There’s no guidebook on how to love someone. According to attachment theory, our previous relationships form the default manual, especially the bonds we had with our primary caregivers when we were kids, which set up emotional patterns that show up in our adult relationships. There are two main dimensions of attachment: anxious, marked by worry about being abandoned, and avoidant, or how uncomfortable you are with emotional intimacy, which shows itself in simple things like how much you talk about your feelings, and why you might shield your partner from what you’re experiencing.
In a poignant new study in the journal Emotion, Washington University psychologist Heike Winterheld found that the closer an avoidant person felt to their partner, the more they withheld their emotional troubles from them, called “protective buffering.” In surveying hundreds of people with different levels of avoidance, she also found that the reason someone put a fence around their feelings mattered a lot: doing so to keep yourself safe led to depressive symptoms and other negative mental health outcomes, but trying to spare your partner from distress did not.
This casts avoidant attachment—associated with the suppression of feelings and an overemphasis on autonomy— in a hopeful new light: “It is often assumed that avoidant people hold back to defensively self-protect, e.g., to avoid feeling vulnerable,” Winterheld explained to Thrive Global over email. “This research shows that avoidant people may also hold back because they want to protect their partner, particularly when they are highly invested in the relationship.”
Winterheld ran four different studies with a total of more than 800 participants. All of them were recruited online, and they completed a variety of self-report questionnaires measuring their attachment style, their mental health and how much they disclosed their difficulties to their partners.
In the first experiment, she found that highly avoidant people thought it was wrong to burden their partners with emotional disclosure. In studies two and three, participants were asked to recall a challenging life event outside of their relationship—job loss, death in the family, or the like—and rate how much they talked it over with their partner and their motivations for doing so. The fourth experiment queried both members of a couple dozen couples and found more depressive symptoms when a partner was self protective, and also that partners could read whether or not the withholding was to self- or other-protective.
Winterheld found that when avoidant people felt really connected with their partner, they held back their feelings in order to avoid burdening them. Conversely, feeling less connected was linked to self-protection. There might be a bit of an interpersonal vicious cycle at work here, she added: the self-protective behavior can more easily be read as distancing and hostile, which a partner might be put off by, leading to feelings of loneliness and lower self-regard.
The roots of avoidance run deep. As Steven Tuber, a City College psychologist not involved in this study, explained to Thrive Global, children attune to their parents to create the best home situation they can get—allowing them to secure the love they need, or simply surviving childhood with less trauma than they’d otherwise receive. “People will do whatever it takes to create the greatest form of adaption for them,” he says. “If a very young infant, or a child in the first, second or third year of life, figures out that if they act a certain way they have tremendously increased the chances of getting the best aspects of their parents towards them, they will tend to act that way.”
Avoidant people were trained to be so by their caregivers because their expressions of distress—complaining of trouble at school, the loss of a pet—might have been shrugged off as trivial or stupid. So, Winterheld says, they learn to hold back their emotions to maintain whatever levels of affection and positive regard they can get from their otherwise dismissive caregivers, who might directly or indirectly be encouraging their stiff upper lip. “Over time, this may have led to the formation of beliefs that ‘keeping their stress to themselves’ is the right thing to do, and that it’s wrong to burden others with one’s distress, especially if one wants to keep them close or is dependent on them,” she says.
The insights unearthed in this study are useful for people who identify as avoidant (you can take a quiz to find out your attachment style here) and for the people who love them. Avoidant people may find it helpful to consider the way their behavior might be construed by their partners: even if they’re trying to spare their partner additional worries, there’s a chance their loved one could end up feeling pushed away or rejected. Rather than assuming that nobody wants to hear about your problems—which happens a lot with perfectionists—a little meta conversation can be helpful. Just check in with the partner to see if they’d like to hear about what you’re going through.
Similarly, if you’re with an avoidant person, you shouldn’t assume that they’re holding back because they want to create distance, Winterheld says. It might be that they want to avoid imposing on you. Consider asking them about their emotional experiences, and in doing so, reassure them that their emotions are, in fact, not a burden to you.