One of the most profound influences on the way we behave in relationships is our early attachment patterns. As children, the attachment patterns we formed were based on adaptations we made in order to feel secure in our environment. The ways we were cared for and related to by our parents or primary caretakers led us to develop an “internal working model” of how others are likely to react to us and how we should react to have our needs met.
If we had parents who were emotionally available and attuned to us, we most likely formed a secure attachment. However, if we had a parent who was emotionally or physically rejecting, absent, or inattentive to our needs, we may have formed an avoidant attachment pattern in which we felt like we had to take care of ourselves.
In this case, we may have found that the best way to get our needs met was to act like we didn’t have any. We may even have disconnected from our own awareness of our needs. If we had a parent who sometimes met our needs but other times was intrusive or emotionally draining by acting out of their own need, we may have formed an ambivalent/anxious attachment pattern in which we became confused and preoccupied. We may have had to cling or seek reassurance, fearing our needs would not get met.
As we grow up, these early attachment patterns may become models for how we expect relationships to work throughout our lives. The behaviors and defenses we formed as a result of these childhood dynamics sometimes go on to influence us in our relationships. People who experienced an avoidant attachment with a parent will likely go on to form a dismissive attachment pattern in their adult romantic relationship. A person with an ambivalent/anxious attachment pattern as a child will be prone to form a preoccupied attachment.
Many people are curious about which attachment category applies to them along with the psychological defenses they’ve formed that interfere with their relationships. But before we get into how each of these attachment patterns manifest themselves in a relationship, it’s important to note that we aren’t always right about identifying which category of attachment best applies to us and our relationships.
In this article, I’ll try to illuminate what dismissive and preoccupied attachment styles look like, but also why it’s challenging for people to correctly determine their attachment pattern. This process is beneficial because if a person can accurately identify their pattern, they can start to take steps to form more secure attachments, challenge their defensive adaptations, and enjoy closer, more satisfying relationships.
When a child experiences an avoidant attachment pattern, they develop a tendency to feel pseudo-independent. They learned to take care of themselves or self-parent. Their early environment triggered them to disconnect from their needs because it felt painful or shameful to experience them when expressing them led to no response.
As adults, these individuals maintain a sense of disconnection to protect themselves from painful emotions. They even denigrate others for having needs. As a result, they may feel blank or directionless in relation to their wants. Their desires feel problematic or uncomfortable, because of the shame they would feel to not have their wants fulfilled or their needs met.
People with a dismissive attachment pattern tend to be the “distancer” in their relationship. They may be more emotionally unavailable or even seek isolation. Their partners may complain that they are not there for them or interested in meeting their wants or needs. This is in large part because a dismissively attached individual has learned to be self-contained. Since they’ve learned to shield their own wants and needs from others, they have trouble understanding when someone else wants or needs something from them.
People with a dismissive-avoidant attachment tend to be more inward and deny the importance of being close to someone else. They may be psychologically defended and easily inclined to shut down emotionally. They may also struggle to understand or identify the emotional needs of others and themselves.
Some people find it easy to label their partner as having a dismissive attachment pattern, however, it’s not always easy to see this pattern in yourself. For instance, when someone with a dismissive attachment pattern feels a need, they often assume they’re being too needy instead of realizing that this is a basic human response. In addition, they may feel aloof or like the distancer when they’re being pursued by their partner, but if they feel rejected, they may feel extremely anxious. They may be a distancer in their relationship, but when their partner pulls away, they become insecure and start to pursue.
Babies who were identified as having an avoidant attachment style often showed little outward reaction to a parent’s absence, however, a heart monitor revealed an elevated heart rate as a marker of their anxiety. Similarly, an adult with a dismissive attachment still experiences anxiety and still wants security, but their learned mode of relating is clouding their natural desire and tolerance for closeness. They feel unclear about what they want and need from others, and they are afraid of the unbearable shame of not feeling important enough to attend to. Because of this confusion, they may incorrectly identify their attachment pattern as anxious.
A person with a preoccupied attachment is often seen as the “pursuer” in a relationship. They may feel like they need to make an active effort to get what they want and therefore, can sometimes engage in behavior patterns that seem clingy, controlling, or intrusive. Because they’re used to not having their needs met consistently or in an attuned or sensitive manner, they may often feel insecure, jealous, or nervous about the state of their relationship. They may have a tendency to look to their partner to “rescue” or “complete” them.
An anxiously attached person assumes they want closeness but engages in patterns that actually leave a certain amount of emotional turmoil and distance. Although they may perceive themselves as feeling real love toward their partner, they may actually be experiencing emotional hunger. Their actions, which are often based on desperation or insecurity, exacerbate their own fears of distance or rejection. When their partner does come closer or gives them what they want, they may react in unconscious ways that push their partner away or create distance. They may find that their true tolerance for intimacy is much smaller than they thought because real love and closeness would challenge their core beliefs about themselves and relationships. Therefore, while they may believe they want security, they actually feel compelled to remain in a state of anxiety.
In general, an insecure attachment pattern on either side of the spectrum can leave us with skewed ideas about ourselves, about how others are likely to treat us and how much love and care we deserve. A dismissive person may believe they need more space, while a preoccupied person may think they need more closeness. In reality, most of us maintain a fundamental belief that we are unworthy or incapable of getting the love we want and need, and we form core defenses that uphold that belief. If we can be open to knowing our attachment pattern and learning the behaviors that get in the way of having the love we say we want, we can start to forge a path toward security and form healthier, more rewarding long-term relationships. We can challenge our old way of thinking about ourselves and begin to internalize a new image of ourselves as lovable and worthy of love.