[Note: if you arrived here looking for insight into a dismissive spouse or lover, I’ve just published a book on the topic: Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) a Dismissive Partner. Right now available from Amazon Kindle for $3.99, and a trade paperback is also available.]
Much of what follows also applies to the fearful-avoidant, who can be thought of as the avoidant who haven’t given up. So when we talk about “the avoidant”, it is about characteristics shared by both the dismissive-avoidant and the fearful-avoidant.
The two avoidant types (dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant) share a subconscious fear that caregivers are not reliable and intimacy is a dangerous thing. The dismissive-avoidant individuals (who we will call Dismissives) have completed a mental transformation that says: “I am good, I don’t need others, and they aren’t really important to me. I am fine as I am,” while the fearful-avoidant are still consciously craving an intimacy which scares them when it actually happens. Both types were trained not to rely on caregivers, but the Dismissive has dealt with this by deciding he doesn’t need others much at all, and so has little apparent reason to participate in the emotional signaling of a close relationship.
Dismissives are rarely so open about declaring themselves. They think highly of themselves and will tell you they value their self-sufficiency and independence—needing others is weak, feelings of attachment are strings that hold you down, empathy and sympathy are for lesser creatures.
A Dismissive often has a story of a previous relationship which was never fully realized or ended when his partner left—early in his romantic life, or perhaps long-distance. The memory of this idealized previous partner is used as a weapon when the Dismissive tires—as they quickly do—of a real relationship and its demands; no one could measure up to the one that got away. This is another distancing trick to keep real intimacy at bay.
Dismissives have poor access to early emotional memories, having built a defensive shield of self-esteem and self-sufficiency that requires negative memories to be suppressed:
Adults characterized as “dismissing of attachment” seemed unable or unwilling to take attachment issues seriously. They answered questions in a guarded way, without much elaboration, and often had trouble remembering their childhoods. They seemed to dislike and distrust looking inward. Some exhibited an underlying animosity that seemed to imply: “Why are you asking me to dredge up this stuff?” or “The whole point of this interview is stupid!” The dismissing adults spoke vaguely about their parents, frequently describing them in idealized terms. But when pressed for incidents that might illustrate such descriptions, their memories contradicted their assessments, as negative facts leaked into their narratives. Thus, one parent called his mother “nice” but eventually revealed that she was often drunk and swore at him. When asked if that bothered him, he replied, “Not at all. That’s what made me the strong person I am today. I’m not like those people at work who have to hold [each other’s] hands before making a decision.”
This stalwart, anti-sniveling response was typical of the way dismissing subjects played down the affect of early hurts or embraced them as having built their character. Another dismissing father described his mother as “loving,” “caring,” “the world’s most affectionate person,” “invariably available to her children,” “an institution.” But pressed for details, he could not recall a single instance of his mother’s warmth or nurturance. –Karen, p. 365
Fellow students recognized the hostility and mistrust of the dismissive:
The dismissing freshmen—who had trouble remembering early experiences with their parents and played down the importance of attachments issues in their interviews—“were seen by their peers as more hostile, more condescending, more distant.” –Karen, p. 383
The buried need for emotional attachment is not consciously felt by dismissives, but their need for others can show itself unconsciously:
If a spouse is away for a period of time, it is natural to miss him. If a move is made to a new place, it is natural to feel a loss over friends and family who have been left behind and to work assiduously to create new ties to replace the old. But with separations, too, anxious attachment can deform the process. Clinical work suggests that people with what appears to be an avoidant or dismissive psychology often fail to recognize that separations have an emotional impact in them. […] When a spouse is away, a person with this psychology may become obsessively focused on work, may even celebrate the separation as an opportunity to get more work done, but then be strangely, perhaps even cruelly distant from the spouse when he or she returns. –Karen, p. 384
Dismissives will learn to get their needs for attention, sex, and community met through less demanding partners who fail to require real reciprocation or intimacy (often the anxious-preoccupied!):
An avoidantly attached boy […] will probably learn to disguise his care seeking, He may become adept at using various forms of control to get another person to be there for him; he may seek out people whose needs are more apparent and who give without having to be asked. –Karen, p. 399
Avoidants “were most likely to be workaholics and most inclined to allow work to interfere with social life. Some said they worked too hard to have time for socializing, others that they preferred to work alone. Not surprisingly, their incomes were as high as the secures, but their satisfaction was as low as [the preoccupied.]” Because of their ability to focus on work and act independently, dismissives can be phenomenal explorers and individual contributors. In fields where performance is not based on group efforts, and a lack of concern for others’ feelings can actually be beneficial, the dismissive can be a star player—for example, in some types of litigation, or some scientific fields.
In dating, avoidants can be charming and have learned all the social graces—they often know how they are expected to act in courtship and can play the role well for a time. But lacking a positive view of attached others, they expect relationships to fulfill a romantic ideal which no real human being can create for them, so all fall short and are discarded when it becomes inconvenient to continue. Typically as the relationship ages, avoidants will begin to find fault and focus on petty shortcomings of their partner. Because they are not really aware of their feelings, they can’t talk about them in a meaningful way, and often the first clue the about-to-be-dumped have that something is wrong is the avoidant’s move to break up with them. Once you have read this book, you will likely be aware of the missing signals and the many small clues that the avoidant is not committing to you or anyone any time soon, but those who are unaware of this type will usually soldier on, not trusting their own feeling that something about Prince Charming is not quite right.
The dismissive-avoidant is afraid of and incapable of tolerating true intimacy. Since he was brought up not to depend on anyone or reveal feelings that might not be acceptable to caregivers, his first instinct when someone gets really close to him is to run away. Superficially the dismissive (as opposed to the fearful-avoidant) thinks very highly of himself, and is likely to pin any blame for relationship troubles on his partners; but underneath (especially in the extreme form we label narcissism), there is such low self esteem that at his core he does not feel his true self is worthy of love and attention. Should a partner penetrate his armor, unconscious alarm bells go off and he retreats to either aloneness or the safety of companionship with others who do not realize he is not what he appears to be on the surface.
The dismissive attempts to limit his level of exposure to partners by manipulating his response, commonly by failing to respond to messages requesting assurance. In big and small ways, dismissives let you know that you are low on their priority list, and your inner emotional state is your problem—when you are with one, you are really still alone, in an attachment sense. By only partly participating in the normal message-response of the attached, they subconsciously limit the threat another poses to their independence. This behavior is called distancing, and all of us do it to limit our intimacy with others when we don’t want to be as close as they do, but for the dismissive it’s a tool to be used on the most important people in their lives.
Levine and Heller have a useful list of distancing behaviors (also called deactivating strategies):
• Saying (or thinking) “I’m not ready to commit”—but staying together nonetheless, sometimes for years.
• Focusing on small imperfections in your partner: the way s/ he talks, dresses, eats, or (fill in the blank) and allowing it to get in the way of your romantic feelings.
• Pining after an ex-girlfriend/ boyfriend—( the “phantom ex”— more on this later).
• Flirting with others—a hurtful way to introduce insecurity into the relationship.
• Not saying “I love you”—while implying that you do have feelings toward the other person.
• Pulling away when things are going well (e.g., not calling for several days after an intimate date).
• Forming relationships with an impossible future, such as with someone who is married.
• “Checking out mentally” when your partner is talking to you.
• Keeping secrets and leaving things foggy—to maintain your feeling of independence.
• Avoiding physical closeness—e.g., not wanting to share the same bed, not wanting to have sex, walking several strides ahead of your partner.
The more extreme avoidants are almost incapable of talking about their feelings; whatever feelings they do have access to are primarily negative and they have great difficulty describing them verbally. This syndrome is called alexithymia, the roots of the word literally meaning “having no words for feelings,” which is not quite the same thing as not having feelings. The worst cases can only express themselves with inchoate rages and tantrums, or unexplained physical symptoms like stomach pains and adrenalin rushes.
The most compelling theory of how consciousness arose has between-person communication (primitive language) giving rise to internal communication, so that what we see as a stream of consciousness is actually internal dialogue, talking to yourself. Noting this, you might say that an inability to name and talk about feelings cripples a person’s ability to be consciously aware of them. If one is very poor at doing this, one would tend to note feelings only as manifested in somatic symptoms like fast heart rate, discomfort, loss of energy, nervousness, etc.
This is why talking to someone about how you feel (or writing about it) is also training for being conscious of feelings internally. The more you talk about it to others, the more you can talk about it to yourself. Even for those not suffering from alexithymia, talking or writing about feelings can clarify understanding of them, which is one of the reasons talk therapy is effective.
Other relevant posts:
Dismissive-Avoidants as Parents
Why We Are Attracted to Bad Partners (Who Resemble a Parent)
Avoidant: Emotions Repressed Beneath Conscious Level
Dismissive-Avoidants: Gay and Lesbian Cases
Anxious-Preoccupied / Dismissive-Avoidant Couples: the Silent Treatment
Anxious-Preoccupied: Stuck on the Dismissive?
“Bad Boyfriends” – Useful for Improving Current Relationships
Asian Culture and Avoidant Attachment
Attachment Type Combinations in Relationships
Serial Monogamy: the Fearful-Avoidant Do It Faster
Limerence vs. Love
Rules for Relationships: Realism and Empathy
Perfect Soulmates or Fellow Travelers: Being Happy Depends on Perspective
Mate-Seeking: The Science of Finding Your Best Partner
For more on the other attachment types:
My first book on attachment, Bad Boyfriends: Using Attachment Theory to Avoid Mr. (or Ms.) Wrong and Make You a Better Partner, goes into greater detail on how the Dismissive can work on being positive and learn to value good partners, and how the partners of a Dismissive might cope with their distancing.
For more insight into a dismissive spouse or lover, I’ve just published a book on the topic: Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) a Dismissive Partner. Right now available only from Amazon Kindle for $3.99 (or local currency equivalent), but by Oct. 15th a paperback should also be available.
Dr. John Gottman’s book (The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work) is a great guide on how to strive for secure attachment with your partner when you are dismissive-avoidant, and how to be more secure in any relationship.
For more discussion of dismissives, go to Jeb Kinnison Boards: Dismissive-Avoidant.
Note: Because there are already too many comments on this page, if you want to comment, I’d recommend you start a thread at the dismissive-avoidant forum instead of commenting on this page.