Understanding your attachment style and that of your partner is one of the most important things you can do to help move towards a secure, stable relationship. The simplified idea behind attachment theory is that we tend to fall on a spectrum with avoidant and anxious attachment at either end and secure attachment in the ideal center. Where we land on the spectrum at any given time depends on a host of internal and external factors including where our partners are landing.
While a little wiggle to the left and right is pretty normal, the further from center you get the more distress is involved and typically the more reactive your partner will become. Relationships seek balance so the more avoidant one partner becomes, the more the other will move towards the anxious side and vice-versa.
Depending on our upbringing (yes, this is where we get to blame our parents), we can be wired to fall at different points on the attachment spectrum and, to keep things interesting, we typically pick a partner who is an equidistance from center on the opposite side. So if you think your partner is way off center, you probably are too.
Individuals who have more of an avoidant attachment style tend equate intimacy with a loss of independence and while they may appear to be strong and independent, they can actually be quite fragile with strong fears of abandonment, rejection or loss. They tend to not have the expectation that their wishes, needs or feelings will be recognized and are often quick to think negatively when their partners express needs.
Folks on the avoidant end of the attachment spectrum will often distance themselves which results in their partners pursuing more aggressively. The pursuing is often perceived by the distancer as excessive neediness or out of control anger, thus justifying their withdrawal and completely missing their role in the loop. Avoidant folks also tend to miss that their partner’s distress is often a completely understandable response to their distancing. Even if their partner manages to calm their distress, the problem of the avoidance still exists.
Signs of Avoidant Attachment
- Forming relationships with impossible futures, such as with someone who is married.
- Avoiding physical closeness – not wanting to have sex, walking several strides ahead or not wanting to share the same bed.
- Keeping secrets or leaving things uncertain.
- Checking out mentally during conversations with partner.
- Pulling away when things are going well.
- Flirting with others as a means of introducing insecurity into the relationship.
- Idealizing past relationships.
- Complaining of being controlled, smothered, suffocated and/or that partner is too needy.
- Often rejecting the attempts of others to nurture, help or give.
If You Find Yourself with an Avoidant Partner
Avoidant partners are often masters at making their significant others feel like the “crazy one.” If you are finding yourself using more and more manipulative behaviors in order to get your partner to react or if your anxiety is through the roof but you find yourself having a hard time communicating this in a productive way, your partner may be engaging in avoidant tendencies.
- Stop chasing. This will feel completely counter-intuitive because it probably seems like your chasing is the only thing keeping the connection. The reality is that your anxiety, whether warranted or not, feels engulfing to you partner. Creating some space can give your partner a chance to become less reactive and hopefully more connected.
- Stop relying on your partner to ease your anxiety. Work with a counselor or connect with other members of your support system to help with this. Trusting that you are going to be ok no matter what happens will help tremendously.
- Question your own commitment to the relationship. Not that you should leave – but taking some ambivalence about the relationship for yourself means that your partner can’t hold on to it all.
- Explore what your choice of a partner says about you. There’s usually a reason why we pick who we pick, gaining insight into this can help steer your existing relationship in a new direction or help you pick differently in the future.
- Learn to communicate to your partner what you think they are feeling and why. This way of communicating can provide an emotional mirror that will help the avoidant person gain more personal awareness.
- Understand that if you need a great deal of intimacy in your relationship, you may have chosen a partner who will have great difficulty giving it to you.
- Recognize that when the avoidant person shuts down and becomes dismissive that means they are anxious and are trying to clamp down on the experienced emotions. It’s not about you, don’t take it personally.
If You are the Avoidant Partner
Realize that your calm emotional exterior and rational approach to relationship issues is likely making your partner feel invalidated, dismissed, and more anxious. This will make them become even more demanding and leave you with less breathing room.
While your gut may be screaming for you to run away or shut down, the best way to get the space you want is actually to lean into the relationship. Acknowledge and validate how your partner is feeling; practice maintaining physical touch until you can relax into it; or simply acknowledge to your partner that you feel like shutting down or running away – that’s actually very connecting.
If you’re an avoidant partner you may feel confused by what you perceive as the unreasonable emotional demands and neurotic nature of your partner. You might be mystified by accusations that you don’t care and are not there for your loved one. If you think your partner is “the crazy one,” take a step back and ask yourself what you might be doing to contribute to the crazy; not if but how – because you are.
Attachment stuff is really powerful and one of my favorite things to work on with clients. There are usually very specific and tangible things that folks can tweak that can have a profound impact on relationships. It’s also not limited to just romantic partnerships; attachment patterns play out in friendships and even the workplace.