Fearing intimacy and avoiding closeness in relationships is the norm for about 17% of adults in Western cultures. As many readers understand, it can be crazy-making and even infuriating to feel dismissed and shut down when you try to get close to someone you love. If you are the avoidant person, you may feel equally confused by the unreasonable emotional demands and neurotic nature of the people you are in relationship with. “What do these people want from me?” you might ask. You might be mystified by accusations that you don’t care and are not there for your loved ones…when you feel that you do care for them and love them greatly.
The good and the bad news is that this pattern is totally normal…but this doesn’t mean that it feels good to be in a relationship with someone who detaches and deactivates their emotions when things get heated. But it is important to understand that avoidance of intimacy does not necessarily mean someone doesn’t care. It usually isn’t even a conscious process. It is in large part a biological reaction that was ingrained in the structures of the central nervous system through certain parenting practices in childhood.
Referring back to my earlier description of attachment theory : All children have a natural need to remain close enough to their parents so that they can attain protection and comfort when frightened or distressed. How the parent responds in these instances has a major impact on the child’s developing personality (personality being defined as the way one characteristically perceives threats, thinks, feels, and behaves).
The parents of children who become avoidant or dismissing of intimacy tend to reject the children’s neediness or perceived weaknesses. They may even use shame as a means of control (“Little boys don’t cry!”) and are likely to be very intolerant of children challenging them or telling the parent how they feel. If a child in this type of relationship were to tell her parents that she is angry (or frustrated, agitated, or has hurt feelings), the parent is likely to react harshly and scold the child for being unappreciative and disrespectful. This pattern often leads the developing child to falsely idolize the parent because viewing the parent negatively will flood the child with anxiety.
Another pattern that fosters an avoidant/dismissing style is when the parent is so emotionally distressed and fragile that the child cannot express himself or herself without fear of pushing the parent over the edge. Similarly, the “helicopter mom” may be so intrusive and over-reactive to the child’s emotional experiences that the child learns never to communicate those experiences in the parent’s presence. In this case, rather than the parent regulating the child’s anxiety, the child is regulating the parent’s anxiety.
To summarize, when neediness or negative emotional displays (e.g., being sad and crying or expressing anger toward the parent) are met consistently with parental intolerance, rejection, or punishment, children learn to avoid asking parents for attention, comfort, and support. In this case, the child’s distress is not lowered by the parent; nor can it be tolerated by the child. So, the only ways for the child to cope with negative emotions is to not experience them.
People raised like this will begin to ignore social cues that could signal being rejected or marginalized. If a negative social cue cannot be ignored then the person may dismiss the cue as inconsequential (e.g., “He’s a loser. I don’t care what he thinks anyway!”). In the event that negative social cues cannot be ignored and the person starts to experience the negative emotion, that person is likely to engage in suppressing the unwanted experience and push it out of conscious awareness. This pattern is adaptive because as long as they are “OK” and able to display neutral or positive emotions, the person can avoid rejection and maintain a semblance of intimacy in close relationships. If they become high achievers (e.g., in sports, academics, work) they may even gain parental acceptance and praise because their parents are likely to have high standards for their children’s performances. By extension, these children often become successful, achievement-oriented strivers as adults who simultaneously deny the need for closeness and reject any notion that they could be anxious or vulnerable.
Because closeness in relationships (peer or romantic) creates vulnerability and the potential for strong negative emotions, it is often avoided. This is not to say that avoidant individuals lack friends. They may even be perceived as popular, particularly since they are likely to be successful in competition and achievement areas. Nevertheless, such people are not likely to share their personal struggles with others and may feel socially isolated.
Because the avoidant person has learned to ignore and deny his own negative emotions, it will also be very difficult for him to recognize emotional cues in others or have much in the way of empathy. This person will, for all intents and purposes, be emotionally color blind. But, like many color blind people, this person is likely to be unaware that she is not accurately perceiving or adequately attending to others’ emotions. By extension, if you confront the avoidant person with revelations that he is emotionally unavailable and distant, you are likely to be met with denial and strong resistance (because he really doesn’t see it). Obviously, this pattern will wreak havoc in close friendships, romantic relationships, and even leader/follower relationships at work.
What you can do to change the pattern
If you are the avoidant person, you are unlikely to think that you have a problem. You may, however, come to this conclusion indirectly after having problems at work, losing a relationship, or being dragged to counseling by your partner. If you are interested in changing your approach, here are some things you can do:
- Practice reading other people’s emotions and then check with them (or a trusted confidant) to see how accurate you are.
- When other people express negative emotions toward you, stand your ground and listen. You will probably be coming out of your skin and want to counter attack, shut down, or run away. Don’t do this. Show the other person that you are still available and that you understand by reflecting back what they said to you...and don’t follow up your understanding by saying “but…” and counterattacking.
- Learn to label and communicate your emotions. Don’t say what you think (“I’m doing fine”); Say what you feel (“I’m feeling threatened and this conversation is making me feel very anxious”). Think about getting a chart to help you find emotion words.
- Realize that your calm emotional exterior and rational approach to relationship issues is likely to make anxious people feel invalidated, dismissed, and more anxious. This will make the anxious person become even more demanding and leave you with less breathing room.
- Don’t put your work and career in front of your relationships. Sooner or later everyone fails in their competitive endeavors. When this happens, you don’t want to look around and find that you are all alone. Realize that you can be respected and loved even without having to be an over-achiever.
If you are in a relationship with an avoidant person, here is what you can do:
- Realize that when the avoidant person shuts down and becomes dismissing that means he/she is anxious and trying to clamp down on the experience of emotions. It’s easy for someone else to say…but try not to take it personally.
- Remember that although she will deny it, the avoidant person is scared of strong and painful negative emotions. If the person shuts down, withdraws, or becomes overly intellectual in the conversation, let them run and try again another day.
- If the avoidant person needs to get away, don’t chase after him. He’ll just run faster. Give this person enough space and the chance to feel anxious and miss you (of course, in order to do this, you will have to be able to regulate your own distressed emotions).
- Realize that if you need a great deal of intimacy in your relationship, you may have chosen a partner who will have great difficulty giving it to you.
- Learn to communicate to the other person (with an easy touch) what you think he is feeling and why you think so. This way of communicating can provide an emotional mirror that will help the avoidant person gain more personal awareness.
Everyone has strong points, and the avoidant/dismissing person may be charismatic and achievement oriented. She may excel at work and will be a good person to have on your team. By extension, the avoidant person has many attractive qualities and the more challenging aspects of this personality may not be obvious until a closer relationship begins to form. If you are this person or are in a relationship with her, be patient and realize that it took years to learn to cope with emotions in this way and learning to recognize and deal directly with difficult emotions will take time.