If you are in a relationship with someone who tends to operate on the avoidant side, I imagine you feel more anger, frustration, and desperation than you do compassion for your avoidant partner. I hear that. I used to feel the same way, especially when I was in relationships with avoidant folks and I felt shut out, shut down, and disconnected most of the time. As I talked about last week in part one of this post, my experiences with avoidant partners were incredibly challenging and often had me wondering what was wrong with me in relationships and why I was always "too much" for my partner.
These days, I have more of a soft spot in my heart for people whose attachment style is primarily avoidant. I think I feel this because a) my current partner’s style is not primarily avoidant (although I’ve been there before and know how difficult it is) and b) I have now witnessed the pain and sadness my avoidant clients experience when they are sabotaged by their old relationship patterns and aren’t able to connect the way they want to in relationships. It’s heartbreaking and although this way of living feels safer to them on some level, it's not a rewarding way to be in relationships with others.
I’ve compiled some information here that I hope will feel supportive for you as you navigate the complex dynamics of an anxious-avoidant relationship pairing. I want you to know you aren’t alone in experiencing this—and that there is hope to change the pattern. This is a personal belief that some popular authors who write about attachment may disagree with, but I will share it anyway: I believe the anxious-avoidant relationship pattern can be changed if both partners are willing to do the work to make it happen.
I don’t believe it is helpful to avoid avoidant people—and at the end of the day, it just perpetuates the same dynamics they experienced earlier in their lives and continues a harmful pattern of relating in our culture. I believe we are here to heal each other. The important part of this is that the partners in a relationship are willing to work hard, be vulnerable, and commit to making changes with each other’s support (and probably also the support of a skilled therapist). I believe writing off people who are avoidant does a disservice to all of us.
As I say all of this, I want you to know that I believe you should take care of yourself in whatever way works for you. If not dating or being in relationships with people who have a primarily avoidant style is what you need, I fully support you in that. Taking care of yourself is the most important thing you can do, always.
I want to emphasize that we all have different pieces of the attachment pie—even as someone who is primarily secure with a big slice of anxious in the mix, I notice my own avoidant tendencies appear sometimes when I really need space and my partner is particularly engaged in our relationship. The right circumstances trigger my avoidant patterns--and until I'm clear about what those circumstances are, my partner is likely to experience me in a disconnected way. So even if we think we are avoiding avoidance, we probably aren’t. If you are really into someone and you realize they have avoidant tendencies, I personally believe that if they are engaged and ready to do the work to identify and modify their automatic relationship patterns, it is entirely possible to shift the dynamic and become more secure together.
If you are in a relationship with someone who has an avoidant attachment style, these concepts might help you develop a deeper understanding of what is happening for them:
- Folks who are avoidant still have feelings. They love people. There is a part of them that desperately wants to connect in a deeper way. However, because of early relationships, cultural or familial beliefs, or general lack of emotional resonance or reciprocity from the important attachment figures in their lives, people with the avoidant style are terrified of connecting. They may have put themselves out there to connect previously and were shut down emotionally, reinforcing the idea that being expressive and open is unsafe.
- People with avoidant attachment have often normalized being independent, alone, and isolated. They may take some pride in this because it’s become their reality, and it’s the way they find power in it.
- Connection and intense emotions actually trigger the fight/flight/freeze part of their brains and their nervous systems move into activation when they witness their partner having a big emotion, or when intimacy increases in a relationship. They learned that big feelings meant something was wrong--because big feelings weren't allowed.
- When people with this style are totally overwhelmed by emotional expression from their partners, they often say things like “calm down, this isn’t that big of a deal”, “why are you yelling right now?” or “I can’t talk to you when you’re upset like this—go calm down and then we can talk. You are overreacting.” This response dismisses their partner’s experience and can trigger further anxiety and a heightened emotional response, and the anxious-avoidant relationship cycle begins in full-force. The avoidant partner pulls away, the anxious partner chases them, and everyone feels upset.
- When your avoidant partner shuts down, they are panicking internally and experiencing fear and overwhelm even though their outer expression of emotions appears flat, dismissive, or non-existent.
- People with an avoidant style have a more difficult time naming feelings and sometimes even recognizing they are even having them. In their upbringing, they may have internalized the belief that their feelings were not welcome, so they learned how to operate in the world by compartmentalizing their emotions and spending more time in their minds.
- Self-protective behaviors can keep interactions feeling superficial. This isn’t because avoidant folks don’t want connection; it’s because connection is terrifying for them. The times they may have connected in the past might have been painful for them and risking that pain again doesn’t feel like an option.
- Commitment can be challenging because people with the avoidant style feel safer when they have a way out of a situation. Commitment means intimacy, it means vulnerability, it means navigating the messiness of human relationships--and that messiness can feel scary (for all of us!).
Feeling shut out or disconnected in relationships can feel extremely distressing. As we have talked about before, our brains are wired to be in relationships with others. When you have a partner who has a desire to connect but feels they can't, you can feel stuck, sad, and hopeless about your relationship.
I believe there is room for healing. There is potential for change, for breaking down and rebuilding the ways we relate to each other and the world. But only if we are ready and willing to do the work. And in relationships, that means both people.
What questions do you have about being in relationships with people who have a primarily avoidant attachment style? Do these experiences and concepts resonate for you? I am working on a new project and would love to hear your thoughts so I can best support you in navigating these relationship challenges.
Please remember you are not alone in this dynamic--and that we are all here to heal, increase our feelings of security, and have healthier, more fulfilling relationships. Shifting these dynamics is tricky but so rewarding. I'm right here with you.
p.s. It's here! The Healing Anxious Attachment Online Course
I understand how stressful it is to experience anxious attachment moments--and I want to support you in healing those old patterns so you can experience more ease, calm, and joy in your relationships with others.
This course will:
- clearly explain what anxious attachment is, where it comes from, and why we have it
- discuss what is needed to HEAL anxious attachment
- provide scripts and suggestions for healthy communication in relationships to reduce anxious attachment experiences, including communicating needs effectively, choosing the best time to have a tough conversation, celebrating when things go well, and processing effectively when they don’t
- daily practices to increase self-soothing, resilience, self-esteem, and boundary-setting
This course is for anyone interested in feeling healthier in relationships. You don't have to be in a relationship currently to benefit from the material. You can learn more and get started here.
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