Is Your Partner Avoidant? Here Are 3 Ways to Support Them

Those with an avoidant attachment style have earned a reputation as being difficult to love. In many ways, they are. Everything seems to be going great and all of a sudden—just when you start to feel connected and develop real feelings —they throw up a wall to create emotional distance or completely shut you out.

Though I hate to admit it, I always remedied this dynamic by playing my fair share of games. I would notice when they would start to pull away and respond by pulling away, too. Then began the painstaking wait for them to come back to me. Sometimes when I couldn’t take it anymore, I’d push for closeness and although it was likely to cause a fight, at least their attention was on me for a little while.

I can tell you from extensive experience these tricks do not lead to deep and lasting love.

For those of us who have experience with avoidant partners, it can be helpful to first remind ourselves that they may be showing up in the only way that they know. This attachment style would’ve emerged early in life when they learned it was not safe to be vulnerable and reach out for connection with others.

In the words of Dr. Diane Poole Heller, author of The Power of Attachmentavoidant attachment fosters independence early in life:

“If we reach out and are met with neglect or rejection, it’s understandable that we will reduce our attachment-seeking behaviour. And if our parents don’t meet our emotional needs with quality responses, it’s reasonable that we might begin to rely more and more on ourselves.”

If your partner or the person you are dating has the signs of an avoidant attachment style —what do you do? Learning about avoidant attachment can encourage deeper understanding and empathy, sure. It can remind us that it isn’t our fault that this person is pulling away from us. That is undoubtedly valuable, but it is also important we learn what the heck to do about it.


Avoidant attachment: vulnerabilities and antidotes

Dr. Stan Tatkin’s book called Wired for Lovechanged the way I look at love. One of the most helpful concepts I took away was the guiding principle that “partners who are experts on one another know how to please and soothe each other.”

Sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it?

Part of becoming an expert on our partner is understanding how their attachment adaptation might show up in our relationship, and learning how to respond to it lovingly.

Dr. Tatkin speaks about some of the common vulnerabilities and antidotes for those with an insecure attachment style. In this case, a vulnerability is a soft spot that your partner has because of their attachment style. An antidote is a practical thing we can say or do in response to these vulnerabilities.

He continues to says that avoidant folks (he refers to them as “islands” in his book), need our patience and understanding:

“Without the help of their partner, islands are unlikely to understand who they are, recognize their deep-seated existential loneliness, or ultimately overcome their anxiety about intimate relationships. After all, they know only what they’ve experienced. In order to step off their islands and into a more social world, they need to be met with understanding. They need partners who will make the effort to find out what makes them tick.”

Before we go on, it is important to note that this is not the kind of “tall order” that all of us can or want to take and that is okay. Being with someone who has an insecure attachment style can be difficult and it is a personal decision as to whether or not the relationship feels safe and worth the work.

Here are three of the vulnerabilities that Dr. Tatkin mentions in his book and the accompanying antidotes:


Vulnerability #1: feeling intruded upon

Those with an avoidant attachment style often hate being interrupted. They have come to appreciate and feel safe in their own company and often find solace in solitude. For someone with an avoidant attachment style, it can feel jarring to be interrupted when they are in the zone.

Maybe your partner enjoys alone time in the form of work, video games, watching movies, creating art, or reading. Whatever it is, you will know. It is probably the thing that they could do for hours without a break. It can also feel, at times, like it is the thing they’d rather be doing than hanging out with you.

For my partner, this thing is work. He can quickly open his laptop and be laser-focused on his projects for hours. The shift from solitude to connection can be difficult for him. It requires conscious effort and is not as effortless as it is for those of us with an anxious or secure attachment style.

Antidotes:

  • If they are in the zone, approach them quietly. It is probably best to avoid shouting their name from another room (my partner explicitly asked me to stop doing this—oops).
  • If they let you know they are busy but you need to talk, it can help to let them know how much time you need. For example, “I just need to talk to you for 10 minutes then I’ll let you get back to it.”
  • Rather than call unexpectedly, you could send a text saying: “I wanted to run something by you, could you let me know when you are free to chat tonight?”

Vulnerability #2: fear of too much intimacy

This one is probably obvious for another who has dated or been in a relationship with someone with an avoidant attachment style. Increasing intimacy that takes place over time or moments of intimacy can make someone with an avoidant attachment style extremely uncomfortable. This can lead them to pull away, physically or emotionally, creating distance between the two of you.

Seeing as almost everyone I dated was avoidant (the attraction between the anxious and avoidant is known to be strong), I tended to notice this come up around the 2–3 month mark of dating. Just when I was starting to feel comfortable and close with them, I could feel them begin to recoil. Cue the games and cue the slow (or sometimes quick) deterioration of the relationship, again and again.

It is important to remember here it isn’t necessarily that they don’t want to be intimate and experience closeness. It can be that it is incredibly distressing for them if early attempts at reaching out for closeness were met with rejection or dismissal. Accepting this vulnerability and approaching closeness mindfully with avoidant partners can help them to feel safe enough to move towards us over time.

Antidotes:

  • Be patient and ease into closeness with your partner. In the early days of dating, this might be paying attention to your partner’s comfort level as intimacy increases. Also know that moments of intense intimacy may come with a bit of a “hangover” for them and try not to take this personally—give them time.
  • If you are making an effort to express your love for them (words of affirmation, touch, etc) you could check in with them: “do you want me to stop?” or “how are you feeling with this?”
  • If you need quality time with your partner giving them a heads up can be helpful rather than springing it on them last minute. For example, “I’d love to spend some time just us tomorrow so that we can catch up, how does that sound for you?”

Vulnerability #3: fear of being blamed

We all mess up sometimes in relationships. For someone with an avoidant attachment style, hearing that they hurt you can quickly put them on the defense. A simple expression of a need or preference can be heard by our avoidant partners as, “you are the problem.”

There are going to be moments where you need to address things that your partner said or did, or maybe didn’t say or do. It is important to be mindful that even though you may be able to receive this kind of feedback openly, for someone with an avoidant attachment style, it can sound a lot like you are blaming them.

One thing that I’ve found helpful in understanding this vulnerability is to remember that my partner’s defensive reaction is rooted in their attachment wound. I try to remember that they may have grown up blaming themselves for their caregivers’ absence or rejection, and this allows me to soften in moments where I, too, feel the need to hop on the defense.

Antidotes:

  • If you need to bring something up with them, try first letting them know that you appreciate what they did or said and that you understand their intention was good. You may say you know their heart was in the right place before letting them know what it is that is bothering you.
  • Be conscious of your timing. Did your partner just come in the door from a long day? Are they in the zone? Try to preface the conversation by saying you care about them and the relationship and for that reason, there is something you want to bring up with them.
  • I have found it helpful by starting with letting them know how I am feeling and not shying away from my own vulnerability. For example, “when you bailed on our date last night I felt hurt and was afraid that it meant you were losing interest in me.”

I remember when I first reach about the vulnerabilities and antidotes in Wired for Love, I was a bit skeptical. They seemed so simple and small and the issues we were experiencing in our relationship seemed insurmountable. At the time, what I had been doing wasn’t working so I figured, why not?

Accepting my partner’s vulnerabilities came with me accepting that my need for closeness was just as strong as their fear of it. By practicing these antidotes I was respecting and accepting that my partner’s need for space was just as valid as my need for closeness. Over time, I began to see these small antidotes as powerful acts of love. It was me holding my partner’s vulnerabilities with care, and doing everything I could to help them to feel safe.

Avoidant folks are notoriously difficult to love. Not everyone that you date or fall in love with is going to be worthy of your love. If you do happen to meet someone who is willing to show up for you and do the work required to build a lasting and loving relationship—and they happen to have an avoidant attachment style—these acts of love can go a long way in helping you get there.

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