By Chris Seiter

Published on January 2nd, 2024

Today I’d like to take a look at why dismissive avoidants are often perceived as cruel.

This is a very nuanced discussion so a one sentence explanation isn’t probably going to cut it but for those of you who prefer to read those kinds of things here’s my best attempt,

Cruelty from a dismissive avoidant is often misinterpreted as a deactivation strategy in response to an avoidants core wound being triggered. When they start to feel as if they are losing their independence they deactivate which often leads to others thinking their behavior is cruel.

Like I said, this is a nuanced discussion.

We’re going to be talking about things like,

  • Cruelty and the core wound
  • Examples of common deactivating strategies employed by avoidants
  • Why those deactivation strategies are seen as “cruel”
  • The importance of understanding the two honeymoon periods

Let’s begin!

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Cruelty And The Core Wound

A significant reason that dismissive-avoidant behavior can seem cruel boils down to their core wound.

It’s crucial to understand, especially if you’re studying attachment theory, the concept of each insecure attachment style having a core wound.

For instance, an anxious person is often terrified of being abandoned. Thus, in situations or relationships where they sense potential abandonment, they seek reassurance.

This behavior is also observed in many of our clients who have experienced actual abandonment, leading them to react in ways to mitigate that abandonment.

(Here’s a poll to show you that most of our clients are indeed anxiously attached,)

Real poll proving that most of our clients have anxious attachment styles.

For a dismissive-avoidant, their core wound revolves around independence.

They fear that being in a relationship will cause them to lose their independence.

Therefore, in the context of this discussion, much of the perceived cruelty is actually nothing more than a deactivation strategy designed to preserve their independence and prevent triggering their core wound.

About Deactivation Strategies

So, what are deactivation strategies?

Basically for a dismissive avoidant they are these conscious and unconscious thoughts and strategies that are designed to keep people at an arms length.

Check this out:

On page 113 of the book Attached (check the book out if you haven’t already) Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel Heller, M.A. make an interesting assertion.

They basically say that avoidants are quicker than others to pick up on words such as “need” and “enmeshed” related to what they consider to be negative characteristics of their partners behaviors. However, they are slower to pick up on words like “separation” and “loss,” associated with their own attachment worries. Avoidants are quick to think negatively about their own partners, seeing them as needy and overly dependent (but they ignore their own needs and fears about relationships)

But here’s the most wild part. In attached they also talk about what happens when you distract an avoidant. In this case their feelings of loss and pain emerge.

So, what does that mean?

Well, it means that avoidants constantly have this wall up and they have all these deactivation strategies designed to keep you at an arms length and them in a situation where their independence is maintained.

But what does that actually look like?

Looking At The 10 Most Common Deactivating Strategies

Avoidant deactivating strategies are behavioral and cognitive patterns used by individuals with an avoidant attachment style to maintain distance in relationships and protect themselves from perceived threats of intimacy or dependency.

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Here are ten of the most common avoidant deactivating strategies:

  • Emphasizing Independence: Prioritizing self-reliance and independence over interdependence in relationships. Avoidant individuals often assert their need to “stand on their own” as a way to avoid closeness.
  • Avoiding Physical Closeness: Physically distancing themselves from their partners, especially in moments that could lead to emotional intimacy.
  • Focusing on Imperfections: Focusing on small imperfections or flaws in their partner or the relationship as a justification for not getting too close.
  • Difficulty with Vulnerability: Struggling to express vulnerabilities and avoiding conversations that involve sharing deep emotions or personal struggles.
  • Minimizing Closeness: Downplaying the importance of the relationship or closeness, sometimes by not acknowledging the relationship’s depth or the partner’s importance.
  • Avoiding Long-term Plans: Hesitating to make long-term commitments or plans, as these can imply deeper entanglement and reliance on a partner.
  • Nostalgia for Past Relationships: Idealizing past relationships or partners, sometimes as a way to create distance in the current relationship.
  • Suppressing Feelings: Actively suppressing emotions, particularly those that relate to attachment or love, and often appearing emotionally distant or unresponsive.
  • Pulling Away When Things Get Serious: Withdrawing emotionally or physically when the relationship starts to deepen or become more serious.
  • Self-sufficiency as a Shield: Using a strong sense of self-sufficiency to avoid admitting a need for others, often accompanied by a narrative that they don’t need anyone.

These strategies are often unconscious and serve as a protective mechanism for individuals who may have developed an avoidant attachment style due to past experiences.

Your Perception Of Their Cruelty Is Usually Some Form Of Deactivation

To fully understand this I actually suggest checking out this graphic,

This is my famous “avoidant death wheel” which at its core is basically the¬†eight main stages that a dismissive-avoidant typically goes through in their cycle of relationships.

  1. Initially, they desire someone to love them.
  2. Upon finding someone, they convince themselves that their problems are resolved.
  3. However, they soon start noticing concerning aspects, and it’s often at stage three where most deactivation strategies begin.
  4. Stage four involves contemplating leaving
  5. Followed by actually ending the relationship in stage five.
  6. In stage six, they feel relief about their decision.
  7. Stage seven brings feelings of loneliness
  8. Stage eight leads to depression, ultimately circling back to stage one, where they seek love again.

It’s important to note that some avoidants might skip from stage six directly back to stage one in a new relationship, or in a pattern of on-again, off-again relationships. This aspect is more nuanced and beyond the scope of our current discussion, which focuses primarily on behaviors starting from stage three.

This is where their behavior can become cruel. You start slowly seeing things like,

  1. Emotional Withdrawal: They may withdraw emotionally, especially in situations that demand emotional closeness or when their partner expresses a need for emotional support.
  2. Minimizing Their Partner’s Feelings: Dismissive avoidants might belittle or invalidate their partner’s feelings, needs, or concerns, making their partner feel unimportant or overly sensitive.
  3. Avoiding Conflict Resolution: They often avoid addressing conflicts or issues in the relationship, leaving their partner feeling ignored and the problems unresolved.
  4. Reluctance to Commit: They may be reluctant or refuse to commit to the relationship or make future plans, which can be hurtful to a partner who seeks a more secure and committed relationship.
  5. Frequent Criticism: They might frequently criticize their partner, focusing on imperfections or flaws, which can be a way of creating emotional distance.
  6. Indifference to Partner’s Needs: Showing indifference or neglect towards their partner’s emotional or physical needs.
  7. Ghosting or Sudden Breakups: They may abruptly end relationships or stop communicating (“ghosting”) without explanation, especially when they feel too much closeness or pressure.
  8. Engaging in Infidelity: Some dismissive avoidants might engage in infidelity as a means to avoid intimacy and create distance in their primary relationship.
  9. Sarcasm or Mockery: Using sarcasm or mockery, especially in response to a partner’s attempts to be emotionally intimate or vulnerable.
  10. Limiting Communication: Deliberately limiting communication and sharing of personal thoughts or feelings to keep the relationship superficial.

My theory is it all revolves around the two honemoon period I’ve so often talked about,

The Two Honeymoon Periods And Cruelty

So, one clear aspect of understanding deactivation strategies and the associated cruelty is the idea that avoidants prefer relationships where commitment isn’t a threat, and they employ various tactics to maintain this distance.

When the honeymoon period subsides in a relationship, and the other person starts requiring more, it can trigger the avoidant’s core wound. This is when the avoidant employs deactivation strategies.

Stage three is crucial as it involves them noticing worrying things, often exaggerated or rooted in past wounds. They might have had traumatic experiences in past relationships, leading to a fear of emotional pain.

My theory revolves around the concept of two honeymoon periods.

In the ‘death wheel’, stages two and six are unique.

Stage two, the initial honeymoon period, is when the avoidant feels their problems are solved upon entering a new relationship. During this time, commitment isn’t immediately required, which they find comforting.

However, as this period fades, they start concocting reasons to leave.

This leads to stage six, the second honeymoon period, characterized by the elation of regaining independence. Here, you might witness a second wave of cruel behavior as the avoidant revels in their newfound freedom, possibly behaving insensitively or moving on quickly.

Authors Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller in their book ‘Attached’ note that:

Avoidants maintain a wall of deactivation strategies to keep others at bay. However, when distracted, their feelings of loss and pain emerge.

This is why stage six eventually leads to stages seven and eight, where the initial distraction from the breakup loses its effectiveness, leaving them to confront the pain, often resulting in further cruel behaviors or a hasty move to another relationship.

So, here’s my hot take:

It’s a misconception to label dismissive avoidants as naturally cruel. What’s perceived as cruelty is often a reaction to their deactivation strategies. Understanding the psychology behind their actions shows that their behaviors are driven by a need to maintain independence and avoid commitment.

Recognizing this helps put their seemingly cruel actions into perspective.

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