Avoidant Attachment Or Narcissism? Here’s How To Tell

Attachment Styles and Avoidant Attachment: Childhood and Adulthood

Based on the experiment “The Strange Situation,” psychologist Mary Ainsworth as well as researchers Solomon and Main identified four main attachment styles in children. In the Strange Situation experiment, infants were temporarily separated from their mothers while in an unfamiliar, novel environment with toys and were given the opportunity to interact with a stranger who comes in. They were also left completely alone during one point in the experiment to observe their behavior in the new environment, and then later reunited with their mother.

The following childhood attachment styles from this experiment were identified: 1) secure attachment 2) avoidant attachment 3) anxious attachment and, as identified by researchers Solomon and Main in 1986, 4) disorganized attachment. For adult relationships, researchers Dr. Cindy Hazan and Dr. Phillip Shafer also later developed a model to describe adult attachment styles in romantic relationships, adapting these four styles of attachment into adult patterns of attachment: 1) secure, 2) dismissive-avoidant, 3) anxious-preoccupied, and 4) fearful-avoidant.

When children have a secure attachment, they are able to explore new environments with ease, using their parents as a “secure base” to return to after separation. They readily connect with their caregivers when they feel distressed, feel supported by their parents and are receptive to being comforted by their caregivers when anxious. Similarly, adults with a secure romantic attachment style are receptive to the support of their partners and feel free to communicate their needs while exhibiting a healthy level of independence.

In avoidant attachment, children do not explore new environments as much nor do they interact much with the stranger in the room, but they also don’t appear to be upset when their mother leaves and may even ignore her when she returns, avoiding eye contact and physical affection. These children have often experienced unempathic responses from their parents to their distress which has caused them to develop hyperindependence as they no longer expect the caregiver to meet their emotional needs. While avoidantly attached children do not seem to seek physical or emotional closeness with the parent, they still experience stress and anxiety even if they don’t display it. Adults with an avoidant-dismissive attachment style also tend to distance themselves from intimacy and closeness in relationships and become hyperindependent. They may choose partners who are open and vulnerable but be unable to reciprocate this same openness and vulnerability.

Children with an anxious attachment seek more reassurance from their caregivers and may cling to them upon separation and reunion due to inconsistent responses from their parents to their emotional needs. Adults with an anxious-preoccupied attachment may also seek additional reassurance from their partners, fear abandonment and depend on their partners excessively for comfort.

Disorganized attachment occurs when children are ignored or punished for their emotions, and therefore develop a simultaneous need for closeness and fear of getting close to their caregivers. Children who have a more disorganized attachment style can display contradictory behaviors which can include both anxious and avoidant behaviors. Similarly, adults with fearful-avoidant attachment may seek closeness from their partners while simultaneously pushing them away due to the fear of rejection.

Narcissism and Avoidant Attachment Styles: Is There a Link?

The connection between narcissism and attachment styles is a complex one. Studies on a direct association between narcissism and an avoidant attachment style have yielded inconsistent results. However, some research indicates that there may be a link between attachment avoidance and aspects of grandiose, overt narcissism (the subtype of narcissism associated with high self-esteem and self-aggrandizement). For example, attachment avoidance had a direct positive effect on both narcissistic admiration (assertive self-enhancement to garner admiration from others) and narcissistic rivalry (antagonistic self-protection meant to battle failure), both aspects of grandiose narcissism. Attachment anxiety, on the other hand, was shown to be negatively associated with self-enhancement and yet also positively associated with narcissistic rivalry, which is more in line more with the behaviors of the covert, vulnerable subtype of narcissism (this subtype is associated with hypersensitivity, low self-esteem and fearfulness). Vulnerable narcissists may use less self-aggrandizing strategies that emphasize their own inadequacy to garner attention, yet also lash out in response to perceived slights just like grandiose narcissists do.

While evaluating the research literature, it’s important not to conflate narcissistic personality disorder with “just” an attachment style, even if certain avoidant or anxious attachment strategies are present. It is true that narcissistic individuals can have what appears to be an avoidant attachment style, especially if they have grandiose narcissistic traits, or may even present with an anxious attachment style if their traits fall into the category of vulnerable narcissism. However, their core lack of empathy and callous exploitation of others differentiates narcissists from “just” avoidantly or anxiously attached individuals.

It would be remiss to suggest that narcissism is primarily an attachment style, which some people mistake it as. It is a personality disorder with dire implications for interpersonal functioning. While narcissists can use a variety of strategies that may appear linked to more avoidant styles of attaching (such as stonewalling and the silent treatment, or devaluation), or even anxious styles of attaching and relating (like micromanaging their partners, “controlling” their partner under the guise of care, or jealousy induction to test the relationship), narcissism includes aggressive, manipulative ways of behaving that dominate relationships.

It is important that when we assess the overlaps between narcissism and the strategies of an avoidant attachment style, we still see the disorder for what it is: a serious disorder with a challenging prognosis, and one that, according to research, often includes interpersonal harm, bullying and aggression against others. These aggressive modes of relating can lead to PTSD symptoms in the loved ones of narcissistic individuals. As researchers Miller, Campbell, and Pilkonis note, one of the unique and defining characteristics of those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder is that, unlike many other disorders where suffering and distress is most present in the individual who has it, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is more closely associated with causing pain and suffering to others.

Unlike avoidantly attached individuals who may simply fear closeness or intimacy with others and distance themselves or anxiously attached individuals who may cling to their partners, narcissistic individuals can fail to attach in healthy ways at all, even when they seem to approach their partners initially with an immense amount of intimacy and closeness. Due to their emotional shallowness, the euphoria they experience during love bombing their targets is the closest they may experience to authentically bonding and attaching with another person.  Narcissistic individuals tend to detach moreso than attach to their partners and family members and view them more as objects than as human beings. They identify what needs can be met from these “objects” and view interactions with others as transactional. This is known as narcissistic supply – any source of attention, praise, resources, sexual gratification that can bolster their ego. They then devalue and discard these “objects” when they deem them no longer “useful” or too difficult to extract supply from. Narcissists also tend to experience a lack of object constancy, which enables them to mistreat and terrorize their partners and loved ones with little inhibition, because they do not hold onto the love or positivity that healthily attached people do during disagreements or conflicts.

As a result, calling narcissism an attachment style can misrepresent the true nature of narcissism. Such an implication erases accountability from exploitative and manipulative narcissistic behaviors, and also imposes tropes of childhood trauma that may or may not exist. For example, a wealth of research indicates that it is parental overvaluation, not childhood maltreatment, that may be the strongest predictor of narcissistic traits.  Yet characterizing narcissistic personality disorder as primarily a mode of attachment can cause people to assume that a certain level of childhood trauma is what drives aggressive narcissistic behaviors toward others, and even excuse or rationalize these behaviors, rather than holding people responsible for changing these behaviors.