’s happening.

That person may feel so stressed by the idea of depending on you that they have to pull away and look after themselves. It might be a relief for them to get away initially. You might be able to relate to this too. Maybe you need space in between intimacy.

The thing to start understanding is the avoidant person will miss you. You will also miss the person that you’ve been close to. But you can see that self regulation is needed first before you can come back together again.

One thing to understand at this point is that you can’t change your attachment history. Like I said last week, you can’t actually change the mechanisms, the physiological things that happen to you, the things that are imprinted in your brain, you can’t change those.

But you can make huge improvements about how you deal with it. You can become more secure. Particularly by understanding what’s going on for you, being able to observe that limit that you place inside of yourself, and learning to relate a little bit differently. Allowing yourself to be aware of the connection that you seek, and allowing that to develop.


The Ancestry of Avoidance

From our very beginning in the womb, we are dependent, and we’re born dependent. Attachment has traditionally meant survival. It still does. As Stan Tatkin tells us about the most recent developments in neuroscience, there is a specific part of the brain that regulates this – The attachment system in the brain.

Here’s where you can see that our ancestry really makes a difference (as well as our body and life history). Our ancestors perceived that it was dangerous to attach to just one person. If we’re avoidantly attached, this goes way back into our history. Because that person might not be around for too long, so we might not survive if we just attach to that one person.

The research actually shows that we’re wired to seek closeness or proximity with our partners. If they don’t respond, we’re wired to continue to seek that until they do. So it’s not actually needy or shameful. It’s a primitive survival instinct. It’s well known that if you don’t respond to an insecure person early, they’re going to react and it’s going to get worse.

I can quote Stan Tatkin to say that,

“People are as needy as their unmet needs”

That’s almost a dirty word in our culture, being ‘needy’. In our culture, it’s much more prized to be independent, to be able to succeed on your own. Particularly in British culture, we thought that we should leave our kids to cry and soothe themselves. It’s only in recent years that we’ve changed our habits and our mind about this. So we’ve learned to keep our distance, and to use affection sparingly.

Dependence in Relationship

We have John Bowlby to thank for noticing that kids with insecure attachment, with caregivers who didn’t really notice their needs very well, grew up with stunted development socially, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. So we now know that children need care and bonding.

Research also shows that the more effectively we depend on one another, the more daring we become as adults. This means that the early descriptions of codependency that we now rely on are actually really inaccurate and echo an old traditional way of talking about relationship and bonding.

Studies show that when we become attached to someone, we become one with them. Our partner learns to regulate our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and our hormonal levels. We’re no longer separate entities.

Amir Levine says,

“Dependency is a fact, not a choice or a preference. It is literally part of our genetic and biological makeup to pair up.”

Studies also show that we are actually less happy when we’re not in relationship. You might disagree if you’re in a difficult conflict right now, but apparently overall we are just generally more content if we have someone to rely on.

But the avoidantly attached person is always unconsciously maneuvering themselves to be more distant, to keep people away. Because

“They see it as a weakness, they have a lot of repressed emotion, and they’re a closed book.”


The Avoidant’s Need for Love

In his book on attachment, Amir Levine talks about six studies that were done where it was measured how long it took to report certain words, how accessible that theme was in people’s minds. The avoidant people, super fast, picked up on need and enmeshment. They didn’t pick up on loss, attachment, or anything that expressed a need, just the idea of having a need and of being enmeshed.

In short, this allowed us to see that they were quick to despise others for neediness and slow to pick up on their own needs.

But the interesting thing is they then conducted another study where they distracted the avoidance with some other task. And in these experiments, they responded to the words that matched with their own needs. Being distracted, they were less concerned about the attachment stuff. So the more distracted they were, the less the attachment insecurities or fears came up.

Research shows that the avoidant person is not free of all the needs that we think they are free of, or that they try to convince themselves that they’re free of.

What’s often happening when someone acts in an avoidant way is that they are actually being defensive. They are feeling that they need to defend themselves, and they’re actually pretty scared.

One way to avoid is, of course, with comfort food or any other compulsion.

Whether you’re listening to this, identifying with having a partner who’s avoidant, or whether you identify these traits within yourself, it’s going to be useful for you to try and understand the avoidant either way. Understanding that this behaviour might come from insecurity can give you a lot of much needed compassion.

Whether it’s an avoidance of intimacy that you’re displaying or experiencing, or whether it’s a compulsion, an avoidance of feeling) that you’re experiencing – either way, they both come from something that needs caring for.

How Does an Avoidant Act in a Relationship?

These are the kinds of things that somebody who’s avoidantly attached might say or do.

  • Struggle with commitment
  • Always need to have an escape route
  • Focus on the tiny imperfections of a partner or a date, allowing this to get in the way of any true relationship.
  • Flirting with other people
  • Pining after an ex
  • Not saying that they love you, but implying it
  • Pulling away after intimacy
  • Checking out when anyone’s talking
  • Keeping secrets
  • Fogginess
  • Avoiding physical closeness
  • Using deactivating strategies to suppress any desire to seek closeness in the brain. This is what’s going on internally. Disconnection is guaranteed here.

Avoidance of Intimacy

The error that’s being made here is mistaking self reliance for independence. A way to start to be curious about whether this has happened for you is to ask yourself, have you been told not to rely on others? Have you been told that you can only rely on yourself?

Studies show that if we have a belief in self reliance, then we have a low degree of intimacy in our lives.

I’d go further to say that people who have a strong compulsion also struggle with intimacy.



  • Today I’ve talked about what the behaviour of avoidance is and where it comes from.
  • I’ve talked about how having avoidant behaviour can come from having had avoidant attachment in your history, in your childhood, with the people who looked after you in the first place.
  • I’ve talked about how the fear of being dependent on somebody can lead to avoidant behaviour and also to compulsion.
  • I listed a few ways in which you might be able to spot avoidant behaviour
  • and I asked you to consider whether you had learnt to be self reliant.
  • I spoke about it being possible that you might have mistaken self reliance for independence. Because as studies and neuroscience show, we need each other.


Next Podcasts

In a couple of weeks time, I’ll talk about how you can work with all of this in relationship. Next week I’ll talk more about what happens in our brains with compulsion or addiction. You’ll see how the choices that you make for yourself are affected by the way that the brain works with addiction. You’ll also see that addiction happens in the attachment part of our brains. So it interferes with that as well.

But in the meantime, if you’d like a safe space to talk about how avoidance might be interfering in your life, please be in touch. I love receiving your emails. So please let me know that you’re listening!

This is The Stress, Anxiety & Binge-Eating Recovery Podcast with Shelley Treacher. I’ll see you next Wednesday.



Stan Tatkin Interview
Stan Tatkin –  ‘Wired For Love’
Amir Levine & Rachel SF Heller – ‘Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find-and Keep-Love’


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