Updated: Sep 16
Posted August 11, 2023 | Written by Stephanie Underwood, RSW
Deactivating strategies are behaviours used by individuals with avoidant attachment styles to distance themselves from emotional intimacy and dependence on others.
There are 6 Types of Emotion-Based Deactivating Strategies; Fear-Based, Sadness-Based, Anger/Resentment-Based, Self-Avoidant, Anxiety-Based, and Shame-Based.
Not everyone who exhibits avoidant attachment will employ the same deactivating strategies, nor will these strategies manifest with the same intensity.
In the complex landscape of human relationships, understanding attachment styles is crucial. One particular style that often mystifies both professionals and those experiencing it is the avoidant attachment.
Characterized by a strong sense of independence and often a fear of intimacy, those with avoidant attachment may employ specific strategies to distance themselves from others. These deactivating strategies can lead to misunderstandings, strained relationships, and personal challenges.
In this complete guide, we will explore the intricacies of avoidant attachment deactivating strategies, shedding light on why they happen and how they manifest. Whether you’re a mental health professional, someone who identifies with this attachment style, or simply interested in the dynamics of human connection, this straightforward guide offers insights to help unravel the complexities of avoidant attachment.
It's important to recognize that attachment exists on a spectrum, and individual experiences and behaviors can vary widely. Not everyone who exhibits avoidant attachment will employ the same deactivating strategies, nor will these strategies manifest with the same intensity. People are unique, and their attachment styles can be influenced by a myriad of factors. Therefore, the information presented here may not apply universally and should be considered as a general guideline rather than a strict rule for every individual.
What is a Deactivating Strategy?
A deactivating strategy is like a mental "off switch" for emotional closeness. Imagine if you felt uncomfortable when people got too close to you emotionally, so you unconsciously found ways to put distance between yourself and others. These strategies can be things like focusing on a person's flaws, avoiding intimate conversations, or even physically distancing yourself from someone when the relationship starts to feel too close. It's like building an invisible wall to keep emotional connections at a comfortable distance. It's a common pattern in avoidant attachment, where deep connections may feel threatening or uncomfortable.
Categories of Deactivating Strategies
Deactivation strategies are behaviours used by individuals with avoidant attachment styles to distance themselves from emotional intimacy and dependence on others. These deactivation strategies are sometimes organized by different emotional states. This categorization is more of a user-friendly tool rather than a clinically-founded system to better help communicate and understand the functioning of these deactivating strategies. There are 6 types of deactivation strategies; Fear-Based, Sadness-Based, Anger/Resentment-Based, Self-Avoidant, Anxiety-Based, and Shame-Based.
Fear-based deactivating strategies are behaviours or thought patterns that people with avoidant attachment styles use to protect themselves from perceived threats to their independence or autonomy. The core of these strategies is fear of vulnerability, fear of dependency, fear of being hurt, and fear of losing one’s sense of self.
Fear of Dependency
They might continuously emphasize their need for independence and self-sufficiency, even in situations where relying on a partner would be appropriate and beneficial.
Out of fear of being seen as weak or being hurt, they may avoid sharing their true feelings, concerns, or worries with their partners.
Fear of being trapped or losing their autonomy might lead them to avoid discussions about the future, dodge commitment, or resist labels in relationships.
They might downplay or deny their emotional needs, trying to convince both themselves and their partners that they don’t need comfort, reassurance, or support.
Pulling Away When Things Get “Too Close”
If they feel that a partner is getting too close or the relationship is becoming too intimate, they may create distance by becoming distant, picking fights, or focusing on the partner’s flaws.
Sabotaging the Relationship
When feeling trapped or overwhelmed, they might intentionally create problems or focus on negative aspects to justify their fears and create a reason to pull away.
Sadness-Based Deactivation Strategies
These sadness-based deactivating strategies may be less overtly detectable but are equally impactful in preventing closeness:
Believing deep down that they’re unworthy of love or care, they may downplay their achievements, needs, or feelings, thinking that they don’t deserve attention or recognition.
Suppressing Memories of Positive Intimacy
They might avoid or forget instances when they felt close or connected to someone to safeguard themselves from the pain of potential loss.
Focusing on Impermanence
By constantly reminding themselves that all good things come to an end, they might protect themselves from the pain of possible future losses.
Avoiding Relationship Milestones
Important moments like anniversaries or meaningful shared experiences might be downplayed or avoided, stemming from a sadness-based belief that they don’t deserve lasting happiness.
Withdrawal During Stress
Instead of seeking comfort during tough times, they might isolate themselves, believing that their sadness or pain is a burden to others.
Disbelief in Genuine Care
Even when a partner shows genuine care and affection, they might dismiss it, thinking it’s not sincere or that there’s an ulterior motive. This disbelief is often rooted in deep-seated feelings of unworthiness.
Anger/Resentment/Spite Deactivation Strategies
Avoidant individuals sometimes employ deactivating strategies rooted in underlying feelings of anger or resentment. These feelings often stem from past betrayals, disappointments, or perceived injustices in their early attachment experiences.
Nitpicking or Criticism
They might focus on their partner’s flaws or mistakes, using these as reasons to maintain emotional distance or to justify their avoidance of intimacy.
Even after conflicts are resolved, they may hold onto past transgressions, using them as barriers against getting too close or as reasons not to trust their partner fully.
Instead of communicating their feelings directly, they might express their anger or resentment indirectly through subtle digs, sarcasm, or by withholding affection.
Avoiding Conflict Resolution
They might pull away or shut down during arguments, using their anger as a shield against deeper emotional engagement or vulnerability.
Out of resentment for past experiences where they felt controlled or smothered, they may overly emphasize their need for autonomy, pushing their partners away in the process.
Projecting Past Hurts
If they’ve been hurt in the past, they might preemptively anticipate betrayal or disappointment from their current partner, even if there’s no basis for such beliefs in the present relationship.
Disengaging from Emotional Discussions
They may respond with anger or annoyance when their partner seeks emotional connection or discussions, using this as a way to end the conversation and maintain distance.
Self-Avoidant Deactivating Strategies
Self-avoidant deactivating strategies refer to the ways in which avoidantly attached individuals distance themselves not just from their partners, but also from their own emotions, needs, and vulnerabilities.
Essentially, these strategies are ways they disconnect from parts of themselves. Here are some self-avoidant deactivating strategies:
They might routinely suppress or dismiss their emotions, especially those that indicate vulnerability, like sadness or fear. These self-avoidant strategies serve as protective mechanisms to shield the individual from the discomfort or pain of confronting their own vulnerabilities. However, over time, they can lead to a sense of isolation, not just from others, but also from one’s own self.
Denial of Needs
They may convince themselves and others that they don’t have emotional or relational needs, emphasizing self-sufficiency to an extreme degree. They may not be aware that they have emotional needs and how these should be met in a relationship.
Instead of genuinely feeling and expressing emotions, they might analyze them, turning them into abstract concepts, thus avoiding the raw experience of the emotion.
Distracting Self with Activities
By immersing themselves in work, hobbies, or other activities, they can avoid introspection and the confrontation of their own emotional needs or feelings.
They might resist or avoid deep self-reflection, meditation, or any activity that involves facing one’s inner emotional world.
Self-reliance to a Fault
Even when it would be beneficial to seek help or lean on others, they might insist on handling everything on their own, believing that relying on others is a sign of weakness or a potential threat to their independence. It can also be the result of not trusting others/finding others unreliable to depend on.
Dismissal of Past Traumas
They may downplay or dismiss the impact of past traumas or negative experiences, even if these events still affect their behaviour and feelings.
Anxiety-Based Deactivating Strategies
While avoidant and anxious attachment styles are often discussed separately, it’s essential to recognize that individuals can have mixed features or shift between styles based on the context and relationship dynamics. While these strategies are influenced by anxiety, it’s the response (pulling away and deactivating) that aligns them with avoidant attachment behaviour.
Even though they may not outwardly express it, they might constantly be on the lookout for signs of rejection, betrayal, or disappointment, often expecting the worst.
Overemphasis on Boundaries
Out of an anxious desire to protect themselves, they might establish excessively rigid boundaries, making it challenging for their partner to get close.
They may imagine worst-case scenarios in their relationships, leading them to pull away before those imagined scenarios can come true.
Testing the Relationship
Even if they don’t acknowledge it openly, they might create situations to “test” their partner’s loyalty or commitment, driven by underlying anxieties about the relationship’s stability.
After moments of closeness, they might become anxious about having revealed too much or having become too vulnerable, leading them to retract and distance themselves.
Seeking Reassurance through Distance
By pulling away, they might unconsciously hope that their partner will chase after them or display signs of wanting them, thereby momentarily alleviating their relational anxieties.
Shame-Based Deactivation Strategies
Another underlying emotion that can drive deactivation strategies in avoidantly attached individuals is shame. Here’s how shame-based deactivation might manifest:
They may go to great lengths to hide perceived flaws or mistakes from their partner, fearing judgment or rejection if they are seen as imperfect.
Avoiding Discussions of Past
If they harbor shame about their past, they might evade or deflect conversations about their history to avoid feelings of inadequacy or judgment.
When confronted or criticized, even constructively, they might become overly defensive or dismissive, trying to shield themselves from the shame of perceived failure or inadequacy.
Isolating During Mistakes
If they believe they’ve made a mistake in the relationship, they might withdraw or isolate themselves, driven by feelings of shame.
Out of a deep-seated sense of unworthiness, they might dismiss or downplay compliments and positive affirmations from their partner.
Shame can make individuals fear that they are fundamentally unlovable or flawed. This fear might lead them to avoid situations where they might be vulnerable and exposed to judgment or rejection.
Projecting Onto Partner
They might project their feelings of shame onto their partner, pointing out their partner’s flaws or inadequacies to deflect attention from their own.