Trust is so important to feeling safe enough to be true and real. And sometimes we have to take the risk to trust, but if trust has been precarious or ended in abandonment a lot before and in our young early lives it makes it harder for us to ask for support, allow ourselves to feel it is safe enough to be real and true or honest. We may then need to move into denial, self negation and avoidance as a defence. We may come to believe that we have to survive alone, keep our real self and true feelings thoughts and perceptions hidden. We may learn that we cannot depend and therefore we won’t realise or accept that others need support at times. We may come to feel that expressing needs is a sign of weakness, we may then develop a false self who is strong and invulnerable when really that is not the truth of what we feel inside. We may unknowing construct elaborate defences to keep opening, connecting or trusting at bay. Welcome to avoidant attachment!
I am currently reading the chapter Keeping Love At Arm’s Length in the book I mentioned in an earlier post, Attached : The New Science of Adult Attachment and its been a bit of disheartening experience for me, as I recognise not only elements of my last partner’s way of reacting but also my own and it now appears to me that for most of my life I have switched between anxious and avoidant attachment defences both of which come out of the challenges of a childhood, adolescence and early adulthood in which I learned I really couldn’t trust, lean on or depend on others consistently. In fact I can look back now at times real help has been offered to me in later years and it was difficult for me to accept it and I am coming to think that even running off to the UK following the end of my marriage all came out of desperation and avoidance and fear, fear, fear and it led to that major head injury.
My only salvation is knowing I am absolutely powerless over the way I responded due to a traumatic history in the past. I was doing the best I knew at the time. I see how as much as others affected me in my youth, now as an adult I have a responsibility to see how my own reactions may have led to pain or caused pain for others. Most especially in my last relationship I found it hard to trust, at the same time I attracted someone who would not allow me to have needs and genuine feelings, even anxious ones, possibly my feeling these evoked his own defences and so we came to blows. Anxious people often attract avoidants which is the genesis of the distance/pursuer pattern in relationships. A secure person will soothe the anxious person’s fears, the avoidant will just shame them or accuse them of acting crazy. The saddest thing too is that in a relationship with or as an avoidant, just as you start to collapse your defences and get close something happens with a pull back on either side and closeness is thwarted.
For the avoidant they learn to look at the person they are in relationship with from a glass half empty perspective. In one way this happens just as real feelings of desire for connection and intimacy arise. the avoidant person then looks for the flaws in that person to justify why they should withdraw or pull back. This pattern elates to the work of Robert Firestone I touched on in an earlier post which relates to why and how destructive, critical inner voices develop which start to tear the other person apart or list a myriad of reasons why we should not connect or reach out in love. Hidden deep inside this pattern are unconscious fears of not being safe or being hurt or rejected.
The avoidant may demand perfection of a partner rather than be willing to accept a real and true authentic warm human who may have some flaws but also has good qualities. Research has shown avoidants rate people less favourably even when they acting in a supportive, caring or loving way. due to their own dismissive attitude towards connectedness. They start to see the glass half empty or the worm in the apple, rather than the apple itself.
At the beginning of my last relationship I had a very powerful dream in which inner feminine figures told me I was going to be used by the person. I am not sure now if these were the protector figures of my own inner psyche which I also read about in Donald Kalsched’s book The Inner World of Trauma, to explain why at critical points in therapy the person will get inner messages telling them it isn’t safe to trust or open up to the therapist for fear of being hurt or misunderstood as we were in the past. He also claims that often these inner protector figures will function to arrange someone’s suicide. Its all a protection mechanism driven by the depth of pain and loneliness of the person’s past. Who knows? It could have been a warning dream as in the end he did abandon me but most of our difficulties came out of not being able to trust open up and get beyond our old childhood defences, which is sadly what I now realise and I also see the part my own need to avoid at times played dovetailing with his.
In addition avoidant people since their emotions, feelings and needs were not taken seriously or responded to with empathy in childhood will not be able to read the emotions and cues of others a lot of the time. They may reject need and feelings in others. This was my experience with my past partner. He once told me that I was not allowed to have needs of my own and if I did he would not put them first, since his own always came first. People looked at me aghast when I told them in my recovery group and asked me why I stayed. Because that was what I was used to childhood, a childhood in which I was conditioned not to need or hope for too much.
I now look back with sadness about how at time in my marriage I was also not able to read the needs and feelings of my husband. There were times I left him alone and then told him he wasn’t allowed to have his feelings about it. At the time I was trying to work on my own therapy, a therapy he tried to tear down due to his own insecurities. If I had more emotional maturity at that time I would have see his anxiety and insecurity as a call for empathy and soothing this but at the time I could not. I was still very early in my own emotional recovery at that stage.
If you do have an avoidant style it doesn’t have to be a life sentence. The purpose of Levine and Heller’s book is to provide strategies for avoidant people to react in different ways to expression of need in relationship, how to identify when unrealistic expectations are beginning to poison promising relationships and help with understanding why and how defences of the avoidant style operate if you wish to grow and change. Change of old attachment and unconscious reaction patterns is possible if we have the capacity to be honest and engage in self reflection in order to improve both inner and outer connections but we have to be willing to engage with our fears and own them while having the courage to open up, let go and find a new way forward.