Ashera is a Marriage and Family Therapist with an extensive background in sexual health education. You can ask her stuff anonymously and she won’t get weirded out. Seriously, try her. Send your questioning queries to email@example.com.
Dating has become really frustrating for me. I’ve noticed that I inadvertently push everyone away with each successive relationship I find myself in and I’m more and more closed off. I’m starting to feel like I will never really open up to anybody romantically. I guess I’m just really emotionally guarded. Can I ever open up?
Closed For Business
Dear Closed For Business,
First, you are far from the only person experiencing this. I have seen this same situation in the therapy room and among many of my friends. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it isn’t hella frustrating! What you’re describing sounds a lot like what therapists call “avoidant attachment.” Let’s dig in, shall we?
Attachment theory is one of the most solid and fascinating psychoanalytic theories out there. There are oodles of academic papers on the subject (here is a really readable one), but I’ll just be discussing the major points. Understanding how you attach (or don’t attach) can help you figure out your pattern and hopefully make some changes to have healthier relationships. You can take this easy little quiz to find your attachment style here.
When we’re babies, we are totally dependent upon our parents. We learn how to be in relation to other human beings from them and develop tools to ensure that our needs will be met. These tools and patterns are carried on into our adult relationships and we play out our unmet needs over and over.
Old habits really do die hard.
So, there are three main attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant. As babies, securely attached people felt distress when their caregiver (mom, dad, friendly gorilla, whatever) left them alone, but were easily comforted once they came back. Their needs were met and they felt confident that they would be fed and changed and sheltered. As adults, securely attached people are generally able to enter relationships where they feel they can depend on another person. They are okay with giving and receiving love and emotional intimacy. They will be sad or worried when they can’t contact their partner, but once connection is reestablished everything is OK.
Anxiously attached people are a different ballpark. As children, they were worried that their caregiver would never return and wolves would eat them, so they would cling to caregivers to ensure their survival. As adults, the anxiously attached crave emotional security. They tend to come on strong, which sadly ends up scaring people away. They may be described as “clingy” by others and will do whatever they can to keep their partners close and in contact with them. They desperately want someone to take care of them and to give them constant emotional support.
Finally, avoidant people actually fear emotional attachment. As children, they experienced distress when their caregivers left, but just learned to “suck it up.” Feeling abandoned really, really sucks, but avoidant people learned early on that if they never let anyone in, they can never be disappointed. They have a hard time finding partnerships that they feel safe opening up in. It’s far easier to keep things surface level and avoid actual emotional intimacy, which would make them vulnerable. The classic avoidant adult may really like a person, but as soon as needs begin to be unmet will end a relationship because “it wouldn’t work out anyways.” They don’t like to depend on others or to be depended on. They are masters of pushing people away.
Our attachment styles tend to dictate the kinds of partners we look for, so our styles become more and more solidified over time. An avoidant person may keep choosing people that they know won’t work out because if they went for the people they would actually be compatible with, they would have to open up, and holy crap that is SCARY. This cycle of choosing incompatible partners–>fearing disappointment–>pushing them away–>ending the relationship, just solidifies the deeply held belief that no one will ever be there for them.
The good news is that you can change this! The bad news is that it will take some hard work, but it’s worth it in the end.
As a therapist, I’m a big proponent of therapy. For avoidant people, this can be difficult because therapy is all about opening up, which makes avoidant folks want to barf. If you go this route, keep in mind that therapists are bound by HIPAA, so legally they cannot go talk about you or your problems to other people. What happens in therapy stays in therapy, so practice opening up there. Once you actually say out loud what’s going on in your head, you may find that you’re carrying beliefs that no longer serve you.
There’s a lot of work you can do all by yourself as well. Take a look at your closest relationships. Is there anyone that you feel you can depend on? What are your friendships like? If there are people that you feel you can depend on, what told you that you could do that? How did you know you had hit the point where you could depend on them and how did you get there? Building romantic partnerships can be a lot like building a friendship. I encourage people to try to make a friend on a first date. After all, it’s a lot more pleasant to go in feeling chill and trying to find common ground than constantly questioning whether they “LIKE-like” you.
While being avoidant can be lonely, it does have its strengths that you can use to your advantage. Avoidant people are self-motivated, mostly because they never want to depend on other people. Use that self-motivation to challenge yourself to open up a little more each week. Tell the people around you what you’re feeling instead of “sucking it up.” Try to work through a conflict with a friend or coworker instead of just bottling it up and moving on. Healthy conflict management is how relationships deepen. If people can learn to handle little “bumps” together, it’s easier to see big bumps coming and to either avoid them or deal with them together.
Lastly, really examine your dating habits. How have you chosen your past partners? When did you start to withdraw from them and why? Remember, becoming emotionally unavailable is a tool you learned to keep yourself safe and it’s done its job so far. You’ve honed the ability to spot “deal breakers” fairly early on and can separate yourself from relationships that are not right for you. The trick is to learn to open up more fully with the right people. It’s always helpful to figure out what you would like to have out of a partner so you can be mindful of how you start your relationships. I threw in my two cents on that subject here. Once you have a map, you can figure out how to get there.
Avoidant Attachment Theme Song
One day you’ll find someone worth opening up for, because what you have to share is golden.