Attachment Series Part 1: Dismissive Avoidant

Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC

Years of friendships, romantic relationships, familial bonds, and even casual acquaintances have taught us that how people interact can differ as much as humans do. Some people take years to open up to those closest to them; others will make you feel like you’ve known them for years when you’ve just met them. 

How we interact with others and hold space for these relationships is personal and doesn’t change much from when we’re young. Some people don’t hold much room for relationships at all. We describe this as a dismissive-avoidant attachment.

Dismissive-Avoidant Traits

The traits of people with this attachment style appear more or less in the dismissive-avoidant name. They dismiss and avoid intimacy and the emotional needs of themselves and others. They value other things over connections to others.

If you know someone with a dismissive-avoidant attachment, you might not know any details about their life. Sometimes, they come off as “cold” or uninterested. Even to those closest to them, they play things close to the chest. Being vulnerable hasn’t served them before, so they avoid it when possible. Many perceive this as the avoidant person being narcissistic or thinking highly of themselves, but this is not the case.

Though, this isn’t to say that an individual with this type of attachment style isn’t capable of feeling close to others or creating relationships. They might have fewer of these intimate bonds. They may reserve real emotional openness and physical touch for a specific few. 

Mary Ainsworth and Strange Situations

Mary Ainsworth is one of the pioneers of attachment theory. In a series of tests called “Strange Situations,” she observed infants in different circumstances involving their mother and a stranger. Either the infant would be alone in a room, with their mother, with a stranger, or both. She also observed the infant’s reaction to the mother and stranger leaving and coming back.

She was able to group children into three main different behavior patterns she dubbed attachment styles:

  • Avoidant
  • Resistant
  • Secure

Most infants fell into the secure category, which was more or less the “baseline” of a healthy relationship with a caregiver. The infants showed some independence but still favored their mothers. Resistant infants were far more attached emotionally to their mothers and became anxious more quickly.

Dismissive-Avoidant Children

In the study, 15% of infants showed avoidant behavior patterns. Their behavior with the mother and stranger was similar. They did not react to their mother returning and were not upset when she left.

Ainsworth hypothesized that some infants were resistant or avoidant because their caregivers weren’t sensitive to their emotional needs. 

What Causes Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment?

Avoiding attachments and the associated hyper-independence are generally trauma responses. Both are a reaction to neglect. Someone has learned that they can’t count on others, so they must depend on themselves.

Childhood Trauma

Even before we can walk or talk, we learn about interpersonal relationships. The way our caregivers react to us determines how we normalize human interactions.

Childhood trauma can come in the form of emotional neglect. Ainsworth believed that avoidant children had caregivers that didn’t spend enough time with them or respond when they cried.

Children naturally create a bond with their caregivers. Childhood trauma and neglect force children to depend on themselves for their emotional needs.

Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment in Adult Relationships

Romantic or otherwise, if you have a relationship with someone with an avoidant relationship style, encourage them to open up, but don’t push. They’ve experienced hurt and need to heal before they can be vulnerable. And they may never do so in the way that you do. 

Everyone experiences and shows emotions differently. One of the biggest challenges for people with avoidant-attachment tendencies is their low tolerance for relationship volatility. They might “abandon ship” to avoid being hurt or vulnerable when a disagreement or a fight occurs. 

Adults become dismissive-avoidant from abandonment throughout their life, so they are often the first to leave a relationship to feel some sense of control.

Fearful-Avoidant vs. Dismissive-Avoidant

Another subtype of avoidant attachment is fearful-avoidant. It’s easiest to think of this as a combination of anxious and avoidant attachment styles.

Someone who is fearful-avoidant may crave intimacy but deems themselves “unloveable,” so they reject deeper relationships. They believe themselves to be the untrustworthy partner. While dismissive avoidants rebuff vulnerability because it doesn’t serve them, fearful avoidants do so out of fear of rejection or scorn.

This vulnerability avoidance also starts in childhood, but more often from abuse or food/housing insecurity. Children displaying fearful avoidant traits go through scary or distressing experiences for significant periods. 

Learn to Create Secure Attachments

Living with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style can be lonely. But the isolation doesn’t have to last forever. 

The team at Inner Balance Counseling can help you work through traumas to be the best version of yourself. We’ll go at your pace but be with you every step of the way. When you decide it’s time to build secure relationships, schedule a consultation with us today. We also offer couples counseling so you and your partner can work together to build secure attachments.

Learn more about avoidant attachment styles in Attachment Series Part Four and Part Five

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Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC

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