If You Are In a Relationship with an Avoidant Partner
I am going to be completely honest here and do a little self-disclosure: I have always been in relationships with people who have shown up with some piece of the avoidant attachment adaptation. Always. My current partner is much more secure and only occasionally will the avoidant part come forward (side note: we have gone to therapy together to work on this dynamic, it didn’t just “happen”), but we had our struggles at the beginning of our relationship, and I fell into my old anxious patterns. We had to do a lot of work to get to where we are now.
This is a little embarrassing and quite vulnerable, but I recently re-discovered a poem I wrote in college while I was dating someone with a primarily avoidant relationship style (please keep in mind the time frame if the poem feels a bit dramatic to you). At that time, I had no language whatsoever to describe what I was experiencing attachment-wise, but when I read it now, my heart breaks open with compassion for the person I was and the experiences I had. I am going to share it here and I’m curious if you relate in any way if you have been in a relationship like this:
i'm banging on the glass
wondering why no one can see me
i pull my credit card out of my wallet
and proceed to pick this stubborn lock
it's worn, i know
tired of being bothered
but it's so strong
not even my tiny hands and sharp tools can convince it otherwise
kicking the door won't help
it only tightens the hinges, and they will freeze there
makes it harder to open in the end
and i'm so frustrated
because as i stand outside of this building
tears on my cheeks and my heart in my hands
in this building full of stories and secrets
and feelings that want to come out
there is a person
who has never had anyone who has listened, or wanted to listen
this person has something to say, and i want to hear it
i want to hear it more than anything
and he is standing there, on the other side
of this thick glass that he's created
that he doesn't know if he can break down now
so i put my nose to the glass
my breath fogging the window
it's so cold out here.
and i place my mittened hand on his, on the other side of the glass
i look right in his eyes
and i won't look away
and i ask him
even though i know he can't hear me, and may never be able to
'why won't you let me in?'
When I sit with this poem now, the relationship dynamic makes so much more sense to me than it did then. I consistently found myself in relationships with avoidant people because I didn't know how to do romantic relationships any other way. I believe in our society, there is a belief that relationships are just hard, so we should expect that our partners will not be emotionally available. There is also a damaging belief that folks who are on the masculine end of the spectrum should not openly share their feelings (and many folks aren't taught how to do that, anyway), and that people on the feminine end of the spectrum are "needy" because they do.
There was a part of me that believed I didn't deserve consistency, stability, or fidelity in relationships, which is part of the reason I sought out relationships with people who had a significant avoidant attachment edge to them--because I never felt I knew "for sure" that they were invested in the relationship. I had a difficult time reading them, and the protective/defensive emotional stance they took in relationships triggered my anxious and critical side. And because of the anxious attachment adaptation part of me, I was always looking out for what negative event would happen next in our relationship. I was willing to settle for interactions that weren't ideal and I assumed there wasn't anything better than what I had with them. I was willing to sacrifice my desires and needs to maintain the inconsistent connection with the other person. Those relationships also felt a bit addictive in some ways--I would want the relationship so badly, find a fleeting positive moment with them, then it would go away again and I would obsess about finding it again. The obsessive quality of new relationships is common, but I'm talking about something different. I wasn't thinking about them all the time because I liked them so much; I was terrified all the time that they weren't into me, that they would leave me, that they were cheating on me. Basically, it was horrible.
What amplified this dynamic was the fact that I wasn't aware of my own attachment style. I believed my anxiety was a result of the other person's behaviors and choices. I didn't own it in any way. I gave my power away in relationships because I spent so much of my time reacting to their moods and actions without prioritizing my own needs or desires. I lost myself in those relationships and when it came time to really ask for what I needed, I didn't know anymore. I participated in a dynamic that clearly wasn't working.
If you are in a relationship with someone who has a primarily avoidant attachment style, I would encourage you to take a moment to focus on your attachment style and emotional and behavioral patterns. It's easy to focus on what we aren't receiving rather than what we have to work with right in front of us. This does not mean the challenges in your relationship are your fault. It's an opportunity to consider the role you play in your relationship dynamic and do everything you can to "keep your side of the street clean." Consider the following questions:
How do you usually show up in relationships? Are there themes or patterns you can identify?
How do you usually express your needs? Do you? What tone do you use to express your needs? When do you choose to express them (or not)?
When your partner is emotionally unavailable, how does that feel for you? How do you respond?
When your partner is available to you, how do you respond? Are you open to that or do you unintentionally shut it down because you are used to them not being there for you?
If you have any part of the anxious adaptation, being in a relationship with a person who has any avoidant adaptation can be really difficult. But here is what I believe: we are here to heal each other. In the moments we are triggered, it can be challenging to remember that none of us chose our attachment styles. They are adaptations to our environments, to our experiences, to our relationships throughout our lives. Folks who are avoidant do not choose to be avoidant, but they do choose whether they want to continue on this way or work toward healing some of their relationship wounds. The same goes for people with the anxious adaptation. If we look at attachment as a spectrum, we all have the opportunity to meet each other in a more secure place. It takes work.
This blog is the first in a series of several posts about being in a relationship with a partner who has an avoidant style. I know how important it can feel to find relief quickly in an anxious-avoidant attachment pattern, and I want you to know I hold that for you as we explore this together. Next week, we will be focusing more on what is happening for folks with the avoidant style as they navigate relationship dynamics, from their perspective.
If you are interested in learning more about your own style and how you show up in relationships, I want to offer my June Attachment Exploration Group. The virtual group (using an online video platform) happens each Tuesday evening in June at 7pm EST. It's a beautiful opportunity to find some support, learn more about yourself, and identify the ways you can show up more fully (and the ways you might be sabotaging yourself in relationships). You can learn more information here, and I would love to have you with us.
We are all learning together, and I'm so glad to be here with you.
(You can go here to read Part 2 of this blog post!)
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One of my passions is supporting people in deeply understanding the avoidant attachment style. I've created a self-paced online course called Understanding Avoidant Attachment. This information will support you in healing yourself (regardless of your attachment style), your relationships, and your family line. The work you do now changes everything from here on out. This course is designed both for people who have the avoidant style AND people who are in relationship with someone with the avoidant adaptation. You can expect concrete tools, strategies, and lots of compassion for wherever you find yourself in your healing.