It’s so counter-intuitive: Isn’t everyone looking for love? The answer is actually maybe and no. Unloved daughters who spend their childhood on tenterhooks with mothers who are sometimes attentive and available and sometimes not— asking whether the Good Mommy or the Bad Mommy will show up today—become anxious and always on the prowl for validation and reassurance. That’s not true for the daughters of consistently unavailable, hostile or intrusive mothers. The experts call this type of attachment avoidant.
These women (and men) are coming from a different place. Their experiences have taught them that needing someone puts you at risk, that rejection is painful and that people are untrustworthy and unreliable. They armor themselves by being wary of intimacy and connection or avoiding closeness altogether. They stay outside the relationship, even while appearing to be in it.
But there are differences. Psychologist Kim Bartholomew expanded theory by suggesting that there were, in fact, two kinds of avoidant attachment: fearful and dismissive.
The fearful avoidant has a low opinion of herself and while she really does want intimacy and close connection, her fear of rejection trumps all because she thinks highly of other people. If she’s nothing and he is something, why then does he want her? She comes across as needy and insecure and tends to be passive in relationships; she doesn’t pick fights the way an anxiously attached woman does.
In contrast, the dismissive avoidant, has a very high opinion of herself, on the surface at least; she’s not hesitant to voice her opinion that relationships aren’t very important to her and she’s fine on her own, thank you very much. She is proud of her self-reliance. That stance, though, is a protective one, meant to defend the fragile self within from rejection or emotional wounding. That said, unlike the fearful avoidant, the dismissive doesn’t want an intimate relationship or friendship, preferring instead to be emotionally invested in other pursuits such as career, work, and hobbies.
It is true that more men than women tend to be dismissive but women can be too.
Please keep in mind that these three types of insecure attachment—anxious-preoccupied, fearful avoidant, and dismissive avoidant—are not as cast in stone as the categories would seem to imply nor does every individual fit neatly into one or another. These tendencies may mix, change over time, or within or across relationships.
But if you wonder if you are avoidant or perhaps your partner is, here are four traits which can help you identify yourself or the person you’re involved with.
- You prefer short-term connections, even hookups, to intense relationships.
The true avoidant prefers relationships that aren’t intimate or close. You’re often attracted to people who aren’t available—because they’re married or live across the country or are otherwise off-limits (like your girlfriend’s boyfriend). You may idealize, when you’re in a new relationship, an old one which you left. Dismissive avoidants may sometimes be in relatively long-term relationships but maintain their independence and back off from commitment; they don’t want to move-in with their lovers because they need their own space and the like. The “work” of making a relationship work is not your thing because, at the end of the day, you don’t think closeness is all that important.
- You have different ways of pushing your partner off.
One woman, 34, confided: “The minute I start really caring, the panic sets it. I know he will leave me, no matter what he says. I just can’t help it. I get too scared. That’s the beginning of the end for me.” But if you’re dismissive, you get claustrophobic easily and quickly. When you’re involved with someone, there’s always something missing—he’s not smart, polished, or ambitious enough—and that makes you sure that there’s someone better for you out there. The avoidant is quick to come up with a list of flaws about his or her partner, and is always on the lookout for greener pastures, and often, he or she will head out for them. Avoidants are not good candidates for fidelity of the year awards, as the next trait makes clear.
- You like sex but hate to cuddle.
One study showed that the dismissive avoidant has sex for very different reasons than either the fearful avoidant or even the anxiously attached. Let’s start with the anxiously attached: she understands having sex as a validation of her being loved. Alas, this is actually not so great since, at its best, sex is about the dyad: your needs and desires, and his needs and desires. Not happening: The anxious girl is in bed to be loved. The fearful avoidant falls into much the same trap; again, all me and no dyad and, then she panics. And then there is the dismissive. She or he is just there for the sex. Does it surprise you that these avoidants tend to cheat? That’s exactly what one study showed. The truth? Commitment, the need for closeness, and valuing the intimate ties we have are all that keeps all of us at home in bed and not elsewhere; the avoidant lacks all three.
- You’re proud of not needing emotional support or closeness.
If this is you, I think you know who you are. Yes?
Photograph by Ivan Karasev. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Bartholomew, Kim and Leonard M. Horowitz. “Attachment Styles Among Young adults: A Test of a Four-Category Model,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1991), vol.101 (2): 226-244
Birnbaum, Gurit E., Harry T. Reis, et. al. “When Sex is More than Just Sex: Attachment Orientations, Sexual Experience, and Relationship Quality,” (2006), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol.91, no.5, 929-943.
DeWall, C. Nathan, Nathaniel M. Lambert, et.al. “So Far Away From One’s Partner, Yet So Close to Romantic Alternatives: Avoidant Attachment, Interest in Alternatives, and Infidelity,” (2011), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol.101, no.6, 1302-1316.