You know that moment, your partner walks through the door after some time apart. You’re excited to see them, anticipating a warm, heart felt reunion, but no sooner have they arrived, than for some reason you turn from the vulnerable, warm, loving, expressive, soft hearted person you thought you were, into quite frankly a bit of an iceberg! Something primitive takes over and renders you helpless to resist a force that tells you to punish the person who ‘left you’, albeit perhaps only for a day!
Recognise yourself? I certainly do!! I always thought it was just that I was a bit dysfunctional or maybe an old cow, but now I have a name for it and it’s helped me understand this particular behaviour, not only in myself but in other people and very helpfully, my kids. The psychological name for this type of behaviour is defensive detachment.
Defensive detachment is the way we instinctively protect ourselves from being hurt by separation, rejection, humiliation, or abandonment. We are designed as human beings to form close psychological attachments to other human beings, in fact, our healthy psychological development relies on it. But, when those attachments are not as strong or as deep as they need to be, or when they are used against us, our brain steps in with a mechanism to protect us from what can hurt, kind of like a, ‘I’ll dump you before you can dump me’ syndrome.
Defensive detachment exists on a scale and the level of detachment I’m referring to above is fairly low down. At it’s most severe it tends to occur when we have been terribly hurt, humiliated or abandoned by those we are designed to be most closely attached to, (children to their parents for example). However, as I find with most psychological explanations and concepts, there is a surface level of information that can provide a very useful insight into the everyday relationship sore spots that can leave us feeling bemused and befuddled at our own and other people’s behaviour.
Let me try to explain this a bit more clearly, firstly using the adult/child relationship. Children naturally seek to be attached to their parents (loved by, approved by, important to, significant to). Whilst we nurture and guide them through life in the context of unconditional love, support, acceptance, tolerance, patience etc, we maintain a strong emotional attachment which keeps the child’s heart soft and open to relying on us and depending on us. From that place we can effectively parent them (most of the time!).
However, if we use and abuse the child’s attachment needs, through humiliation, exclusion, fear and conditional love, the child can, over time become defensively detached from us. I’ve watched this at play with my own kids and noticed when it kicks in. It’s generally when I’ve lost my patience and used my power as their parent against them in some way, usually by issuing a threat and usually by shouting! I might well win the battle in that instant, but I can almost immediately feel it’s a hollow victory because I’ve threatened the incredibly precious bond between us, and all too soon, afterwards they are distant with a, ‘who cares, you can’t hurt me anyway’ attitude. When this happens I know I’ve got some work to do in order to enable them to let me back in.
It happens in a slightly different way in my marriage and usually when we’ve been incredibly busy, or one of us has been away for a while. Both of us are good at operating independently, but after a while the ‘wall’ we’ve constructed around our hearts in order to cope alone, starts to work against us in terms of being able to be open and close once we are back together. Of course, it’s one thing to know this, and quite another to know what to do about it! There is often resistance even though you know you need to re-establish an emotional connection! For me I need to be hugged even though that’s certainly NOT the vibe I put out! I know that on the other side of a hug is a place where my heart softens and the distance between us disappears. The more I feel the resistance the more I know I need it. In summary I’d say you just have to trust in the process, a bit like knowing you’ll feel great after the exercise class that in the moment you really don’t want to go to!