AVOIDANT TO SECURE ROADMAP: BEHAVIOUR STRATEGIES III
ACTIVATE THE NEW
"Everyone wants to be with the perfect partner, but few people want to be the perfect partner. The vast majority of problems around 'finding someone' are caused by uneven expectations like this. But the best way to find an amazing person is to become an amazing person."
Once we're more in control of our old impulses we can learn powerful new ways to relate...
Relationships will not just 'work' for us. The key mindset change for avoidants is to accept that rather than relationships working for us, we have to work for relationships, and that we are more than capable of this. Even, and most importantly, when we might feel inclined to do the opposite - to unconsciously block love. It takes time to get comfortable showing care, to trust we can do it, or to value the person providing it, when we internalised care as a weakness. Remember that avoidants internalised not to try - fearing too quickly we are getting it wrong and that working for connection would only cause us pain. Part of developing a successful secure mindset is consciously reorientating ourselves to have more concern for our attached other, to learn to embrace and enjoy the feeling of being a great partner, thinking in terms of what we can give rather than what we receive, and trusting that we will always naturally benefit by extension. We must reorientate ourselves from seeing relationships as an arena to protect ourselves in to understanding that in fact the more we give, the happier it can in fact make us, and that it is ok not to always get things right, because what matters is to try and to learn by communicating.
If Love Requires Effort, Was It Meant To Be? - read this
"Why should we work on it? If we were right for each other, we would be able to understand each other’s needs. We wouldn’t have any problems." One of the most destructive beliefs for any relationship is this thought process. In essence, choosing a romantic partner is choosing a set of problems. Believing that being compatible with your partner means everything should come naturally is a sure way to naturally end any relationship you will have. A no-effort relationship is not a great relationship; it’s a doomed relationship. It takes effort to communicate and understand each other. Love takes work. It takes work to expose and resolve conflicting beliefs and expectations. However, that doesn’t mean there is no “happily ever after.”It’s more like, “they worked happily ever after.”
The key to moving into this next stage is having got comfortable identifying and expressing your needs and boundaries first. Once you can do this you will feel safer that you can lean in to the relationship without being overwhelmed, because if there is something you really need, such as space, you will now be confident to say.
It is not our fault if we did not learn all the tools to naturally connect in this way. But now we can retrain ourselves to become relationship experts! Be on alert that as avoidants this may be the last thing we want to do. For avoidants, relationships are emotionally dysregulating. We may avoid getting close, or when we do unconsciously want to back away to feel more in control. But if we do that we will never learn to manage, soothe and control these feelings, and can force distance that ultimately scuppers relationships. The more we can master the skills to maintain great relationships instead, and make it our goal to become experts, the more we will shift our patterns, receive back in the long term, reconnect with purpose in the world and secure our future happiness. Maintaining successful long-term relationships is very doable once we know how.
Our culture often places independence and stoicism above collaboration and vulnerability. Yet, what I see as a couples therapist is as many or more relationships suffering when partners balk at mutually making it their sacred responsibility to put their partner’s emotional well-being first.
So read every book you can on relationships, and teach yourself to master the strategies. On this page you will learn some starting strategies to move towards a secure relationship. The first step is simply accepting that this process is sometimes going to feel uncomfortable, and for avoidants the landscape of relationships can be inherently scary - such feelings will appear, but now knowing where they really originate from, they are just feelings you can work through on your way to secure attachment.
Read this on how to become more emotionally available. "This will not be an easy task. You will feel overwhelmed. You will want to attack your partner. When you feel like you’re suffocating from a lack of space, you’re on the right track. You are suffocating the belief that you don’t deserve love. You’re allowing someone else into your heart as you fill its emptiness. Your childhood and failed relationships may have been a great source of pain, but it is your responsibility to make the effort to change the undermining beliefs that destroy your relationships."
For avoidants it can also help to remember that mature love is not a feeling as much as it is a choice, and to first understand the three stages a relationship must go through to reach mature permanence:
The stages of a relationship
The Stages of a Relationship
1. Romantic Love (dating & honeymoon stage)
We discover all the things we have in common and minimise, if we even notice, the differences we have. We can’t take our hands off each other. We finish each other’s sentences. We merge with each other. It all seems amazing. We feel that this is the one person who will meet the unmet needs of childhood, but we are not consciously aware of feeling this. Powerful neurochemicals produce feelings of attachment and connection, a sense of well-being and belonging. The comfort of these neurochemicals works to suppress our natural attachment style, so avoidants won't feel the need to get away so much. This phase can last anywhere from three months to two years before this “drug” begins to wear off.
The purpose of this stage is to form a bond that provides a secure foundation for the journey forward.
Because avoidants struggle with the vulnerability to let themselves fall in love and don't have such an emotional attachment to memory anyway, it can be difficult to develop enough of a bond at this point to last them through the following stage. Avoidants' guiding motivation is to feel safe: feeling captivated by a partner does not feel good in this respect, so they prefer to quickly move to the second stage so they are free to show their avoidant selves and regain a feeling of control in themselves.
2. Power Struggle
At the beginning of a relationship, we generally do not see the things that will annoy us as the relationship progresses into the second stage. In the second stage, you start noticing each other’s differences. You may find you feel frustrated in a similar way to your disappointments in childhood. In this stage, you may try to deny these differences in order to preserve the bliss of the first stage, or you may begin squabbling. The relationship may feel like a lose-win or win-lose. It may be experienced as competitive as to who is going to get his or her way. Many at this stage say it doesn’t feel like love. But if we care about a partner and the relationship, we become aware that love is more than a feeling—it is a behaviour, a commitment to stay with your partner and do the work. As long as both are committed to the relationship and doing the work, a relationship can grow. If we lose ourselves in the honeymoon stage of a relationship, the power struggle stage is where we integrate ourselves back in. We learn to communicate our needs and have them understood, so we can be loved in our vulnerability as our true selves, rather than the image we present in the earlier stage.
The purpose of this stage is to learn the skills and tools to resolve differences without losing yourself.
The power struggle phase is where most relationships fail, particularly for avoidants, who are sensitive to the slightest hint of losing themselves and tend to always exit at this point. They find compromising involves an uncomfortable loss of control, and noticing negative things overwhelming. They are quick to assume they cannot meet a partner's needs and vice versa. The speed at which couples reach the power struggle phase can depend on the speed at which they both become willing to show their true needs.
3. Mature Love
Assuming that both parties are committed to growth and value the relationship, they can now explore what it is like to be in a long-term, conscious relationship. They are now aware that, together, they can heal their childhood wounds. They have learned the skills and tools of dialogue so that they can listen and hear each other. They understand that they have differences and how those differences make sense. They have compassion for their partner. They are less reactive and more intentional. They communicate their wants and needs more clearly. They allow themselves to be influenced by their partner without losing themselves because they care about his or her happiness. They fully recognise that to have a healthy, happy relationship, both need to experience a sense of well-being. It becomes a win-win. Mature love is a version of the honeymoon stage where can both finally appreciate each other as their authentic selves.
The purpose of this stage is to enjoy each other and feel the intimacy of connection with someone who really, finally gets you. We do this by using the skills and tools learned in the second stage when challenges arise.
10. Practise vulnerability to create intimacy & love
"We fall in love at close proximity. That is, real love, not the imagined kind that some can conjure up through fantasy or at a distance, or is really just lust masquerading as love"
"Intimacy requires willingness and ability to disclose the true self, willingness and ability to rely on one's partner for comfort, support and nurturance, and the willingness and ability to provide this for a partner. But both the giving and receiving are very hard for an avoidant to do."
There is a reason it is difficult for avoidants to fall in love. It's not possible to really fall in love while we're too busy protecting ourselves. Like turns into love through vulnerability - we start to deeply love people when we feel seen and heard by them - we feel able to show and be open about our true selves (at our best and worst). For avoidants this can involve admitting to our shame-filled avoidant desires, needs and pasts, and in doing so discovering they do not need to be a source for shame after all. Until we're willing to be vulnerable like this, we cannot truly love. When we instead become protective we ultimately become resentful because we don't feel seen, while simultaneously resenting attempts to see us we don't feel ready for, and partnerships become stale. Until we can rid ourselves of the shackles of shame to feel safe truly opening ourselves to another, the closest many avoidants get to feeling love is feelings of yearning or limerence that come from distance (emotional or physical) in a relationship - distance that often actually works against the long-term stability of that relationship.
The aim of this is to get comfortable being unapologetically you in a relationship, expressing what you think and need, and encourage your partner to do the same - it is not a place to feel chronically ashamed or pretend we're someone we're not. If you try to do this your relationship will not survive, and you will also likely become anxious and depressed. But we aim to be unapologetically ourselves while also prioritising keeping our partner safe, secure and loved and tending to their needs and concerns.
A truly strong person is willing to be depended on and to let themselves be vulnerable enough to depend on others in the long term. Avoidants were programmed to believe we must rely only on ourselves and feel a lot of shame about our needs. But true strength is not acting like you don't have needs and your partner doing the same. Strength is being brave enough to be vulnerable, and working through feelings of overwhelm and shame to be open with each other about what you both need and how you might help each other. So lean into the discomfort and reward yourself when you do so - remind yourself that when you do this it is a sign of bravery and strength. Take a risk and be honest and authentic. This means with your partner, but also with yourself.
Start also to deliberately counter the inbuilt assumption that you must escape to soothe yourself in times of difficulty, and allow yourself to be comforted and supported by others - proactively go to them with your emotions and your difficulties, and let them provide the soothing words and affection you may not always have received as a child - if the old neural network finds it difficult then connecting with and reassuring your inner child while they do. It may feel uncomfortable initially, but try to relax into trusting you can rely on someone to provide this, that your vulnerability is safe with them, and so being able to relax into find solace in it. Then over time you will not be so keen to escape when pain occurs.
But it is natural that if you haven't been used to any of this it will feel incredibly uncomfortable. So don't rush in, but expose yourself in incremental stages over time as you feel more comfortable, and very gradually you will find you learn not to fear it. Do not be afraid to reveal yourself - remember, although instinct might tell you differently, in reality nothing bad is going to happen if you are able to show a trusted person your inner world - and many good things can. You might begin by opening up to your friends. Try talking to friends or family about some of your innermost feelings and vulnerabilities, even if it feels uncomfortable, and rewire through repetition - make this a consistent habit. Allow yourself to be honest, even about something you feel might cause you shame, and let someone know the true you. When you are brave enough to do that you should see in the response that it won't cause rejection, is safe, and that people truly care in a way that may surprise you. Slowly, with repetition and practice, you'll become more and more comfortable with these experiences, it will start to feel more natural, and you will feel safe to build deeper connections.
Advice from someone who has worked through their avoidant attachment:
“Make an effort to vocalize, in a non-hurtful manner: say “I feel hurt” or describe why you feel hurt. Do vulnerability, one bit at a time. It’s scary to open up, and it’s a lot of effort to open up, it's like a dam of emotions that you locked away but it’s important you become vulnerable in order to give yourself a chance to new experience so the old experience isn’t the only truth to you emotionally. If people you loved in the past have hurt you, try it with some stranger… whatever’s easier first. Find the secure type and try this with them. Start from the easiest, get affirmation from them, then use that confidence to try the harder targets. Sometimes the closer someone is to you the harder it is.
Finally, remember that to achieve a stable long-term relationship your partner also needs to feel safe to be vulnerable - to admit to their insecurities to a reception of understanding and comforting, and without fear it will cause distancing, rejection or you to be put off by their admission of flaws. We all have flaws. This may mean you showing sympathy and support for their own attachment style just as they should be willing to show for yours, reaffirming your commitment to them and giving positive feedback when they are vulnerable to you, and suggesting ways you can improve things together as a team.
Privacy in relationships
"If you're an avoidant, you're probably thinking "shouldn't some things be private?" In an insecure relationship the automatic answer would be yes. It would make sense to keep to yourself anything that might cause trouble with your partner or jeopardise your sense of being able to do whatever you please, with whom you please, whenever you please. Avoidants often spread themselves among many different people. No one person knows everything about them. This is because elevating someone to primary attachment status makes them dangerous. And of course they want to avoid this.
In a secure relationship, maintaining private compartments is counter-productive. Partners in a relationship based on mutuality agree they will feel safer and more secure if they fully know each other. Their goal is for both to be themselves within the relationship. Even if this is not possible in the outside world, they can be who they truly are with each other. They grant one another permission to share whatever is on their mind, without reservation. Because these couples are accustomed to telling each other everything, they don't spend time entangled in jealousy or issues of trust. Rather than reacting out of threat, they are always primarily focused on confirming each other's safety and security."
- Stan Tatkin, Wired for Love
(read his book for examples of how this does and doesn't work)
So always be honest, and actively look to share rather than conceal, if you want to strengthen your partnership and move to secure attachment.
How to create & sustain Love
To fall in love is to show our true selves – to have been vulnerable enough with someone we like that we truly feel seen, heard, understood and connected at a deeper level. But the plant needs to be constantly watered. Here are 13 tips to sustain love:
Keep the vulnerability alive – opening up atbou your day etc, interntionally sharing. Avoidants will share a lot less after the opening stage of the relationship, which affects feelings on both sides.
Depth of connection. Human beings are constantly changing so having learnt about each other initially isn’t enough – get to know each other on a regular basis. Ask deep questions regularly, like what are you struggling with, what is you biggest fear etc. then we both feel seen, heard, understood.
Communication. Avoidants, like many of us, can fall into the trap of expecting people to unconsciously know what our needs are and believing that is love – but it couldn’t be further from the truth. True healthy love is asking about each other's feelings, holding space and listening, not condemning. Fights and missteps are solvable through active communication - we can set boundaries to bad behaviour, but also understand non-judgementally what need wasn’t being met.
Learn each other’s love languages (the 5 love languages: acts of service, words of affirmation, gifts, quality time, physical touch)
Understand needs and create strategies to support each other’s. We should constantly speak up and remind each other of our needs – partners won’t always remember, things become normal from repetition.
Be aware of our unconscious expectations of how a relationship should look like – how we show up, roles, how often have arguments etc. It is healthy to voice these so we understand what each expects as it may be very different.
When we are irritated or upset by something, talk about the real stuff – what is behind that feeling? What is the meaning we have given to it that causes the pain?
Set aside time to be present with each other, connecting to the person themselves
Check in with each other – are your needs being met? What can I do more for you? Get feedback about the relationship
Keep playfulness alive
Keep your resentment tank empty – tell your partner when something has bothered you. But the way it is framed is important - studies show we should give 5 positive things to outweigh one negative thing.
Intentionally try to compliment – try to notice things your partner is doing that are beautiful, so they feel seen, heard and noticed.
Remember ultimately physical intimacy follows emotional intimacy, feeling that we are understood, otherwise we will seek it out elsewhere.
"One of the problems is that a lot of unhealthy relationship habits are baked into our culture. We worship romantic love — you know, that dizzying and irrational kind that somehow finds breaking china plates on the wall in a fit of tears somewhat endearing — and scoff at practicality. Men and women are encouraged to objectify each other and to objectify their relationships. Thus, our partners are often seen as achievements or prizes rather than someone to share mutual emotional support.
But as most people age, most of them come to prioritize unconditional relationships — relationships where each person is accepted unconditionally for whoever he or she is, without additional expectations. This is called “adulthood” and it’s a mystical land that few people, regardless of their age, ever see, much less inhabit.
The trick to “growing up” is to prioritize unconditional relationships, to learn how to appreciate someone despite their flaws, mistakes, bum ideas, and to judge a partner or a friend solely based on how they treat you, not based on how you benefit from them, to see them as an end within themselves rather than a means to some other end.
Unconditional relationships are relationships where both people respect and support each other without any expectation of something in return. To put it another way, each person in the relationship is primarily valued for the relationship itself — the mutual empathy and support — not for their job, status, appearance, success, or anything else.
Unconditional relationships are the only real relationships. They cannot be shaken by the ups and downs of life. They are not altered by superficial benefits and failures. If you and I have an unconditional friendship, it doesn’t matter if I lose my job and move to another country, or you get a sex change and start playing the banjo; you and I will continue to respect and support each other. The relationship is not subjected to the coolness economy where I drop you the second you start hurting my chances to impress others. And I definitely don’t get butthurt if you choose to do something with your life that I wouldn’t choose.
People with conditional relationships never learned to see the people around them in terms of anything other than the benefits they provide. That’s because they likely grew up in an environment where they were only appreciated for the benefits they provided themselves. These things train you to subconsciously treat yourself as some tool for other people’s benefits. You will then build your future relationships by molding yourself to fit other people’s needs. Not your own. You will also build your relationships by manipulating others to fit your needs rather than take care of them yourself. This is the basis for a toxic relationship."
- Mark Manson
The Four Abilities Required for Successful Intimacy
Intimacy is making one’s 'innermost' known - sharing one’s core, one’s truth, one’s heart, with another, and accepting, tolerating the core, the truth, of another. It is being able to tell both the good and the bad parts of oneself, to tell of anger, ambivalence, love; and to accept both the good and the bad parts of another, to accept anger, ambivalence, love. It is to share the self: one’s excitements, longings, fears and neediness, and to hear of these in another.
Secure attachment facilitates intimacy. Trust that others are available and sensitively responsive, and trust in the self as lovable is central to securely functioning attachment. Secure individuals bring a set of expectations into new relationships – expectations that others are accepting of them and their imperfections and vice versa – and through a variety of self-fulfilling mechanisms, these positive expectations contribute to intimacy and stable love:
1. Ability to Seek Care
Life, for all humans, involves times when the innermost core is filled with fear, sadness, anger, grief, and humans are biologically predisposed to want care at such times. Intimacy means sharing those feelings and that wish for care. Thus, for intimacy, the care-seeking system – the attachment system – has to be functioning well. A person must be able to turn to others, appropriately selected others, effectively, in times of trouble. But avoidants learnt as young children - even babies - not to seek care when distressed. Translated into adults, they fail to share their concerns with their partners or seek support in response to stress, interfering with capacity for intimacy.
2. Ability to Give Care
Giving care means being available – to children, to an adult romantic partner – in times of trouble. It means being able to recognise when the person needs care, and doing what it takes to provide it. Giving care means being loving: being respectful of the truth of another, accepting of a range of ways of being, ways of feeling. It involves openness, flexibility, acceptance. The reason that the ability to give care is important for intimacy is that giving care contributes to one’s partner’s being able to be intimate. Being a secure attachment figure for another, being a source of comfort, allows another person to turn to one in times of trouble, to share needs and longings without fear of burdening. The willingness to be flexibly accepting of many aspects of the partner will naturally enhance the partner’s willingness to express himself or herself openly and honestly, and so fosters intimacy. Any absence of care or stance that inadvertently restricts what is acceptable within a relationship can limit the partner’s willingness to be open about all aspects of his or her true self. Studies find avoidants less likely to provide supportive attention and care to their partner, less sensitive to the way to do it, are more rejecting and less supportive.
3. Comfort with an Autonomous Self
Autonomy both facilitates and grows out of true intimacy. Autonomy is important for intimacy because to permit oneself to become truly close to another person, one must have confidence in the autonomy of both the self and the partner so that one is free from fear of engulfment. To permit this autonomy, one must in turn have confidence that separation will not result in the irrevocable loss of the partner. The secure infant is confident of ready accessibility to the parent if trouble arises. This confidence in turn means the infant does not have to overly monitor the parent's whereabouts, and can turn his or her attention to enjoying autonomous exploration. Infants whose bids for exploration are resented, controlled, or interfered with, who are made to feel guilty when they explore, or who are abandoned in retaliation by an angry parent will have difficulty with intimacy. If an infant learns that to be close to another is dangerous in these ways, naturally that infant would come to be suspicious of closeness. Adult avoidants may appear very autonomous, but the fact they live in fear of this autonomy being threatened stops them feeling safe to develop intimacy.
4. Ability to Negotiate
‘Intimacy does not mean closeness, but means the ability to negotiate closeness.’ To enjoy smoothly functioning relationships, most relationship partners must eventually negotiate how much intimate contact they will have. People vary in the amount of closeness they prefer. Two people may have quite different thresholds for closeness, and the ability to negotiate this honestly is the capacity for intimacy. Even if two people have relatively similar basic thresholds for closeness, they are not always going to be in perfect synchrony with each other. They will have different goals; their priorities may differ. One person’s attachment system may be activated while the other person’s exploratory system is activated. On a Saturday morning, one person wants to cuddle, while the other wants to go to the hardware store. One person seeks care, and the other does not feel like giving it at that moment. For intimacy, negotiation is a crucial skill. Failure to negotiate keeps a partner at a distance; it is not intimate because it means not sharing one’s wishes and feelings. When a person wishes to block intimacy, failure to negotiate is an effective strategy.
When a child experiences productive negotiation, that child’s wishes are heard and understood; the right to have wishes and preferences is acknowledged; the right to negotiate is acknowledged; the child is not attacked or resented every time her or his wishes differ from the mother’s; the mother’s wishes are clear most of the time; the child’s right to be angry, sad, disappointed, or frustrated is acknowledged; a joint plan is made and respected; a mutually satisfying deal is struck; promises are kept (‘I’ll play with you after I put the roast in the oven’); the child gets things the way he or she wants them some of the time. These experiences help ability to negotiate as adults, as do trust that the relationship is solid, that it can stand the stress of negotiation, that it is not so fragile that negotiation will destroy it. Trust in others. Trust in the self. Knowledge of the self; to negotiate for what one wants, one must know what one wants. Secure attachment also gives an individual the capacity to tolerate the inevitable times when a partner fails – without becoming excessively defensive or angry, helping an individual deal with disappointment in ways that do not prevent future intimacy. Secure adults were more likely than others to report using ‘integrative, win-win’ negotiation strategies in which the wishes of both individuals were considered as was maintenance of the relationship. Avoidants are more likely to resist negotiating, or operate from a protective win-lose stance, both defeating intimacy.
"It is hard for anyone to be totally authentic and open in a new relationship. Keeping things light, surface, and non-threatening is more common behavior. But, as love grows, successful couples begin to deepen their communication and take more risks in sharing their vulnerabilities and flaws. They are willing to be known in more vulnerable ways and to listen more deeply to each other. That richness of depth in communication and sharing becomes the couple’s signature of love.
Without the courage or capability to go beyond superficial interactions and allow their core selves to connect, the relationship will fall prey to shallow connections over time. Soon, they are more likely to share who they really are with others, rather than with each other. Fearful of scarring the relationship further, they stay with comfortable and non-threatening words and behaviors. Over time, their interactions become predictable rituals, requiring less and less effort. To others, they may appear to be totally compatible, but they are really just repeating known and secure habitual behaviors. In time they will become susceptible to new and more intriguing experiences."
The only way we fall in - and sustain - deep, long-lasting love,
is by being willing to make ourselves truly vulnerable together.
11. Lean in & appreciate, to bulletproof your relationship &
get the freedom you desire
“So one day she just got up and left. I couldn’t stop her. Lord knows I tried. And right by the door she looked me dead in the eye and said, “Just so you know, I’m leaving cause you never cared. Not once. Not ever."
Read this long but important article, specifically for avoidants, about how securely showing up and lean-in strategies can look in a relationship.
The quickest way to kill a relationship is to take each other for granted. Everyone (at least, once they have worked through their insecurities) needs to feel appreciated and valued - regularly - in a relationship to feel happy and secure - and, in the long term, to want to stay. Avoidants act distant to shield yourself from pain, but by constantly acting like your partner needs to earn you, you will eventually drive them away. Never take your partner for granted!
The Dependency Paradox is a well-documented phenomenon: when we feel we can reliably depend on an attachment figure for safety and security, we are more willing to explore independence and leave them to it. In healthy partnerships, couples are safe to fulfil each other's needs on the basis of a shared recognition of commitment and appreciation, which imbues everything with a feeling of safety. There is always a dependence on our partner, no matter how independent we are. And our ability to face the outside world at our maximum potential relies on the knowing that we can count on our partner. It’s the paradox of dependence that being vulnerable makes us stronger. Autonomy is something you create together, not something you take.
As avoidants we fear commitment could mean our needs being engulfed - but after the early dating stage (where everyone is usually safe from engulfment anyway) the less you are able to truly demonstrate commitment, the less someone may be able to fulfil and respect your needs. Without this awareness the world of human relating may appear utterly confusing, as needs appear to expand behind you as you run. It may feel counter-intuitive, but you will get what you desire by leaning in. The safer someone feels, the less preoccupied they will be with activating acts to establish their safety.
So de-emphasise self-reliance and instead focus on mutual support. When your partner doesn’t have to work hard to get close, you’ll both be better able to look outward and do your own thing. You will become more independent and them less needy. If you feel afraid that by being needy or criticising you a partner is trying to control or change you, remember that often their behaviour comes out of fear, and the feeling of a lack of connection. The more connected to and reassured by you they feel, the less likely they are to act that way. So 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 in to the relationship. If you remember to do the small day-to-day positive things below, your partner is much more likely to feel safe and less likely to start talking about emotions! When they do start to do that, take it as a sign that they may require some more of these lean-in techniques...
Intimacy-building has been shown to uniquely benefit people with avoidant attachment. After intimacy-building exercises like the ones below, participants with more avoidant attachment styles rated their relationships as higher-quality than they had beforehand. The benefits of this connecting appeared to be long-lasting, as well: according to a survey of participants one month later, more avoidant participants who had done intimacy-building had actually decreased in attachment avoidance. Researchers found similar benefits for spontaneous interactions that couples had at home. In a different study, couples filled out diaries each night for three weeks about their feelings and their partner’s behaviors towards them. The researchers found that, when participants’ romantic partners acted in positive ways—such as listening to them or making them feel loved—the participants felt more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions, and rated their relationship as higher-quality. These links were most pronounced for participants with more avoidant attachment styles, suggesting (again) that they can especially benefit from good experiences in a relationship. Importantly, the activities that helped people with an avoidant attachment style didn’t require a huge effort or time commitment. The researchers found that even simple things, like taking turns answering thoughtful questions with your partner or trying an activity together, can have benefits. (Another experiment they conducted found that simply reflecting on positive relationship memories could help reduce the elevated negative emotions that avoidantly attached people tend to experience.) According to Professor Sarah Stanton, to start cultivating a secure attachment style “It really can just be as simple as talking to your partner and opening up a little bit.”
Remember, these Lean-In strategies will probably not feel natural, and in fact could feel quite uncomfortable at the start. Our avoidant brains want to do the opposite because they want to protect us from connection and ultimately keep us isolated. Like anything, this is a muscle that can simply be trained. If you expect this reaction and lean into the discomfort, gradually it will get easier, and you will start to notice the positive rewards from feeling like a proactive and caring partner, and see them in your partner's increased comfort and confidence.
10 Relationship-Activating (Lean-In) Strategies:
1. Accentuate the positive
"Worry less, appreciate more"
Automatically thinking badly of people is your brain's protective strategy against developing connection, ultimately leaving you lonely. Refuse to follow the autopilot and reprogram it by actively looking for the good. There are so many beautiful things to see in the people around you if you commit to noticing them. On a deeper level, this can also reconnect us from a more nihilistic place to our joy, connectedness and purpose in the world. Purpose is ultimately generated by giving love into the world.
Research demonstrates that it is lack of gratitude that underpins why avoidant attachment is negatively related to relationship satisfaction. By contrast, findings showed “appreciating one’s partner and being grateful toward one’s partner results in a more satisfying romantic relationship." Bear in mind that in fact all couples have some incompatibilities, but couples can go their separate ways because the very act of focusing on the bad changes our ability to tolerate those incompatibilities. I.e. to a degree we become incompatible when we believe we are. Because of their negative thinking avoidants are much quicker to reach this conclusion. So actively counter it with postitive!
Take time every day to notice the positives in your partner’s actions, and let them know too. Keep a relationship gratitude journal. This task requires a bit of time and actively trying to remember the events of the day. Make a list of ways in which your partner was caring, funny, helpful, considerate, or contributed (even in a minor way) to your wellbeing today. Write down why you are grateful that they are your life. Remind yourself why you fell for them in the first place and actively devote time to thinking about all their positive qualities. It is understandable if this strategy feels unnatural - this is not something we are used to doing, but stick to it for a while. Soon you’ll realise that with practice it gets easier and it is effective at helping you remember and rewrite your automatic thoughts that maintain the distance between you and your partner. Remind yourself that with everyone you meet it is your job to look for the good in them, not their job to impress you.
2. Show care: replace any toxic behaviour with nourishing behaviour
Toxic behaviour is behaviour that makes others feel devalued, inadequate, under-appreciated, angry, frustrated or guilty (Albrecht, Social Intelligence Theory). Nourishing behaviour, by contrast, is a consistent pattern of behaviour that makes others feel valued, respected, loved, affirmed, capable, confident and appreciated, and an indicator of high social intelligence, such as:
showing tolerance, being cheerful and bringing positive energy,
asking questions and taking an interest,
communicating respectfully, openly and honestly,
acknowledging others' views,
affirming, supporting and empathising,
seeing the positive,
giving compliments and praise,
positive and connecting body language,
making only promises you will keep,
accepting and sharing responsibility with gusto,
showing care for someone in difficulty,
admitting when wrong, not passing blame.
Commit to showing your partner you notice, appreciate and value them and to being present with them. Do things as a couple, pitch in more at home, be more available, and ask about their day. Do small things as well: Bring them a cup of coffee in the morning. Be affectionate. Leave a note professing your love. Write a letter or an email and tell someone how much they mean to you. Call them from work just to say you're thinking of them. Compliment and ask questions about what they have been working on, and praise them for little things they have achieved. Bring home a single rose. Surprise them and show your affection through random acts of kindness. As you do all this keep in mind the 5 Love Languages: Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Gifts, Quality Time, Physical Touch - trying to incorporate them all and being responsive to which your partner particularly responds to (which may be quite different to yours).
It is important that these things are maintained so that a partner always feels valued, not just a temporary response to damage repair. Make it a habit to say something that will make your partner feel good about themselves every day. Above all, view making people feel good about themselves as a highly coveted skill that can be developed - improving your relationship not just with your partner, but with your friends, family, children and colleagues too.
3. Take an Interest
It is our job to find interesting things in the people around us, not their job to show us. So ask your partner questions regularly and make it your mission to understand more about them and explore what really makes them tick - about their day, their concerns, their family, their friends, their colleagues, their feelings, their life experiences, their hopes and dreams, their world. Make sure do to the same when meeting their family and close friends, investing in really getting to know them. You will receive more in return, more value the connection and show your partner you care.
And while you're doing this, volunteer such information openly about yourself in the same way, so it is not always incumbent on a partner to find it out from you, which can become exhausting for them. Overcome your aversion by trusting what you instinctively might not give yourself permission for: that the other person is interested to hear it!
Be present. If you're going to be in the conversation, don't multitask or be only half it. Put away your phone and your thoughts of other things, and focus on really hearing your partner. Assume you have something to learn
4. Recognise, validate and return Bids
"Turn towards instead of away" - in relationships we are constantly making small bids for connection, but avoidants are often unattuned or indisposed to them and can turn them down from our partner without realising, which is demoralising for partners. When your partner is giving, you receive a compliment, a request to take an interest in something or to get your opinion, see it not as a smothering gesture but as a bonding offer being made; an attempt to build connection that you can reward and reciprocate. Validate it and return it - and better still, while it may initially feel counter-intuitive, try to initiate pro-active bids for connection yourself, to show your partner you see them, value connecting and are interested in their internal world. Compliment your partner, ask them what they think, and take an interest in discovering more about them.
5. Build Intimacy
Remove digital distractions and make sure you communicate well and regularly face-to-face, not just by text etc. Take an interest in getting to know each other's inner world, so you can both feel your truest selves are known and understood. If you're unsure how to action building intimacy, try questions that will deepen your connection such as:
36 questions for increasing closeness
Understand and accept also that the only constant in life is change, and embrace the big conversations about your future.
6. Take the Initiative
Bear in mind that avoidant mentality can be naturally averse to change and spontaneity and try actively countering this. Try taking the initiative with planning activities and dates to do together, coming up with new ideas and things that will surprise your partner. Take them out to show effort, and organise nostalgic nights/events to rekindle the spark. Make new memories with new places to visit etc. Take ownership for things you might enjoy together so the onus for decisions isn't on them - if you find it hard to know what you'd like to do with them in the moment, plan some things and make suggestions in advance. Don't wait for your partner to tell you what to do with household tasks or making plans - this keeps all the emotional labour on them. If you proactively initiate and make suggestions then you will feel more empowered, and good about surprising and pleasing your partner and showing care, rather than always just doing things in response and potentially feeling weighed down by an idea of the expectation of reciprocity.
7. Approach for connection, work on physical touch
We all need to be touched. Lack of physical contact can be linked to numerous health problems. Studies also show that stress will not fully settle if touch is unavailable to us - time spent touching and hugging has measurable neurobiological consequences. Learning to be physically soothed often results in reduced physical and mental complaints.
If you can, make physical and verbal approaches when preferring to withdraw. Put your arm round them and show affection often and spontaneously. Cuddle in bed. Maintain eye-contact and make an effort with physical touch. Touch avoidance is something that can be unlearned, and working on getting comfortable with physical touch is something the two of you can develop together, by creating a safe space where you feel comfortable to move at your own pace. For example, it can be good to get into the habit of asking for a hug when you feel emotionally affected by something. Though it may feel strange at first, it will slowly rewire you to the enjoying benefits of accepting physical comfort from others as a soothing response to stresses.
It can be challenging to form close, intimate relationships if touching is something that a person just cannot do (for example because of previous trauma), but it’s not impossible. Intimacy is all about honesty, openness, and a mutual willingness to share inner thoughts and feelings. It’s also about acknowledgment and acceptance of one another and each other’s limitations. Finding a way to satisfy a partner’s need for touch while protecting your own need to limit contact can be a challenge, but every relationship will present its own set of challenges, and the “touch-me/touch-me-not” tension is just one more flavor of intimacy puzzles that couples work to solve.
8. Show empathy
Avoidants can be very empathetic internally but struggle to understand how to action it, which makes us feel distressed and trapped, as if we are taking on someone else's problems with no way out. So learn and practise how to show effective empathy (for example Empathetic statements for when you don't know what to say and How to be empathetic). Always validate someone's emotional reactions so they feel seen, heard and accepted.
An avoidant person on practising displays of empathy:
“When someone told me “You need to have empathy!” I thought I was giving all the empathy I had (and I seriously was, but in reality, I had only been giving practical solutions to an emotional problem.) I found out I literally had to ask for the definition of empathy, and step by step how to achieve it! Let your loved one know, or through research into psychology and therapy, you can get methods on practicing empathy. It doesn’t come naturally, because we never got it. But by practicing a formula like it’s math, you can get there. That’s what I learned.
For example, ask empathetic questions: “How are you feeling today?” “What is in your emotional bottle right now? What’s the first thing that came to mind?”Whatever they input, affirm it, like “that must be hard” or find the closest experience you have to match what they have shared, encourage them to talk more, repeat the last few keywords of the answers as questions to encourage them to keep talking.
My suggestion for this is sometimes you can’t get “empathy” unless you experienced it yourself, so if you can listen to someone being empathetic to you on a regular basis, it’s a good way to “input into your mind” what empathy looks like, and mostly only therapists or some professionals are trained to talk like that. Know that if you can feel something from a story character in a movie, you can have empathy.
If people’s feelings stress you out or tire you out, or make you get angry, you have to do some inner examination on what part of the emotions trigger you, and see if you allow those emotions in your own life. Usually we can’t stand the emotions we don’t allow for ourselves.
If you can find willing help, find someone who can act as your parent(s) in a session and apologize to you for what they have done, in detail, and let you know it’s not your fault for becoming this way. (or your real parents, even better). For me my real mother has grown a lot in personal healing, she went from disorganized dismissive avoidant to a loving mom who could apologize to my inner child, and the child was healed after a good cry. My husband has been a good healing to me because he is emotionally available whenever I need to be vulnerable to him.”
9. Establish trust
Trust is the foundation of a secure relationship. But trust is much more than just not physically cheating on each other. Trust exists in a relationship when partners behave in ways that are in the best interest of both partners. The more trust in a relationship, the more you have each other’s back. Trust is each partner’s willingness to make sacrifices for the relationship. When partners are trustworthy, they are inherently saying to their significant other, “You can depend on me.” Repeated demonstrations of trustworthy behaviour allow partners to take shelter within the relationship. This leads to more security and less conflict. For avoidants, creating this will feel inherently dangerous because they fear losing themselves - but it is the road to happy long-term relationships. Read this on how to create it.
10. Master sexual communication
The bedroom is another place where intimacy can be difficult for avoidants, for here partners are likely to demand an emotionally intimate and honest relationship which can push avoidants behind their wall of defences. Because they didn't learn to nurture or be nurtured, it becomes difficult for them to venture beyond the mechanics of lovemaking and into the deeper levels of intimate sharing. As a result they may find ways to avoid sexual intimacy by keeping very busy, having multiple sexual partners or moving on to a new one when things get too intimate, or just convincing their partners that they are unattractive or sexually deficient in some way.
Learning to identify any barriers to sexual communication you have developed and when they arise is key to overcoming these restrictions, as is working together with a partner comfortable with sexual intimacy. Being unassertive with your partner is an ineffective way to solve problems - assertiveness means you are willing to take responsibility for your needs. Communication about sex in a healthy way involves clear, direct communication so both partners can get closer and meet their wants and needs. This allows total intimacy to develop so people feel completely free to share sexual enjoyment and pleasure together:
Ask directly, and ask if they are willing. If you are afraid to ask or you aren't sure about something, admit it.
If you agree to something that your partner asks you to do, be sure it's something you want to do. Remember you can say no without losing a partner's love and respect.
When you're quiet, be sure it's because you choose to be quiet and not because you're afraid to speak. If you're afraid you can express this and ask for reassurance: "will you tell me that it's fine for me to ask for what I want, and that you won't reject me for asking for it?"
If your partner is quiet and does not communicate their needs, ask. If your partner says "I don't know" it generally means "I don't want to think about it" or "I won't tell you or myself". You can ask your partner to think about what they want and tell you later.
Avoid blaming your partner for causing your feelings - take ownership for them yourself
Avoid using "I'll try" when you agree to do something. This usually means "I won't do the best I can because I don't want to do it anyway". Saying "I will do it" communicates you are committed to following through to the best of your ability.
Avoid interpreting the behaviour, feelings or motivations of your partner - explain things in terms of how you feel.
Kindness in Relationships
Contempt, researchers found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticising their partners miss a whopping 50% of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. People who give their partner the cold shoulder—deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally—damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued.
Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Research has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. There’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.
There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. People in successful relationships tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.
“If your partner expresses a need,” explained researcher Julie Gottman, “and you are tired, stressed, or distracted, then the generous spirit comes in when a partner makes a bid, and you still turn toward your partner.”
In that moment, the easy response may be to turn away from your partner and focus on your iPad or your book or the television, to mumble “Uh huh” and move on with your life, but neglecting small moments of emotional connection will slowly wear away at your relationship. Neglect creates distance between partners and breeds resentment in the one who is being ignored.
The hardest time to practice kindness is, of course, during a fight—but this is also the most important time to be kind. Letting contempt, aggression or distancing spiral out of control during a conflict can inflict irrevocable damage on a relationship.“Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger,” Julie Gottman explained, “but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and angry, and that’s the kinder path.”
When people think about practising kindness, they often think about small acts of generosity, like buying each other little gifts or giving one another back rubs every now and then. While those are great examples of generosity, kindness is primarily built into the very backbone of a relationship through the way partners interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, whether or not there are back rubs and chocolates involved. One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions. “Even in relationships where people are frustrated, it’s almost always the case that there are positive things going on and people trying to do the right thing,” psychologist Ty Tashiro says. “A lot of times, a partner is trying to do the right thing even if it’s executed poorly. So appreciate the intent.” Another powerful kindness strategy revolves around shared joy. One of the telltale signs of the disaster couples studied was their inability to connect with active support, excitement and interest over each other’s good news.
This advice is very simple — treat your partner like the most important person in the world to you, with the best manners you can muster. And even if you find it hard at first to habitually be kind when you are not feeling it, making the effort to fake it until it becomes a habit will pay enormous dividends in the happiness of your partnership, and the regard of everyone in your life as you treat them with more kindness and respect — because once you get in the habit, you will tend to treat everyone with more consideration.
12. Become a fixer - fix, don't flee
8 Fixing Strategies
1. Stop reacting:
For a partner to trust your reliability in the long run, you need to be able to show that you can be there with them in and support them through their pain, and face relationship difficulties, without running. When a tense situation makes you want to shut down or exit your relationship, remember this is just your biological threat response system kicking in, and likely not an accurate reflection of how you feel about your partner. Recognise that a reluctance to compromise and fix comes out of our need to stay in control, but that if we can slowly get used to making ourselves vulnerable and pushing through that discomfort, we will safeguard the things we actually want in the long term.
So resist the urge to flee or clam up. When you want to run away as fast as you can, this is the time that you need to turn towards your partner. The first step may be that they let your partner know that you need some space to think and will be back at some point. Take a timeout to process if you need it, and to make sure you are reacting rationally, not instinctively. Once you are able to do this you can next work on trying not to run and instead communicating to the responding partner that you are scared and the feelings that you experiencing. The occurrence of vulnerable, honest communication should start to improve the relationship. This requires both partners to work together to stop the dysfunctional behaviour.
Be aware also of your tendency to misinterpret your partner's actions negatively, and try to trust they have your best interests at heart. The best thing is to learn to show your vulnerability and respond by communicating openly and honestly and without judgement.
2. Think like a team! Put the relationship before yourself
Find ways to compromise. Think about “we,” not just “I” and “you.” In conflict situations the instinct might be to protect yourself, but more precious to look after is the relationship - a relationship is something that needs nurturing and protecting. Even if it goes against instinct in the heat of the moment, try to focus on resolving conflict and compromising from a “we” perspective – what is best for the relationship? The more couples are able to work through things together as a team, the healthier the relationship becomes. Be aware that being avoidant comes naturally with a tendency to blame the other for their experience - to protect ourselves from criticism, but also because unconsciously believing another should suppress pain and get over things keeps us from having to admit early pain we felt that could identify us uncomfortably as a victim (and a victim specifically of those close to us).
3. Learn conflict management and negotiation skills
This won’t help your root issue, but it will help you in choosing not to “run away” more easily. These include effective communication, listening, discussion, patience, impartiality, not criticising, making resolution the priority rather than 'being right', not making it about past issues, knowing when to let go, and a positive attitude that doesn' play the blame game. An avoidant says:
"I found just knowing about the layers of conflicts, from different expectations, needs, goals, emotions, influencers outside of the conflicts, has helped me to “stay” better when someone challenges me. I can now more logically pick and choose which fight is worth it, which fight isn’t. If you have anxious friends, families or partners, you will need this knowledge big-time. Books/audiobook I recommend: Art of Conflict Management: Achieving Solutions for Life, Work, and Beyond Switch: How to Change Things, When Change Is Hard, The Art of Negotiating the Best Deal"
Learn to take criticism and that it can in fact be a positive thing. And remember, partners may have different learned styles in conflict. This can be frustrating, but it doesn't have to have bearing on the rest of the relationship if we learn to sympathise with and accommodate each other's style.
4. Be accountable, master the art of the apology
“To apologize — there is nothing weak about it. Whoever apologises first is always the stronger one.” – Esther Perel
The three parts of an effective apology
1. Acknowledgement: I'm sorry I did X
2. Empathy: I know when I do X it makes you feel Y
3. Restitution: Reassurance of care and value, understanding of why it happened and explanation why
it won’t happen again, asking your partner what they need from you, can I do things to make it up to you, etc.
Be accountable - don't be afraid to admit when you are wrong. Take responsibility for the role you play in your relationship when there is a problem. Consider and own how you could have contributed rather than becoming defensive.
With apologies, hearing, acknowledging and holding someone's emotional experience, and reflecting it back to show you can understand and empathise with how they feel is a vital part of moving past things, though this can be very hard for avoidants. And it’s important to be aware that when behaviours have caused significant hurt they can fracture someone's reality, which takes time to rebuild. Their healing is a process through which they will need you to show that you care about the fact you hurt them and can express remorse and support multiple times. Often it may not be a case of a single apology. Explaining a transgression logically is also not enough. Hurtful acts and relationship breakdown produce a crisis of meaning - explain, reassure and show your partner repeatedly how much they mean to you and why you value them.
5. Master how to comfort and support someone, and to hold pain
In the long term people are generally looking above all for someone who can be a solid source of emotional support in a relationship. If you'd like your relationship to last, it's vital to learn how to do this. As avoidants we are used to self-soothing so may not be familiar with how to present to people in this way:
witness their feelings
affirm and empathise their feelings make sense
show the person you understand, and are interested in and responsive to their feelings, by asking questions (tell me what happened, how do you feel, help me understand your concerns, what's the thing that worries you most etc)
don't minimise their pain, tell them they don't have to talk about it or try to cheer them up or distract - be willing to stay inside the uncomfortable moment with them, saying and showing that you are here for them. When we emphasise "you don't need to tell me" if someone has voluntarily brought up something difficult, it can in fact suggest to them that we are reluctant to hear, to be with them and support them in their pain. This can feel like an intimate bonding offer being rejected. More supportive might be "I am here for you. If you feel you want to talk about it I'm here ready to listen and support you".
offer physical affection if appropriate
suggest action steps (and ask them what you can do)
affirm your support and commitment to them.
Learn how to hold space. It requires being with someone in their emotions, hearing, supporting and validating these without reacting defensively or trying to fix. Remember you can be with someone's pain and help them without it becoming your own.
To move forward from difficulties, a partner needs to be confident they can express how they feel and what has hurt them to a receptive response - that you will not shut down and react defensively, but respond sympathetically, supportively and constructively. Avoidants find it very difficult to hold someone's pain and be with them in that pain, because they are so primed to reject uncomfortable emotions. It is vital to get comfortable doing this.
6. Forgive & Let Go
Forgive your partner for the times they've hurt you in the past, and forgive yourself for your hurtful actions. Don't get stuck on the past, let go of any anger, and instead trust in your partner's best intentions going forward. You can't move forward if you keep looking backward.
7. Timing is vital
Make quick and effective repairs to the relationship when a breach occurs, especially when the breach is due to avoidant strategies. When situations are left to fester it breeds resentment. Transfer bad memories into good ones before they enter long-term memory as grudges.
8. If in doubt, ask yourself “what would a securely attached person do?”
Secure habits are based on communicating effectively, not playing games, showing care, prioritising the relationship, and allowing ourselves to be honest and vulnerable.
Finally, it helps to remember that like anything relationships have their rocky moments. Their irritating moments. Or even just their "blah" moments. Maybe you are going through a down time in your relationship that is a normal and a natural part of being in love in a relationship. Maybe it’s not as exciting as it once was. Maybe you are unsure of the future or looking through grass-is-greener eyes. And if you're in a relationship rut, that doesn't always mean you have to break up. Sometimes people who break up with a partner find out later that they left a good thing. A relationship doesn’t exist just to make you happy. It’s not supposed to solve all your problems or serve as an escape from all the bad things. Your partner is certainly there to support you, but that's not something your happiness should be dependent on. Never forget to always work on yourself. Because to have a meaningful relationship that works, you have to work. So no, things may not always be perfect, but don't immediately cast the blame on the relationship before first examining the bigger picture.
Rebuilding trust can be uniquely challenging for avoidants, because it requires a set of behaviours they are particularly averse to, below. An avoidant's natural preference would be to extract themselves from the situation, and sit in the guilt in preference to sitting in the difficulty of their partner's emotions. Rebuilding and repair is in large part about thinking of the other and sticking through your own discomfort until things abate. As you work at the things that underpin your avoidance more generally, you will find these skills naturally become easier.
“After I found out about Ben’s affair, my marriage suddenly became an unrecognizable, dangerous place to me, as if I’d been dropped onto another planet in another solar system.”
When you are in a long-term relationship, when you are in pain, you automatically reach out to your partner for comfort. Imagine the additional pain when you realize that previous source of comfort is now the person who has hurt you so badly that you want to lash out at him/her.
Hold space for difficult emotions
“I didn’t know I was capable of so much rage."
If you’ve been betrayed by your partner, you know how incredibly hard it is to come to terms with the fact that the person you knew so well has breached your trust and, in the process, upended a part of your life that you may have thought of as the most grounding, centering dynamic you’ve ever known. You may have thought of your relationship as the one constant in a sea of change, and discovering betrayal can cause you to oscillate between disbelief and shock.
Just like any major event that wounds the human heart, the pain of betrayal will evoke different reactions in different people. But in addition to sorrow, feelings of extreme anger are common, and quite understandably so, especially if the betrayed partner has remained faithful for the life of the relationship, even in the face of temptation. And it’s common for the emotional pendulum to swing between anger and sadness, an abrupt change that might feel disorienting in its suddenness.
Again, the crucial piece here is understanding that this is a normal part of the process (what many betrayed partners call the grieving process). And it’s important for both partners to understand and acknowledge that. There’s nothing that stymies affair recovery more than the individual who betrayed insisting to the other that it’s time to “move on,” or that it’s time for the wounded partner to put away his/her unpleasant emotions.
It’s important for the partner who betrayed trust to remember and respect the other’s pain. Although s/he can never know exactly what that betrayal feels like, all too often the partner who betrayed is sheepish, disgusted with him/herself, remorseful and so flooded with regret that s/he cannot tolerate the other’s pain, the pain that exacerbates the remorse. However, when healing the relationship is the goal, leaving space for that pain is imperative.
For our relationships to withstand betrayal, we personally need to be able to withstand facing up to difficult emotions and being in that moment with pain to support our partner. Until we can face difficult emotions we will not survive relationship difficulty.
Support and be sympathetic with the need for information
“I was preoccupied with questions that I desperately wanted to know the answers to, while at the same time I dreaded the answers and suspected they would bring more pain. In a word, I felt crazy.”
If you're the betrayed partner t’s important to remember that these thoughts are normal, however out of control they might make you feel. You’re faced with what might feel like the impossible task of making sense of something you can’t even wrap your brain around, and trying to recalibrate your understanding of someone you thought you knew. It's expected you'll want to know all the details, although also important not to have expectations that the answered questions will fully put your pain to rest.
If, however, the partner who betrayed is impatient and shuts down dialogue about the betrayal, that will likely interfere with healing. This impulse to gather “data” about the betrayal is normal and should be acknowledged as such by both partners when the goal is recovery from infidelity and rebuilding of trust after an affair. The painful spinning of the mind (and the accompanying chronic questioning) does fade with the passage of time and the rebuilding of trust. The betraying partner must be prepared for some potential insecurity, jealousy and need to invade privacy for a while. These are natural and simply with solid demonstration of trustworthiness over time will abate.
Understand and support that they may need to lean on others
If we no longer feel safe going to our partner as a source of comfort, we may need other sources of support. But irrational as it may seem, the partner betrayed can be the one who doesn’t want to tell family and friends about it, not necessarily to protect how the other partner is seen, but to protect themselves from feeling shame, from feeling like they did something (or failed to do something) to cause it. It’s important to come to terms with the fact that no one can make someone betray. That responsibility exclusively belongs to the partner that did so. If reaching out to trusted family members or friends (or working with a couples counselor) would help a betrayed partner as they deal with the pain, then it’s crucial that you support them in that, even if that means others will find out about what has happened.
Show your commitment over time through patience and support to rebuild
Rebuilding trust should begin with being vulnerable and honest with deep insight for your actions, your reasons behind those actions and what you are doing to change that. You need to be able to demonstrate positive change and that you are capable of working on the relationship. Reassuring a partner repeatedly, and whenever they need it, of their meaning to you in the face of betrayal is vital, but it is showing them this that can eventually rebuild the relationship.
"With the passage of time, and with Ben’s repeated demonstrations of patience and commitment to working on the relationship and not repeating the devastating mistake that he so deeply regretted, Eva eventually came to trust Ben again and, when the world dealt her unexpected blows, to see him as her first line of comfort once more."
On Avoidants & Infidelity
We know avoidants are prone to having affairs. "When avoidants are unfaithful this may be because their relatively low commitment to their romantic partner means they perceive an affair as less of a risk. They have less of the commitment-inspired inhibition that normally prevents people from showing interest in alternatives. Because avoidant people tend to feel threatened by the approach of their primary attachment figure, they could be liable to have an affair at the point where a relationship comes to be viewed as more permanent. For them an affair can serve to minimise the meaning of the primary relationship. People with high avoidance may achieve a higher sense of security by denying their feelings of commitment. For these individuals, feeling dependent on a relationship, that one's wellbeing is tied up with another person, is deeply uncomfortable."
- Avoidant Attachment & the Defence Against Intimacy
So it can help to remember that when avoidants are drawn to others outside the relationship it is often in the service of temporary relief from intimacy. Looking for attention outside the relationship is something avoidants do when they feel too emotionally engaged and need to find a potential exit route to feel safer. When the partners of avoidants are, by contrast, it can be for the emotional support or validation they feel they aren't receiving. If we understand where these impulses are truly coming from, and seek to break down, address and assuage the fears behind it (such as with intimacy addressing the fear of being engulfed and unable to be our true selves), it can help us respond compassionately to ourselves, consider whether we truly want to act in these ways (for avoidants learning to appreciate that the relative discomfort of intimacy is the price of feeling truly safe and supported in a relationship), and reframe them as needs we can look to find effective solutions to within the relationship, before damage is inflicted.
Case Study: Physical Senses & Falling Out Of Love
One of the elements that supports the creation and sustaining of love is physical closeness and eye contact. Andrew loved to gaze at Lucy when they were dating in college. He fell in love with her deep green eyes, which seemed to invite him to merge with her. Two years into the marriage, something changed. He began to see her eyes as pushy, invasive and meddling. He stopped gazing into her eyes and preferred looking at her from afar while she interacted with others. When she sought physical proximity, he felt annoyed. The sound of her voice aroused anger in him, and her touch sometimes made him bristle. He became oddly sensitive to the smell of her breath and her skin. He stopped enjoying their kisses and began to avoid anything but a brief peck on the lips. Lucy, herself an avoidant, tried not to notice what was happening. She buried herself in work and convinced herself this was simply a natural phase for married couples; it was what people meant when they said "the honeymoon is over".
Andrew was in a panic. What, he asked himself, could have caused such a change in his senses? Had he fallen out of love? He certainly thought so. Because he avoided close contact with Lucy, he had no way to rekindle feelings of love for her. He couldn't engender feelings of either stranger-ness or novelty with her. She became and overly familiar, if not familiar, figure to him. At the same time, Andrew found himself lusting over others at a distance. He engaged in occasional dalliances and one-night stands with women with whom he could relive the excitement and possibility of sex and romance, as he had done with Lucy in the beginning. But whenever a woman became too demanding of continued involvement, his aversive reactions would reappear and he would quickly cut off all communication.
Andrew was forced to admit his problem when Lucy discovered his infidelities and kicked him out of the house. After two weeks of painful separation, Andrew owned up to his mistakes and begged Lucy for a second chance. Lucy agreed to reconcile. Slowly the couple started 'dating' again. He once again enjoyed gazing into her deep green eyes. His near senses delighted in her smell, taste and touch. With his renewed sense of love for Lucy, it wasn't hard to win his way back into the house. However, shortly thereafter his aversions returned. "What's wrong with me?" he worried silently day and night. Fortunately, this time Lucy recognised the problem and was able to convince Andrew to go to couples therapy with her so they could address the more serious problems that were tough to solve on their own.
"Confidence is not the belief that we won’t meet obstacles. It is the recognition that difficulties are an inescapable part of all worthwhile contributions. We must ensure we have plenty of narratives to hand that normalise the role of pain, anxiety and disappointment in even the best and most successful lives. We are familiar enough with the fear of failure, but success can bring about as many anxieties – and these may culminate in a desire to scupper our chances in a bid to restore our peace of mind."
"Happiness is not the absence of problems, it's the ability to deal with them"
"When it's Friday night and the drink don't work the same
When you're alone with yourself and there's no one left to blame
When you still can't feel the rhythm of your heart
And you see your spirit fading in the dark
Oh I'll be there
When you need a little love I've got a little love to share
I'm gonna come through
You'll never be alone, I'll be there for you"
- Jess Glynn
A relationship is about having someone to lean on when life inevitably becomes hard. While it’s good to maintain your sense of identity outside of a relationship, it’s crucial to a thriving relationship to lean on each other when the going gets rough. There are wonderful benefits to being able to be a solid source of support for someone and learn to accept support ourselves. This is something avoidants learnt to fear, but can slowly rewire themselves to enjoy, once they gain the tools.
Fixing is vital and good practice!
All relationships start out good, otherwise people wouldn’t start them in the first place. But difficulties will always arise, and most people are never taught how to keep a good relationship going. We inevitably default to whatever we learned growing up, and if that wasn’t picture-perfect, there may be a lot to learn about how to be a good partner and keep a relationship healthy. Without that information, many people just fumble their way through relationship after relationship, learning through trial and error what works and what doesn’t. The fact is that until avoidants can reliably work through issues with their partner when they arise, they are unlikely to have a lasting relationship. The only way we keep a healthy long-term relationship going is by becoming fixers!
Research has indicated that people who are able to sustain lasting relationships before they marry stay married longer and are more likely to be married for life than those whose pre-marital relationships don’t last very long. That means that by working on your current relationship, even if you don’t end up marrying that person, you are developing crucial skills that will contribute to the success of your future long-term partnership.
It may not feel like it, but conflict is actually a vital and great opportunity for relationship growth – it can make you stronger together, air unspoken needs, breaking down things that weren’t working between you and how to improve them. Every relationship has patterns that don’t work and can be brought to a head through conflict; working through these conflicts is a positive opportunity to rectify them and for the couple to get their needs met together. So begin by reframing the idea of conflict. Rather than seeing it as a path full of unknowns that can hurt you, look at it as a path full of opportunities to learn and grow together. Mastering the skill to work through disagreements productively is one of the most important things for relationships. While using the relationship maintenance strategies above so things don't regularly get to a 'fixing' stage is paramount, being able and willing to work to fix a problem is fundamental to the long-term survival of relationships, and as triggering as conflict situations can be for people with an avoidant style, we can't rely on our partners to unilaterally do the work for us. Remember caring about someone doesn't mean all that much unless we translate it into action and show up when things are hardest.
Without fixing, problems repeat
It's easy to be in a relationship when things are going well. But if every time the two of you don't see eye to eye on something, you end a relationship, you will probably regret it. Not only that, but you're also not going to do well in the next relationship, because you're going to put yourself in the position of always running away from conflict. Every relationship has conflict. Remember that when we leave a relationship we take ourselves with us. The problems in your current relationship would be in your future relationships too. Withdrawing from conflict or communication is a distancing strategy that erodes the foundation of relationships because a partner doesn’t feel safe, plus without the issues openly addressed you inevitably start a war within yourself. Be on guard that as an avoidant in relationships it is easy to give too little, so things easily descend into a cycle of mutual rejection if you're not careful.
If you imagine yourself with a partner long-term but find conflict difficult now, think how it could be if for example you had kids, you’re sleep-deprived, you haven’t been getting on, you are juggling ailing parents, or if your partner is ill and you have the responsibility of caring for them… Problems are inevitable in life, and are the test of whether relationships work. If we walk without very considered reasons and discussion we lose trust, can do irreparable damage and are not treating our partners as they deserve. And within a relationship, distancing techniques like stonewalling predict divorce with 90% accuracy.
The flight impulse can feel overwhelming for avoidants, but as adults we can remember we don't have to follow it and recognise breaking up a long-term relationship on a whim is not healthy or mature behaviour, unlikely to be reflective of our true feelings, risks transferring our childhood trauma onto others, and will not solve the underlying issues. Even when your instincts are screaming at you, walking out or shutting down from our responsibilities and connections can't always be an option. So unless the relationship is toxic and unhealthy, it is worth first trying to work through difficulties together and get to the root of what the issues are expressing about your needs. Make sure not to let you relationship choices manifest out of fear, but instead rational, considered thought.
Fixing is learnable
Having an avoidant attachment style can come with a "it's easier to give up" mentality. This can be because we are triggered into a flight response, because the idea of attending to someone else's needs (though a fundamental requirement in a relationship) feels exhausting, because vulnerability or expressing needs is difficult and we feel shamed, and because if we do something wrong we can fear becoming beholden to someone with guilt in a way that gives them power over us. To become a fixer the most important step is to first trust that our partner has our best interests at heart and wants to fix the relationship too, as a team. They will also want things to return things to an even keel, they are not trying to gain control over us and they do not want us to suffer disproportionate guilt. They probably simply want to express how they feel, to have their experienced acknowledged and to work to make sure problems don't repeat.
Remember that as a child avoidants internalised not to try, and that working for connection would only cause pain. Now this core belief must be reprogrammed to appreciate that working on your connection is what will make it strong, worthwhile and rewarding. It is avoiding this that will in fact give you pain in the long run.
If we feel like giving up it is also because we often don't understand how to go about fixing something, or innately believe we are capable of it. But like anything, successful conflict management is just a skill that can be learned. Behaviours may initially feel counterintuitive and uncomfortable. But there is almost always the possibility that something can be fixed if you're brave enough to resist the impluse to run, stick through the process and do what it takes. Be prepared: in order to resolve difficulties you will have to be vulnerable. This will instinctively make you feel out of control. Lean into the discomfort. While as avoidants we avoid these things because they feel very painful to face, when we face up to it we may find, along with emotions in general, it wasn’t so bad after all, and gets easier every time. Ultimately, even if it is hard work, having fixed something will make us feel much better than carrying around guilt!
This of course doesn't mean we need to stay in a relationship where we are persistently feeling unhappy or trapped. Sometimes people are just not compatible, and if you are long-term unhappy in a situation it is important not to stick in it. But it does mean that if we are feeling the desire to escape we should first consider at length what unmet needs it is expressing - and whether the feelings are really down to unfixable incompatibility, or in fact issues which we can voice and solve. And we need to put work over time into trying to secure those needs within the relationship before abandoning ship.
"Are you and your partner stuck? You keep having the same problems—sometimes for years. No matter how much you try to talk about them, they persist. Maybe you’ve even tried to ignore them, hoping they’ll go away. You don’t like yourself in this relationship. You don’t like who you’ve become—unfulfilled, depressed, anxious, angry. And maybe you’re feeling guilty, too—on the outside it looks like you have it all, yet you’re so unhappy.You thought you had gotten it right with your partner—things were so good at the beginning—but now you’re in a crisis. You feel so disconnected from your partner, and you don’t know how to move forward. Often, you think it might be easier to just start over with someone else.
But, unless you’re in a truly abusive relationship, leaving is the biggest mistake you could make. When someone comes to me and says they’ve fallen out of love, they typically believe it’s the other person’s fault, and they think they’ll leave and find something better. But here's the little detail they're missing. They take themselves with them. And so do you. No matter what the problems are in your current relationship, they will be in your future relationship too, even though you are partnered with someone else. That’s because you carry your issues from relationship to relationship. This means you will keep repeating similar painful patterns, no matter whom your partner happens to be. In other words, you’ll never be truly at peace and happy in a relationship unless you recognize and heal your wounds first. Leaving your relationship—other than an abusive relationship—before discovering the inner fears and beliefs that led you to the relationship in the first place, and attempt to solve them, is essentially a waste of time.
This is the reason why people leave a relationship only to feel defeated in the next one. They keep picking new partners thinking that “this one” will make everything alright. They start off with high hopes, only to eventually hit a wall and feel stuck yet again—because they never resolved their own issues in the first place. When you have two people coming into a relationship expecting the other person to make everything alright, you have the recipe for relationship dysfunction.
13. Work with a supportive partner or work on yourself solo
Select a good partner when you're ready
"Ironically, despite their aversion to neediness, avoidants tend to be the neediest of all types. This paradox is often not appreciated by either them or their partners. Avoidants confuse neglect with independence, because their sense of independence grew out of familial pressure to be self-reliant, and aren't in touch with what are actually feelings of abandonment. Unfortunately, avoidants who have remained unaware of these kinds of abandonment or dependency issues usually cannot resolve them on their own. They require the help of another person to reorientate and reprogram them away from abandonment to enjoy receiving care, and to help them move forward in their life from a static place of fear into mature, rewarding life stages. The most effective person for the job is a romantic partner who can be understanding of the denied, shame-bound desires of the avoidant. If you are avoidant, much as you may dread some aspects of a committed long-term relationship with one person, your salvation from an existentially alone lifestyle will probably come from a secure-functioning relationship in which your worst fears are not realised. For this to happen, however, you may have to allow someone else to be your hero."
- Stan Tatkin, Wired for Dating
“Instead of looking for a person who checks all the boxes, focus on a person with whom you can imagine yourself writing a story with that entails edits and revisions.”
– Esther Perel
If we don't think well of ourselves, we can avoid close relationships or seek out those who match our expectations with negative behaviour. These situations confirm our self-beliefs but will never resolve our existential angst. Salvation will not come from always running and hiding from our discomfort. It can be a hard thing to accept that our predicament comes not from failing to meet the right partner, but from an unconscious fear of putting in work and achieving greater closeness with the people we have met. Be mindful that, particularly if you are feeling bad about your avoidant impulses (for example in your last relationship) you may in fact seek out neglectful situations to confirm your self-belief. We will reject those who love and support us until our self-esteem is healthy enough it believe we deserve it.
Ultimately, the way we will get over our fears in relationships is not by suppressing them - this can only last so long. We will get over our fears by being willing to be vulnerable enough to show our true selves, and working with someone supportive to whom we feel safe to finally be honest about these fears - someone who we can then learn to support in return. As much as your natural instinct may be to hide the aspects of yourself and your avoidance from a new partner, being honest about them will let them truly know you, fairly allows them the freedom to decide if it is right for them, and will help you build real safety together. Spend enough time in a secure relationship working on developing your own secure habits, and you can become secure!
For us avoidants, the idea of being responsible for someone else’s needs can feel overwhelming. We can be attracted to people who might appear less demanding because we feel less at risk of being overwhelmed by their needs. This would mean that in theory we never need to look into and fix those internal issues, so can stay comfortable. But everyone has needs – avoidant or anxious partners may just be more likely to suppress than effectively communicate them, so they can come out in less healthy, sustainable ways and without work the relationship can be unsatisfying and unstable for both. The key is not to look for someone who seems not to have or share their needs, but to first develop and practise confidence in expressing our own personal boundaries, wants and needs, and in separating from excessive guilt, so we feel safe we won't be overwhelmed. In reality we are each responsible for our own needs – but we can help each other.
So when you think you are ready for a relationship, be mindful identifying the qualities you want in a life partner, of who you are choosing and why. Are the characteristics you are looking for in a partner conducive to the long-term success of a relationship, if that is what you truly want? Life is easier if we don't have radically different needs for closeness, space or affection - and where we do differ are both willing to sympathise with each other and make efforts to meet in the middle. But while you want someone who is not not going to need miles more closeness than you can provide (and bearing in mind that a bit more closeness than you are comfortable with will always be necessary to sustain a relationship), try also make a considered choice for the pro-relationship qualities you are looking for in a life-partner that is dominated by expression of your values rather than just your fears around your own avoidant behaviours (which you can work on yourself, potentially supported by a willing partner). That way when your avoidance inevitably kicks in - which it will - you can fall back on reminding yourself of those values to help you work through it. Anticipate that as an avoidant you will ultimately feel resentful towards the characteristics of any close attachment figure. For example, if they are a good communicator you will resent this as you feel put upon. If they are a bad communicator your will resent this as you won't have clear information what to do. Be conscious of where it really comes from and separate this feeling from objective characteristics that will truly safeguard the relationship.
If you choose a partner with an equal fear of interdependence and emotional openness, for example, then even if you somehow manage to express your needs, resolve difficulties and sustain the relationship together it's possible you will find it difficult to accomplish the partnership life goals and enjoy the fulfilling mutual support you have in mind for a relationship - although, of course, you might have fully accepted that you would prefer not to have that kind of partnership. It all depends what you most want and it's totally ok to preference a partnership with distance if this is what you have accepted you prefer. Unchecked, the qualities that can make your avoidance more comfortable can also be less likely to lead to a supportive, functional partnership in the long term, although awareness of our attachment style may give us the tools to more effectively address difficulties when they do arise. But bear in mind that while seeking this may keep you feeling safer, it also may never encourage you to resolve your existential fears or help you access your buried feelings, and accept fully receiving and learning to give the love and attention you were taught not to believe you deserved. Put simply, it's a way to keep running - to continue to believe we are not enough. The ideal solution is to take ownership for fixing your avoidant tendencies and look for someone with whom you are both able be open about what you need. It's important we feel safe that our needs will be met and believe we can meet those of others. But, again, do you want your choice of partner just to be determined only by the fact that they do not show significant commitment, enthusiasm to interact or emotional attachment to you - by fear - or by more positive, considered reasons that embrace your desires for the qualities in a life partner rather than your fears?
It takes exposure to love to resolve these patterns. Even if it feels an uncomfortable, difficult and painful process, we can slowly correct our patterns by allowing for the emotional validation and interest we failed to receive as a child, and learning to show it in return. So if you are serious about resolving your habits, then instead of the quest for autonomy, ideally look for a partner with whom to establish a secure pattern. Someone with secure independence and emotional connectedness (which turn into to interdependence in a couple) is a very different thing to someone who might not lean on you because they are also repressing. If you want to resolve your past patterns, ideally look for someone who can show some sympathy with your space and intimacy needs but can also be clear, direct and honest about their feelings, doesn't keep you guessing, is committed to collaboration, compromise and teamwork in a relationship but will also stand their ground, seeks resolutions and communicates well. It is vital to be able to solve difficulties and move through things together. Someone whom can both express their needs and you can feel safe expressing yours to. These are the qualities that encourage long term success, and with conscious work you can start to mirror ones you may not be used to. Learn to accept and value the importance of emotional openness as a tool that can help you both successfully navigate a relationship, not fear it. Seek consistency, availability, reliability and responsiveness, and don’t mistake butterflies you feel (or the dopamine of intermittent reinforcement) when someone is being hard to read or unavailable for true connection.
If you are potentially interested in a family, look also for the qualities that could make for an engaged, supportive and self-aware parent, where you could work well as a team. While we may be willing to put up with neglectful, disinterested or overbearing treatment ourselves, we can rebalance our expectations by imagining the stable qualities we'd value showing up for our existing or possible future offspring. If you feel you need more challenge, remember you can look for a partner who challenges you mentally without having a low or disinterested opinion of you or the stability of the relationship itself needing to be challenged, and you can also challenge yourself outside the relationship. A solid relationship with a secure emotional attachment makes you stronger, more confident and more able to reach your full potential.
But do not seek any of these things without being genuinely willing to give it back, and be the best partner you can be. As avoidants our natural instinct is to want the benefits of connection without having to really meet the needs of others - but for a relationship to thrive we must counter this. And we can get a great sense of purpose and satisfaction from being a great partner. To attract and retain stable partnerships, let yourself be more vulnerable and willing to compromise, support and resolve conflicts even when you may not feel like it, to nourish the relationship, to articulate your needs and show up for theirs – getting clarity on what they require from you if needed. Show a lot of willingness to work at things and bear in mind these partners are less likely to put up with deactivating strategies, refusal to compromise/address needs and other avoidant behaviours, so it's important to become self-aware, and able to control these ourselves for a successful relationship. However, be aware of falling into the myth that there is a perfect partner who can solve this for you - success comes not from constantly swapping partners but from committing to be vulnerable, to working on ourselves, and working together on our dynamic as a team. In the end it's just about finding someone who really wants to give it a try together, and committing to doing the same yourself. Don't leave it to your partner to shoulder all the emotional labour of keeping the relationship working, but instead learn to enjoy the feeling of potentially being a great partner yourself!
But remember, the best way to find an amazing person is to become an amazing person
"Everyone wants to be with the perfect partner, but few people want to be the perfect partner. The vast majority of problems around 'finding someone' are caused by uneven expectations like this. But when you flip this on its head and start taking a little more responsibility in this area of your life - when you start focusing on what kind of life you want and what kind of partner you want to be - you’ll start to see all the flakes and unhealthy options fade into the background. You’ll start making genuine connections with people and make each other’s lives more enjoyable. The best way to find an amazing person is to become an amazing person. Your attitudes generate your behaviour towards others, your behaviours determine who is attracted to you, the people attracted to you determine your relationships." - Mark Manson
Share the journey
"It is our belief that wounds that occur in intimate relationships can be best mended there. Those who use their primary relationship to free themselves discover a kind of intimacy that would have been difficult to imagine at the start of their journey. When people help each other heal their wounds from childhood, they experience something we call depth intimacy, in which they have the sense that their souls touch, This happens when both individuals strip away the facades they constructed out of looking good and acting strong, and they experience the vulnerability that ultimately frees the Self. By helping each other heal the wounds from their childhoods, both partners move forward developmentally and each becomes more individuated and psychologically separate. This kind of intimacy is different from pseudo-intimacy, which emphasises happiness and good times or which focuses on rising above differences and conflicts. People caught in the flight from intimacy often bury their problems, pretending that they don't exist, until some small incident triggers the hidden issues and they erupt into a huge conflict"
- The Flight from Intimacy
Even more relevant than partner choice, it is this honesty, openness and teamwork that will greatly increase your chances of relationship success: if you are able to be vulnerable with your partner about your patterns, the work you are doing, and what you need from them. For example, when a partner understands that a need for space isn't personal and you can articulate needing it when you do, they will be happier to give that space to you. Once they do you will feel much less at risk of being engulfed, more comfortable, safer to return to them of your own accord more quickly and the dynamic able to return more swiftly from a triggered state to natural equilibrium for both of you, short-circuiting the push-pull pattern. We cultivate relationships - they are not given to us. The grass is greener where you water it.
But remember you don’t need to run before you can walk. Changing patterns that have been embedded since we were young is hard work - this will take time, and that's ok. Understand it’s going to be slow, and it’s okay to go at your own speed - it's actually faster being slow. We may be prompted to change because it has been affecting people we care about, or we feel like we are behind by the standard of our community. But it helps to distance from those pressures and work on ourselves first. If we feel pressured we can end up back into our turtle shell emotionally and not move. The right partner should be willing to wait for us to move at our own pace, if we can treat them well on the way. So don’t put yourself down - however also appreciate that outside of childhood most acceptance is conditional, and that in a mature relationship commitment is (and should be) dependent on treating each other well. We were conditioned to expect an attachment figure to stay as much as we tried to escape them, so do not blame yourself, but do remember that testing this in an adult relationship will not end well!
End and reunite healthily
Of course, just because you're not into someone that doesn't mean it's a problem with your avoidance. There are many things that go into a compatible match. And within a relationship, if things are not going well then being in a relationship should not be about stoically suffering in silence just because you have recognised avoidant tendencies. Some relationships are just not right for us, no matter how logically we try to think about them, when we cannot meet each other's needs. If you have been open, honest and tried working on things together within the relationship over time but still not been able to meet each other's needs, there is no shame in parting amicably. But out of respect for partners and to avoid trauma wounds, the end of long-term relationships should be conducted in a healthy way - with open, calm discussion about what isn't working and might or might not be fixable, having worked through attempts to remedy together, and with each acknowledging one's own personal responsibility and avoiding blame. If you haven't had a go at fixing things, bear in mind that whatever inhibited you in your last relationships you will take with you to the next.
“The key to success in a rekindled relationship is growth for one or both partners,”
Regarding reuniting with an ex, there is no one-size-fits all, but two people should consider getting back together only if both partners are openly committed to personal growth, and the vulnerability together that requires. In a situation where at the time neither of you perhaps had the tools to move through an issue together, but in growing apart since discovered things about yourselves through which you gain tools to see, communicate and be with each other in a way that is new, fresh and expansive - then this could provide a healthy and exciting foundation for reuniting and the tools for a successful relationship. You already know how each other operates, but can arrive with a new honesty and openness about how to keep things working, and a learned respect for these needs and willingness to work on yourselves.
However, often couples have not done or are not prepared to do this internal work, and so it may instead be the ego at play - wish-fulfilment over unfinished business and a sense of proving one's worth. Moreover, with low self-esteem at heart, it's possible for avoidants to actually attach more to those who neglect them - we should only to reunite with people who deserve it and will treat us well, and whom we are committed to treating well in return. So it's important to be cognisant of you motivation (though if healthy, generally the sooner repaired the better. This can be very scary for avoidants but: tell them how you feel! And how you have grown). Sometimes it's something we only find out by trying. But partners should always enter carefully, with a mature approach of mindfulness and open discussion around why they broke up and what in their dynamic has been or has the potential to be fixed. Are you both on the same page about what the difficulties were, whether they are resolvable and how to resolve them? Many strong lifelong partnerships have come out of a period of being apart and developing new awareness of how to work well together. However, many other relationships end for good reasons. Cycling relationships (those that experience breakups and get back together) tend to have a higher rate of dissatisfaction, lack of trust, and eventual failure, so avoid rekindling without both having had the space to reflect and change, and if you want to reunite be prepared to put work into establishing a whole new relationship and rebuilding trust. Remember that your first relationship together was not a successful one: it ended in heartbreak. Accept the fact that you are saying goodbye to the old relationship. It's gone, and that's a good thing! That relationship ended for a reason, so look forward and focus on having a new and healthier connection in the future. Treat the second time like a new relationship, building new rules of engagement.
“The real reason the couple broke up in the first place needs to be worked out in order for the relationship to flourish the second time around. If that doesn’t happen, the relationship will inevitably fail. The key to success in a rekindled relationship is growth for one or both partners. And the more hard work you put into something, the greater likelihood it will improve. Like all relationships, there’s typically a honeymoon period when you get back with an ex. But once this wears off, communication without defensiveness is super-important during the next phase. If an old problem resurfaces, then rather than flipping out and immediately calling it quits, take it as an opportunity for growth. Figure out what went wrong and reset. You'll wind up with a healthier relationship than before—with great new communication skills to boot."
Attachment Theory may not solve your issues
"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 2 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."
Stay single if you're not ready, and be up-front
Finally, staying single may offer valid benefits that protect us against potential hurt and rejection in relationships. While humans are hard-wired for connection and people in relationships are more likely to be happier overall, avoidants register more happiness than most outside of them. If we regularly find ourselves feeling very stressed and unhappy in relationships, then staying out of a long-term monogamous relationship, at least in the short-term, is worth considering, and focusing on personal development so we could do well within one. Monogamous relationships also don't have to be for everyone, and provided we are not hurting anyone there is no shame in arranging something alternative to the standard accepted Western model (if easier said than done!). If a monogamous long-term interdependent relationship is we truly want then there are ways to change things, and it's good to take time to work on ourselves. There is lots of great work we can focus on to make sure that when we next enter a relationship its success is less likely to be scuppered by our negative beliefs and relating actions. But if we'd like to carry on dating and haven't put in the internal work yet, we need to consider that we may be using people as distractions and enjoying the benefits of the early stages while disregarding attachments they might develop, when as things become closer we are not prepared to put in the work. Ultimately this can be exploiting the feelings of others - even if done very unawares. Avoid dating if you are not genuinely prepared to give back to others the good things they give to you.
However, in many ways you can't practise these skills until you are in a relationship! So don't demand of yourself to be transformed - just started on the journey. The most important thing is to go in self-aware and prepared to put in the work in the long-haul, particularly when things get tough.
The most important thing is to first know ourselves and be truly up-front about our intentions, wants and relationship capabilities from the outset. For example, if you feel space is so important you would prefer a relationship where you, for example, don't cohabit and only see each other once a week, then being confident enough to be clear about these boundaries up-front could help manage your partner's expectations, help you meet a person accepting of or with similar needs, spare others from hurt, and could be relaxing (it's possible the lack of pressure there might even help you both eventually move towards a secure pattern, if you're not able to do it in other ways). The most dangerous people to date are those who don't understand themselves.
The dual fears of losing the other and losing ourselves are the underlying causes of our unloving, reactive behaviour. These fears are deeply rooted. They cannot be healed or overcome only by getting someone else’s love if we aren't ready to do the work. On the contrary, we must heal these fears to be able to share love with each other. Until we heal what hurt us, we may bleed on people who didn't cut us.
14. Ask for help
Asking for help doesn't come naturally for the person with avoidant attachment style as they fear being dependent and don’t like relying on others. Realise that it’s ok to ask for help and it is not a weakness, but a sign of strength in being willing to be vulnerable. Lean into that discomfort and remember we as people are wired for interdependence and it’s brave to not be self-sufficient, as no one is completely. You can’t get all the answers alone.
In a relationship, you and your partner should be able to support each other no matter what (and to be able to be your honest self, this includes support around avoidant anxieties). Unfortunately, that's hard to accomplish if neither of you are actually asking the other for help when you need it. No one's life should be dictated by their partner, but your relationship should be a place you can go for guidance. It's a sign you don't have emotional intimacy if you don’t ask for each other’s opinion or advice. This could indicate that you aren’t emotionally secure enough in your relationship to ask for each other’s support. So assess whether the trepidation is on your end or theirs, and start to open up about it when you feel you can.
If you are confused about what your feelings mean for your relationship, speak to your partner about them openly and in a solution-focused way, work through them with a therapist, and/or with a secure friend who might help with options for positive strategies and potential collaborative resolutions if it looks possible. Seek advice from people who have successful secure relationship patterns and embrace the work required to make relationships strong. It can be good to hear from avoidants who have worked on their own distancing strategies towards secure patterns, but be mindful of advice from those avoidants who aren't self-aware - their primary subconscious motivation is always to avoid getting trapped, so regardless of the situation if you bring them problems they may tell you to run!
An avoidant on her continuing healing journey
“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?”