Navigating the Retreat of Dismissive Avoidant Attachment

Written 02/02/24

In the landscape of attachment theory, the Dismissive Avoidant (DA) attachment style is characterized by more independence and self-sufficiency, often at the expense of close emotional connections. Individuals with a DA attachment style tend to distance themselves from others, especially in situations that could lead to emotional intimacy. In relationships where one partner has a Dismissive Avoidant (DA) attachment style, a common scenario can unfold during moments of conflict or emotional intimacy. The DA individual may shut down, dismiss concerns, or become defensive. From the outside, this behavior can appear as if they are not showing up for their partner, leading to feelings of neglect and insignificance. Thus a partner of a DA may accuse them of not showing up or being there for them emaotionally. This can often lead to the partner becoming more intense, which can lead to a negative cycle when the DA begins the retreat. 

The DA's tendency to emotionally shut down is a protective mechanism, one that is often deeply rooted in their past experiences. It's not uncommon for those with a DA attachment style to have learned early on that expressing emotions was unsafe or unwelcome. In childhood, they often had to deal with emotions themselves and thus learned to shove it down or compartmentalize it. As a result, when faced with emotional demands or potential conflict, their instinct is to retreat into themselves, to a place where they feel in control and secure. For a partner, this can be received as their partner running away from them and not wanting emotinal intimacy. Further, it can leave their significant other feeling abandoned and questioning their worth in the relationship. This can be especially painful for individuals who may have their own attachment wounds related to being seen and valued. They might interpret the DA's defensiveness or disengagement as a sign that their feelings and needs are unimportant, reinforcing a cycle of insecurity and dissatisfaction. 

This behavior, however, is not without its underlying causes—core wounds from early life experiences and significant relationships that shape their approach to closeness and vulnerability (see the sidebar for more).

Example of DA Behavior and Partner Response

Partner: "I feel like you're not really here with me when we talk about something serious. It's like you're distant and I'm alone in this."

DA: "I don't know what you want me to say. I'm listening, aren't I?"

Partner: "But you seem so cold and detached. It's like my feelings don't matter to you at all."

In this example, the DA's response is to minimize the situation, which is a common defense against the vulnerability of engaging emotionally. However, for their partner, this reaction can feel dismissive and uncaring, as if their emotional experience is being invalidated.

The Antidote to Help Your DA Partner Regulate

DAs often cope with their core wounds by withdrawing emotionally and maintaining their autonomy. They may avoid deep emotional conversations, resist making long-term commitments, or focus excessively on work or hobbies (not necessarily things that the partner needs help with or is concerned with) as a means to distance themselves from their partners.

Healing for those with a DA attachment style involves recognizing and confronting these core wounds. It requires an understanding that seeking emotional closeness does not equate to weakness or loss of independence and that it can be safe, though initially uncomfortable. Therapy can be an invaluable tool in this process, providing a safe space to explore vulnerabilities and learn new patterns of relating to others. However, if done alone, the DA may not open up enough and avoid digging deeper, which can prevent therapy from being effective. Involving a partner in the individual counseling, thus, can be an invaluable tool. 

For DAs, learning to communicate needs and emotions in a healthy way is crucial. This might involve setting aside time for self-reflection or journaling to better understand their emotions and how to express them constructively. Of course, these things dont feel natural for a DA. Thus, while initial commitment may be there, follow through on these things that could help is often not done. It's also about learning to listen to and validate their partner's feelings without feeling threatened or overwhelmed.

When it comes to assisting a Dismissive Avoidant (DA) partner in regulating their emotions, the approach must be tailored to their unique attachment needs. DAs often require space and autonomy to feel safe and may become overwhelmed by too much emotional intensity or pressure. The antidote lies in respecting their need for independence while gently encouraging them to express themselves.

The essential antidote a partner can use is in creating a safe environment for a DA to open up by finding the delicate balance between giving them space and being emotionally available. It's important to offer support without pushing them to share more than they're ready to (very hard for the FA). A simple, non-invasive acknowledgment of their feelings can go a long way but it does require patience as the DA often processes at a different speed:

Partner: "I sense that you might need some time to process what we're discussing. I'm here when you're ready to talk, and I want to understand your perspective when you feel comfortable sharing it."

This kind of response respects the DA's boundaries and communicates patience and availability without demanding immediate emotional openness.

Encouraging a DA to express their emotions doesn't mean pressuring them to do so; it means creating an atmosphere where feelings can be discussed without judgment or criticism. Doing otherwise creates the conditions that led to the DA to be avoidant and not express emotions. This can be achieved by sharing your own emotions in a calm and non-confrontational manner, which can model vulnerability and invite them to do the same:

Partner: "I feel a bit disconnected when we don't talk about things that are important to us. I'm not trying to pressure you, but I want you to know that your thoughts and feelings are valuable to me."

By expressing your own needs and feelings in a way that doesn't blame or corner the DA, you're showing them that it's safe to open up. This doesn't necessarily get a quick and desired response but it does help set the foundation for which a DA is more likely to engage back rather than revert to a negative strategy such as shutting down. Remember, a good dance requires two people to come to the floor and participate.  A DA is more likely to participate with a gentle request rather than with a harsh request, complaint or statement. 

(See my Future blog on Common Complaints of an FA and ways to address this with your partner. This includes things like Discipline Approaches and Lack of Patience with Children, Prioritizing Work or Hobbies over a Relationship, Being on the Phone too Much)

Patience is Key

It's crucial to remember that change won't happen overnight. DAs have likely spent a lifetime building up defenses against vulnerability, and it will take time and consistent effort to adjust these patterns. Patience and understanding from their partner can make a significant difference:

Partner: "I appreciate when you share things with me, and I know it's not always easy. Take  some time. I'm grateful for the moments you let me in."

The antidote for helping a DA partner regulate is a combination of space, patience, and gentle encouragement. By respecting their need for independence and providing a non-threatening space for emotional expression, you can help your DA partner feel more comfortable with intimacy. This approach can lead to a more balanced and fulfilling relationship where both partners feel heard and valued.

The journey towards healing for someone with a DA attachment style is one of gradual opening and acceptance of emotional vulnerability as a strength, not a liability. By addressing the core wounds of their attachment style, DAs can learn to balance their need for independence with the human need for connection, leading to richer and more fulfilling relationships.

Common Wounds of Dismissive Avoidant Attachment

Examples of How Wounds Could Develop