- Heather B MacIntosh PhD
Attachment Theory 101: Lessons from the Farmyard Instalment Three
Hnaggur the Icelandic Gelding—Grumpy old man or Dismissing Avoidant?
Dismissing Avoidant Attachment Style
In this post, we are going to talk about the Dismissing Avoidant Attachment style (for a review of Attachment Theory take a look at the first blog in this series). For someone whose approach to relationships is Dismissing Avoidant, the internal working model is one that says, “I am just fine, and worthy of love” and, “others are not so great, might hurt me, and should be avoided at all costs”. For someone with a Dismissing style of connecting with others in their lives, there is a lot of avoidance of connection but not a lot of anxiety about themselves. The Dismissing Avoidant person may feel that relationships aren’t worth all of the effort and claim that they have little need for companionship, connection, comfort, and closeness.
A person whose approach to relating with others is Dismissing will also find that their strategies for self regulation or managing and tolerating challenging emotions centre on being alone and require a kind of solitude where they can manage their feelings on their own. A Dismissing Avoidantly attached person, if they are able and interested in being in a couple relationship, will likely end up with a Preoccupied partner. They need the Preoccupied partner to be the glue in the relationship—to admit to wanting, needing, even loving, connection with another person can feel really threatening to the Dismisser. So, the Preoccupied partner takes all of the “heat” for being the one who holds it all together and often feels all of the pain of how hard it is to stay in connection.
But…there’s a catch…like all of the attachment styles, the Dismissing Avoidant style of attaching arises out of early experiences and, for this person, those early experiences would have told them the story of other humans not being reliable, available, safe, and soothing. The lessons learned include the entrenched belief that connecting with other humans is a very dangerous proposition, indeed. So, for many, or most, the safest thing is to send the message right back into the void—I’m just fine, I don’t need you anyway!—and, thus, the often false impression that they have high self-esteem and feel just dandy about themselves, is born of the need to protect themselves. A vital strategy to survive the early pain of not having the soothing, settling, reliable, consistent, warm, and responsive, caring that any small person needs to grow into an adult person who can be open and able to engage with others intimately.
The Dismissive Avoidantly attaching person can be found wandering through the world behaving as though they don’t need or want closeness with others. This is what is on the surface of the experience of relatedness and their behaviours of dismissing, denigrating, disavowing, and even insulting and making fun of those who seek connection and share vulnerability, serve to keep others at bay; these behaviours usually work. Since they are not aware of strong feelings of desire for connection, the person who uses Dismissing strategies for coping with the world and relationships often finds themselves alone. At the same time, when a person whose strategies for relating to others are Dismissing Avoidant, when they do find themselves in relationships, often with preoccupied partners who hold it all together, they may find themselves in couple therapy and have an opportunity for change; they rarely come to therapy of their own volition.
While they may not be aware of feelings of longing and loneliness, they often end up using strategies for self-soothing and settling that focus on external solutions like drugs, alcohol, casual sex, food, or other things that can happen outside of bodies and outside of relationships. These work in the short term but, they tend to have an expiry date, a time when the body, mind, or self, starts to suffer and pain.
Don’t be fooled, while the Dismissing Avoidantly attached person puts themselves across as thinking quite highly of themselves and sends the message that they don’t think others are worth their time and trouble, they are often struggling with feelings, or lack of feelings, of emptiness, anxiety, and numbness.
Hnaggur the Icelandic Gelding—Dismissing Avoidant Attachment disguised in a grumpy old man
The Icelandic people talk about “old” and “new” style horses. The new style Icelandic horses are a little taller, a little sleeker, a little lighter, and, a lot more interested in attaching to their humans—Trissa was a “new” style Icelandic. There is a suggestion that the latter trait may have been bred in through selective breeding to appeal to the vast and lucrative North American horse market, people who do not need a horse for survival of their farms and families. The old style Icelandic horses are short, stocky, built like Vikings and tough like Vikings—nothing scares them, nothing tires them and, nothing can slow them down. These are the horses the Vikings brought with them to Iceland over a millennia ago and these are the horses that Icelandic people needed to survive the stark environment of their isolated island. These old style horses don’t have much time for hugging and cuddling, they are busy toting that barge and lifting that bale. Our Hnaggur (pronounced, a sniffy H that comes through the nose, gnaw, grrrr—they don’t make it easy for us) is, most definitely, an old style Icelandic horse, a classic example of the Dismissing Avoidantly attached horse.
Hnaggur is a 19 year old Icelandic gelding who came to MerryMac farm when he was 16. He had lived in many homes, a bit of a wanderer, never really becoming attached to anyone or any place and, no one becoming attached to him. In trying to learn about his history, I learned that he had been passed from owner to owner, never really being anyone’s number one horse and always being the “guest horse” the steady reliable steed used when friends came to ride but, never the first one chosen for the team. I have the sense, simply a gut feeling, that everyone was a little intimidated by him, a little afraid of his rather jerk-like exterior, and that, perhaps, he had never really been loved. Hnaggur had had excellent training by one of the top trainers of Icelandic horses, was very smart, and nothing frightened him on the trails so, you would think that he would be the horse that no one would ever let go of…not so. You can tick every box on the list but, if there is no love or attachment, there is no glue, nothing holding the bond together. So, time after time, when lives changed and things were shuffled and horses sold, Hnaggur was always the first boy out of the coral, leaving behind the horses that got to stay.
By the time he came to us, he was one seriously cranky old dude. Looking into his eyes, one did not see oneself reflected, it was as though he was in there but no one else existed for him. Hnaggur did not look up in response to his name, was not interested in any friends in the paddock, and, expressed his lack of desire to play nice by running through fences if he disagreed with where he had been put, dragging people around by the lead rope if he wasn’t so keen on going where you wanted to go, kicking and rearing up in his well appointed and large stall and destroying all of the walls and barriers placed around him, and snorting and snuffling like a fire breathing dragon if you asked him to do or go, something or somewhere, against his wishes.
One of the things about attachment security is that when we are securely attached or, find our blessed way to earned security with someone, we can engage in co-regulation. We can turn to others for support and care when we are feeling overwhelmed and that allows us to continue to think, breathe, talk, and solve problems, instead of getting into a high state of activation and ending up in yee aulde fight, flight, flee reactions. So, for Hnaggur, because he approaches the world through the lens of the Dismissive Avoidant strategy for negotiating relationships, when he is distressed, his go to response is to rely on himself, to the exclusion, and sometimes detriment, of others, and then, because that doesn’t really work too well, he loses his “mind” and ends up in a state of—for him anyway—flight if he can get away and, fight, if he can’t.
Like many horses, Hnaggur is not a fan of being away from a herd and neither is he a fan of standing in an enclosed metal box and flying down a highway (a horse trailer). And, because of his Dismissing strategies, Hnaggur turns away, rather than towards soothing, comfort, reassurance and co-regulation. Early in our relationship, it was necessary to take Hnaggur and Trissa on a four hour trailer ride. Trissa was a fairly staunch resister to getting on the trailer but once on, tended to be completely content. Hnaggur, on the other hand, hopped on without complaint and then, it was rock n’ roll time. On this particular day, Hnaggur was loaded and tied first and Trissa was being particularly uninterested in loading onto the trailer. While there was someone with Hnaggur, the whole time, trying to settle and soothe him, he quickly lost sight of that person, began to escalate into a dysregulated state and, when this happens you can see and feel him losing touch with those around him and moving into acute survival mode. As he escalated, he began to rear up and as I attempted to calm and soothe him, provide him with food (always a safe bet with an upset horse—I know….), and talk him down, he could simply not see or hear me and, eventually, he reared up over the trailer bar that was at his chest, put his legs over the bar and ended up hung up on the bar and completely trapped. There was no easy way to get him out and he was in full on fight/flight. All of his 900 pounds of weight was coming down on that chest bar, so much so that there was no way to pull the quick release lever to drop the bar. Thankfully, calmer heads prevailed and Hnaggur’s trainer brought out bales of hay, built them up in front of him until they were high enough from him to put his weight on and lift himself up, over, and out. Hnaggur landed on his face, tearing his lip and hurting his front legs and, even then, he was still a fire breathing dragon ready to run. It did not matter that there were people there to care for him, to help him, to soothe and nourish him, all he could rely on was his own self as he fell into the abyss of dysregulation and did everything he could to get away, even if it meant hurting himself. We drove all the way back to MerryMac Farm with about 20 bales of hay at the front of the trailer to stop him from rearing up again.
He has been with us for three years now. I don’t think Hnaggur will ever experience an earned secure attachment with us. It’s hard to tell if it’s age—in human years he’s close to 55--, temperament, his lived experiences of being moved around, or, simply how his brain is wired after a life of shutting humans out of his mind; it’s probably closer to a combination of all of these things. What I can say is that when I look into Hnaggur’s eyes now, I do see myself reflected—not with love or affection or curiosity or, you know, any of the things that suggest an interest in attachment—but, with trust. Hnaggur trusts me. And, since I love Hnaggur for all of who and what he is, that trust is a gift, it is a sign that something has changed, something is different, another being exists for him outside of the herd, and, he belongs in the MerryMac world. Hnaggur gives us the gift of renewing acceptance for beings we don’t always understand, over and over again, for beings who don’t give us what we imagine we want and need, for creatures who make us earn their trust. Hnaggur will likely never love me in the way that the others horses and I have a big freaking sloppy love fest but, he trusts me, I love him, and that is enough. When I call his name across an acre field, he looks up, gazes for a moment and then goes back to the food, he acknowledges my existence and I accept his old style self. That doesn’t mean I won’t give him a stern talking to when he decides that he is going to decide where we ride and how fast when he’s just not feeling it for a slow, steady walk through the trails!