Dads have a reputation for shutting down, withdrawing, and running off to play golf. But they’re not being dismissive just to be hurtful or to start a fight—they were often taught early on that their feelings do not matter, and never learned to cope as a result. Avoidant men are what you get when avoidant little boys grow up, their needs never met by attentive, caring parents.
“Avoidant individuals have learned from their upbringing that the best thing they can do is to hide their emotions, to hold things back,” Elaine Scharfe, a psychology professor at Trent University, told Fatherly. “Men are much more likely to become avoidant than women. This is because of the way we raise men to be self-sufficient and not show their feelings. Big boys don’t cry.”
Scharfe studies insecure attachment in adults, and has found that there are two flavors of avoidant behavior—fearful and dismissive. Men are far more likely to display dismissive avoidant attachment, and Scharfe estimates that a large part of that is due to upbringing. Hormones may also play a minor role in encouraging dismissive behavior among men. Several animal studies suggest that sex hormones may make males more dismissive (or aggressive) and make females more anxious.
Dismissive avoidant men usually engage in healthy, satisfying relationships—until they get stressed. That’s when they withdraw, run off to the gym, or otherwise behave as if their family’s feelings don’t matter. Avoidant behavior may have tangible consequences, too. Men are more prone to heart disease and diabetes than women, and Scharfe suspects that’s partly because tamping down emotions and keeping family at bay increases stress hormone levels and negatively impacts a man’s overall health.
With some work, an understanding partner and, in extreme cases, therapy, men can overcome their avoidant attachment styles and learn to stop running away—before it impacts their children. “They’re not bad people, they’re not bad parents, this is just what comes out when they’re stressed,” Scharfe says. “But it teaches children that people don’t care about their emotions.”