The Dismissing - Avoidant Attachment Style
Yesterday was both a good day and a very bad day for me.
It was a very bad day because we had to put our dear old gentle dog to sleep. Her body was riddled with cancer and we were told it would be the most humane thing to do for her.
I dug the hole and helped to bury her in our garden. And the tears rolled down my cheeks. This, perhaps strangely, was the good part of the day because it was the first time in a long time that I have managed to cry with others present. I often find it hard to allow myself to be vulnerable in this way.
And so I viewed my tears as another step in the journey that I have been taking over the years towards releasing those elements of my personality that are a part of the insecure pattern of attachment, termed a “dismissing - avoidant attachment style”.
But what does this pattern of attachment have to do with relationship difficulties?
Well, people with traits of, or the “full-blown”, dismissing-avoidant attachment style are often unsure how to go about allowing relationships to grow. If you are someone like this or are in a relationship with someone like this, then read on.
In my most recent newsletters, I indicated that relationship difficulties and conflict, especially within the household relationships, are very often related to the patterns of attachment, or attachment styles, of the individuals involved.
And, as with all attachment styles, a dismissing- avoidant attachment style simply involves a set of automatic relationship processes that an adult formed when they were a child to help them cope with the particular relationship challenges they faced within their primary relationship with one or both of their parents.
In this newsletter, I will again be drawing on the writings of well known US psychologist Hal Shorey to help you to identify the common dismissing - avoidant attachment style, and to start to learn how to cope with this attachment style in yourself and/or others.
Four key questions for you to consider that relate to your relationships with your important people (such as your partner, close friends, etc):
Do you find that you are somewhat uncomfortable being close to others?
Do you find it difficult to trust others completely, and to allow yourself to depend on them?
Do you feel nervous when anyone gets too close, and that others often want you to be more intimate than you feel comfortable being?
Does it seem easier to avoid the dangers of intimacy through solitary activities and emotional withdrawal?
If your answer is “Yes (most of the time)” to these questions, then it is likely that you have some, or many, of the traits of a “dismissing - avoidant attachment style.”
These individuals can initially come across as warm and charismatic. If your partner has dismissing traits friends may have said how lucky you are to have such a warm and personable person in your life. And you wonder to yourself: “What is wrong with me that this wonderful person pulls away and becomes distant once the socialising is over?”
If you are in a relationship with a dismissing person, then you probably enjoyed all of the positive attention in the early stages of the relationship and so did not notice that they rarely spoke much about their childhood, personal struggles, or feelings.
So what might it feel like to be a person with a dismissing - avoidant attachment style, or some elements thereof, spending your life wanting love and connection?
For many of these individuals they keep meeting people who seem to meet their high standards for being a good partner. But once they get involved, they often begin to feel irritated by their partner’s many “flaws”, including their need for time and affection.
Dismissing - avoidant individuals often feel that they just cannot do anything right in the other person’s eyes. At the same time, their partner repeatedly tells them how much they love them. They may have a feeling that the relationship is never going to work out, but not wanting to hurt their partner, they often decide to stay in the relationship but are careful not to show too much affection.
This isn’t that difficult, because their partner’s tender touches often make them feel anxious and uneasy anyway.
This is no fun for the dismissing person or his partner. The dismissing person often realises that something is wrong, and may really crave love. He wants “normal” and he often knows that he doesn’t want to repeat this pattern, but he is unsure of what to do.
The problem is that the dismissing person’s conscious mind tells him that his partner is attractive and that he should build the relationship. But simultaneously, his emotional system reads her love and affection as a threat and triggers an anxiety response.
Thinking of himself as weak or anxious is antithetical to a dismissing person, so he has to make an attribution for his emotional experience to understand his own behavior.
So he labels the anxiety as irritation or annoyance. And he feels this way whenever she shows him real affection. So his rational mind determines that she must be the cause of his irritation. This allows him to find her “faults and imperfections” which he now finds intolerable and forces him to pull away.
Rationally the dismissing person knows that he is doing this and knows that it is a problem. He wants to stop.
The reason that love and affection are so threatening to someone with a dismissing attachment style is that these basic emotional needs were typically not met by one or both parents in childhood.
In such a situation, a child will deny the need for love and affection rather than stay in a state of sadness and yearning. After years of pushing this lack of love out of awareness, the dismissing adult feels strong, self-sufficient and independent.
But then someone comes along who says, “I love you.” And all of that suppressed yearning is “re-awakened” and threatens to rush back from the suppressed past. But a dismissing individual cannot tolerate being so vulnerable and needy, so he feels angry at that reaction which threatens his hard-fought sense of independence, and he needs to push it away (and the one who offers him love).
If this description approximates how you feel in your close relationships, here are some things to consider doing:
• Recognise the pattern you are enacting, and that your emotional system is playing tricks on your conscious mind.
• Focus in on the physical sensation that you feel when your partner gets close. See if you can give it, usually anxiety, a name. The sensation is not you, it is only a sensation. See if you can separate out the love feelings from the anxiety.
• Realize that the grass really isn’t greener elsewhere. Often the love you want is not far away, if not right in front of you.
• Learn to embrace the more tender, softer parts of your being and nurture them like you would a young child who needs your care. If you learn to do this for yourself, you will find it easier to do for others.
If you are in a relationship with a dismissing partner:
• Realize that he is trying to push away his own need for love, to keep closed the old wound that has never fully healed.
• If he starts to run away, tell him how much you care, but don’t run after him because he will invariably cause you more pain and suffering.
• Make a choice: If it hurts too much, tell him that you are not interested in being loved from a distance, and end it. Or, tell him that you aren’t going anywhere and that if he cannot tolerate love, he should find the courage to end it himself.
• Learn to be a little dismissing yourself as this might feel more comfortable for him. And it is a way that you can keep from giving your power away in the relationship.
And as I have personally found, taking a mindfulness course can be of huge benefit in helping one to identify one’s habitual way of relating to others. Mindfulness will enable you to gradually make the changes that will allow your relationships to flourish.
I look forward to hearing from you.
With warm regards,
Alistair Mork-Chadwick (Psychologist)