The topic of today's blog has been requested several times over the past few weeks and I'm really excited to dive in and explore this with you!
I want to preface this post by saying that a) every person is different so they express themselves differently and b) the only person who can decide if your relationship feels good for you is you. You know your partner and I don't, but I can share some insights and patterns I've seen and experienced to give you some more information about how this situation typically looks. Again, you are always the best judge of your relationship, your life, your needs, and your desire for true connection.
So let's get right to it and explore the different ways you may be able to tell whether your partner is ready and willing to do some work on your relationship.
Are you familiar with Mari Andrew? She is an author and illustrator who aptly and hilariously captures the frustrations of relationships (and many other life moments). This image is her's, and very clearly depicts a situation in which an avoidant partner does NOT want to work on things:
I realize most situations won’t feel so clear, but some do. When your attachment style lands on the anxious end of the spectrum, it can be difficult to hear what your partner may be telling you very transparently. I believe that if your partner is telling you openly that they do not want to work through your relationship challenges, you should honor their communication and listen to them. Moving on at that point is the best thing you could do for yourself.
Most of the time, it's less clear how engaged a person with an avoidant attachment adaptation is in the relationship. As we've talked about before, the avoidant adaptation is a response to an environment that was not emotionally welcoming. Folks with this style are often overwhelmed by open and/or intense expressions of emotions and feel safer in situations where they are alone and can regulate their feelings and experiences by themselves. It does not mean they do not want connection, relationships, or families. For the majority of their lives, they managed through challenging moments by using logical thinking, leaving emotions out of the equation, and moving on as quickly as possible.
If you are looking for your avoidant partner to come to you with big emotions, declaring they want to be with you and will do whatever it takes, you will likely not find that in your relationship. It's important to identify more nuanced "reaches" from your partner if they are on the avoidant end of the attachment spectrum. These are the behaviors and ways of being I have experienced as a clinician when I know a partner who has the avoidant adaptation is ready and willing to engage in relationships in a different way:
- Your partner vocalizes concern about the state of the relationship and how it feels to be in it. They recognize that there are challenges between you that don't feel good and that you are having difficulty navigating them together. They will likely express frustration, exasperation, or irritation rather than sadness about these difficulties (it doesn't mean they aren't sad about them).
- Your partner is willing to go to therapy (even if you don’t end up going). This conversation is important. Going to therapy is vulnerable; if your partner is willing to go, I believe that says a lot about what they are willing to risk emotionally for your relationship.
- Your partner recognizes and acknowledges that your needs aren’t being met. They might say things like "I know you're not happy" or "I know how sad I make you."
- Your partner has insight into the fact that they shut down and desires to change it. They are able to recognize on some level that shutting down repeatedly is a pattern for them. They would like to be more emotionally present even if they don’t know how yet.
All of these signs indicate a departure from the traditional avoidant attachment adaptation and movement toward earned secure attachment (which is all of the work we put in to developing security and healing our relationship patterns). Typically, this person has experienced many years of connection deprivation, feelings of isolation (even if they felt safer), and a lack of depth in their relationships before they recognize the ways in which they would like to shift their commitment to intimacy. This is an intimidating, scary place for avoidant folks to be—because it means that they are actively choosing to move forward in letting go of the ways they have kept themselves safe. I encourage partners to have as much patience as possible during this time so the partner with the avoidant style is able to move slowly, deliberately, and with as much perceived safety as they can have.
Here is the tricky part of all of this: regardless of whether your partner wants to work on your relationship, your focus must be on how you feel about your partnership, how you show up, and what you require for your needs to be met. We cannot fix or change anyone, as much as we would like that to be possible. When our focus is so much on our partner (especially if we are on the anxious attachment end of the spectrum), we continue an old relationship dynamic of losing ourselves rather than grounding in to who we are and what we need.
We know that early relationships were not welcoming for avoidant folks. If you are in a relationship with an avoidant partner, here is what I would like for you to consider: how are you showing up in the relationship to be as welcoming as possible? Sometimes we feel like we are welcoming, but we may actually be demanding—and this usually happens because we are burned out on being welcoming. I totally get that. When you have been asking for your needs to be met, possibly for years, without any response, you are likely going to be seriously annoyed, sad, desperate and/or by the time your partner realizes that maybe there is something going on in your relationship that must be remedied. I would encourage you to identify where you are in this process.
This information is important to communicate to your partner in a gentle way. If you are at the very end of your rope and your partner is just now waking up to the connection issues between the two of you, it is going to be much more difficult for them to come around in a time frame that will work for you. And if you don't want to stick it out, that's okay too. If you have been expressing your needs for a while and you find that they are responding, you are going to have more energy and patience to engage in the process together (and I highly encourage you to find a therapist who is well-versed and skilled in attachment theory--because this is your relationship and the stakes are high).
Paying attention to the ways your avoidant partner is engaging in the relationship and letting you know they want to work to resolve the disconnection between you is something that takes a mental shift. If you have the anxious attachment adaptation, you might be interested in spending some time focused on you, learning strategies and practices to increase your feelings of security in your relationship, and developing ways to re-wire old relationship patterns so you can experience more confidence and joy in your relationships. I have the perfect opportunity for you! My new course, Healing Anxious Attachment, launches June 26th. You can hop on the First to Know list for early access and a hefty discount (because I think you're wonderful).
Thank you for reading, as always. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!