Avoidants and those who date them tell their stories
How attachment theory helped us get back together
"My boyfriend and I broke up in July. We’d been dating for four months at the time and as things progressed forward between us, I was convinced we weren’t going to go farther than where we were. I was so sure this was all it was for me, that I didn’t want our relationship to become anything more than it already was. So rather than risk leading him on or hurting him even more down the road, I ended things.
As a surprise to no one, we never stopped seeing each other. We continued spending time together as we had before, and then we seemed to see even more of each other — just without the label. In time we came to acknowledge we were simply dating. In a relationship. But not like we were before — this time there was more security, more openness, and most importantly — less anxiety. The first time we dated, if we had spent more than a day and half together, I’d feel the need to pull back. The second time around — after a thorough self-study of attachment theory that I did in the time we were “broken up” — I was able to work with him to ignore feelings of anxiety when they came up, and to just let myself be happy about finding something really, really good.
In previous relationships, I spent a lot of time dating people who were either highly avoidant or highly anxious or both, leaving me feeling like I was the one who had to give more if I wanted things to work out. When I dated someone with more secure behaviours — who was willing to put in just as much as me, capable of picking up the slack when I couldn’t deal — it shook me and forced me to question whether this relationship was one I could even attach myself to. In turn, my behaviour became avoidant, leaving us both feeling pretty confused. After understanding attachment theory a bit more, I’m able to ignore my impulses to become avoidant and when anxiety does pop up, I tell him. We communicate through it, and then we work on it together, with more security."
The experience of gaining awareness
“I have known I’m a dismissive avoidant for some time now and the main thing I really want to stress is that this avoidance is almost entirely subconscious on our part unless someone brings our attention to it. I had no idea I was doing this for years and years and the result was that I truly hurt a lot of people. In college I started having unexplained physical symptoms (stomach ache, vision changes, heart palpitations, chest pain) which were later determined to be anxiety and depression after the doctors ruled literally everything else out. I did not believe it at all (again, all of these things were operating subconsciously so my emotional problems manifested as physical symptoms). That’s how powerful the denial can be.
I finally agreed to see a therapist, and as she treated my anxiety she began to notice the way I would talk about people I was dating. I would be dating a guy who I initially really liked, but as the relationship wore on I would decide they were not good enough due to some fatal flaw and they couldn’t possibly be “the one”. This decision always happen to coincide with these men wanting more commitment. I loved casually dating, but the second someone wanted to make things official or get emotionally closer, I would suddenly end it, much to their surprise. Keep in mind I really didn’t recognize this was what was making me pull away. I would typically pull away because of petty reasons, or decide that the job they had wouldn’t be conducive to a good future. I dumped one guy because he wanted to cuddle too much with me and I disliked it. At the beginning of the relationship this didn’t bother me, but as things got more serious, it was like I couldn’t stand it (or him) anymore. Often I would use my career aspirations.
Interestingly, I would become deeply lonely and sad during single periods, but would continue the same process or pulling away as soon as I started to get close to someone. Following that I’d become lonely and sad again. I thought my problem was that “the one” was not out there. I would tell my therapist about these men, and eventually she pointed out I had dated several men in my time seeing her, and suggested I read a book about attachment styles. After reading a few books and articles about it, I finally started to realize that I exhibited literally every single dismissive avoidant behaviour. I talked a lot with my therapist about it and she definitely helped me bring awareness to my behaviours.
I thought that knowing I was dismissive might change how I operate in relationships - but I have to say this is still not always the case. I am currently in very loving relationship with a fantastic man and still find myself subconsciously pulling away as things get more serious (i.e. flirting with other men, considering ending it in my head due to some petty reason, physically pulling away from an embrace or kiss). Once I realise I’m doing it as an avoidance behaviour I always feel horrible and guilt-ridden, and sometimes even hate myself for being so unable to connect with people. Therefore, I recognise these behaviours and consciously resist pulling away when my partner gets close (I.e. forcing myself to continue the relationship and not end things because I know I care deeply about this person, being purposeful in telling my partner how much I love and appreciate him, etc). When I do resist these “distancing behaviors” or the urge to run, I am met with a crippling anxiety and feeling of dread like something will go horrible wrong if I don’t leave. This is likely due to a past of learning I couldn’t rely on my caregiver.
However, the silver lining is that as time goes on, resisting my distancing behaviours and being intentionally loving has become far less anxiety-provoking than it used to be. I think it’s important as a dismissive to question your every whim in a relationship and ask “am I doing this because I am afraid of being emotionally open? What are all the things I like about this person? Is this a real issue or am I running from something good?”
Unconditional love and healing
"I’m avoidant have been with my partner for the past 10 years (married for one). We have broken up too many times to count. I would dump him quite often in the first few years. He was the only person in my life to ever show me unconditional love. I was quite abusive. We were in that horrible push and pull cycle for a long time. Somewhere around the 5 year mark I broke up with him and he said ok and left. Stopped calling, stopped texting, just disappeared. I freaked out after a month and worked really hard to get him back. Started in therapy and really talking through my triggers and fears.
I wish I could say it gets easier but it hasn’t. The difference is I’m able to tell myself that my feelings in the moment aren’t rational. He’s not the reason I’m depressed, or don’t have my dream job. My life would not be better without him and it’s not my place to criticize him or try to change him. I think the biggest factor in my willingness to try to change is my sons. He has raised my sons from a previous relationship since they were babies. I provide for them and of course love them with all my heart but I’m not capable of bonding with them emotionally in the way he has. I want to give them a chance of growing up with a secure attachment style that I know I can’t give them. I acknowledge that most of my issues come from a very traumatic childhood and my if I break that cycle for my children I will feel accomplished. Also seeing them bond so freely and be so trusting has allowed myself to see my child self as deserving of love and that maybe I even deserve some love now in my current state.
It’s almost like having a mental illness. The feelings and fears are so real in the moment but if you can talk yourself through them, you realise your partner is a really great person who you love to the best of your ability and you have a lot to be thankful for. We have very strong chemistry and a great sex life and I know that helps him feel closer to me when I’m distant. We spend a lot of time apart and have developed hobbies and friend groups that keep us busy so that when we’re together it’s fresh and interesting and helps me not feel stifled or co-dependent. We both see a therapist on our own and are definitely working on those parts of ourselves. I definitely am more accepting and trusting of his love.
I don’t think there’s any one character trait that would work better or make a better fit for for an avoidant. I would say that being unconditionally loved has healed me in so many ways, but I put my partner through so much that honestly if he was secure in himself he probably would have left me for good years ago. So I’m not advocating for anyone to stay and be a punching bag. Ultimately it has to be up to the avoidant to be able to admit their shit and get help."
Attachment theory may not solve things
"I tend towards anxious attachment, but I made progress towards secure attachment during my most recent relationship of four years with an avoidant partner. Learning about my partner's needs for distance and solitude actually helped me with my anxious tendencies in some really healthy ways. He did not, however, evolve in a similar way, and I'm now left completely baffled by how things went so wrong....
During our first two years together, he suppressed his desire for distance and tried to "play the part" he thought he was supposed to– texting and calling daily, setting aside weekends for me, etc. My anxious personality ate this up. I loved the closeness and thought he did too. I had no idea that the established dynamic pained him so terribly until he began lashing out: I was "high maintenance, inconsiderate, overbearing, dependent," etc. Everything I did was wrong and grounds for critique. We lacked the emotional intelligence to calmly talk about our differing needs, and so we fell into a rut of feeling put-upon (him) and unduly criticized (me). After two years together, he broke up with me suddenly, without a conversation. I was blindsided. He "couldn't envision a future in which we were both happy."
For two no-contact weeks, I did some intense introspection and decided to take 100% responsibility for my anxious attachment and the toll it took on our relationship. I proposed a few more months of no contact during which I would continue to examine my tendencies and aim to evolve– I gently suggested that he do the same, but tried to keep the focus on myself and what I could change. He agreed, we spent a few months apart, I reached out eventually, and we got back together. He told me at that point that he had actually wanted to get back together immediately during that conversation two weeks post-breakup because he was so encouraged by my willingness to better understand him. We were both so happy.
When we first reunited he was, in his words, "all in," but it quickly became clear that the success of our relationship was predicated on my ability to respond to his needs. Everything came to feel like a test of my flexibility. I tried to make sure he felt comfortable articulating his boundaries and taking his space which led to weekdays and nights spent separately, infrequent texting, few (if any) phone calls, etc. Like I said earlier, this actually helped me relinquish some of my anxious tendencies and become more secure (I came to really appreciate having time for my own interests, activities, and friendships) but I felt as though if I did want or need to call him or spend time with him during the week, I was a burden and he felt like I ought to know better than to intrude. Whenever he would call me during the week, come over on a weeknight, watch a movie or do an activity that was more so "my thing" than his, or basically cede any of his time to me, we'd jokingly make a fuss like it was the absolute most thoughtful thing in the entire world– these were gestures I wouldn't think twice about and would genuinely enjoy doing for him but were truly sacrificial for him.
Even the weekends– our only time together– came to be too much. When I was at his place, he'd constantly ask me "What do you have planned for the day?" which he later told me was a distancing strategy to make sure I wasn't planning to interfere with what he wanted to do with his time. He told me once he'd purposely withhold physical affection to ensure that I wouldn't feel invited to get close to him and take him away from whatever he was doing (writing, reading, working out, etc.). But I listened to him and adjusted accordingly.
The most routine disagreements or miscommunications became catastrophes that would lead to deadly serious conversations about compatibility– the subtle messaging in each of these conversations was that the fault lay with me and my shortcomings, and even if my partner could acknowledge that he played any sort of part in the issue he would float a breakup before ever suggesting that he had work to do on his end as well. One time, after reading a book called Conscious Loving, I suggested that we resolve a disagreement by talking through the role we'd both played in the issue. I was totally willing to take responsibility for my part, but until that point, my faults had been the only topic. He told me through gritted teeth that he would do it, but that my "manipulation" of the moment made him feel "physically sick."
The day before he broke up with me, we were getting ready to go to a BBQ at his friend's house. I could tell he wasn't really up to going so I suggested we stay back– he said, "I definitely don't want to go, but we need to because I feel like I don't know what to do when it's just the two of us here. I feel like I need to fill the time or we'll just be here together and I'll feel smothered. I just don't get the same thing that you get from our time together." This despite my conscientious, consistent, and honestly pretty successful efforts to make sure he feels totally free to do his thing and not worry about me. He said, "Just knowing you're here, even if you're occupied, puts pressure on me to be attentive." I told him that I genuinely felt that if we spent any less time together, we wouldn't be together– it simply wouldn't be a partnership. He had nothing to say to this. The morning of our breakup, we were planning a big trip and reflecting on how much we appreciate our love. Hours later, his heart "isn't in it," we "lack spark," and we'll "never be happy together."
Post-breakup there were some insane moments (him begging/crying and what not) where I realised someone could be intensely attached to me yet not want any physical or emotional intimacy with me whatsoever. My ex wanted a committed, permanent relationship, except he wanted me to be a "stranger" in the house. No affection, no sex, no dates, no quality time, I'm just there so he doesn't feel alone and he can reach out on his terms. So avoidants attach strongly but distantly.
It shouldn't be on the non-avoidant's shoulders to maintain the relationship. This behaviour wasn't conducive to a sustainable long-term relationship. There wasn't anything I could have really done to accommodate my ex's needs because I don't think anyone could - his feeling of being smothered would eventually win out. He has some deep-rooted issues around closeness and self-shame, and my mere presence in his life was irritating him, which was not right or fair to me. We talked through a lot of his needs but now when I reflect back, there were little times that we discussed MY needs, with him trying to understand me more. It was always about the space/independence/privacy that he needed. The mistake we make is wanting to change ourselves so that our ex would be happy, but, while doing that, we are neglecting our own needs. IMO he's looking for someone to coexist with him and to have a quiet assurance that this person is around but not have too much constant connection because that could lead to problems, and that's the last thing an avoidant wants - is to have to deal with their emotions. We turn our lives upside down to make them comfortable and hope for reciprocity, and we never get it. And we won't ever get it as long as they stay this way. I am still recovering from the lack of feeling desirable, wanted, or even appreciated for years. He's going to need to get help or he'll keep repeating this cycle. In retrospect, I see that I should have made sure he would be just as committed as I was to changing ourselves and communicating more. It takes two people to make a relationship work and my ex wasn't willing to do this.
For me, the whole situation saddened me, but, a few months post-breakup, I have come to realize that I don’t miss our relationship anymore. I want someone who wants to hang out with me more than once per week, and I want someone who puts in as much effort as I do. I want someone I don’t have to spend hours analyzing each day; I want someone who thinks like me and acts like me when it comes to a relationship."
Partner experience with a narcissist avoidant
“My partner began to nitpick at everything I did, even how I brushed my teeth. He pulled up the littlest things, like not turning on the bathroom fan after I showered, or for accidentally buzzing the hair at the back of his head unevenly. When confronted, he criticized me for being insecure or oversensitive.
Whenever we seemed to get closer, he’d bring up his “I promise they’re resolved, but I still remember loving her so deeply” feelings for his ex and compare them to his feelings for me. He openly discussed his attraction toward other women. He’d wonder out loud how much he was “still in love with me,” or if he’d ever be sure he wanted to marry me. It was torture disguised as open communication but, as he put it, necessary if I wanted to know him. Whenever I even hinted that I was unhappy, he took on the part of a man who was looking for real, genuine love but emotionally damaged and lost, and would express preoccupation with guilt over responsibility for me that pushed us apart (without actually trying to address the things he felt guilty for). To bring us together I'd end up apologising for asking for too much from him and comforting him for feeling bad, rather than the other way around with him looking to solve the things that had been hurting me.
The longer I stayed with him, the less happy I was. It began to feel like my very existence was annoying to him. But I kept thinking I was the one who was doing everything wrong, and I just needed to be “better,” trying harder and harder. I tried to bend myself into a smaller and smaller box to please him, not to express myself, to accommodate his needs. One night before leaving on a trip across the country, he broke up with me, citing uncertainty about me being his soulmate. I still remember the gut-wrenching feeling of standing in our shared living room, packing up my stuff and crying quietly so I didn’t wake anyone. For almost three months, I wouldn’t even tell him where I moved to. I was so hurt and angry, mostly at myself.
Afterwards, I felt brainwashed. My self-esteem was in tatters and I’ve struggled to successfully date other men. He’s come back a few times since then, with an aching love for me that quickly cools when he’s reminded I have flaws, or just needs of my own. I’ve put up walls and tried to block communication, but that doesn’t help get rid of his voice in my head. I don’t know how to stop craving his validation.
I have moments where it’s almost like he’s still convincing me he didn’t mistreat me, that I imagined it all. There are moments I feel like his quest to find true love is more important than mine, because he painted himself as a tragic hero and I the one trying to persuade him to love me. Like I was trying to steal a love that was intended for some perfect princess he failed to mould me into. But ultimately, this man’s fantasy girl has no thoughts, makes no sounds, asks for nothing. This man’s fantasy girl is a gaping void. It’s taken me years to remember that real love doesn’t feel like a fantasy. Real love feels like real life. My ex was someone who struggled mightily just to feel like he wasn’t being tortured, every second of every day. It makes me sad to think of it. He wore his pain on his face. He was not at peace.”