Asian Culture and Avoidant Attachment

Avoidant Asian-American

Avoidant Asian-American

Of course Asian cultures are far from homogeneous, but the stereotypical performance-oriented treatment of children in some Asian cultures (notably Chinese and Japanese) may have some effects on social problems due to attachment issues now that their societies are not as punitive toward those who fail to marry and act out their family roles as formerly required.

Psychology Today reports some thoughts by Sam Louie on issues seen frequently in people of Asian cultural background:

Attachment theory is neither a Western or Eastern conceptualization of parenting styles since its roots are in evolutionary psychology through the study of the infant-mother bond of primates.

“Attunement, or sensitivity, requires that the caregiver perceive, make sense of, and respond in a timely and effective manner to the actual moment-to-moment signals sent by the child. Infants who develop confidence in their caregivers are securely attached because their caregivers have proven to be reliable.” (Dr. Siegel & Dr. Sroufe)

The relational implications from this theory resound strongly today as research and longitudinal studies show the predictability of early attachment relationships on significant relationships later in life. Children who have attachments considered “secure”, in the sense that the mother or primary caregiver are attuned to the child’s inner experience and show consistent responses by validating those needs are much more likelier to thrive emotionally than those who experience an “insecure” style of attachment.

Dr. Alison Lee and Gail Palmer of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists sum up insecure attachment as this, “In an insecure attachment strategy, one can become overly preoccupied with the relationship or exhibit the opposite reaction of withdrawing or investing less of oneself in the relationship. The first strategy is characterized by blaming or critical behaviors, whereas the second strategy is more likely to involve an unemotional or dismissive stance. There is a third attachment strategy that some individuals–who have experienced either severe abuse or neglect as a child–can develop and that is to both seek contact with the significant other, but then reject the contact when it is offered.”

While culture doesn’t determine a child’s attachment style, it does impact what attachment styles are encouraged. In my own work with Asian clients, I see a large number of them coming from an insecure attachment style described as an “avoidant attachment” characterized by emotional dismissiveness, avoidance or withdrawal.

If expressing emotions is frowned upon, then suppression of one’s emotions is seen as the best way to deal with negative emotions such as frustration, distress, anger, hurt, or sadness. In life, it may look like compulsive caregiving or excessive over-compliant to garner approval from parents, thus avoiding rejection, disapproval, or shame. But it can also lead to an idealization of parents and distortion of healthy relational boundaries due to the shame-bound culture in Asian families.

Here are a few clinical examples:

• A 28 year old Cambodian woman comes in complaining about her need to “always be there” for her parents (emotionally and financially) since her father is a life-long gambling addict. After two months of helping her recognize her role in the unhealthy cycle (e.g., she always bails her dad out of his gambling problem by giving them money when he needs it) and how she needs to draw healthier boundaries with them, she comes into session one evening, headstrong and adamant, telling me, “I’m done with therapy and just need to move beyond my past and stop being angry. I can’t always dwell on my parents’ shortcomings and need to just move forward and be happy.”

• A 42 year old, married Taiwanese man comes into therapy because of arguments for independence from his parents as they want him to contact them more frequently. “My parents shame me and scold me for not seeing them multiple times a week by comparing me to their friends’ kids who take their parents out to dinner every other day. I tell them I’m trying to build a marriage with Victoria and need some distance but I know I’m putting my mother’s needs ahead of my wife’s. Unfortunately, I just don’t know how to stop it.”

• A 22 year old Vietnamese college student seeks treating for feeling suicidal after complaints of having to lie for his adulterous father. “It makes me angry I have to lie for him, it strengthens my lack of trust and I have suicidal thoughts because I’m ashamed of my blood line. It makes me hate of who I am.”

• A 33 year old Korean man confides to me that he had an affair and impregnated the woman he was having the affair with due to his inability to express his anger at his wife for not wanting to have children.

In all these case studies, none of them had a childhood where emotional intimacy was encouraged. There were no opportunities where feelings were shared or encouraged in an open, safe, and non-judgmental manner. Instead, all of them learned to hide them and the feelings of shame associated with expressing their emotions continued in adulthood.

In many of the avoidant-attachment styles, the hard work in therapy is helping clients realize their feelings mattered. Validating and drawing them out is significant work. Helping them find words to address vulnerable feelings such as those related to emotional neglect, loss, pain, and confusion is no easy task. Furthermore, some of those with avoidant-attachments have developed similar childhood relational styles in their primary adult relationships where being emotionally vulnerable, authentic, and “attuned” to their spouse is replaced with a lack of connection and the need to isolate and withdraw emotionally when intense feelings arise.

I think his examples of “avoidance” are more clearly seen as secure or anxious-preoccupied children unable to detach from their parents and their parents’ old-fashioned expectations for support and integration in a modern world — except for the man who can’t confront his wife, who is more clearly avoidant. Not wanting to argue or constantly be nagged by parents is not unhealthy; letting them destroy your life with their demands is, and an anxious-preoccupied, clingy mother is prevalent in many village cultures. Italians and Jews with parents rooted in the old culture have similar issues.

Parental responsiveness to a child’s inner state is most critical in the first two years, and it is likely that even cultural biases against showing feelings would not prevent parents from responding with attention and concern, but in later childhood years an austere or clingy style of parenting can still influence the child toward that style for their interaction with significant others.

More on Attachment and Personality Types:

What Attachment Type Are You?
Type: Secure
Type: Anxious-Preoccupied
Type: Dismissive-Avoidant
Type: Fearful-Avoidant (aka Anxious-Avoidant)
Avoidant: Emotions Repressed Beneath Conscious Level
Serial Monogamy: the Fearful-Avoidant Do It Faster
Anxious-Preoccupied: Stuck on the Dismissive?
Anxious-Preoccupied / Dismissive-Avoidant Couples: the Silent Treatment
nxious-Preoccupied: Clingy and Insecure Relationship Example
Domestic Violence: Ray and Janay Rice
Malignant Narcissists
Teaching Narcissists to Activate Empathy
Histrionic Personality: Seductive, Dramatic, Theatrical
Life Is Unfair! The Great Chain of Dysfunction Ends With You.
Love Songs of the Secure Attachment Type
On Addiction and the Urge to Rescue
Sale! Sale! Sale! – “Bad Boyfriends” for Kindle, $2.99
Controlling Your Inner Critic: Subpersonalities
“Big Bang Theory” — Aspergers and Emotional/Social Intelligence
Porn Addiction and NoFAP
Introverts in Management


  1. Interestingly enough, every time I return from Japan, I find myself to be more dismissive/avoidant in my relationships than before I go there. I’m a white Latina from the US who goes to Japan every few years for a few months at a time.

  2. it would be interesting if you could, to look into attachment styles with south asian (i.e indian and pakistani) cultures. I had a partner who is most definitely avoidant to the T; he has the lowest self esteem ever, avoids dealing with it via drinking/drugs- we’ve broken up and even now he follows a textbook pattern of putting on a massive front, being lovely with me to a point, then avoiding and being very aloof or very horrible when things get intimate. he finds our relationship very difficult because i’m ‘too emotional’ for him, yet sticks around, even if i show no interest in sticking around anymore.

    he himself is british but his parents are from an indian culture. he has very stereotypically indian father, who was quite abusive in his childhood, and mother who at least i think he feels did not meet his needs as a kid because she was depressed. both seemed to pile on the pressure of his success. this isn’t the first time i’ve heard about this and it seems like a big thing in indian/ south asian culture! and also I wondered how true that is, and if this is common – if the culture clash partly brought about my friend’s behaviour? i remember once when he wrote about how alone he felt growing up because he felt like what he was getting at home wasn’t going to be understood by everyone he was around (white british ppl) and I wondered how much having parents from another culture affects attachment?

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