Conditioned Avoidance: The Key to Dismissing Attachment

Classical conditioning and animal behavior explain complex avoidance patterns.

Posted Sep 08, 2020

This post is for all of those dismissing individuals who desperately want to get over their avoidance behaviors and have healthy relationships—and for the friends, family, and children of these individuals who want the person they love to stop running from closeness and affection.

From my experience with clients, I can attest that these patterns are just as confusing for the dismissing/avoidant person as they are for their relationship partners. It all seems so complicated and mystifying: How could a person lose sexual desire for someone they love and want to stay in a relationship with? And how could someone reject and devalue a relationship they were totally invested in a month earlier?  

Consider Julie, a dismissing woman dating a securely attached man with an affectionate and somewhat needy six-year-old daughter. The relationship is going great. He is totally into her, fun, loving, and committed. Julie is enjoying the relationship until they start going on some outings with his child. Julie tells her friends, “I can’t stand that little girl. I really dislike her and just want her to get away from me. She always wants to hold my hand and I can’t stand it.” But when her friend asks why, she can come up with nothing but positive descriptors of the child. “She’s a really great little girl,” she says. “This is crazy! I don’t know what is wrong with me.” At the same time, Julie reports feeling nothing emotionally now when she sees her boyfriend and is starting to find fault with him. She wonders if she should just end the relationship.

What is going on here?

It could be simple animal behavior masked by layers of complex human thought, explanations, and seemingly conscious decisions.

Look at this example of classical conditioning with my dog. Cocoa loves spending time with my son and loves walks. When my son calls him while inside the house, Cocoa comes running with excitement. When it is time for a walk, he gets so excited that he sometimes bolts before my son can get the leash on him. He runs across the street and my son calls him with a loud, sharp voice commanding him to come back. But Cocoa doesn’t come. He either keeps sniffing the neighbor’s yard or he might freeze in the middle of the street. Now, if Cocoa was a thinker, he would realize that this behavior might mean no walk today. He loves my son and walks, so why is he being avoidant?

The answer? He has become classically conditioned to associate the command to come with feeling anxious and scared and reacts by freezing or running away.

Before he learned this avoidant behavior, Cocoa considered the command to come a neutral stimulus (NS). But when he finally came, my son would yell and scold him: “Bad Cocoa!” Obviously, my son is scolding the dog for running off, not for coming—but the dog doesn’t know this. He just knows that loud command to come = punishment (an unconditioned natural stimulus, or UCS). The unconditioned response (UCR) to being punished is fear, anxiety, and resultant freezing or running-away behavior. So, after conditioning (i.e., learning) has occurred, the now conditioned stimulus (CS) of yelling to come leads automatically to the conditioned response (CR) of freezing or running away.

Now, Cocoa doesn’t really think that much, so he probably doesn’t know why he is being avoidant. If he was human, however, with all kinds of words and thoughts going through his head, he might tell himself that he really doesn’t like my son, and deny that he likes walks, preferring to be alone, with no companions, sniffing the neighbor’s yard. To make matters worse, after the pattern goes on for long enough, Cocoa forgets that the punishment was from my son and he generalizes the behavior to anyone (including me) who gives him a loud command to come—this is called stimulus generalization. And he has no idea why.

So, let’s go back to the seemingly (but not really) more complex human example. Julie was very timid and affectionate as a preschooler. Her mother did most of the parenting when Julie was a baby and was tolerant of her little girl’s disposition. But, when Julie was around four, her mother went back to work and she started spending more time with her father. Her father was outgoing and fun—until Julie would start to whine and cry. When she would get needy and clingy, her father would reply, “Hey, you need to suck it up, buttercup! We’ll have none of that. Stop crying!” When Julie was gentle, loving, and affectionate, her father didn’t seem to want anything to do with her. But when she was rambunctious and wanted to rough house, he was all in. So, by the first day of kindergarten, Julie didn’t even question why her father didn’t hold her hand on the way to the bus stop. She knew that being weak, soft, and needy was bad and that nobody would want to be with you or love you if you were like that.

Over the years, Julie forgot about these early life experiences to the extent that she denied having any memories of early childhood. When asked, she would say, “My childhood was great!” But that early relationship pattern never ended.

As a child, her unconditioned stimulus (UCS) was her father’s rejection of her soft side. Her neutral stimulus (NS) was her tender, loving, neediness. Her unconditioned response (UCR) was to pretend not to be sensitive or need any reassurance. After learning (classical conditioning) occurred, her tender, loving, neediness (NS) became a conditioned stimulus (CS) that automatically activated the conditioned response (CR) of shutting down her emotional system and not needing close connection or reassurance. With stimulus generalization, her own or anyone else’s tender, loving neediness resulted in the controlled response of shutting down emotionally and denying her own (or anyone else’s) bids for comfort and reassurance.

The sad part is that (just as with Cocoa) all of this learning occurred outside of Julie’s conscious awareness. In her adult life, she dislikes the needy child because the little girl reminds her of her own rejected needs for closeness and comfort. So, her emotional system rather aggressively shuts down any feeling or chance of close contact. Her brain, as adult human brains do, justifies her behavior by telling her that she does not like the (present and real) child and that she has lost feelings for her boyfriend.

We can layer all kinds of other theories of learning and motivation on top of this example, but it really can be this simple.

The Solution

1. Initiate an “extinction paradigm”: You need to unlink the feared conditioned stimulus (CS) of being vulnerable and needy from the conditioned response (CR) of rejecting relationship partners and running away.

  • a. Don’t run. Quiet the brain. Tolerate the extreme (phobic) response to closeness.
  • b. Realize that the story you are telling yourself about your emotions is something you are probably making up after the fact to explain your own irrational behavior.
  • c. Tolerate other people’s vulnerability and their loving and needing you. Eventually, you will see that the vulnerability this evokes in you does not result in anyone getting rejected or shut down. Nothing bad happens, and your feeling of anxiety and dread will subside, and you won’t have to run away.

2. If you are the relationship partner, there may be a time in which you feel that the dismissing person is just faking it—that they may not really want to be with you. If you feel that they are faking feeling loving and affectionate for a while, maybe you should let them get away it, at least until they have a chance to habituate to the new normal loving reality. If you get mad and reject them while they are going through the process of “faking it,” then you will have reinforced their core childhood belief that if they open up and try to get close to someone, they will get shut down and rejected. By extension, you will have inadvertently reinforced their avoidant response.

Now, go practice, and remember that training animals to engage in new behaviors takes time.