In your marriage or love relationship in NYC, do you sometimes feel like your partner or spouse is shutting you out ? Many times this is most apparent during or in the aftermath of a fight, when the shut down can be literal, which means, you’re shut out.
Do you or your partner sometimes have a hard time staying connected and close to each other? For instance, if you reach out to your partner when you’re feeling afraid or if you’re feeling down, does he or she comfort and soothe you, or does he or she try to quickly come up with possible solutions to your problem? Are you sometimes even told to “snap out of it?”
If you're experiencing moments of being shut out, you may be in a pattern of connection that scientists refer to as an “avoidant attachment” style. It’s important for me to note that by style, I don’t mean a personality trait; rather, it’s a way of coping in situations in a relationship and individually, especially related to emotions.
What Is Avoidant Attachment, and Why Does It Matter So Much?
If you or your partner commonly use an avoidant style, you most likely value independence above anything else in your marriage or love relationship. If you depend on other people, especially in an intimate love relationship, you will set yourself up for being extremely disappointed and hurt, since you believe that other people will just let you down. Even worse, depending on others, especially a romantic partner, can be a sign of weakness, and even pathetic. The avoidant stance leads to distance in a marriage or love relationship, and can eventually lead to disaster—the end of the relationship.
How Does an Avoidant Style Develop?
A key word for an avoidant style is dismissive. Most likely, when you grew up as a child, you experienced a lot of dismissiveness from key caregivers. All of us do what we know, so as a child, if you were often dismissed, you grow up doing the same thing to your partner or spouse when he or she is most vulnerable or in need of our love and support. Specifically, I’m referring to your internal world being dismissed, a world where emotions and meaning takes place, instead being replaced by a sole focus on your outside world. The message as a child is loud and clear for an avoidant style: focus on your behaviors and keep your head up. Showing emotions is a sign of weakness and embarrassment. Getting too close emotionally or physically is to be avoided, so a focus on achievements or accomplishments can often take the place of human connections.
As an adult, if you mostly cope with your emotions and your connections with others through an avoidant lens, you most likely prioritize “alone time,” so when you are upset, you soothe or stimulate yourself alone instead of reaching out to your partner or spouse for what you really need.
And what do you really need on the inside? To be seen, and to be responded to from a partner or spouse who can stay present with you: he or she is available in the moment. You need a partner or spouse who can attune to you, seeing or imagining what you are experiencing on the inside. You need a partner who can resonate with your feelings so he or she feels what you're feeling without getting overwhelmed by the emotions. When your partner is present with you, attunes to you, and resonates with you, you’ll develop a trust in him or her.
What are some common ways a partner who is cut off may be shutting you out? Simple things can happen, such as tuning you out, especially when you’re upset. If his or her way of avoiding is more developed, he or she may also fall into a common symptom of soothing oneself without actually addressing one’s feelings: the world of addictions. He or she tries to numb out upsetting emotions on the inside to feel better on the outside. The problem is, as humans, we don’t have the ability to actually shut down our feelings, we can only distract or numb an awareness of our feelings.
Can You Shut Off Your Emotions?
Recent studies of the mind show that when a person tries to shut down his or her feelings, usually by trying to think about other things, he or she actually shuts off an awareness of the emotions, but not the feelings themselves. What occurs in the body is that the emotions actually intensify, and since awareness has been shut off, there is no way to address the issue triggering the emotions in the first place.
How would you know if you’re doing this? One key indicator is to look at what happens in your body. If you experience body aches, back pain, tension, headaches, or other symptoms, you may be shutting off the awareness of your emotions without addressing your feelings. The emotions get stuck in your body, without a way to be released. So when someone says they want to grab a drink to blow off some steam, it’s not actually releasing the steam, but blocking a way to relieve the tension.
A Brilliant Way of Coping
Why would a child develop this way of coping? In reality, children are brilliant at adapting to their environment. They need to survive at all costs. The avoidant style develops from childhood as a brilliant method to cope with caregivers who are unavailable emotionally, and even neglectful. Children who do not receive emotional support, affection, and touch actually die in orphanages, even though they are being properly fed. What this means is that the child learns that he or she is not going to get emotional needs met, even if physical needs are fulfilled, so the child tries to “turn off” the need for emotional responsiveness. Even though this can’t be shut off, it can feel a lot better to have no expectations than to never get the emotional needs met.
Does Your Partner or Spouse Sometimes Forget You?
If you’re in a relationship with a partner with an avoidant style, you may wonder how he or she can forget you so easily—one moment it seems that you’re the center of his or her life, and the next thing you know, it may seem like you’re almost completely forgotten. In reality, it may actually be true that your partner or spouse did forget you, since inside he or she believes relationships with others aren’t truly necessary. Remember, this is not necessarily a belief he or she is aware of, but it is a believe the guides his or her reality, and actions are based on this filter.
Whenever you try to get back on his or her radar screen, the avoidantly connected partner or spouse may experience your attempt as very uncomfortable, sensing that you are intruding on his or her way of dealing with internal emotional states and his or her world. The response you get from trying to reach him or her is most likely an even more intense withdraw—he or she is perceiving your attempt to connect and get closer as a threat to autonomy—the sense of who he or she is. When any of us feel like we’re under attack, we’ll most likely respond intensely, which is why you probably experience your partner’s withdraw as so severe.
How a Fantasy Starts to Feel Like a Nightmare
When you are first dating a partner, it may be easy for him or her to bring you into a fantasy world. As you're getting to know each other, he or she is most likely not making any associations between you and his or her significant caregivers, so most likely he or she is not aware of the threat you naturally present to his or her independence as his romantic partner. As time and experience continues in your relationship, the fears start to brew, and eventually can boil over.
Is his or her fear of fusing with you the only fear he or she has? Most likely, more fear exists: he or she is likely also afraid that the closer you get to him or her, the more you’ll be able to see him or her from the inside, with flaws. This second fear, that there is something wrong with him or her, is a fear of shame, of not being good enough, and can lead to even more withdraw.
How High is the Bar Set in Your Relationship?
The avoidantly connected partner usually relies on his or her own ways to calm or stimulate his or her feelings and emotions, though at times he or she may attempt to connect with you. However, the bar is often set extremely high in terms of his or her expectations for your response, and if you don’t cross that bar, he or she can easily return to a withdrawn, isolated space. Because the bar is raised so high and you can’t always cross it, he or she feels disappointed in you, and this reinforces his or her core fears, that he or she can’t really depend on someone to come through for him or her, and that he or she truly is an isolated “I.”
How “We” Feels Like a Threat to “I”
Where does your partner or spouse get stuck? Most likely, when he or she needs to shift from an “I” to a “we,” the fears of dependence can easily surface, and in an intense way. The urge to withdraw comes on strongly. It may be possible momentarily for him or her to shift into a “we” for a time, but then he or she easily and comfortably goes right back to a more isolated “I” state, and holds onto his or her “I” in a rigid stance out of fear.
How Can You Help Save Your Marriage or Love Relationship in NYC?
What can you do to help draw your partner out, even when he or she is strongly shut down? The first step is to practice modifying your voice and what you say to help him or her shift how he or she is experiencing your attempts to connect, helping him or her know that being a “we” doesn’t mean surrendering his or her “I.”
You can help your partner regulate his or her emotions by slowing approaching him or her, and syncing up with his or her cues to get closer one step at a time, instead of a giant leap at a time. With experience, he or she will learn that being closer can actually feel good, and over time, he or she will learn that he or she can count on you to be there with him or her, without overwhelming him or her with your own needs.
Your challenge as you reach out to him or her is to practice your own ways of slowing yourself down, what we call the 3-R’s of the Loving at Your Best Plan: to stop and regulate yourself, monitoring your body to see where you’re upset, and modifying your breath based on your need; the second R is to reflect on what is upsetting you: what makes sense about what you’re experiencing? Do you know where you’re feeling sensations in your body, can you then identify the emotional state inside based on the sensation? Is the situation that is upsetting you with your partner reminding you of something you’ve experienced in a past relationship? If so, how could that be influencing how you are seeing the present situation with your partner? Can you then understand and make sense of what is upsetting you? Once you’ve done this, you can do the third R, which is to identify the Response that you need. You can express what you’ve reflected on to your partner, and reach out to him or her to invite him or her to meet your need, specifically.
What can your partner do? He or she can become much more aware of how shutting down stems from fears that are most likely outdated, hindering the safety in an adult romantic relationship. The goals are to regulate his or her central nervous system enough to then “make sense” of the muscle memory responses that come with his or her physical and emotional approaches that romantic relationships offer.
Share Your Experiences in Your Marriage or Love Relationship in NYC
Do you relate to being in a marriage or love relationship with an avoidantly attached partner or spouse? Or are you the partner or spouse struggling to get out from behind the wall of avoidance? Share your experiences on our blog, and join the conversation in our Marriage and Couples Counseling and Therapy in NYC blog.