Is Your Partner Avoidant or Abusive? Let's talk about the differences.
I receive many comments on my blog posts about people with the avoidant attachment adaptation. Some people feel relieved to know that there are ways to work with this attachment style and foster more secure connections in their relationships. Other people respond strongly to the posts, letting me know that they don’t feel it’s at all possible to work with this style and people with the avoidant adaptation should absolutely be avoided. This means I have the opportunity to provide clarification and continue to explore this topic in more detail.
So that’s what we’re doing today.
I want to acknowledge how complex this concept is and state that there is no way I will cover every single aspect of it in one post. There will probably be things I miss. What I can tell you is that I am writing this post with the purest of intentions, with the goal to clarify what feels to me is an inaccurate conclusion that has been supported repeatedly and is now creating harm in our communities and relationships.
As with every blog post, I want to remind you that your experience is YOURS. I’m not here to tell you what is right for you, that you should stay in your relationship, that you should end your relationship, or that there is something wrong with you or your partner. In fact, that is the last thing I want to do. I am here to provide a perspective that is rooted in my own experience as a person and a clinician. I am a human being, too, with an opinion and a heart—and we might not see things the same way.
I have experienced situations where people equate the avoidant attachment style with abuse. Here is what I want you to know: people with the avoidant attachment adaptation are not inherently abusive. This stereotype is not only extremely harmful for the people who are working hard to heal themselves, but it’s dismissive of their early experiences and their deep longing to connect with others. Whether we see it or not, people with the avoidant style are protecting themselves against hurt, pain, and abandonment by shutting down and moving away. There are people who are avoidant who are open to increasing their ability to tolerate discomfort, stay engaged in a process that feels emotionally overwhelming, and learn how to share in a way that feels right for them. Part of the problem is that we are often told that all people with this adaptation don’t want to do the work—and it’s just not true.
People who are avoidant are avoidant for a reason; it doesn’t just happen. Often times, when people are avoidant, we attribute their behaviors to personal choice rather than an understanding that their behaviors and worldview stem from their experiences and those experiences have shaped how they show up in the world. However, that doesn’t mean that people are not responsible for their behaviors or actions in relationships. In fact, I think that part of what heals us is taking responsibility as adults and understanding that we get to have a say in our healing. We may not be able to change what our experiences were when we were younger, but we are able to say “I’m an adult now and I want my relationships to look this way.”
It is also likely that people who are avoidant will be experienced as *neglectful* rather than abusive in relationships. The avoidant partner shuts down, moves away, closes off, or in some other way removes themselves from the interaction. Is this abusive? This is where I believe we need to take a good critical look at this situation. In my experience, not having your needs met is not the same as experiencing abuse and when we conflate the two, I believe we are minimizing the experiences of people who have experienced emotional or physical abuse. This does not mean neglect is not painful. It absolutely is. If your needs are not being met in a relationship because your partner is pulling away, you have the power to choose to end the partnership. If your partner is manipulating you, mentally or emotionally, or physically enacting harm, intentionally isolating you, or in some other way intentionally creating a situation where you are unable to ask for help or support, we have moved past an avoidant attachment style and in to something much more harmful and potentially dangerous that involves power and control. But these are not qualities of the avoidant style on its own.
The Power and Control Wheel below gives insight into abusive behaviors.
I appreciate this quote from Sarah Schulman, the author of Conflict is Not Abuse:
To me, this means we have a choice and a responsibility about entering into and/or continuing a relationship with a partner or any person who is not meeting our needs, for whatever reason. This is different than being in abusive relationship. The relationship may be filled with conflict and not be a good fit and we don’t feel like our best selves being in it—but that does not necessarily make the relationship an abusive one.
I also want to draw attention to the fact that it appears we value anxious and avoidant attachment behaviors differently. I have observed in mainstream conversations about attachment that many folks have a belief that people who want to connect, even if they do it in a way that can cross over the boundaries of others or impede on their personal space, are better than people who choose to be on their own. As a species who is wired to connect, it makes sense to me that we believe this. But what surprises me is our lack of compassion and understanding for the attachment styles that don’t feel as comfortable connecting. And in a society that is so focused on individuality and uniqueness, it doesn’t seem congruent to me. The other thing it’s important to note here is that as a society, it seems that we are becoming more avoidant as a whole (I attribute this idea to Diane Poole Heller). With the continued development of technology, our access to cell phones and social media, and our shift from talking face to face and over the phone to texting and emailing, we are losing our ability to comfortably connect with others. When was the last time you chatted with your neighbor and weren’t thinking the entire time about how to get away?
All of that being said, there are situations where people are more on the avoidant end of the spectrum and they also have some other stuff going on, including mental health challenges, traits of narcissism, what some might call personality disorders, and/or abusive behaviors. They may be controlling, physically or emotionally harmful, manipulative, coercive, or intimidating. Or maybe they are avoidant and they have no desire whatsoever to change, they don’t want to do the work, they are reliant upon their behaviors and they don’t acknowledge that they are engaging in those behaviors in order to protect themselves.
In these relationships, it may be helpful to find support and leave the relationship if you feel like you aren’t getting what you need or you are being harmed. In any relationship, if you are feeling harmed physically, emotionally, or mentally, it is okay for you to make a decision about whether the relationship is healthy for you (and if you are being harmed in any of those ways, you absolutely do not deserve to be). If at any point you are feeling fearful or you are being harmed, I encourage you to seek support and talk with someone who can give you some resources and perspective. Sometimes when we are in a complex situation, we don’t realize how unhealthy it is until we are outside of it. I’m listing some resources at the end of this post.
I believe it’s really important that we continue to examine these beliefs about each of the attachment styles and move to a place where we support one another in our healing and bring compassion, knowledge, and hope to each person with an interest in growing and changing their relationship patterns. I hope this post feels clarifying. I understand the information doesn’t always feel “good”, but I do hope you are able to integrate what works for you here into your daily interactions and engagement with people in your life and community. I appreciate you being here, as always, and I welcome any questions or feedback!