Why You Shouldn't Avoid Avoidants (this is a bit controversial)
A dear friend texted me last week and linked to an article from the Washington Post about attachment. I love seeing the concept of attachment theory in mainstream media because I believe we should all be talking about these ideas in our relationships, friend circles, and communities. I was excited to sit down and read the article. I try to approach articles like this from a beginner’s perspective and notice how I might receive the information if I was in a crisis point in my relationship and needed support. Here are the first two paragraphs of the article:
A few years ago, a friend of mine brought me her copy of the book “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find — And Keep — Love.”
“You can keep it,” she said, explaining that she is an anxious attacher. “I see the patterns everywhere now; I will never date an avoidant again.”
As an attachment specialist and someone who is working hard to support people in understanding our learned relational patterns and create more conversation, community, and compassion around our human-ness and adaptations, I was pretty frustrated with this. Of course, the author didn’t say this—her friend did—but for someone who is just starting out in understanding attachment styles, I don’t feel it’s helpful to even throw that out there as an option. And when I say option, I mean making an active choice to avoid an entire group of people based on our perception of how they show up in relationships.
I’ve also said that how you move through the world in relationships is totally up to you. Your boundaries and needs are yours to determine and you know yourself best. If you believe avoiding avoidant folks is what you need to do, then I support you in taking care of yourself. If you’re at all skeptical about the concept of avoiding avoidant people, I encourage you to keep reading. We have some things to sort out together.
I do think it’s important to be discerning when choosing a partner. In fact, it’s one of the most important first steps of a healthy relationship. For those of us who have worried we will not find the right person or a person to be in relationship with at all, we might not have been as discerning as we could have been in previous dating scenarios. In her book All About Love, bell hooks notes that “it was painful to face the discrepancy between what I wanted and what I had chosen to accept” in partnerships. Learning to calm our attachment systems and our deep longing for acceptance and love (which is usually a trait of folks with a more anxiously attached system) is a worthwhile and effective way to shift how we make the choice to be in relationship with someone else.
A partner who doesn’t have self-awareness or isn’t interested in growing with you is probably not a good bet. This trait can belong to a person with any primary attachment style. I believe the popular literature that exists about attachment theory does not distinguish between people who are lacking self-awareness and people who have avoidant attachment. They are not the same thing. However, a partner who is willing to learn, who understands their shortcomings and acknowledges their wounds, who is willing to do the uncomfortable healing? Personally, I would say yes to that person. It seems to me that having the expectation that we will begin a relationship with someone who has done all of their healing work and is “perfect” is unreasonable because I don’t think we are ever "done" if we are staying awake in our lives and continuing to evolve. And unfortunately, I believe some of the books and resources out there currently around attachment are setting us up for high expectations and big disappointment—just as movies and romance novels are telling us we should have something totally different than what any of us actually have in our relationships.
People on the avoidant end of the spectrum (I also like to call them “highly boundaried” because they often feel they need to have walls up to stay safe) are not bad people. They aren’t mean. They often grew up in families where their parents wanted what was best for them. They were likely praised for how they completed tasks or activities rather than how they engaged emotionally. Emotional intelligence wasn’t highly valued in their family. This will be a learning edge for them; it will take time, safety, education, and in all likelihood, a partner or another close person to model what that looks like in relationships.
And don’t forget: we all have some avoidant parts. We all have some anxious parts. We all have some disorganized parts. And we all have some secure parts. You can’t really avoid people who have an avoidant part, because we all do.
The article goes on to talk about the “spark” that comes from folks with different styles feeling attracted to each other. And it’s true—the anxious-avoidant pattern is the most common pairing. I agree with the author that these pairings can be challenging. However, saying they aren’t “built to last” is a generalization I don’t agree with. I believe these pairings can create a depth and breadth of understanding and compassion that other pairings don’t have—if the partners are willing to show up and do the work together.
Secure attachment happens over time. It happens as we build trust, as we show up for each other. It happens because we feel safe. We didn’t ask for our attachment styles, but it is our responsibility to heal ourselves so we can pass healthy attachment on in our families, however we identify them. To heal our patterns, on a cellular level, and cut ties with the old ways of being.
We must take responsibility for our own healing and needs. People who are primarily anxious (and I speak from experience) can be focused on finding someone secure so that their relationship feels more stable and less daunting (because relationships are vulnerable and that can be terrifying). And I totally understand that. Security is important regardless of your primary style. Having a secure partner doesn’t mean you won’t have arguments, that things won’t get hard in your relationship, or that you will be together forever. The more secure you are, the more secure your partner becomes; the opposite is true as well. If a secure person pairs with someone who is highly anxious, they can become more anxious if they aren’t working together to create more security in their relationship. Being with a secure partner doesn’t mean you won’t feel anxious anymore. Being with a secure partner means your anxious experiences will be received differently in the relationship (with more presence rather than retreat or overwhelm). You are still responsible for your healing. No one can do it for you.
People who are avoidant also want healthy relationships. Getting healthy looks different for folks with that style than it does for anxious people. I think there is some cultural stuff going on here, too—we believe avoidant people have the least favorable attachment style because it’s centered on feeling safe by retreating. Anxious people feel safe by reaching. My guess is that most folks who choose to author books about attachment don’t have avoidant-dismissive as their primary style. That’s just a guess.
I wonder what it would be like to set our standards differently. Rather than broadly saying “I don’t date avoidant people”, we might say “I prefer to have relationships with people who are willing to do the work, who are open to change (even if it’s difficult), and who are committed to working toward our best selves and best relationship. I’m kind of into creating security together.”
I can’t wait to hear your thoughts about this. How does this land with you? Let me know in the comments!
Update: I encourage folks to read the comments on this post as we have much to learn from each other. I want to acknowledge the fact that if a person with a primarily anxious style has been in an abusive relationship with someone who is primarily avoidant (and the avoidant partner was not doing their work to heal themselves and improve their presence and emotional availability in the partnership), it would likely be very difficult and possibly re-traumatizing for the anxious partner to land in a new relationship with a primarily avoidant partner. Even folks who are primarily secure can behave avoidantly at times, so the triggers will still happen but to a lesser degree (and with greater responsiveness from the secure partner). As I mention in this post, you are the only person who can determine what type of relationship is right for you. We are all here for healing and every person, regardless of their style, can heal if they are open and ready for it.
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.