Dismissive Avoidant Deactivating & The Dependency Paradox (2023)

Posted byMy AttachEdJanuary 14, 2022Posted inDismissive-Avoidant Attachment

Dismissive Avoidant Deactivating & The Dependency Paradox (1)

Dismissive avoidant attachment styles are generally seen in adults who were emotionally neglected as children. They may associate close relationships with immense discomfort, because they learned to only rely on themselves knowing that the alternative would be a path towards rejection, criticism, or worse. They choose to avoid getting too close to someone so that they can avoid what they think is inevitable pain that comes with having a close connection to someone. So they may avoid getting into a relationship altogether, or will be in a relationship while “keeping one foot out the door” so that there’s still enough emotional distance between them and their partner. These individuals still have needs for connection just like everyone else, but they are conflicted to let themselves get too close and may feel an uncontrollable need to deactivate (or withdraw) when someone wants to get even closer. So, they may come across quite proud of being hyper independent and may think poorly of people who are less independent than they are, but it’s truly a fear-based phenomenon rather than a personal preference.

What is deactivation for dismissive avoidants?

When a dismissive avoidant feels triggered by either something that they perceive as criticism (rejection) by their partner or when their partner unexpectedly tries to forge a closer connection through something like an expensive birthday gift, planning a trip together, introducing each other to family members or introducing the idea of moving in together, they may feel an uncontrollable urge to run away and are essentially experiencing the flight response from their sympathetic nervous system. They might physically leave, or they may emotionally shut down from their partner and stop communicating. Whether it’s intentional or an unintentional reaction to feeling extremely overwhelmed, this is something that top relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman calls stonewalling, or the silent treatment, which is unfortunately one of what he calls the four horsemen of divorce because it can create more problems than it solves in a relationship if it goes on for too long with no explanation or plan to continue the conversation later.

They may also experience something called “negative sentiment override,” which Dr. John Gottman defines as a phenomenon that “distorts your view of your partner to the point where positive or neutral experiences are perceived as negative. Couples in the Negative Perspective don’t give each other the benefit of the doubt.”

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Dr. John Gottman

This differs greatly from the reverse, which is positive sentiment override, where you’re willing to see even neutral or negative qualities or interactions with your partner as positives, or as innocent mistakes, because you can give your partner the benefit of the doubt. This ability is very necessary for secure relationships, but it can be very tricky for dismissive avoidants because they have been so badly hurt, rejected and criticized by their own caregivers as children, so their nervous systems, even in adulthood, intentionally keeps them away from getting emotionally closer to adult romantic attachment figures, so viewing their partner in a negative light helps them confirm their own bias that “everyone is out to get me” so every neutral comment you make towards a dismissive avoidant partner might be seen as “evidence” that you are a bad partner and that the relationship is bad.

What is the dependency paradox?

The dependency paradox states that dependency (or relying on your partner when you need help or are in distress) does NOT lead to you becoming less capable of accomplishing things on your own; it actually makes you feel confident enough to go off and accomplish your goals on your own knowing you have a supportive partner at home who is rooting for you and who is there for you if things go wrong. A study was done with couples across a 6-month timeframe to investigate “the hypothesis that a close relationship partner’s acceptance of dependence when needed (e.g., sensitive responsiveness to distress cues) is associated with less dependence, more autonomous functioning, and more self-sufficiency (as opposed to more dependence) on the part of the supported individual.” The study found that individuals in a couple who accepted emotional support from their partner were more likely to accomplish their individual goals and be self-sufficient in 6 months than those who adopted more of a “lone wolf” mindset. So in simpler terms, accepting help when needed from your partner and allowing yourself to be in an emotionally supportive relationship will actually promote (not harm) your sense of autonomy and your ability to accomplish your individual goals. This may seem very counterintuitive to a dismissive avoidant who fundamentally believes that they have to rely on themselves and can’t accept help or emotional support from their partner in order to truly succeed in life. This study fully disproves the dismissive avoidant need for hyper independence and suggests that a healthy interdependence is actually quite beneficial for each individual in a relationship. And it applies to parenting as well- children who feel supported by their parents don’t become more needy and helpless, they develop the confidence to go and try to tackle challenges on their own with the knowledge that their parents are rooting for them and will be there should a crisis arise, whereas children who can’t successfully rely on their parents for emotional support will exhibit a lot of distress and anxiety that gets in the way of accomplishing goals successfully.

Ok, so if I’m a dismissive avoidant, how do I just stop deactivating and how am I supposed to feel safe getting close with my partner when it feels like there are so many reasons why I need to resort to my old ways?

First, congratulations on looking into self-improvement. It can be really overwhelming to face how your childhood is affecting your current life, and seeking information and new ways of thinking is a great first step.

  1. Pros and cons: Either on your own or with a therapist, create a pros and cons list of how deactivation affects your life. You might find that the pros include “temporary relief of anxiety,” “a sense of familiarity and comfort associated with being alone,” “the semblance of independence, ” etc. You might not be able to think of any cons at first. But if you think longer term, you might notice that your pattern of withdrawing or deactivating makes you feel ashamed or guilty once you come to the realization that your partner probably had positive intentions, and you might realize that running away from your partner without explanation might have made them feel abandoned, rejected, confused and hurt (which are feelings you were trying to avoid feeling yourself). You might also feel like there is something wrong with you for not being able to commit to a relationship or make a relationship work. You might also realize, after reading about what Dr. John Gottman says about stonewalling, that avoidance creates more relationship problems than it solves, and if you really want to have a healthy, longterm relationship, than a slight shift in approach may be necessary. It might be easier for you to blame your partner for triggering you in the first place. You might be tempted to say it’s their fault for being too demanding or too needy or too close, but it’s important to remember that you would want the benefit of the doubt if your partner was having those thoughts about you. You would want a chance to understand their feelings and would happily offer them some space or support if they asked for it. Your partner may have made a mistake or done something to upset you, but they can’t read your mind and no one is perfect- and if you need to take time to ask for space so you can process it before you can figure out what you need from them (space, understanding, an apology, etc) then that is totally reasonable. Treat them how you would want to be treated if you made a mistake.
  2. Boundaries and asking for space: Boundaries are your friends. You might find yourself thinking, “how do I know if I can trust someone or trust a relationship” and there is a simple test. If you choose to cut people off at the first sign of something feeling off to you, you will never really give them a fair chance, and this would feel really unfair if someone did it to you without warning or understanding. If your partner does something that triggers you, you can ask for space and promise to return to the conversation when you’re ready, at which point you can say, “I know you probably didn’t mean to hurt me, but I feel uncomfortable when you do X and would really appreciate it if you could avoid doing that going forward.” If they argue with you or invalidate your feelings, then you can confirm your suspicions that this one person (not all people) is perhaps not right for you given that they are showing signs of not wanting to respect your feelings and boundaries- so you won’t have any regret walking away and leaving that relationship. If the person responds openly to your boundary and they make a genuine effort (even if imperfectly) to respect that boundary, then you can take this as a sign that they genuinely have positive intentions towards you and are open to hearing about what you need from them, even if it’s space from them. If you don’t share this boundary with them and choose to cut them off, you could be walking away from a potentially healthy relationship out of fear and will likely have regrets and are doomed to repeat this pattern. It’s important to remember that healthy relationships have conflict and hurt feelings and miscommunications sometimes, and it’s an opportunity to communicate and gain a better understanding of each other- not a sign that things have to end. Check out this article for more on healthy conflict in relationships.
  3. Trigger management: It’s important to recognize when your sympathetic nervous system is activated. If your heart rate is accelerating, your fists are clenching, your body is getting tense and you feel stressed and anxious, this means the reptilian part of your brain (responsible for fight/flight) is activated and you are in survival mode. The part of your brain responsible for logical thinking (the prefrontal cortex) is completely shut down- meaning you are NOT capable of making good judgements and decisions and you are likely to say and do things you regret. You may have, in the past, gotten angry and broken up with your partner or blocked them on all social media platforms or decided to never talk to them again in the heat of a tense moment. Once your body returns to a calm state, you might try to justify these behaviours, but you might also start to question if they were really necessary, and may experience regret if you’re being fully honest with yourself. It’s important to give your partner the benefit of the doubt, take space and self-soothe so that you can make a more calm and rational decision. Check out this article for more specifics on self-soothing when triggered for dismissive avoidants. As part of calming down your nervous system, you may want to consider working with a therapist, meditating, journaling, or trying anxiety and trauma therapies like EMDR, DBT, neurofeedback, or even psychedelic-assisted therapies like ketamine-assisted therapies at Field Trip Health.

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