A while back, when recording a podcast, my team and I asked a random group of people if they considered themselves the pursuer or the distancer in their relationship. In other words, did they see themselves as the one who’s usually wanting more closeness and intimacy or the one who typically needs more alone time and space? Almost every person we spoke to had an immediate answer to the question, both about themself and about their partner.
Most of us have some awareness of our pattern in a relationship. We may think of ourselves as willing to go “all in” when it comes to love, or we may live in fear of getting “tied down.” However, we may not be aware of how much these tendencies trace back to our earliest relationships and the attachment patterns we formed to our caretakers.
Getting to know our attachment patterns can be a gift that keeps on giving in terms of better understanding of how we think, feel, and act in our relationships. In this blog, I’ll focus on avoidant attachment in childhood, which often goes on to manifest itself as a dismissive-avoidant attachment in adulthood. This pattern of attachment develops when a child does not consistently feel safe, seen, or soothed by their parent and therefore becomes pseudo-independent.
A child with an avoidant attachment attempts to meet their own needs, because it is too painful depending on others who consistently fail to respond to them. They develop a sense of shame, thinking, “I am not worth paying attention to.” They then disconnect from their needs in an effort to avoid feeling this shame.
As adults, this same pseudo-independence can lead the person to be self-contained and disdainful of others when they express needs or a desire for emotional closeness. According to attachment research, about 30 percent of people have an avoidant attachment pattern. So, let’s take a closer look at what that means.
Avoidant Attachment in Children
In order to form a secure attachment, a child must feel safe, seen, and soothed by their caretaker. The parenting behaviors that lead to the formation of an avoidant attachment between parent and child include the parent being aloof, rejecting, emotionally removed, or misattuned to the child’s emotional needs in spite of meeting the child’s basic needs, such as providing food and shelter. This type of parent can be described as an “emotional desert,” as they are typically not very responsive. For example, the parent may not even hear their baby when it starts to cry or learn their baby’s signals. They may often be distracted or depressed within themselves. They may be disconnected from their own needs and, as an extension, are not sensitive to their child’s needs.
The baby in this situation is experiencing a form of emotional neglect. They’re missing what my father, psychologist Robert Firestone, has called “love food,” a form of attuned emotional nourishment and parental warmth that they need to thrive, particularly in their first year. In its absence, the child may learn that the best way to deal with their frustration at not having their needs met is to act like they don’t have any. As Dr. Daniel Siegel put it, the child learns to disconnect from their wants, because they feel shame about them not being met by their parents. They internalize the belief that they are “garbage.”
In “The Strange Situation,” a now-famous experiment developed by attachment researcher Mary Ainsworth, a child’s and parent’s attachment pattern are assessed based on their reunion behavior. In the experiment, the child plays in a room with their parent present. A stranger (researcher) comes in, and the parent leaves. The parent then comes back, comforts the child, and then leaves again with the researcher. The researcher then returns, followed by the parent.
A securely attached child will feel upset when the parent leaves but will go to the parent for comfort when they return. They then feel soothed and can return to playing. With an avoidant child, there is no visible reaction to the parent leaving the room. However, a heart monitor on the child reveals that their heart rate is up the whole time their parent is out of the room but returns to normal when the parent returns. In other words, they feel anxious about the separation, but they’ve adapted and learned not to express it to avoid feeling shamed by their parents predicted lack of response.
An avoidant child will adapt to their circumstances by becoming pseudo-independent, finding ways to suppress their needs or meet them themselves. They may form tendencies to be more self-sufficient or inward. In addition, it is much easier for a child to believe that there is something wrong with them than to accept the grave reality that there may be something wrong with their parents. If the child were to perceive their parent as lacking, they would lose a sense of safety, which is paramount to their survival. For this reason, it can be life-changing to sort out attachment experiences in adulthood. As an adult who is no longer dependent on a caretaker for survival, a person can safely face the pain of having had imperfect parents and stop incorporating their parent’s deficits into the fabric of their identity.
Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment in Adults
Having grown up experiencing an avoidant attachment pattern, it is more likely for a person to go on to form a dismissive attachment pattern in their relationships with their partner and/or their child. In a romantic relationship, a person with a dismissive-avoidant attachment pattern may come off more aloof or, as the name suggests, dismissive. They want to be in a relationship, but they simultaneously resist experiencing or showing any need for emotional closeness. They may have a tendency to seek out isolation, emotionally distancing themselves from their partner. They can appear to be more focused on themselves and to value their priorities above their partner’s. They can seem cool and removed, often showing annoyance or even disdain when their partner is expressing feelings or needs, believing their partner is being “childish” or “dramatic.” These reactions mimic the emotional desert in which they grew up.
It’s often difficult for a person to identify themselves as having an avoidant attachment pattern, because just as they can see their partner’s wants and needs as “too much” or overwhelming, they see their own wants and needs the same way. Therefore, they may think of themselves as having signs of an anxious attachment pattern, like being “needy” simply for having any wants at all. Even though they may deny the importance of a loved one or seem almost not to care about the relationship if they are faced with the threat of their partner leaving, their attachment system may be activated, and they may feel very upset at the prospect of actual loss. Thus, it can make it even harder for them to recognize that they’re avoidant.
Forming a More Secure Attachment Pattern
Attachment research shows that if we do not make sense of and feel the full pain of our past, we are much more likely to repeat it. We are inclined to form the same attachment pattern with our own children that we experienced ourselves, thus, perpetuating the pattern for generations. However, by creating a coherent narrative of our story and allowing ourselves to feel the sadness of how we were hurt, we can break destructive relationship patterns and form more secure attachments. We can understand why we’re struggling in our relationships and actively challenge patterns that were prescribed to us by our past.
If we identify with having a dismissive attachment pattern, we should try to have compassion for ourselves. After all, we made this adaptation for our psychological survival. We should start to challenge a “critical inner voice” that may tell us we are “worthless and unimportant” or that our feelings and wants are “too much.” On PsychAlive.org, I’m teaching a two-part Webinar on “Developing Secure Attachment” that will introduce empowering tools to make sense of our attachment patterns and start to develop more inner security. Whatever way we choose to go about it, there is incredible value in exploring our attachment patterns, so we can live freer lives, stay in touch with all of our emotions, and form the satisfying relationships we desire.