On Relationships: The Avoidant Style – by J. Alan Graham, Ph.D.
In my article, “Relationship Therapy and Attachment Style: The Basics,” I briefly reviewed the four Styles of Attachment: Secure, Anxious, Avoidant and Fearful-Avoidant. I talked about patterns couples get into and what to do about that. The Anxious, Avoidant and Fearful-Avoidant are all insecure styles but manifest that insecurity differently. This article is a brief review of what to understand about the tendencies of the Avoidant individual. It is also a brief guide about what to do if your Avoidant Attachment Style is interfering with dating or relationship success. As you read, keep in mind two things: First, no one is fully one style or the other. Most of us are somewhat to mostly one style or somewhat to mostly another style. Thank goodness. That gives us some wiggle room to work things out! Secondly, if you are not Secure, you probably have one basic insecure style (Avoidant or Anxious). Yet, it’s possible for the other style to emerge in response to the style of the person you’ve met. In other words, an Avoidant person may find themselves preoccupied and pursuing, thus looking more like an Anxious person if the person they meet is more Avoidant and distancing than they are. (“Someone has to close this gap if we’re going to date!”). This is because both styles are insecure styles and are reactive to the anxiety each experience about closeness and connection. We’ll talk more about the Fearful-Avoidant style in another article.
Pitfalls of the Avoidant Style
People with an Avoidant Attachment Style can feel overwhelmed by the closeness that a partner seeks, especially when the newness of a relationship wanes. Also, as a relationship matures, increased closeness is necessary for it to continue thus challenging the Avoidant’s comfort zone. Their insecurity is more about how relationships will be too demanding and that they won’t have enough “space” in the relationship. Out of their history, they don’t have the expectation that their wishes, needs, feelings, etc. will be recognized and important. Hence, they often don’t have the skills to present their wishes, needs, feelings, etc. to their partner so they keep these inside until they get to a boiling point or to the point of feeling the need to distance to get “space.” They are also likely to fear being a failure in a relationship, failing to sufficiently meet the relationship needs of their partner. They are the folks that “close the door” which often inspires their partners to “knock harder” on the door they have closed. Once this has happened, the Avoidant can interpret their partner’s escalation as excessive neediness or out of control anger, thus justifying their withdrawal and completely miss the point that their withdrawal is the point of origin, all in response to their anxiety about closeness. They also often miss the point that their Anxious partner’s distress is completely understandable and that it’s true: they have stepped away from the connection in an important emotional way. Research indicates that helping the Avoidant person open the door and step back into the relationship is the only way to shift this dynamic. In other words, it would seem that if the anxious person “calmed down” all would be O.K. However, that isn’t enough. The avoidant person has to learn how to move back into the relationship.
Avoidant people often long for relationships when they are alone although they use “deactivating strategies” to cope. “Deactivating strategies” are those mental processes by which the Avoidant person convinces themselves that being alone is just as good or better than being in relationship. This can include review of the benefits of being single (i.e., only one schedule to worry about, not having to deal with someone else’s needs, having the ability to see other partners thus potentially meeting someone better, etc.). Further, the Avoidant person may long for the ideal lover, reviewing how all pervious potential partners fell short of that ideal and rationalize their single status with impossibly high standards. These deactivating strategies are also used when an Avoidant person is in a relationship. They may prioritize things that take them away from the relationship and mentally dismiss the importance of the relationship. They may focus on their partner’s shortcomings and all the ways the relationship isn’t ideal. This helps them manage the anxiety they are in denial about. Ultimately, this strategy leads to conflict and disconnection. The Avoidant person sends mixed messages, fails to say, “I love you” and is very hesitant to commit. These tendencies may show up in non-romantic relationships as well although they are most noticeable in romantic relationships.
The Avoidant and Anxious Meet
As I discussed in my other articles, the dating pool is disproportionately weighted toward Anxious and Avoidant people. Secure people wade out of the dating pool together. When an Anxious person meets an Avoidant person, their eagerness for closeness can raise the anxiety of the Avoidant one. Often, the Avoidant person will come out of a period of loneliness with a renewed commitment to see a new partner in more a positive light. They want to give relationships another shot, hoping their resolve will continue and for a while they will be happy with a new opportunity. Sometimes the newness of a relationship helps the Avoidant person successfully “show up” with their feelings, wishes and needs. However, our Attachment Styles are pretty resilient. We need conscious effort to change them and if our patterns are not dealt with successfully, the withdrawal of the Avoidant person ignites the pursuit of the Anxious person and that well-known dance of pursuer-distancer begins. Sometimes, this dance can last for a long time with varying degrees of satisfaction. Sometimes, this dance doesn’t last at all and sadly, the sense of repeated failure can lead both partners toward separation and possible resolve to move away from relationships.
Tips for the Avoidant Person
If you recognize yourself as someone with an Avoidant style and you feel frustrated that your Avoidant behaviors are interfering with maintaining connections and relationships, here are 10 things you can do to get a different outcome.
Learn to identify your “Deactivating Strategies.” Deactivating strategies are the mental processes by which Avoidant people convince themselves that relationships are not that important and their need for connection and closeness is less than others. Remember both Avoidant and Anxious individuals suffer similar distress as compared with Secure individuals when assessed by physiological measures, even though the Avoidant “looks” just fine. The suggestions on this list are all variations on the theme of “Deactivating Strategies.” Hopefully, this list will identify ones for you to work on and help you recognize the ones you use that are not articulated here.
Notice whether the mental list of your partner’s shortcomings is as valid as you think. We all have shortcomings and it may be that you’d be losing a lot to push this person away. Remember, these are strategies you use to manage your anxiety about closeness. Talk about your anxiety (as opposed to evaluating your partner negatively) and you will both feel closer and more secure. Talking about your feelings is hard for Avoidant people but it is important. You must bring yourself into the relationship or your withdrawal invites the person you’re with to fill the space. I recently told an Avoidant client that he would do better to be and express himself in his relationship rather than continue to believe that it was only possible away from his relationship. This made a lot sense to him.
Question your fierce self-reliance. Self-reliance is a valuable quality but too much gets in the way of relationships. Do you know someone who refuses help, tends not to talk much about what they’re feeling, and keeps to themselves most of the time? It’s often not very rewarding to be their friend and sometimes very frustrating to try. Consider the benefits of mutual support and camaraderie. When you let someone get close to you and especially when you let them help you, you give them the gift of feeling good about their generosity. It’s a give-give, a win-win.
Find a Secure partner. Secure partners help Avoidant and Anxious people become more secure. A Secure partner will be able to tolerate the periodic withdrawal that feels necessary for an Avoidant person. When the Secure person can easily grant the “space” that the Avoidant person says they need, the Avoidant person often realizes more quickly they no longer need space. See how that works? An Anxious person would be distressed and ambivalent at best to grant that space, thus making it likely more space is experienced as essential. This is a frustrating pattern with Avoidants and Anxious people. Finding a Secure partner is helpful for both. Also, a secure partner will successfully model being present and is more likely to successfully invite you to be present as well, particularly when it is harder to share what’s going on.
Be aware of your tendency to misinterpret behaviors in negative ways, thus setting up justification for your withdrawal. Consider that your partner has your best interest at heart. Consider that they want to be close, not that they want to control you. Most importantly, consider they are human and have foibles just like you. The things that may be “negative” may not be fatal flaws (deal breakers) about them or the relationship. You can still love someone even though they have faults.
Make a relationship gratitude list. Remind yourself daily to focus on the positives. Consider the ways your partner contributed, even in minor ways, to your well-being and why you’re grateful they are in your life. Tell them something from your list often. It will make it more real for you and it will be wonderful for your partner to hear. Also, when we express gratitude for the things we like, they are more likely to recur. (It’s called positive reinforcement and it works with people just like it works with pets).
Find a way to turn your attention away from a phantom ex. or the idealized future lover. It’s likely there were things you didn’t like about the former lover that you now miss and wish you could reconnect with. Euphoric recall is never accurate and dissatisfaction with a current relationship may likely be a Deactivating Strategy that is best to identify and stop. More, look to see if dissatisfaction is a means by which you justify half-hearted engagement in other areas of your life, not just your relationships. Dealing more with this Deactivating Strategy could be life changing!
Don’t wait for “The One” who fulfills your checklist perfectly. If you’re with a good partner, actively turn to them and acknowledge your need for closeness (even as it makes you uncomfortable). And keep in mind that here are no “ones” out there! That’s an illusion. We’re all “.72,” “.85,” and if we’re lucky, we find a “.91.” It’s in the rounding up to “1.0” that the love happens. And when they round you up to 1.0, you are gifted with love, too.
Use distraction strategies. A common activity that functions as a “ramp-up” to closeness is often helpful. Working side by side on a project, sharing in cooking activities, or playing together with a pet can help the Avoidant partner remember that the closeness will be OK.
Communicate your needs clearly with the “why.” Using “I” statements, state your needs clearly and describe how what you need helps the connection feel better, safer, or less threatening. For example, I had a client who was a trauma survivor who liked affection from their partner but needed their partner not to be too aggressive when initiating affection. Being able to state clearly what worked and what didn’t work around bids for closeness and affection helped make it safe to stay present and respond well, as opposed to withdraw and engage in their deactivating strategies.
If you have significant and persistent Avoidance of connections, and you want to change that, it might be useful to talk to a therapist knowledgeable about Attachment Styles. Our style is driven by powerful (and understandable) emotions that set the stage for how we see ourselves and others and dictate what we do in our relationships. Sometimes, there is psychological work about painful or engulfing early relationships that needs to be addressed with a skilled therapist. Intimacy and closeness are always scary. They are scary for everyone but they don’t have to be painful or produce intolerable anxiety. Intimacy and closeness can feel really good and you can still have the boundaries you need.
Relationships are the most rewarding and challenging aspect of this life we live. Knowing about your Attachment Style can be of immeasurable benefit to you and contribute to more relationship success. The tips above for the Avoidant style can help you make your way toward closer connections and ultimately, can help you shift toward a more Secure style. Remember, these styles are not static. They move as a function of the people we’re with and the behaviors we practice. The more you practice presenting yourself to the person you’re with, the more likely you are to have that experience go well. As you do this, you’re more likely to find space for yourself within your relationship as opposed to outside it.
The goal is to engage in behaviors of a more Secure attachment style. Learning to interact with each other in a Secure manner will produce more security in your relationship and in time, you will both develop a more Secure Attachment Style. Securely attached people have three key qualities: They are available, attentive and responsive. When an Avoidant person is more available, attentive and responsive (as opposed to partially checked out and/or periodically dismissive), the relationship will be more satisfying for both partners. Practicing these qualities and experiencing them from your partner is what helps security and closeness grow.