How to Tell an Avoidant Person That They're Avoidant
This blog post has been highly requested and I’m happy to share some insight into this tricky dynamic and shed some light on why it can be challenging to have conversations about our attachment styles in the beginning stages of learning about attachment theory—especially if we have an attachment style that is designed to protect us and reduce the impact of interactions that cause us to feel out of control or overwhelmed. Of course, this doesn’t mean the conversation won’t be uncomfortable (it will be to some degree, so it’s an opportunity to adjust your expectations!), but remember that the emotional response from the person is more about their own experiences and less about you.
I believe it’s important for you and your partner to be on the same page about what’s happening in your relationship. Having a deeper understanding of each other’s early experiences as well as your emotional triggers in the present moment gives you a significant head start in tackling these challenges and responding to them in ways that promote connection, healing, and compassion. Knowing these tender areas also allows you to navigate around them when possible (because why upset one another if you don’t have to?) and navigate through them with respect for each other and your relationship. Essentially, knowing each other on this deeper level helps you play the long-game in your relationship.
Ideally, we would all be having conversations about attachment and healing early and often in our relationships so that they become part of the way we think about and manage our partnerships. Integrating new information can feel challenging (and in reality, that’s what many of us who are on the path of growth and change are doing!) and it can trip us up a little bit in the present when we are navigating a learning curve. But you know what? The beauty of our brains is that they are capable of changing all the time. Neuroplasticity (aka our ability to rewire our brains) is real and beautiful! Any time we decide to start having these conversations is the perfect time—it’s really never too late. We can heal and grow at any point in our lives.
Finally, by having these conversations regularly and building this framework into your relationship, you are reducing the emotional charge these dialogues can have and bringing the challenges out into the open. Normalizing this kind of dialogue is one of the best ways to bring pattern-shifting attention to your interactions and effectively change the way you are responding to and interacting with one another.
Here are some guidelines to consider as you approach your partner about their attachment style. These guidelines apply when you have a conversation with anyone about their style, but I’m speaking specifically about talking to someone with the avoidant adaptation.
Check your intentions. Why do you want to share this information with them? Getting clear and leading with that intention will support you in communicating with your partner. If your intention is changing them, I can tell you right now that they will feel this and will likely shut down and not respond the way you want them to. What would it be like to focus on what their understanding could do for your relationship?
If it still feels right to talk to your person about this, I believe it’s important to have a basic understanding of attachment theory, attachment styles, and the anxious-avoidant pattern before you broach this topic with a partner who is more on the avoidant end of the spectrum. Folks who have the avoidant adaptation may become defensive, dig for information, or seek to challenge statements that are attempting to define them. The last thing we want to do is create a dynamic in which the other person feels trapped. Approaching this topic with curiosity, openness, and flexibility is important.
Own your behaviors and patterns when you share about attachment styles. No one wants to feel “accused” or singled out in their behaviors (that can feel super vulnerable). Can you use this opportunity to take accountability for your behaviors? If so, you are modeling how to respond to this information and making it clear that it doesn’t have to be a “big deal”—attachment theory is a tool we can use to help us get clarity around our relationship dynamics.
The way you present the information makes a difference. If your person feels cornered or stuck, they won’t respond as well. Being more casual about the conversation, sending an email with a link to an article (or blog post :)) and saying “what do you think about this? Does this sound like what happens in our relationship sometimes?” might land better than a direct, face to face conversation that feels super vulnerable or “out of nowhere”. I’m a big fan of sending some information and saying “hey, let’s talk about this later!” It gives my partner some time to sit with it before diving into a discussion with me, which ultimately creates a better conversation. One of my partner’s least favorite things is when I start talking about something he has no context for and I expect him to be an active participant in the conversation, especially if it’s highly emotional (oops!).
Personally, I believe it’s more important that the person understand and identify their behaviors than identify with the label of avoidant attachment. I believe this is especially true given the number of books and articles that exist that talk about avoidant attachment in a negative light. I will link to a few of the blog posts I’ve written about avoidant attachment that utilize a compassionate stance that may be helpful in supporting your partner in approaching this topic with a more open heart. It would be really hard for me to hear from my person that I have traits that many folks might suggest are harmful, bad, or not worth working through. We have these qualities, but they aren’t who we are at our core.
Here’s are some scripts I might use to start this conversation. You can use them however you see fit, and decide which sound and feel most natural for you and your relationship:
I’ve been thinking a lot about our relationship and the ways we get tripped up. I know we both want things to feel better between us. Would you be open to exploring some new ideas together?
Have you heard about attachment theory before? My understanding is that our early relationships create patterns in the way we relate to people throughout our lives, gives us so much information about how we are showing up in relationships. There are a few attachment styles and they all develop for a reason and it really depends on how our families were when we were growing up and how we learned to respond to what was happening in our environment. I’m curious about how our styles might impact our relationship. Do you want to look into them together? (Note: I admit this one sounds very therapist-like so use with caution!).
I’m learning a lot about my own attachment style. I personally identify really strongly with the anxious adaptation. What that means is that consistent connection is really important to me and when I start to feel people pull away, I can get overwhelmed and start trying to figure out how to get them back. That’s happened with us before, right? You know the feeling when I start doing that. I know it’s overwhelming for you sometimes, and it makes sense why—because you have an attachment style too. Do you have a guess about what yours might be?
Do you want to research this together? I found a quiz we could both take. This information could help us understand our relationship dynamic better. I want to learn how we can trigger each other less often because I know we both don’t like it when we argue or feel disconnected.
As always, these ideas are starting points for important conversations in your relationships. Every partnership is different and you know your situation better than I do. The bottom line here: these dialogues are critical to the health of relationships over time and I want to support you in finding the most authentic way to explore this information together. I would love to hear how these suggestions land for you and how your conversations go.
Some blog posts that could be helpful in exploring this together:
If you are interested in learning more about the avoidant attachment style (whether you have the style OR you are in a relationship with a partner who tends to pull away or shut down), the Understanding Avoidant Attachment Online Course will support you in deepening your understanding of this style and provide skills and strategies for managing disconnection in your relationship. You can learn more here.