People with avoidant attachment styles are more likely to feel alone in their experience of the world, according to new research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. The study also provides evidence that feeling existentially isolated is a distinct phenomenon from loneliness.
“My primary interests surround the concept of existential isolation, but more generally, I am interested in the phenomenological experiences that humans have that shape our orientations towards the world,” said study author Peter J. Helm, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Missouri.
“Recently I’ve been focusing on the nature (and break down) of our subjective evaluations of our interpersonal relationships. There is a lot of attention devoted to loneliness but almost no attention or research on existential isolation. What we’ve found so far suggests that these two types of subjective distress are related but distinct, and likely require different types of solutions.”
For their study, the researchers conducted three scientific surveys with 7,951 participants in total that used three different measures of attachment style. People can be secure or insecure in their relationship attachments, and insecure individuals can be either anxious or avoidant. Those with an “anxious” attachment style are fearful of rejection and abandonment, while people with an “avoidant” attachment style tend not to trust others and shun intimacy.
In all three surveys, the researchers found that existential isolation was associated more with avoidant attachment than with anxious attachment. In other words, people who agreed with statements such as “Other people usually do not understand my experiences” tended to score higher on measures of avoidant attachment.
The researchers also found loneliness was linked to both anxious and avoidant attachment. But even after controlling for the effects of loneliness, the relationship between existential isolation avoidant attachment remained.
“Attachment orientations are very basic frameworks through which humans interact with the world and inform our expectations about our social relationships. Attachment orientations develop in childhood but continue to change and develop throughout our lives. While no study is conclusive, this study suggests that different orientations (i.e., anxiety and avoidance) appear to be differentially related to existential isolation and to loneliness,” Helm explained.
“Avoidance (i.e., general distrust of others, a positive view of oneself and a negative view of others) appears to be more related to existential isolation than to loneliness. Anxiety (i.e., general desire to be close with others but very sensitive to rejection cues; a negative view of self and a positive view of others) is more related to loneliness than to existential isolation.
“What I think is the biggest take away is that different types of attachment orientations likely make a person more susceptible to different types of relational dysfunction. For example, attachment avoidance may be more likely to lead to existential isolation, while attachment anxiety may be more likely to lead to loneliness,” Helm told PsyPost.
Like all research, the study includes some limitations. The study’s cross-sectional data prevents the researchers from making any causal inferences.
“While it is very plausible that attachment orientations develop before feelings of existential isolation and loneliness, it’s possible that as people get older, if they regularly feel lonely (or existentially isolated), they may develop anxious (or avoidant) tendencies,” Helm said.
“Longitudinal studies are needed to address this open question. Another caveat is that all the participants were American college students. There is not a big reason to expect these relationships to differ in other contexts (e.g., in other countries, among different age cohorts), but it is possible, and future research should be aware of that possibility.”
“Research focusing on the antecedents, nature, and consequences of existential isolation is still very preliminary. In contrast, research on loneliness is widespread and decades old. Our data suggest that considering existential isolation as a construct distinct from loneliness would be a fruitful direction for future researchers, policy makers, and groups aiming to reduce the feelings of interpersonal discomfort,” Helm added.
The study, “Existential isolation, loneliness, and attachment in young adults“, was authored by Peter J. Helm, Tyler Jimenez, Michael Bultmann, Uri Lifshin, Jeff Greenberg, and Jamie Arndt.