Editor’s note: This article is the second in a two-part series. See Avoidant Attachment, Part 1: The Dependence Dilemma.
When we live in a continual state of freeze, we aren’t only hiding, we are living alone (even when we’re in a relationship). Focused on the preservation of Self and resources, driven by self-sufficiency and independence, we come to believe that outside support is not an option. From the outside, it may seem as if we are hoarding food, money, time, words, emotions, and so on. It can also be framed as a conservation of resources in a closed (isolated) system that does not expect any exchange of resources between systems.
With limited resources, efficiency becomes paramount. Many people on the avoidant end of the attachment spectrum may come to depend on the creation and maintenance of a predictable and efficient routine that does not require energy expenditure on avoidable and unresolvable situations like interpersonal conflict.
The Myth of Functional Dissociation
The freeze state, which prepares us to hold and preserve until safety or support arrives, is a very efficient survival response. As such, it brings with it the valuable tool of self-regulation by dissociation. If something feels uncomfortable, we just turn it off. Compartmentalize. Stuff it away. By breaking life into fragments, we can remain present with the portions that are tolerable.
While in many cases this happens automatically, we may also feel as if we’ve mastered dissociation. Though this can happen at both ends of the attachment spectrum, on the avoidant side it can feel functional and intentional. We then might ask our anxious partners (often with disdain versus curiosity, because resentment does tend to build in avoidant attachment), “Why can’t you just turn off your emotion? Why does it have to get so big?”
Dissociation does bring with it some challenges. Memories, emotions, and bodily sensations may become inaccessible. Sometimes the remaining present feels unbearable, so we disappear. If we feel unsafe and dissociative while in a particular moment of life, sometimes we appreciate that moment (or entire relationship) only in retrospect.
Dissociation can also be activated by conflict. The more the other person amplifies, the smaller and more still we might become. Some even dissociate to a point where they become mute (or even fall asleep) during an argument.
If we feel unsafe and dissociative while in a particular moment of life, sometimes we appreciate that moment (or entire relationship) only in retrospect.
So we continue to live in an isolated bubble, preserved and protected, our resources limited because exchange feels unsafe and we believe “Nobody really loves anybody.”
“See me. Don’t see me. Get away from me if you can’t see me.”
The spotlight is our nemesis, and words take effort because they elicit our own physical emotional expression, which those around us may judge and reject. The words we put out into the world can be used as weapons against us: they not only reduce the deniability factor when the spotlight comes back around to us, but when others don’t like our words, we may face conflict.
We often resent those closest to us for their perceived judgment and rejection, for crossing boundaries we never articulated, or for not knowing how to draw us out from our silence (that to us is speaking volumes). From our perspective, we’ve been sending out very clear signals that nobody is picking up.
There is a fatalism inherent in the freeze state.
Showing a person on the avoidant end of the attachment spectrum that it’s okay to need people can be a hard sell. So, let’s take a look at the evidence. The following traits are often indicators of an unacknowledged need for people:
- An instinct to hide or diminish personal expression or physical presence in public settings
- Limited assertiveness until trapped (like a cornered animal)
- Caretaking, or lack of self-care when in the presence of others
- A struggle to access empathy in conflict
- A focus on independence or one foot out the door (“I don’t need you.”)
- A search for a partner who looks good or presents well rather than one who fits (with the belief this will reduce negative focus)
- Distraction, deflection, or disengagement in response to uncomfortable emotion
- Functional dissociation (“Just turn it off.”)
- Dissociative activities (movies, social media, porn, and so on) dominate the seemingly elusive alone time when a loved one leaves, suggesting discomfort in a space that was so ardently pursued
Many of us learn early in life to separate from uncomfortable sensations and emotions by dissociating and compartmentalizing. We may become so good at it that we don’t recognize when it’s happening. This is how we handle things like separation. We don’t realize we miss anyone because we dissociate from loneliness. And when they return from that trip to the store, we can fall right back into our story that says we need nobody, that nobody should need anyone.
If the dilemma lies in our dissociation from discomfort and our own internal denial of social needs, then healing comes in recognition and gradual exposure to discomfort in feeling and expressing those needs. This healing might include leaning vulnerably on others and feeling met at our own level. A sense of agency in meeting our own social needs can feel liberating, and as our bodies learn to relax, over time we may find it even easier to meet those needs. We experience others as more safe and open as we ourselves open up to their presence and accept ourselves the way we wish to be accepted by others.
These tips can help further healing:
- Notice your use of dissociation and dissociative activities.
- Notice your breathing and heartbeat when conflict approaches.
- Speak more. Experiment with using words, directly and precisely, even when uncomfortable. (Keep in mind that language centers in the brain can go offline when heart rate increases or breathing becomes constricted.)
- It’s okay to ask about intent instead of automatically attributing hostile or manipulative intent to the actions of others.
- It’s okay to ask for do-overs.
- It’s okay to ask for breaks during conflict and return once bodies calm.
- It’s okay to express what you know they need to hear. You may be surprised at the lack of judgment, even if you “go overboard.”
- Learn to apologize.
- Express a need each day.
- Express an emotion each day.
- Experiment around emotions, discovering which feel safe and which feel like a struggle.
- Notice patterns you’ve inherited from parents or caregivers. Own those as changeable generational patterns versus unchangeable identity.
- Read and memorize the list of avoidant strategies and notice when you use them.
- Know that transition from self-time to together-time might feel unsafe and energetically draining. If we learn to recognize and observe safety in connection (in the present moment), this can become a source of energy rather than a drain on our reserves.
- Securely attached people more often make decisions that are good for all partners in a relationship.
- Learn to differentiate fear from anger (in self and others) so you can meet your partner when they need you most and when you need them most.
- Get out of your routine. Travel together. Get away from familiar resources to places where your partner becomes your resource and automatic and dissociative activities are not an option.
- Make some household chores a shared process.
- Articulate thoughts and emotions as they arise, just for the sake of feeling known.
- Ask for the spotlight.
- Ask for help, even if it’s just a small favor each day.
- Join a group.
- Notice resources you hoard and practice sharing them until it feels comfortable.
- If your relationships feel “broken,” find a therapist who specializes in attachment.
- When your partner asks for a big response instead of a calm exterior and moving toward them feels unbearable, consider leaning into their emotion, validating it, taking responsibility for your part, and experimenting with the idea that allowing things to get bigger may bring you closer to the safe space you seek.
- Observe someone loving you. Notice their face, their posture, and the experience in your own body when holding that space. Love need not be felt in retrospect alone. It can feel very present, and this is where the healing happens.
- Kinnison, J. (2016, October 18). Type: Dismissive-avoidant attachment style. Retrieved from https://jebkinnison.com/bad-boyfriends-the-book/type-dismissive-avoidant
- Sattin, N. (2015, December 29). 19: Recipe for a secure, healthy relationship with Stan Tatkin. (2015, December 29). Retrieved from http://www.neilsattin.com/blog/2015/12/19-recipe-for-a-secure-healthy-relationship-with-stan-tatkin
- Tatkin, S. (2012). Wired for love: How understanding your partners brain can help you defuse conflicts and spark intimacy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.