The Avoidant Adaptation to Parental Coldness
In response to feeling emotionally disconnected from their primary caregiver, a baby’s psychological defense mechanisms relate mostly to their efforts to protect themselves from the painful sting of rejection. And almost all of their safeguards to neutralize such maternal dismissal involve a kind of reactivecounter-dismissal.
So, for instance, Mary Main(link is external), a student of Ainsworth and another key name in the field, notes (in a co-authored piece entitled, “Avoidance of the Attachment Figure in Infancy,”(link is external)1982) that newborns who have a mother demonstrably uncomfortable with physical contact eventually stop responding to maternal efforts to hold them. And as Robert Karen, in his excellent introduction to the subject, Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How they Shape Our Capacity to Love(link is external) (1994), describes it: “They don’t cuddle or cling, and when held, they tend to go limp like a sack of potatoes.”
Clearly, the avoidantly attached baby has at this point decided that parental dependency is just too risky–especially since in most contexts open displays of dependency have led to hurtful disappointment. If, implicitly, the general message from the withholding (and possibly dissociated) mother is that separateness and autonomy are strongly favored, and that dependency is annoying, antagonizing, and thereby deserving of rejection, the child learns soon enough to make as few demands on her as possible. For to insistently “bother” her for love and have their efforts repeatedly dismissed only functions to contribute to the fear that they may be unlovable–and so expendable.
It’s only reasonable that children regularly rebuffed in their attempts to establish a stable, secure attachment with their mother would actively strive to reduce to a minimum their expectations for succor and support. And so they endeavor to “make do” with what little sustenance is available to them. Regrettably, under the circumstances, such an adaptation to their mother’s parental deficiencies is unquestionably appropriate. And certainly it helps to decrease otherwise intolerable levels of frustration and defeat. In what I might refer to as “precociously pragmatic,” the child establishes just enough proximity to the mother to avoid experiencing outright rejection–while at virtually every turn evading any risk-fraught opportunities for intimacy.
The unsettling fear of being turned away yet again–and the grievous upset of such failure and loss–overwhelms the innate need to feel close and “attuned to” one’s principal caregiver. As eminent interpersonal neurobiologist and psychiatrist Daniel Siegel summarizes the situation (in Mindsight(link is external), 2010), if the parent doesn’t reliably and sensitively respond to the child’s signals for contact, “even ignoring these signals and seeming to be indifferent to the child’s distress, [then] in order to cope, the child [adaptively] minimizes the activation of the attachment circuitry.”
If we were to view this situation psychoanalytically, we might wish to consider Freud’s key defenses of repression and denial. For babies who can develop strategies that allay their painful awareness of their mother’s frequently dismissive stance toward them can at the same time reduce their disquieting and anxiety-laden emotions about such keenly felt rejection.
And it’s not only feelings of hurt, fear, and despondency that the child tries to bury beneath consciousness. It’s also the anger–and even rage–at continually being denied the emotional comfort they’ve so strenuously sought (which at some level they may appreciate as their birthright). By denying almost all of their negative emotions–and doubtless those, too, of their dismissive mother–they somehow manage to assure themselves that things are all right, that they are all right, and that the little love they doreceive is, well, good enough after all. And being able to successfully deny their fundamental need for nurturance inoculates them from further attachment pain.
The bottom line here is that children, in their desperate attempts to secure whatever attachment bond may be available from their key caregiver, strive almost literally to make themselves over to become the child most likely to be accepted by her. So in the case of the avoidantly attached child, inborn intimacy-seeking behavior is replaced by behavior stressing separateness and independence–qualities that the child recognizes as strongly preferred by her. The thinking must be something like: “If I can just keep my distance and give her what she seems to want from me, then maybe she’ll meet some of my needs.” Obviously, the mother’s needs and desires must take priority over their own if they’re going to survive in such an emotionally impoverished relationship. And though the enormous personal cost of such self- (or soul-) sacrifice–especially viewed long-term–is inordinately high (as I’ll show in the concluding section), it’s still the best “deal” they can come up with.
Adult Repercussions of Having Learned to Avoidantly Attach
It should be apparent from what I’ve been describing that I perceive so-called “cold people” as, more than anything else, people who are shut-down, repressed, and out of touch with their deeper feelings. Further, emotionally alienated from themselves, they can hardly be expected to express to others feelings that they themselves are unable to access.
This critical interpersonal problem is an inevitable result of their having adopted massive defenses to protect against maternal rejection. Feeling an acute need to relinquish core parts of the self to safeguard an attachment experienced as tenuous, their expressing–and then even experiencing--certain basic emotions is simply too threatening for them. And the very worse (and saddest) part of this extreme adaptation is that what they conclude must be the best way to act around their mother can easily generalize to the best way to act around everybody. So if it makes perfect sense not to show particular emotions, or emotional needs, with their dismissive caregiver, then it probably also makes good sense to avoid these same feelings with others generally–or at least in the context of potentially “intimate” relationships.
So what are some of the most negative consequences for children whose first experiences were with cold, unresponsive mothers? As already indicated, they all revolve around “universalizing” this seminal relationship–to indiscriminately “avoidantly attach” to all those around them.
Disconnected from many of their own feelings, such individuals frequently struggle to pick up on the nonverbal cues of others, to sense what they’re feeling. Fundamental social awareness and sensitivity is lacking in them, for never having been properly attuned to maternally, their feeling (vs. thinking) side has never adequately developed. Because their caregiver couldn’t grasp where they were coming from, or allow them a “platform” to safely express their emotions, they, too, are restricted (sometimes severely) in their own ability to tune into others.
Additionally, if their mother intruded on them at times when they needed to be alone (e.g., to help formulate their own personal identity, apart from the distressing relationship so troubling them), the same wall they constructed to fend off such intensely felt violations may still be in place today. And this barrier can exist even though the present-day attachment figure (or would-be attachment figure) might be quite safe–and even nurturing–for them to get close to.
Given that the amount of shared emotion between them and their caregiver was seriously wanting, and also that they frequently felt compelled to shut down any spontaneous expression of feeling they feared might be received negatively, the very capacity for avoidantly attached adults to experience positive emotional states–such as enthusiasm, excitement, pleasure, and delight–may be dwarfed.
After all, as children, simply allowing themselves to let go and be themselves seemed like an unaffordable luxury. So, as adults, close relationships (though they really can’t explain it) just make them uncomfortable. And they feel the same way about allowing themselves to depend on others, or to trust them. How could this not be the case when they could never feel at ease in their original “committed” relationship–nor could they comfortably rely on it, or put any faith in it. “Programmed” from the very beginning of their lives to anticipate–and guard against–rejection, as adults they’re already primed to avoid anything that might possibly lead to its recurrence. And being so emotionally sealed off from others virtually guarantees that they won’t be sufficiently “available” to be vulnerable to such a threat.
Yet, it must be added, this chronic self-insulation also forever denies them their heart’s deepest desire–the loving connection that so painfully eluded them originally. Having so thoroughly repressed this longing, they’re without any feeling awareness of it. In fact, as the “dismissive adults” they’ve become, they’re even likely to think and speak pejoratively of anything so touchy-feely as, say, sharing, love, or togetherness. Avoidantly attached both as children and adults, such relational concepts as intimacy and interdependence are, frankly, alien to them.
As Siegel puts it in Mindsight, poignantly intimating their denial and lack of self-insight, “The narrative of dismissing adults has a central theme: ‘I am alone and on my own.’ Autonomy is at the core of their identity. Relationships don’t matter, the past doesn’t influence the present, they don’t need others for anything. Yet of course their needs [however unrecognized] are still in tact.”
And if they’re women and eventually marry, they’re likely (no surprise here) to relate to their newborn in much the same way as their mother related to them. Now dismissive parents themselves, they unconsciously train their own child(ren) to be avoidantly attached to them.
In the end, it’s a multi-generational tragedy: a seemingly endless loop of separation and loss. Depending, of course, on just how harshly dismissive the repeating situation started out, childhood victims of cold (or misattuned) mothering are likely to become cold adults, and then cold parents who inadvertently raise their similarly avoidantly attached children to become cold adults, and then cold parents . . . and so on, and so on.
Note 1: Discussing the ultimate resolution to, or treatment of, this millennial problem would require a book in itself. So I suggest that anyone who’d like to explore this subject more deeply check out the substantial number of works dedicated to it (one of the most recent of which is called Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find-and Keep-Love(link is external) [Dec. 2010] by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller).
Note 2: Although there was insufficient room to elaborate on the point, I might add that (as suggested by the bulleted list of traits in part 1) dismissive parents who are markedly rejecting, or emotionally absent, are more likely to produce children who eventually develop certain traits found in personality disorders–such as narcissistic personality disorder (link is external)(somewhat more likely in women) and schizoid personality disorder (link is external)(more likely in men).
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[Leon F. Sletzer]
Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., holds doctorates in both English and Psychology. Formerly an English professor at Queens College (CUNY) and Cleveland State University, he now lives in Del Mar, California, where he has maintained a general private practice since 1986. With clinical specialties in anger, trauma resolution (EMDR), couples conflict, compulsive/addictive behaviors, and depression, he has also taught some 200 adult education workshops on these subjects. In addition, he has served as consultant to both corporations and publishers.
The author of The Vision of Melville and Conrad, he has also written numerous articles in the fields of literature and psychology. He is probably best known for his professional guide book Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy, which describes a wide array of seemingly illogical therapeutic interventions. These powerful techniques can help therapists effectively resolve difficult individual and marital/family problems when more straightforward methods have proved unsuccessful.
An active blogger for Psychology Today, as of 1/1/15 his more than 250 posts–on a broad variety of psychological topics–have received over 8 million views.