Do you ever wonder how you can go from a completely sane and confident person, to a clinging or withdrawing relationshipzilla in about 60 seconds flat? Welcome to the world of attachment systems and romantic attachment styles. We all possess an attachment system. It is a mechanism in our brain that is responsible for monitoring and tracking the availability of our partners in our relationships. Last week, we covered the attachment system and needs of the anxious preoccupied attachment style. This week we are focusing on understanding the needs of the avoidant/dismissive attachment style.
Which attachment style are you?
Understanding your attachment style is the first step. Then moving into understanding your needs and how they relate to your partner, starts you well on your way to building a secure relationship.
When the going gets tough and your attachment system is activated are you one to cling or hightail it out of there? Neither one is right nor wrong, each style has different needs. This post is focusing on the avoidant/dismissive attachment style (the hightailers), which is characterized by a strong need for independence and self-sufficiency. While the need for connection and belonging is universal, avoidant individuals suppress their need for intimate attachment. This does not mean that their heart is made of steel, in fact they are just as vulnerable to the threat of separation as the rest of us. However, they have learned to adopt a defensive stance and therefore don’t seem very vulnerable at all.
Must be nice eh? To have a shield with which their heart remains impenetrable– but as always there is a flipside. These individuals tend to repress rather than express their emotions, and are quick to think negatively about their partner’s needs in the relationship. There is a desire to be close and have a relationship, but yet there is always a mental distance and an escape route. This can have a negative impact on intimacy and the over all relationship if the person is not aware of their need for independence.
When do avoidant/dismissive individuals tend to hightail it the most? Generally when the relationship is getting too intimate and when their partner is getting too “clingy or needy” (generally an anxiously attached partner). When this style feels that their independence is in jeopardy or their relationship is becoming inter-reliant, they resort to deactivating strategies. I hear the word deactivate, I automatically think about disabling a bomb or shutting down a missile launch. Just in time. Although we are not bombs that are going to explode, our attachment systems activate and if not controlled can cause some pretty extreme reactions and feelings. A deactivating strategy is a way to shut down, disable, and avoid having to experience such feelings. Essentially, these strategies are any behaviours or thoughts used to suffocate intimacy. Here are some deactivating strategies that Amir Levine and Rachel Heller share in the book Attached:
- Saying (or thinking) “I’m not ready to commit”—but staying together nonetheless, sometimes for years.
- Focusing on small imperfections in your partner: the way s/he talks, dresses, eats, or (fill in the blank) and allowing it to get in the way of your romantic feelings.
- Pining after an ex-girlfriend/ boyfriend.
- Flirting with others—a hurtful way to introduce insecurity into the relationship.
- Not saying, “I love you”—while implying that you do have feelings towards the other person.
- Pulling away when things are going well (e.g., not calling for several days after an intimate date).
- Forming relationships with an impossible future, such as with someone who is married.
- “Checking out mentally” when your partner talks to you.
- Keeping secrets and leaving things foggy—to maintain your feelings of independence.
- Avoiding physical closeness—e.g. not wanting to share the same bed, not wanting to have sex, walking several strides ahead of your partner.
Every single one of these examples is meant to stop intimacy dead in its tracks. Makes it a little bit difficult to build a wholehearted connection wouldn’t you say? If you lack awareness of your needs, then yes. BUT, as avoidant individuals, if you are aware of your need for independence and can communicate these needs to your partner, you can both work on growing together. Here are some suggested ways from the book Attached that the avoidant/dismissive attachment style can work on developing closeness:
- Learn to identify deactivating strategies
- De-emphasize self reliance and focus on mutual support
- Find a secure partner: Anxious partners will send your deactivating strategies into overdrive.
- Be aware of your tendency to misinterpret behaviour: Remember that your perception is often skewed towards the negative.
- Make a relationship gratitude list: Find and focus on the positives, there are many reasons to be thankful for your partner and relationship
- Nix the phantom ex: Stop comparing every person you date to the ex that you lost, they were not perfect when you dated them and they are still not perfect now.
- Forget about “the one”: this expression is often used as an excuse to be overly critical of the people that you meet and start to date.
- Adopt the distraction strategy: As an avoidant it is easier to get close to your partner when you are focused on other things, incorporate an activity that will allow you to let your guard down.
So listen up hightailers! Independence and autonomy in your relationship is important, BUT not at the cost of intimacy. There is certainly a middle ground and with this information you can work towards building a secure relationship. Always remember that your partner is human; they cannot be perfect. Don’ t throw the baby out with the bath water. Try to train your eye to pick up on the positive and supportive traits in your partner and watch your relationship transform!
Wishing you love and connection,
Levine, A. & Heller, R. (2010). Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—And Keep—Love. Penguin Group, NY: New York.