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Cold People: What Makes Them That Way? Part 1

Emotionally unavailable moms prompt their children to be "avoidantly attached."

Key points

  • Those who are "avoidantly attached" can be impersonal, guarded, or even self-absorbed, among other traits.
  • Avoidant attachment should not be confused with either introversion or autism.
  • Those who develop traits of avoidant attachment tend to have mothers who were emotionally unavailable.
Woman, Portrait, Model / Pixabay
Source: Woman, Portrait, Model / Pixabay

Doubtless, you've had the experience of interacting with someone who was, we'll say, off-puttingly standoffish. Detached, seemingly preoccupied, and not at all open or friendly, they seemed to hold you at a distance. And if you tried to say something to ease the situation, their response (though not exactly inappropriate) pretty much nullified your efforts.

Or, you may have begun a romantic relationship that started out promising, but over time compelled you to confront the fact that the other person really wasn't letting you in. Despite all your attempts to "grow" the connection, to make it more mutual and heartfelt, he or she seemed to prefer that it remain as it began—uncommitted, relatively superficial, and impersonal. Any natural progression toward greater intimacy (at least emotional intimacy) simply wasn't happening. And trying to cultivate more patience, to cut the other person more slack, or make allowances for their perhaps having an especially "private" nature, ultimately didn't seem to make any difference in your feeling uncomfortably removed from them.

Hopefully, this is a relationship you walked away from. Odds are that in both cases I've portrayed, you were dealing with a person who might best be understood as having what in developmental psychology is called an avoidant attachment pattern.

This most useful concept—introduced into the literature by Mary Ainsworth who, along with her mentor, John Bowlby, represent the chief pioneers in the vital field of attachment theory—focuses on the nature of children's attachment to their earliest caregiver as it crucially shapes how they'll relate to others later in life.

Here, bulleted, are some words and phrases that collectively capture, on the surface at least, the various dimensions of the "characterological coldness" I've been depicting (though, of course, no single individual is likely to manifest all these features):

  • Aloof, apart, standoffish
  • Impersonal, disengaged, uninvolved; closed, shut-down
  • Detached, distant, remote (these traits, like so many others on this list, actually characterize a schizoid personality disorder, which—at their extreme—cold people can sometimes be)
  • Haughty, or projecting superiority (though, if these narcissistic features are present, they could reflect the individual's outward demeanor, or self-deception, far more than how—deep down—they actually see themselves)
  • Self-absorbed; insulated, passively withdrawn
  • Emotionally unavailable, inaccessible, unresponsive, indifferent, uninvested
  • Unfeeling, unemotional, affectionless; unsmiling—straight-faced (or stone-faced)
  • Cold-hearted, as in "cold fish" or (even worse) an "iceberg" or "ice queen"
  • Lacking empathy and compassion
  • Untrusting, wary, guarded
  • Angry, hostile; critical
  • Excessively independent and self-reliant

Before looking at the maternal caretaking causes of such coldness, however—as well as its short and longer-term psychological effects—I should briefly mention what avoidant attachment is not.

For one thing, avoidant attachment shouldn't be confused with introversion (presently understood as an inborn personality trait tied to the brain's reticular activating system). Given similar deficits in their parenting, extroverts are no less prone toward developing this same kind of dysfunctional attachment pattern. Rather, introverts need to be appreciated not so much as aloof or emotionally unresponsive (as compared to extroverts), but as more reserved, socially reticent, and requiring more solitude.

As children, they undoubtedly tended toward anxiety-driven shyness. But in time, most introverts grow out of this. In brief, introverts are hardly lacking in the capacity for intimacy. Once they're sufficiently comfortable in a relationship, they can show quite as much warmth and commitment as do their extroverted counterparts.

Additionally, avoidant attachment ought not to be confused with any of the autistic disorders. The latter disturbances are now viewed as brain dysfunctions that lead to self-isolating and socially detached behaviors independent of the child's upbringing. By contrast, researchers typically regard avoidant attachments, though to a limited degree influenced by one's innate temperament, as principally determined by the child's early home environment.

On the Primary Cause of "Cold" Personalities

So what exactly creates this strangely oxymoronic "avoidant attachment" in the first place?

In such insecure, dysfunctional attachments, the label assigned to the primary caregiver (usually the biological mother) is "dismissive." What this unfavorable designation refers to is the mother's general unresponsiveness to her newborn. For the most part emotionally unavailable, distant, and withdrawn, she's averse to close bodily contact and physical warmth, which leaves the infant's bid for such essential nurturance routinely frustrated.

Accompany this rejecting stance, such mothers (however covertly) can also betray anger—and at times even open hostility—toward the baby, and particularly when the child is making desperate attempts to establish an intimate connection with them. That is, when the infant is intensely seeking attention, affection, or succor, they're most likely to respond in punishing ways. And they demonstrate little tolerance for their child when the child is expressing negative emotions, particularly their own anger in reaction to being rebuffed.

On the other hand, when the baby is engrossed in exploratory activity, this mother—peculiarly insensitive to, or imperceptive of, their child's state of mind or feeling—is likely to interfere. And such intrusiveness prompts the child to feel violated, engulfed, or "suffocated." In short, she's unavailable and rejecting when the baby craves closeness and apt to behave invasively when the baby requires alone time. Attunement is a key concept in the abundant literature on secure parent-child attachments, and the dismissive mother is alarmingly misattuned to her all-too-dependent child.

Obviously, such disharmonious parenting leaves the child feeling extremely frustrated, emotionally unfulfilled, and insecure. As Ainsworth et al. have concluded (see, e.g., Patterns of Attachment, 1978), in such a difficult interpersonal situation, this maternal (mis)behavior prompts the infant to develop an "approach-avoidance conflict."

So how, exactly, do such unfortunate children adapt to such a discouraging, dispiriting, and depressing set of circumstances? That's the topic I'll be covering in part 2 of this post, which I hope will convincingly—and compassionately—explain the child's later "coldness" as an adult.

© 2011 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.