Loving at Arm’s Length
In your marriage or relationship, do you or your partner or spouse have a hard time staying connected and feeling close to each other? Do you often feel lonely in your relationship, even though you may be physically together? For instance, if you reach out to your partner when you’re feeling afraid or down, does he or she comfort and soothe you, or try to quickly solve your problem or even tell you to “snap out of it?” If so, you or your spouse or partner may have a style of connecting that we call “avoidant attachment.”
What Is Avoidant Attachment, and Why Does It Matter So Much?
If you connect with your partner or spouse through an avoidant style, you most likely value independence above anything else in your marriage or relationship. You most likely believe that if you depend on other people, especially in an intimate 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, you may believe that depending on others, especially a partner or spouse, is a sign of weakness, and even pathetic. The avoidant stance leads to distance in a romantic relationship, and can eventually lead to separation or divorce.
How Does an Avoidant Style Develop?
When growing up, an avoidant style of connection stems from experiencing a lot of dismissiveness from caregivers. We do what we know, so as a child, if we were often dismissed, we grow up doing the same thing to our partner or spouse when he or she is most vulnerable, or in need of our love and support the most. The message as a child was 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 to the avoidantly connected partner. Getting too close emotionally or physically is to be avoided, so a focus on achievements or accomplishments often takes the place of human connections.
If you have an avoidant style, you most likely prioritize “alone time,” so when you are upset, likely you soothe or stimulate yourself alone instead of reaching out to your partner or spouse for what you really need: contact and comfort. Addictions are a common symptom of self-soothing, so you try to shut down feelings that in reality you can’t turn off.
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 distraction or trying to think about other things, they actually shut off their 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. 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, and your body is holding in the negative emotions.
You’re Actually Brilliant! Why a Coping Style Works, as a Kid
The avoidant style develops from childhood as a brilliantly adaptive 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. The child learns that the caregiver will not respond to his or her emotional needs, so he or she focuses on behaviors and actions that are valued by the caregiver, and tries to stay away from connected with underlying emotional needs. The style protects the child from continued disappointment, as expectations align with the reality of what he or she receives.
Does Your Partner or Spouse Forget You?
If you’re in a marriage relationship with a partner or spouse 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 feel like you’re almost completely forgotten. In reality, it may actually be true that the avoidantly connected partner or spouse did forget you, since he or she believes relationships with others aren’t truly necessary. Whenever you try to get back on his or her radar screen, the avoidantly connected partner or spouse may actually experience this attempt in a very uncomfortable way, feeling that you are intruding on his or her way of dealing with his or her internal emotional state and the world. In response, the avoidantly connected partner or spouse withdraws or backs away from what he or she is experiencing because he or she is perceiving your attempt to connect and get closer as a perceived threat to his or her autonomy.
How a Fantasy Starts to Feel Like a Nightmare
When you are dating, it may be easy for the avoidantly connected partner to bring you into his or her fantasy world. He or she is most likely not making any associations between you and his or her caregivers as you’re getting to know each other, so most likely he or she is not aware of the threat you naturally present to his or her independence as the romantic partner. As time and experience continue in your marriage or relationship, the fears start to percolate, and eventually can boil over. The fear of fusion is not the only area that creates anxiety for the avoidantly connected partner or spouse: now that you are getting to know him or her, you may actually see him or her and all the flaws that go along with being human. The fear of being smothered combines with the fear of being defective or bad.
How “We” Can Feel Like a Threat to “I”
Where does the avoidantly connected 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 intensely, and the urge to withdraw comes on strongly. It may be possible momentarily for the avoidantly connected partner to shift into a “we” for a time, but then he or she easily goes 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 Relationship?
Work to modify your voice and what you say to help your avoidantly connected partner or spouse 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 or spouse regulate his or her emotions, even though he or she may not be aware of them, so that the fears are soothed, and withdraw does not occur. Your partner or spouse can also become much more aware of how his or her rigidity comes from fears that are most likely outdated, hindering 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 your physical and emotional approaches romantic relationships offer.
How High is the Bar Set in Your Marriage or 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 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, you disappoint him or her, and this reinforces the avoidantly connected partner’s core fears, that he or she can’t really depend on someone to come through for him or her, and that he or she is truly an isolated “I.”
Share Your Experiences
Do you relate to the avoidantly connected style, either through how you connect with your partner or spouse, or how he or she connects with you? Do you feel stuck in patterns that lead to distance instead of closeness? Do you often feel lonely in your relationship, even though your partner or spouse is physically there? Share your experiences, and join the conversation.
If you know someone you think may relate to this topic on avoidance, please share this with him or her.