NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Understanding How an Avoidant Attachment Style Affects You and Your Relationship

In my prior articles, How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship and How Early Attachment Bonds Affect Adult Relationships, I discussed attachment styles in general and the affect they can have on relationships.  In this article, I'm focusing specifically on the avoidant attachment style, its origins, and how it can affect a relationship (see my article: An Emotional Dilemma: Wanting and Dreading Love).

Understanding How an Avoidant Attachment Style Affects You and Your Relationship

Relationships: From Passion and Excitement to Fear of Emotional Intimacy
While relationships often start with passion and excitement, each person's core vulnerabilities can emerge as the relationship becomes more serious, the couple becomes more attached, and the emotional intimacy increases.  If both people are emotionally secure because they grew up in loving and secure homes where their emotions needs were mostly met, when issues , they can usually be worked out more easily than one or both people have an insecure attachment style.

But people who developed an insecure attachment style, like avoidant attachment, as a coping strategy when they were children, can become increasingly uncomfortable as the relationship becomes more emotionally intimate.  With greater emotional intimacy, they become aware that they are more emotionally dependent upon their romantic partner, which can make them feel emotionally vulnerable.

People with an avoidant attachment style are often unable to put their fear into words.  Depending upon how threatened they feel by the emotional intimacy of the relationship, they will often dissociate and become estranged from their own feelings and from their partner because this is the emotional survival strategy that they developed in childhood.

They will often shut down emotionally.  Although they might appear from the outside as if nothing much is going on, internally they are in a state of turmoil and often unable to express their feelings.

They appear as if they are deliberately stonewalling their partner but, in most cases, they have really "checked out" or dissociated because they're overwhelmed, and the more the other partner insists that they talk about what's happening, the more dissociated they can become (see my article: Relationships: Are You a Stonewaller?).

How Do People Develop an Avoidant Attachment Style?
The avoidant attachment style usually begins in early childhood due to consistent neglect or abuse.  If the parents are unable to provide the baby with an emotionally safe home environment, the baby, who is unable to fight or flee, goes into "freeze" mode, which is another term for dissociation, as a last resort to cope with the abuse or neglect.

As adults, these individuals continue to be disconnected from their emotions.  Without the necessary help in early childhood about how to identify and tolerate uncomfortable emotions, these adults continue to engage in maladaptive coping strategies to avoid experiencing uncomfortable feelings.  So, a strategy that saved them as infants becomes an obstacle to their knowing themselves and connecting with others.

Fictional Clinical Vignette: Understanding the Avoidant Attachment Style
During the first three months of his relationship, Ken, who was in his mid-30s, was in a state of bliss whenever he was with Ann.  They met at a party and they were instantly attracted to one another.  Soon, they were dating a few times a week and enjoying each other's company.

By the fourth month, Ken realized how deeply he cared for Ann, and he began to feel anxious. He wasn't sure what made him feel anxious, but he knew that he was feeling different from before.  Whereas he felt loving and carefree whenever he was with Ann before, he now felt ambivalent about seeing her.

Rather than feeling carefree and in a state of bliss, he now experienced anxiety just before they got together.  He tried to think of what changed, but he couldn't think of anything.  Nothing had occurred that would account for his anxiety.

Sometimes, he wondered if he just didn't care for her anymore, but he knew this wasn't true.  If anything, he cared for her more now than during their few couple of months dating, so none of this made sense to Ken.

Ken had been in two other serious relationships before, and he experienced a similar pattern--feeling happy during the early stage of the relationship and then increasingly uncomfortable as time went on.  In each case, he assumed that his feelings had changed or they had "grown apart" and he ended the relationships.  But there was something different about how he felt this time because, even though he felt anxious, he knew he still cared for Ann.

When Ann brought up that he seemed to be more distant around her lately, she asked him if there was anything wrong.  Ken didn't know how to answer her, so he remained quiet for a while.  Then, he assured Ann that he cared for her a lot and wanted to continue to see her.  This response seemed to satisfy Ann, but Ken knew it was just a matter of time before this issue came up again.

As he became increasingly concerned about what was going on for him, he contacted a psychotherapist to try to understand himself. When his psychotherapist asked Ken to talk about his family history, Ken talked about being an only child in a household where his mother was emotionally distant and his father was emotionally and physically abusive.  He had few specific memories of his childhood, but he knew that he was happy to go away to college, and he never moved back in with his parents again.

Ken discussed how emotionally distant he was becoming when he was around Ann.  He also spoke about being concerned that if he didn't get help, he might be jeopardizing his relationship.

After his psychotherapist assessed Ken over the next several sessions, she provided him with psychoeducation about attachment styles.  She told him that due to his traumatic childhood, he developed an avoidant attachment style which surfaced when relationships became more emotionally intimate and threatening to him.

His psychotherapist explained that their work in therapy would be neither quick nor easy, but if he stuck with therapy, he had a chance of overcoming his fearful, avoidant attachment style.

She began by helping Ken to identify his emotions.  Initially, this was very hard for Ken when he thought about his relationship with Ann.  He knew that he was happy at first when they were first getting to know each other.  He also knew that he felt anxious around her lately, but he didn't know why.

His psychotherapist taught Ken how to sense his emotions in his body.  She told him that the body offers a window into the unconscious mind and that if he could sense into his body, over time, he might be able to identify more specifically what he was experiencing (see my article: The Body Offers a Window Into Unconscious Mind).

At first, Ken had difficulty sensing into his body.  It took a while for him to be able to sense tension in his neck and chest.  Then, gradually, he was able to identify other emotions, like fear, when he thought about getting together with Ann.

Over time, Ken also noticed in therapy that as he focused on an emotion in his body, like fear, that it eventually dissipated.  So, after a while, he realized that emotions often come and go and that he was not identified by his emotions.

Ken's psychotherapist paid particular attention to what Ken was able to tolerate with regard to uncomfortable emotions.  She knew that his window of tolerance for emotions that made him uncomfortable was narrow, so she was careful not to have Ken dwell on uncomfortable emotions longer than he could tolerate.

Over time, Ken's window of tolerance expanded so he could tolerate uncomfortable emotions for longer periods of time.  Using Somatic Experiencing, this allowed them to explore what thoughts, memories of physical sensations came up for him as he experienced these emotions.

Over time, Ken had expanded his window of tolerance significantly.  Then, his therapist recommended that they work on the root of his problem, which was the childhood abuse and neglect, using EMDR therapy (see my articles:  How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the Brain).

In the meantime, Ann, who knew that Ken was in therapy working on his problems, was patient.  She mentioned to him that she noticed some progress.  Specifically, she sensed that his ability to remain emotionally connected to her had improved somewhat.  She noticed that he wasn't as emotionally distant with her as he had been before.  This was encouraging to both of Ken and Ann.

Understanding How an Avoidant Attachment Style Affects You and Your Relationship

Over the next year, Ken continued to work with his psychotherapist using EMDR therapy to resolve his traumatic past.  EMDR therapy helped Ken to make emotional connections between his current fear and the fear that he experienced when he was a child.

He also began to develop an ability to separate his fear from childhood from what was getting emotionally triggered in his relationship (see my article:  Overcoming Emotional Trauma: Separating "Then" From "Now").

He understood on an emotional level that, whether he was in a close relationship with Ann or with someone else, this fear would get triggered (see my article:  Coping With Trauma: Becoming Aware of Emotional Triggers).

Eventually, Ken worked through his early trauma, he became more connected to his internal world and more connected to Ann.

Attachment styles are developed early in childhood.  If a child grows up in a secure, loving home environment, all other things being equal, s/he will usually develop a secure attachment style.  If a child grows up in an abusive and/or neglectful home environment, s/he will probably develop an insecure attachment style.

The avoidant attachment style is one form of insecure attachment.  It becomes more obvious in a relationship as the relationship becomes more emotionally intimate.

At that point, what usually happens is that, on an unconscious level, the person with an avoidant attachment style uses the same emotional survival strategy that s/he used as an infant--s/he dissociates, which creates an internal emotional estrangement as well as creating distance from a romantic partner.

Although this is a maladaptive coping strategy as an adult, it keeps him or her from becoming overwhelmed.  However, it also creates the kinds of problems which I described in the vignette above.

Since the root of the problem is in childhood, this is where the therapeutic work needs to be.  However, the psychotherapist must make sure first that the client can tolerate feeling his or her uncomfortable emotions.  If the client can't tolerate uncomfortable emotions, which is usually the case, the therapist needs to help the client to expand his window of tolerance first so that, gradually, s/he can tolerate difficult emotions.

Once the client can tolerate difficult emotions, then the therapist can help the client to overcome the original traumatic experiences which are at the root of the problem using a form of trauma therapy, like EMDR (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

Getting Help in Therapy
It can be very confusing to realize that your feelings have changed from bliss to anxiety during the course of a romantic relationship which has become more emotionally intimate.

A skilled psychotherapist, who uses experiential therapies, like Somatic Experiencing and EMDR therapy, can help you to expand your window of tolerance and, eventually, help you to work through the root of your traumatic experiences (see my articles: The Benefits of Psychotherapy and How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Rather than suffering alone, you owe it to yourself to get help in trauma therapy.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to overcome their traumatic experiences.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during regular business hours or email me.