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Monday, August 24, 2020

Relationships: Understanding the Impact of Trauma on Emotionally Unavailable People

In my prior article I began a discussion about people who are emotionally unavailable with an avoidant attachment style.  I'm continuing the discussion about this topic in this article with a clinical vignette that illustrates the impact of trauma and how these issues often affect relationships (see my article: How Trauma Affects Intimate Relationships).

Relationships: Understanding the Impact of Trauma on Emotionally Unavailable People

The Major Characteristics of Emotionally Unavailable People/Avoidant Attachment Style
Before I provide a clinical vignette, here's a recap of some of the major characteristics of emotionally unavailable people.
People who are emotionally unavailable usually exhibit at least some of the following characteristics, including:
  • Steering clear or making attempts to reduce emotional closeness in romantic relationships 
  • Avoiding commitment in relationships, which can be done in a number of ways:
    • Giving mixed signals about being in a committed relationship
    • Stating explicitly they only want to be in a non-monogamous relationship
    • Agreeing to be monogamous in a relationship but betraying this agreement with infidelity (i.e., cheating by having sexual affairs on the side)
    • Labeling their partner as "clingy," "emotionally needy," "wanting too much" and "a nag" when their partner wants to be closer
  • Feeling "trapped" in a committed relationship (if they do make a commitment)
  • Tuning out when their partner attempts to talk to them about wanting to be closer
  • Seeing themselves as being emotionally "independent" (however, this is really a pseudo-independence because it's an unconscious defensive strategy to cover underlying fear)
  • Becoming emotionally distant and aloof during an argument, conflict or other stressful situations
  • Seeking a partner's emotional support in a crisis indirectly by hinting, complaining or sulking rather than being direct in their communication
  • Using an unconscious defensive strategy of trying to display a high regard for themselves while being suspicious, cynical and dismissive of other people's vulnerabilities and what they perceive as "weakness" in other people (this defensive strategy protects a fragile sense of self and feelings of low self worth)
  • Reacting angrily when their partner does not affirm and support their defensive strategy of an inflated sense of self
  • Struggling with an internal critical voice, which is in conflict with their defensive strategy of an inflated sense of self.  This internal critical voice often involves thoughts like:
    • "You're independent. You don't need anyone else."
    • "Don't get too close or you'll be hurt and disappointed."
    • "Why is she (or he) so demanding?"
    • "There are more important things in life than being in a relationship."
    • "She's not good enough for you" or "You're too good for her."
    • "Being in a relationship involves putting up with a lot."
A Clinical Vignette: Relationships: The Impact of Trauma on Emotionally Unavailable People
The following fictional vignette illustrates typical problems people who are emotionally unavailable with an avoidant attachment style can have in a relationship. People with an avoidant attachment style often get together with people who have an anxious attachment style:

John met Nina at a mutual friend's party when they were both in their late 30s.  He sensed the chemistry between them immediately and he liked her obvious intelligence and quirky sense of humor.

Three years later, they were struggling to salvage their relationship.  John resented what he perceived as Nina's "clinginess."  He felt she was always making too many emotional demands of him, and he couldn't understand why she couldn't just be happy with what they had in their relationship.  He really didn't like that she was constantly telling him that he wasn't meeting her emotional needs.

Nina felt that their relationship was at a point where it was stagnant and no longer developing.  She would have liked for them to move in together, but John said he needed his space and he wanted to continue to live on his own.  Other than saying this, he refused to talk about the subject any further because he didn't see the point.

When Nina explained that she came from a family where they talked about their feelings and if there was a problem, they would have a family meeting to discuss it, John laughed scornfully about this, "No one had time in my family to talk about feelings. Both of my parents worked long hours and when they got home, they were too exhausted to talk.  My brothers and I weren't coddled like you were.  We had to learn to fend for ourselves and that's what made me the independent person that I am today."

When Nina listened to the stories John told about his family, she was shocked by John's childhood history of emotional neglect, and she was even more shocked that he took pride in it (see my article: What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?).

"When my parents came home from work, we knew not to bother them with our problems," John explained, "because we knew if we did, they would get angry that we were bothering them, and they would tell us to go figure it out on our own. That made us strong and built character."

In contrast, Nina knew that she could always go to either of her parents with anything that was bothering her and they never turned her away.  But the one problem she had in her family was that her parents tended to compare her unfavorably with her older sister, Laura, who excelled academically and who was very popular in school.  As a result, Nina grew up feeling, compared to her sister, she wasn't good enough, which made her anxious, and she was always trying to prove herself to her parents.

She had a similar feeling with John.  She felt John didn't see her as "good enough" and this was why he didn't make more of a commitment to their relationship. It was only after she threatened to leave him that he agreed to be monogamous with her, and she was aware that he only agreed to it reluctantly.  After he made the commitment, he complained to her that he felt "trapped" in their relationship, which hurt her feelings.

She was also aware that John struggled to ask her for emotional support.  Rather than asking directly, he would complain about the pressures he felt at work and the headaches he would get by the time he came home.  She was more than willing to be emotionally supportive, but she never knew when John would accept her support or when he would tell her that her attempts at being emotionally supportive were "too much" and she needed to "back off."

As they approached their four year anniversary together, Nina told John that she felt lonely in their relationship, even when they were together, because he was so emotionally aloof with her.  She finally told him that she wouldn't remain in their relationship unless he got help in therapy. 

At first, John resisted the idea of going to therapy, "I don't need therapy.  No one in my family ever went to therapy." But he also loved Nina and he didn't want to lose her, so after he thought about it for a while, he reluctantly agreed to go to therapy.  But he agreed to it on the condition that Nina would get into her own individual therapy too, which she agreed to do.

People with an anxious attachment style, like Nina, often get into relationships with people who have an avoidant attachment style, like John. This is an unconscious process where people choose a partner that confirms how they feel about themselves.

As previously mentioned and illustrated in the vignette above, people with an avoidant attachment style often feel that their partner is too emotionally demanding when the partner asks to be closer to them.  In contrast, people with an anxious attachment style often feel they're "not good enough" and unconsciously choose a partner that confirms this feeling through their emotional aloofness.

This contrast in attachment styles usually brings conflict as each person feels misunderstood by the other.

Although Nina's family was more open and communicative as compared with John's family, Nina grew up feeling she wasn't good enough when her parents compared her to her older sister.  This trauma contributed to her anxious attachment style.

Nina's anxious attachment style kept her striving in her relationship with John (and in prior relationships) to try to get more from him emotionally. And when she couldn't get more from him, this confirmed to her over and over again that she was unworthy.

John's family was mostly focused on survival issues, and his parents weren't emotionally available to John or his siblings.  As a result, John and his siblings learned not to seek nurturance or emotional support from their parents, and they grew up thinking they were "independent."  However, their parents' emotional neglect was traumatizing for them, and what they perceived as being independent was really a pseudo independence, a defense mechanism that covered over their anger and sadness about being neglected.

Even though Nina felt deep down that she wasn't worthy of John's love and attention, even she had her limits.  She could see that their relationship was stagnant.  She felt that John had many more problems than she did, but she agreed to attend her own individual therapy so she could have a place to talk about her relationship concerns.

In my next article, I'll explore how experiential therapy can help with the problems in John and Nina's relationship.

Getting Help in Therapy
Everyone needs help at some point in their life.  

If you have been unable to resolve your problems on your own, you could benefit from attending therapy with an experiential therapist.

Working through the obstacles that are hindering your progress will allow you to lead a more fulfilling and meaningful life.

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

I work with individual adults and couples.

I am currently providing teletherapy sessions, which is also known as online therapy, telemental health and telehealth (see my article: The Advantages of Online Therapy).

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 business hours or email me.