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Monday, August 17, 2020

Understanding the Avoidant Attachment Style of Emotionally Unavailable People

There are many misconceptions about people who are considered emotionally unavailable.  These are people who usually have an avoidant attachment style.  In this article, I am focusing on describing this emotionally unavailable dynamic, and in subsequent articles I will elaborate on the early childhood trauma that creates this dynamic and how experiential psychotherapy can help to resolve these problems.

Understanding the Avoidant Attachment Style of Emotionally Unavailable People

The Underlying Problems of Emotionally Unavailable People: Early Family Trauma
As I have mentioned, I'll delve into the effect of early family trauma in a future article, but here's a brief description:

The underlying problems of emotionally unavailable people are rooted in early family dynamics with parents who were abusive and/or emotionally neglectful (see my article: What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?).

The parents' abusive behavior can involve physical abuse and/or emotional abuse with emotional abuse including name calling, criticizing, displaying contempt for the child's need for nurturance and emotional support, and so on.

I will elaborate on the early family trauma, which includes intergenerational trauma, that creates an an emotionally unavailable/avoidant attachment style in my next article.

Relationships With People Who Are Emotionally Unavailable
Typically, people with an anxious attachment style become attracted to people with an avoidant attachment style and vice versa (see my articles: How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship).

It's not that people with anxious and avoidant attachment styles consciously set out to find each other.  These attractions occur on an unconscious level based on each person's early family history where they developed a particular attachment style. These relationships can be fraught with problems.

People who have an anxious attachment style strive to get the people with an avoidant attachment style to pay more attention to them, express their love more or make a greater commitment to the relationship. These attempts are often in vain.

People with an avoidant attachment style often feel impinged upon by their anxious partner. They might label their partners as "needy" and feel that they are always "nagging" them with complaints about the relationship.

Typically, people with an avoidant attachment style don't see themselves as having problems with emotional intimacy.  Instead, they see themselves as being "independent" and "needing space" from their partner so they can do other things.  

Often what they don't understand is that what appears to be "independence" to them is really a fear of being emotionally vulnerable, and this fear is learned at an early age due to family of origin dynamics (see my article: Fear of Emotional Vulnerability).

For men, this is also reinforced by societal pressures to "be a man," "man up" and other toxic cultural distortions about masculinity and what it means to "be a man."  These cultural pressures have contributed to much confusion about masculinity and a significant factor in toxic masculinity (see my article: Feeling the Need to Be "Strong" to Avoid Feeling Your Unmet Emotional Needs).

What Are Some of the Characteristics of Someone Who is Emotionally Unavailable?
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 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."
The avoidant attachment style of emotionally unavailable people develops due to early trauma in a family where normal childhood emotional needs were either dismissed, discouraged or punished.

Usually, these parents are not consciously trying to hurt their children. Instead, it's more a matter that they did not have their own emotional needs met when they were children. They might not know how to be emotionally available to their children or it might frighten them because it puts them in touch with their own emotional vulnerabilities that make them feel "weak."

These children were traumatized and hurt when they attempted to get their emotional needs met.  As a result, they grow up to be adults who either avoid emotional attachments or try to find ways to minimize them.  They usually do this out of fear rather than out of any sense of maliciousness.

Adults with an avoidant attachment style develop unconscious defensive strategies to manage their emotional needs.  These strategies are an attempt to keep from getting hurt the way they were hurt as children.  

The internal critical voice, which develops in early childhood, represents an internalization of the explicit and implicit messages from parents who discouraged emotional closeness and who might have been abusive.

People with an avoidant attachment style often get into relationships with people who have an anxious attachment style.  This is usually unconscious on both people's parts and it confirms what they believe about themselves and relationships.  

For people with an anxious attachment style, who are usually striving mightily to get the person with an avoidant attachment style to be closer, being with an emotionally unavailable person confirms that they are "unlovable" and undeserving of being with someone who can meet their emotional needs.  

Even though they might be unhappy with the emotionally unavailable person, they often feel compelled to stay in the relationship.  In fact, they might stay in this type of relationship for many years trying to convince the other person to love them and get closer to them.  They have a blind spot  they defend against seeing.

For people with an avoidant attachment style, who are trying to distance themselves from their anxious partner, their partner's anxious attachment style confirms an overall negative and cynical view of relationships and people in general.  

Since relationships with people with an anxious attachment style confirms their worldview, these relationships are compelling to them.  Even though they might complain that their partner is "too needy" and "demanding," they often remain in the relationship but complain about it.

In many cases, it's not just their perception that they are with emotionally demanding people--they actually choose people who are really emotionally dependent, clingy and demanding.  Choosing people in this way is mostly unconscious. 

Similar to people with an anxious attachment style, even though emotionally unavailable people might complain a lot about their partner, they often remain for long periods of time.  

If they do leave, their defensive structure does not allow them to grieve the end of that relationship.  Instead, they will dismiss their grief on an unconscious level so it does not come into their awareness because if they allowed themselves to feel the hurt and pain of the end of the relationship, it would trigger the hurt and pain they felt as children, which would be overwhelming.

Instead of allowing themselves to feel the pain of a breakup, they often move on (rather quickly) to be with someone else or to "play the field" with many romantic or sexual partners.

Depending upon the person, this can come across as being callous and uncaring.  But, as previously mentioned, an unwillingness to feel emotionally vulnerable often covers up a fear of getting hurt because they were hurt and traumatized as children.

When partners of people with an avoidant attachment style learn to understand the origins of these problems, it helps them to feel more empathetic and compassionate to their partner.  This does not mean that they should stay indefinitely in a relationship where their needs are not being met.  However, it might allow them to be more willing to work things out in couples therapy if both people are willing to do it.

As mentioned earlier, I will elaborate on this topic in future articles:
See my article: Relationships:The Impact of Trauma on Emotionally Unavailable People

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're struggling with unresolved problems, you're not alone.

An experiential therapist can help you to overcome the problems you are unable to overcome on your own.

Rather than struggling alone, seek help from an experiential therapist.  With help, you can free yourself from your early history so you can lead a happier life.

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

I work with individual adults and couples.

One of my specialties is helping clients to overcome trauma (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

I am currently providing teletherapy, 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.