Dismissing Attachment and the Search for Love
Why someone can want love, but not be able to tolerate it.
Posted Feb 06, 2018
Everyone wants love; even those who have phobic reactions to it. Mary Connors titled her seminal 1997 article, “The renunciation of love; Dismissing attachment and its treatment.” In working with many dismissing clients over the years, however, I have not found that they renounce love; rather, I find that these individuals value and want romance and love just as much as the rest of us.
People with dismissing attachment styles don’t seem to have a difficult time initiating romantic encounters or starting relationships. They just aren’t sure how to go about keeping them and allowing them to grow. Dismissingly attached individuals can initially come across as warm and charismatic. I have heard many partners of dismissing people describe them as the life of the party. Friends might remark how lucky you are to have such a warm and personable person in your life. And you wonder to yourself: What is wrong with you that this wonderful person pulls away and gets distant once the party is over?
If you are in a relationship with a dismissing partner, then you too have likely felt the allure of their seductive personality. (Note: I will use a masculine pronoun for the dismissing person here, because most clients who seek help with this issue are male.) It is relatively easy for dismissing individuals to focus on and show interest in a new partner — in the early phase of a relationship, they are not thinking about what they personally need from the other person, and the other person has not yet become a threat. The dating partner likes all of the positive attention and so doesn’t notice that their dismissing new suitor rarely talks in much depth about their childhood, personal struggles, or feelings.
Imagine being the dismissing person, spending your life wanting love and connection. You keep meeting people who would objectively seem to rise to your high standards for being a good partner. But once you get involved, you realize that your partner has many irritating qualities, is highly demanding of your time and affection, and is increasingly critical of your behavior. You just can’t do anything right in this other person’s eyes. At the same time, your partner repeatedly tells you how much they love and adore you. You say to yourself, “Who needs this?” You know it's never going to work out, but you can’t stand the thought of breaking their heart.
Not wanting to hurt your partner, and not wanting to be viewed as a jerk by her family and friends — whom you generally like — you decide to do what you think is the right thing: You keep dating her, but you are careful not to touch her too much or show her too much affection. This isn’t that difficult, because by this time, her tender touches make you anxious and uneasy anyway. You start telling her that you don’t think you can give her what she wants in the relationship, and that she deserves better. You hope that she will break up with you, so that you don’t have to personally hurt her, but still she hangs in there.
Obviously, this is a gut-wrenching situation for a partner — and it isn’t much fun for the dismissing person, either. The dismissing person usually realizes that something is wrong. When talking to others, he describes his partner in a positive light. He cares, and you can hear it in his voice. He even gets jealous and hurt if he sees the person he is trying to end it with showing slight interest in another person. He feels like two people: He really wants love. He wants “normal.” He may even want to be married and have children. He knows he doesn’t want to keep repeating this pattern, but he doesn’t know what to do.
The problem here is a strong disconnect between the dismissing person’s conscious thoughts and his emotional system. His conscious mind tells him that this partner is attractive and has a great personality — that he should be happy moving forward with the relationship. But simultaneously, his emotional system is reading her love and affection as a threat and triggering an anxiety response.
Now, thinking of himself as weak or anxious is antithetical to someone with a dismissing attachment style. But he has to make an attribution for his emotional experience to understand his own behavior. So he labels the anxiety as irritation or annoyance. And he feels this way whenever she gets really close and affectionate with him. So she must be the cause of this irritation. His brain agrees and says, "Yes, she is irritating,” and (as all normal human brains do) his brain then finds evidence in the environment to support this idea. He finds her faults and subtle imperfections that he now finds intolerable. He derogates her in his mind, and he has to pull away.
This pattern with the romantic partner is the same as the one that dismissing people often enact with their parents. They either idolize the person (usually from a distance), or they dismiss the other person from their minds and foreclose on the relationship.
Rationally the dismissing person knows that he is doing this and knows that it is a problem. He wants to stop.
If this description of the dismissing love partner approximates how you feel in your close relationships, here are some things to think about:
- Recognize the pattern you are enacting, and that your emotional system is playing tricks on your conscious mind.
- Focus in on the physical sensation that you feel when your partner gets close. See if you can give it a name. The sensation is not you, after all; it is only a sensation. See if you can separate out the love feelings from the anxiety.
- Realize that the grass really isn’t greener elsewhere. Often the love you want is not far away, if not right in front of you.
- Learn to love yourself. Embrace the more tender, soft parts of your being and nurture them like you would a young child who needs your care. If you can learn to do this for yourself, you will find it easier to do for others.
The reason that love and affection are so threatening to someone with a dismissing attachment style is that these things were typically not made available from parents in childhood — even though on being interviewed, they usually state that their childhoods were idyllic, and that their parents were loving, without offering supporting memories of evidence. In this situation, the child will deny the need for love and affection rather than stay in a state of sadness and yearning. After years of pushing this lack of love out of awareness, the dismissing adult feels strong and confident.
But then someone comes along who really cares and says, “I love you.” And now all of that suppressed yearning wants to rush back from the suppressed past. But our dismissing friend cannot tolerate being so vulnerable and needy, so he feels angry at that reaction which threatens his hard-fought security, and he needs to push it away. So he pushes away the one who offers him love.
If you are in love with a dismissing partner:
- Realize that he is trying to push away his own need for love, to keep closed the old wound that he thought he forgot about.
- If he starts to run away, tell him how much you care, but don’t run after him. Remember, a starving and scared dog may very much want to be rescued, but that doesn’t mean he won’t bite you.
- Make a choice: Tell him that you are not interested in being loved from a distance, and end it; you have to know your own tolerance levels, and if it hurts too much, you should leave. Or, tell him that you aren’t going anywhere, and that you are not going to do his dirty work for him. If he cannot tolerate love, he should muster up the courage to end it himself; in other words, “put up or shut up.” Make sure you don't just stand in the middle, not knowing if you are coming or going; that is a very painful way to go. And learn to be a little dismissing yourself. This might feel more comfortable for him, and it’s a way that you can keep from giving all of your power away in the relationship.
Connors, M. E. (1997). The renunciation of love: Dismissive attachment and its treatment. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 14(4), 475-493. doi:10.1037/h0079736