Dismissive avoidant “coldness” explained by attachment research

Attachment research explains that the dismissive-avoidant suppress how they feel in their relationships. They do this to manage the stress they feel in intimate relationships which partners of avoidants experience as “coldness”.

Attachment research shows that avoidants suppress the specific emotions of sadness and worry. Suppress meaning “to push down”. They toggle between what feels stressful “being vulnerable and showing dependence” and what feels regulating; focusing on “tangible” things within their control; like their professional duties, and stimulating physical or mental activities. 

But when did this begin? And why is there a need for this in the first place? 

The origin of the dismissive avoidant attachment style 

This mechanism begins in childhood between infancy and the age of 5 when our attachment system is formed. 

Our first “attachment blueprint” is created with our primary caregivers. The first people we come in contact with who model and reinforce what is “okay relationally” and what is not! 

Infants come into the world without the ability to regulate themselves emotionally. They are reliant on caregivers to “attune” to them and provide regulation. If all goes well at each stage of development proper attunement leads to a healthy capacity for expressing and tolerating uncomfortable emotions, vulnerability, and relational needs and wants. Also, trust is built between the caregiver and the child. 

If proper attunement isn’t available whether it is intentional, misguided, or systemic due to being born into inequitable circumstances.

Children learn to make do with what they have. Wisely they develop strategies to cope with the reality that being vulnerable doesn’t feel safe in their environment and that they can’t depend on their caregivers.

The development of the avoidant attachment wound 

Imagine a child having “big feelings” whether they’re going through a developmental leap, injured, or just being a kid. The child seeks proximity to their caregiver to soothe what ails them. Instead, the child is met with coldness, blame, anger, dismissal, or abuse. 

Now, rinse and repeat this scenario “this misattunement” dozens or even hundreds of times. This is how an attachment wound and coping strategies to manage that wound develop. 

Since activating their attachment system has proven not to work. Starts with attempting to get a need met, then crying if it isn’t met, and finally protesting. If all these methods fail they shut down their attachment system. Activating the attachment system is too painful, unreliable, or dangerous. 

Instead, they learn to activate their exploratory system; activating the exploratory system could look like playing, engaging in an activity, performing a task for the caregiver, or being in proximity of the caregiver without making direct contact. 

And maybe if you activate your exploratory system you get some form of attention that you’ve been craving or even get rewarded then you learn very quickly that this is a much more effective system for indirectly getting your needs met. 

Development of dismissive avoidant coping strategies

This indirect way of getting their needs met is the part that lingers on into adulthood. 

Coping strategies that were at one point “necessary” to manage an internal experience that was intolerable, or coping strategies that could have been life-saving now become part of a greater coping system and even part of a person’s identity. 

For instance, the child who felt invisible growing up in a chaotic household and learned that they’d get some attention by consistently helping out might grow up to be an adult who never stops “doing”, and always has their hand in some kind of project because they often feel uncomfortable and uneasy when they’re not doing anything and would have to grapple with unresolved feelings of loneliness and sadness when they do slow down. 

The child that was hit when they cried grows to be stoic; to never show emotion. This is the partner who sees vulnerability as a weakness because that’s what was ingrained into them. This partner is zipped up and has a “shut down” exterior while suppressing a host of shame and unmetabolized rage directed at their perpetrator. 

Even the child who grew up with well-meaning parents. Where the parents had to work two jobs just to get by and were never home. This child learns that there’s no room to be a kid and that they have to rely on themselves. This is the avoidant who might be reliable and consistent but who will struggle to have any depth of an emotional connection in their relationship; they’ll be confused and think you’re asking for too much because the idea of an emotional connection feels “Greek” to them and overwhelming and they wouldn’t know where to start. 

So how does this impact adult relationships? 

So for the avoidant partner, their relationship experience might be like this;

  • If the anxious partner brings up emotional challenges or complaints the avoidant might quickly feel burdened or dismissive. To mask the “discomfort or uncertainty” that they feel around how to navigate these challenges.
  • When work piles up for the dismissive avoidant they disconnect from their personal life and hunker down instead because they don’t know how to ask for help. Or their bids for connection around their work have been missed. They are confused when their partner gets angry because they didn’t respond to texts or want to spend less time together because don’t they understand that “hey duty calls!” 
  • They feel unappreciated because their partner has a different love language from them. Where the avoidant “performs acts of service”(remember that child that helped out around the house to get attention) their counterpart misses these as acts of love and often needs reciprocation differently. 

Whereas for the partner of the avoidant…

  • They feel confused about where they stand with their partner when they suddenly become silent not realizing that their partner might be in duress. 
  • Often experience feeling secondary to their partner’s profession or “self-regulating activities” whether that’s a sport or a hobby.
  • Continuously feel emotionally disconnected from their partner. They struggle to have meaningful conversations with them to repair the relationship or deepen intimacy and commitment. 

So what do these differences point to? And where do we go from here? 

For the partners(notice I said partner’s plural) who are still fighting for their relationship. The solution lies in appreciating each other’s differences.

The dismissive avoidant can learn to recognize that their partner has a greater need for closeness and can take “micro” steps to show that they care – like letting their partner know when they’re swamped with work, or doing “relationship health” check-ins with their partner. 

The anxious partner can learn to appreciate that it is difficult for their partner to open up AND be receptive to the subtle bids for connection that their partner sends; like airing their frustrations about work, sharing their passions, or showing appreciation for the acts of service they provide.

A secure relationship functions best when partners accept each other and collaborate on meeting each others needs.

  1. Can you appreciate where this person is coming from and meet them in the middle? 
  2. Can you accept the person and the relationship that you’re in and what they can and cannot offer you at this time  
  3. And if you can’t have the wisdom to MOVE ON 
  4. Finally, if you keep finding yourself in these mismatched relationships. The key is to identify what internal patterns your attachment system keeps trying to play out and bring resolution to those patterns.
  5. Stuck at any one of these points? Want support with navigating these challenges? Book a coaching session here.

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