Often someone finds themself back in a familiar and distressing situation with a partner or friends, thinking ‘Why does this always happen to me?’ or ‘Why do I always end up here?’ The first step towards breaking out of unhealthy relationship patterns is to recognise the repetition, and our own part in perpetuating it, so that we have conscious choices about our own behaviour.
The attachment model for understanding relationships focuses on the nature of the bond between an infant and primary carers, usually the mother and/or father. In research, three broad categories of attachment were observed in children: avoidant, ambivalent, and secure. To this, a fourth category was later added, disorganised. Longitudinal studies have shown that, unless a positive intervention is made, the child now grown uses this primary relationship as an unconscious blueprint for their adult intimate relationships.
These four articles look at the childhood origins of each attachment style, what this looks like in adult relationships, and how counselling or psychotherapy can help change the pattern. Each article ends with an example of a popular song that encapsulates what it means to live the attachment style.
This first article describes the emotional unavailability of the avoidant or dismissive attachment style, illustrated by I Am A Rock by Paul Simon, performed by Simon and Garfunkel.
What is attachment?
In the late 1960s and into the early 1980s, psychotherapist John Bowlby wrote three volumes about attachment, the nature of the bond between child and parent. A young child is helpless, unable to feed, clothe or nurture him/herself, and unable to express needs except through basic sounds and motions. The child’s experience of care is therefore one of total dependency and reliance on others. Through this experience, the infant makes decisions about what the world is like, and learns who s/he needs to be to get on in the world. This decision is not, of course, considered and rational, but an implicit practical, emotional and cognitive conclusion reached through accumulated experience, confirmed by similar experiences as the child grows older. One way of describing this conclusion is the internal working model, and its connection to love relationships is described in more detail in the article, What is this thing called love?
John Bowlby’s work was informed by the studies of psychologist Mary Ainsworth from the 1950s to the 1970s. In her strange situation procedure, she observed the behaviour of children when a stranger entered the room, their mother left the room, returned, left again, and returned again. She was interested in particular in the nature of the reunion, the child’s ability to explore the room when the mother was and was not present, and the infant’s response to the stranger. Was the child distressed when mother left? Was s/he comforted on mother’s return? Did the child feel safe enough to explore the room? Did the infant prefer mother or the stranger? The answer to these questions informs observers of the infant’s internal working model, the meaning the infant makes of their experience of care, their relational blueprint of what to expect in the world, which gives the child information about who s/he needs to be to either thrive or survive.
The use of the words ‘intimate’ and ‘intimacy’ in these articles should be explained. In everyday language, these words are often used as a euphemism for sex, but here it has a broader meaning: intimacy is any encounter between two people where they are truly open, without the need for social role-playing or emotional barriers, without any expectation that oneself or another is anything but their honest self. The parent-child relationship is therefore a powerful developmental blueprint for intimacy: the measure of acceptance the child feels from the parent is the measure of how safe it feels for the growing person to be intimate, to express how they truly feel, and engage meaningfully in relationships with others.
This article explores the relational pattern known as avoidant (or anxious-avoidant) attachment in a child, called dismissive attachment in an adult. Other attachment styles are explored in other articles: for ambivalent attachment click here; for disorganised attachment click here; and for secure attachment and the role of psychotherapy in reparatively working towards an earned secure attachment, click here.
Each of these four articles about attachment follow the same format, for easy comparison.
Pattern of parent/child relationship in avoidant attachment
Parental availability: how emotionally available the parent is to the child
The child experiences the parent as emotionally unavailable and/or overbearing. The parent may be practically efficient but emotionally cold, or the parent gives inconsistent and inappropriate care, with changeable moods or sporadic attention towards the child. The parent may have periods of absence, then interfere with the child’s activities rather than letting them explore freely, so parental interventions are practically obstructive to the child, cognitively hampering, and emotionally unpredictable.
Emotional acceptance: how accepted the child feels by the parent
The parent cannot enter the world of the child. If the parent plays with the child at all it is on the parent’s terms, not understanding their child’s needs. The parent cannot help the child to understand and accept their own emotions. Instead, the child learns that his/her emotional needs will be rejected or ignored, often with language such as ‘man up’, ’grow up’ or ‘don’t be a baby’, so the child learns to hide shameful or ‘weak’ feelings. Because the child’s emotional needs are not accepted or recognised by the parent, the child learns that emotions are dangerous, so cannot accept or recognise emotional needs in him/herself.
Parent/child relationship: the nature of early interactions between parent and child
This creates the key issue for the child: safety in distance. This distance encourages a relationship of inappropriate and immature independence, leading the child to find their own emotions difficult, so that self-understanding and self-acceptance cannot grow. This developmental arrest, this avoidance of emotions, can be mistaken for a child who seems to be so emotionally contained s/he has matured early.
Secure base: a measure of the child’s sense of security, whether or not s/he can use the parent as a secure base from which to explore the world, knowing the parent will be welcoming on their return
The child cannot use an emotionally unavailable parent as a secure base from which to explore the world, so the avoidant child explores less, and withholds emotions because s/he doesn’t have the parent’s help in soothing and regulating them. When the parent is absent, the avoidant child is less outwardly upset than the secure child and, on the parent’s return (in Mary Ainsworth’s strange situation procedure), the child avoids reuniting with the parent. Advances by the parent for contact are received passively, and the child does not seek out the parent. When frightened or unsure, the child does not feel secure that comfort can be received and so, though habitually anxious, s/he learns to suppress emotional needs and put on a front that says ‘I’m OK’ or ‘I don’t care’.
Developmental steps: how supported the child is by the parent in their emotional and relational development
Not feeling emotionally supported or connected to the parent, the avoidantly attached child has no preference between the parent and a stranger. When the child makes incremental steps towards independence – learning to tie shoelaces, revising for exams, learning to drive, etc. – the child learns not to expect parental support, encouragement or celebration, so continues to be emotionally avoidant.
Pattern in adult relationships
Sense of self: the person’s view of themself and relationship with their own emotions
As an adult, the avoidantly attached person is called the dismissive personality. This adult is cut off from their emotions, and therefore is not able to invest emotionally in intimate or social relationships.
Personal communication: how well the person can communicate on a personal, intimate level
Since communication was difficult between parent and child, the avoidant/dismissive person is not comfortable sharing feelings with partners and friends, and does not seek support. We have seen that the child’s emotional needs were rejected or ignored, often with language such as ‘man up’, ’grow up’ or ‘don’t be a baby’. As an adult, the desire to feel real connection with another person therefore feels shameful so, when expressed at all, it is often inverted as a joke insult to maintain distance. For example, congratulating someone on a job well done may be done with a smile and the words, ‘Well, that was a load of crap!’
Relationships: the nature of the person’s emotional engagement with others
The avoidant/dismissive person has a default position about relationships: emotions are either unavailable or are dangerous to share. Being unwilling to share, or impossible to share because the needs of the self have been hidden from the self, emotional intimacy is a problem. This also means that when friends, intimates or children are in need of support, the avoidant person doesn’t know how to offer support, or becomes absent from situations where support may be an expectation.
This avoidance of intimacy can show itself in a variety of tactical ways, unconscious and not fully understood by the person doing it. Tactics may include one or more of: being a loner; intellectualising situations and thus failing to understand others’ emotions; emotionally distant casual sex to avoid the prospect of a long-term relationship; doing overtime or long hours at work to avoid coming home to someone who represents the danger of intimacy; causing arguments after too much closeness to create distance; fantasising about someone else while with their partner; affairs when in a long-term relationship.
The song of avoidant / dismissive attachment: I Am A Rock
Each of the four attachment styles include a range of personal adaptations, of course: some people are more or less avoidant than others. I Am A Rock by Paul Simon, performed by Simon & Garfunkel, is an excellent example of the most obvious end of the continuum of avoidant / dismissive attachment. The protagonist in the song is alone, he has “built walls, a fortress deep and mighty” around himself to hide from others, and within himself to hide from his own emotions. He gives himself reasons why his feelings are treacherous: “If I never loved I never would have cried”. He wants to remain distant and isolated not only from others, but also from his own feelings, and protect himself from the pain of relationships with solitary activities: “I have my books and my poetry to protect me. I am shielded in my armour. Hiding in my room, safe within my womb, I touch no one and no one touches me. I am a rock, I am an island, and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”
A winter’s day in a deep and dark December.
I am alone.
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock, I am an island.
I’ve built walls, a fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship: friendship causes pain,
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock, I am an island.
Don’t talk of love, well, I’ve heard the word before.
It’s sleeping in my memory.
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died:
If I never loved I never would have cried.
I am a rock, I am an island.
I have my books and my poetry to protect me.
I am shielded in my armour.
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb,
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock, I am an island,
And a rock feels no pain,
And an island never cries.
The role of counselling and psychotherapy
No attachment style needs to be forever. The emotional and developmental deficits of childhood retain their power and become patterns that repeat as long as they are not addressed. It may be helpful to think of it as the hungry child within us, who will not be quiet until fed what s/he needed all along. Since we carry emotional deficits with us every day, they have no sense of time. Negatively, that means we can feel really stuck. Positively, that means it is never too late to address the issue, to begin to receive what we always needed, and thus begin the emotional healing.
The role of counselling and psychotherapy, then, is to identify those past relational deficits, and to become aware of present-day self-image and relational patterns. Through self-awareness, through becoming more connected to those parts of us we split off developmentally, new choices are created. In the case of a client who is avoidantly attached, it is often a matter of affirming the validity of the client’s emotions so they feel more safe, creating a nurturing space within which self-connection and self-expression are allowed.
This can only be done in relationship, so the quality of the therapeutic relationship is central and critical. Every attachment style is an adaptation to the emotional environment. Those with an avoidant or dismissive adaptation missed a safe parental secure base. In the present, the therapist may become the client’s secure base, the relationship they needed developmentally to feel safe to express emotions, be reassured and contained, and thus explore the world of relationships with greater support and safety. As a therapist, it is difficult to describe the satisfaction and joy that comes from seeing a client begin to reconnect to themselves, to become more aware of their own processes, and see the emergence of new choices in their behaviour and relationships. This is known as an earned secure attachment, described in more detail in the article on secure attachment, available by clicking here.
About Ian Pittaway
Ian is a psychotherapist and writer with a private practice in Stourbridge, West Midlands. Ian’s therapy is integrative, chiefly comprising key elements of transactional analysis, object relations, person centred therapy and self-psychology. Ian has a special interest in trauma recovery and bereavement.
To contact Ian, call 07504 269 855 or click here.