AVOIDANT TO SECURE ROADMAP: BEHAVIOUR STRATEGIES II
OUT WITH THE OLD
Now we're ready to start reprogramming our existing behaviours in dating & relationships.
Goal: Secure Attachment
The goal of this work is to return to our inherent secure attachment as adults, even though we may have had attachment disruptions as a child. We can learn secure attachment through experiencing and creating healthy relationships. So during your journey, keep in mind the behavioural habits of safe, securely attached adults, who:
Have basic trust in self and others
Have strong self-esteem and are respectful of and interested in others, valuing them and treating them well
Can be present in life and in relationships in an embodied way
Are clear about their own feelings and needs, express these needs directly, and accept those of others
Most of the time think, feel, and express feedback to and about their partner in the positive
Are well-attuned to others and can be aware when something feels “off”
Practise initiating and receiving repair attempts when needed
Address difficulties in the relationship together when conflict needs to be worked out
Recognise and value the maintenance work relationships require to be successful, and prioritise the need to create security
Are happy to compromise, put the relationship first, and do not need to control the situation
Feel compassion for themselves and others when there is suffering, and respond with comfort and action
Do not endure bad situations, and know they deserve to be well-treated
Are able to ask for help
Are mature in their responses in relationships, and orient most often to the adult ego state as their identity
Stan Tatkin’s description of a “secure functioning relationship” is:
“We have each other’s backs. We soothe each other’s distress and amplify each other’s joy. We protect each other in public and in private. We have each other’s ‘owner’s manual’ and thus are experts on one another. We are as good at our partner as we are at our job! Our relationship is based on true mutuality. We work on our own recovery and support each other’s recovery.”
Acknowledge & process, don't suppress
Many avoidant strategies are deeply unconscious, and bringing them into our conscious control can be a painful process throughout which we must always remember to show compassion for ourselves - reminding ourselves that these impulses are not our fault. Changes don't happen overnight, and changing our instinctive learned behaviours can feel very uncomfortable at first. So while behaviours can be adapted, on this journey is also very important not to just try to suppress avoidant instincts in the way you may have been used to suppressing in general, or ever to shame ourselves for feeling them. But instead to first actively recognise and acknowledge them - openly if possible - where they came from, to hear and give space to what that inner child needs to be heard, and to engage in compassionate internal dialogue to assuage the fears behind the impulse.
And sometimes we'll need to just give voice to the fact that it's something we need to do to feel safe, through no fault of our own, accepting ourselves for who we are non-judgmentally and trusting that if we explain it to our partner they can do the same. It's ok if there are things we still need to do. If we try to simply suppress all avoidant behaviours they will inevitably rear their head at some point in an explosion of avoidance! For stable relationships, this is what we want to avoid.
5. LEARN TO SPOT YOUR DEACTIVATING STRATEGIES
"Defences mark the spot where pain is buried, a flag in the ground
indicating the presence of a deeply buried wound"
"If something is uncomfortable, we deny reality or lash out at others who remind us of that reality"
"My boyfriend and I broke up in July. We’d been dating for four months at the time and as things progressed forward between us, I was convinced we weren’t going to go farther than where we were. I was so sure this was all it was for me, that I didn’t want our relationship to become anything more than it already was. So rather than risk leading him on or hurting him even more down the road, I ended things.
As a surprise to no one, we never stopped seeing each other. We continued spending time together as we had before, and then we seemed to see even more of each other — just without the label. In time we came to acknowledge we were simply dating. In a relationship. But not like we were before — this time there was more security, more openness, and most importantly — less anxiety. The first time we dated, if we had spent more than a day and half together, I’d feel the need to pull back. The second time around — after a thorough self-study of attachment theory that I did in the time we were “broken up” — I was able to work with him to ignore feelings of anxiety when they came up, and to just let myself be happy about finding something really, really good.
In previous relationships, I spent a lot of time dating people who were either highly avoidant or highly anxious or both, leaving me feeling like I was the one who had to give more if I wanted things to work out. When I dated someone with more secure behaviours — who was willing to put in just as much as me, capable of picking up the slack when I couldn’t deal — it shook me and forced me to question whether this relationship was one I could even attach myself to. In turn, my behaviour became avoidant, leaving us both feeling pretty confused. After understanding attachment theory a bit more, I’m able to ignore my impulses to become avoidant and when anxiety does pop up, I tell him. We communicate through it, and then we work on it together, with more security."
THE KEY TO MOVING TO SECURE ATTACHMENT RESPONSES
The response to dealing with avoidant deactivating strategies is much like how we might deal with O.C.D:
1. Notice the impulse
2. Recognise and accept where it is really coming from (i.e. your past not your partner)
3. Decide not to act on it
4. Accept the temporary increase in anxiety this will create, and that this will abate.
Anxiety spikes cannot stay at a high level. They inevitably decrease. Remind yourself anxiety is just a feeling, and there is no real danger. Every time we resist this impulse and our anxiety lessens, we will learn a little more that it did not actually result in us being engulfed and losing ourselves. As a result our anxiety will spike a little less every time, until eventually over time the impulse stops bothering us. This is how you teach yourself secure attachment responses.
Consider: what is the worst that could happen? The worst that could happen is you get a bit closer to someone. In reality it's not a big or dangerous thing. At very worst, you later break up. The best that could happen is a wonderful relationship!
However, if we keep using deactivating strategies to respond to this anxiety, we are only training our brain and cementing that pushing away from people is the way to manage our anxiety and fear of engulfment. Over time this stops us from getting close to anyone. Sure, we could just carry on responding in these ways, but ultimately we know it hasn't helped us in the past and isn't going to make us happy in the future.
It is human for us all to have needs for security and independence surfacing at different times. Being securely attached does not mean you never experience desires to push away. It just means that you recognise the bigger picture and learn not to always act on them. And gradually, as you learn behaving this way will not truly limit your independence, these desires to act out will reduce. To get to this place of security as an avoidant and enjoy a long-term stable relationship, you will have to finally work through these fears within a relationship, recognising that you will sometimes feel that you don't want to, rather than keep seeking situations where they might not appear.
To do this, gain as much knowledge as you possibly can about your attachment style (make sure you're familiar with the list of deactivating strategies on the 'relationships' page). In general, as avoidants when our attachment triggers are activated, by closeness, a stressful situation or life event, we will feel annoyed by people and want to get away from them. The initiation of interaction by attachment figures disrupts our calmer autoregulatory state and we will experience them to be a threat. Flashbacks create emotional dysregulation, and emotional dysregulation warps perception. We want to escape the perceived source of that emotional dysregulation. These are PTSD reactions to closeness from childhood, that produce an inner child response and the need to distance. So remind yourself - this is simply a bodily reaction that was learned in response to non-reciprocity. As adults, once we can express our needs we get to judge for ourselves who we trust to observe them and so are not in danger of being engulfed.
We can feel overwhelmed by someone who can show us love. Deactivating strategies can in fact be a sign that your relationship has become closer and more safely attached, and your partner someone you can rely on - which is a good thing, the sign of a maturing relationship and something to cherish and protect! So if you feel the need to escape from a long-term partner it doesn't automatically mean they are wrong for you (although it could mean there are requests you might make of them). It may mean your old attachment wounds are being triggered, so you need to identify what you and a partner can do to soothe those feelings. If you have insight about your attachment style and psychological habits it is easier to identify when you engage in typical attachment patterns and to try things differently.
Learn to identify these habits and remind yourself that picture is skewed. Try to be objective, about your partner’s behavior as well as your own. When something’s going wrong, take a step back and look at the situation. You may feel confused by what you perceive as the unreasonable emotional demands and neurotic nature of your partner. You might be mystified by accusations that you don’t care and are not there for your loved one. If you think your partner is “the crazy one,” take a step back and ask yourself what you might be doing to contribute to the crazy; not if but how – because you are! The problem is likely in your fear of emotions rather than their ability to express them. When someone is telling you their feelings and asking about yours, remember that rather than trying to hurt, criticise or expose you, they are in fact trying to connect - to bond in a deeper, more meaningful way, and they are giving you a precious opportunity to deepen that connection. Remind yourself you are safe to express and try to reward it rather than shut it down. And bear in mind that the more we run from them, the more we create feelings people will want to talk about! Realise that your calm emotional exterior and shut-down approach to relationship issues is likely making your partner feel invalidated, dismissed, and more anxious. This will make them become even more demanding and leave you with less breathing room. But you can do many positive things instead. Develop compassion for your partner, the feelings behind their behaviours, and remember that this behaviour is a natural response to attachment distress as you withdraw.
When you sense yourself starting to focus on the negative, make an effort to remind yourself of positive relationship memories. If something/someone is annoying you, recognise it may be in response to feelings of overwhelm and try to be more forthright - consider and express what it means you need. If you feel the need to withdraw and get some space, let your partner know that you need to take a time-out, but that it doesn't mean they have anything to worry about. If someone is asking in depth questions, remind yourself they are trying to connect more deeply with you, not catch you out, and return the favour if you can. Be alert to any of your own push-pull patterns, inviting someone in (for example making contact) to then push them away (quickly disengaging or shutting things down), and be mindful this can be tiring for others.
We also cannot be saying what our partner needs to hear while simultaneously posturing our body and facial expressions in ways that trigger them. For those of us on the avoidant side, we struggle to calm and relax our bodies enough to emote the empathy needed to deliver the words our partner needs. Acknowledge and validate how your partner is feeling; practice maintaining physical touch and eye contact until you can relax into it; or simply acknowledge to your partner that you feel like shutting down or running away – that honesty is actually very connecting. Instead of seeing it as a sign to escape, view it as a problem to be solved within the relationship, and consider how you, and potentially your partner, might together assuage those fears. If you are feeling trapped, focus on what it says about what you can change within the relationship rather than assume changing the person.
Practise standing your ground, not running away, and experiencing healthy endings. I usually tell my avoidantly attached clients that we will know when we are establishing a close therapeutic relationship, because they will start feeling anxious about coming to their sessions and thinking about reasons to avoid coming. This also applies to friendships and romantic involvements. These feelings are actually a good thing! Recognise that you may just be reacting against intimacy, not the person, and that it is just harder to remember the benefits such intimacy provides when you are close to someone. Remind yourself how it really felt on your own. Note that it is also in times of stress that our attachment styles are most triggered, and that our own perceptions are less accurate when in fight/flight/freeze mode. If you have this style, you should simply anticipate this emotional reaction in yourself and refuse to run when it tells you to (of course don’t ignore signs of potential abuse or unhealthy behavior). And take a long time out before you take action based on strong reactions. Try to work through conflicts and avoid making important decisions in the middle of them. Recognise that your emotions may not be giving you accurate feedback about what is going on in your relationships - the aversion and distress you feel may be a reaction to conflict/closeness itself and have little to do with your present romantic partner or close friend; that person may simply be a trigger, almost like a post-traumatic stress reaction. Remind yourself, this reaction was imprinted as a protective mechanism for the past but is no longer relevant. Be sure that you get all of the facts on the table, and make a considered choice for how you want to respond before taking action. Be aware that until we think well of ourselves we may have a tendency to hurt people because they think well of us, or otherwise to seek out those that don't, but such actions will in the long run generally only cement our internal unhappiness.
If you find yourself fearing commitment or wanting to push away around committed actitivies, remind yourself that this is your brain protecting itself and likely not connected to the person, particularly if you felt more relaxed on other occasions. Ask yourself "is this coming from any fear? What are all the things I objectively like about this person? Is this a real issue or am I running from something good? Do I actually want to end my connection with this person, or do I just want to feel some space from engulfment right now?” If that person were not expecting demonstrations of commitment or you hadn't been doing these activities is it likely you'd be feeling like this, so is it actually them that is the problem per se? But without these commitments people are less likely to want to stay in the relationship. And do you want your choice of partner just to be determined by the fact that they do not show significant commitment 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? These fears are protection against childhood traumas that are no longer relevant.
Consciously depriving yourself of your deactivating strategies can initially be incredibly anxiety-inducing because it leaves you open to the feelings of engulfment they were protecting against. This can be a painful process, and requires much reminding your inner child that they are safe, but gets easier and easier. Always remember that doing this shouldn't mean suppressing or shaming yourself - it means simply recognising, engaging in non-judgemental inner dialogue to reassure the old neural network and to logically address whether it's something you really need to do, and if it still is then trying to be open about it.
Deactivating strategies are unhealthy ways to have control in a relationship - we can instead get feel in control healthily from openly and sensitively expressing our needs, trusting our partner has our best interests at heart and wants to meet them. So if you feel the need to act in this way, try instead being open with your partner and talking about that urge. If they understand where it’s coming from that can be very connecting, they can be more willing to give you space to de-stress and reduce the anxiety that comes from trying to suppress. If you feel tempted to be hurtful, stop and identify what it is you need. Then communicate exactly what that is, not being afraid to go to the jugular of what you need from your partner. Lean into the discomfort of this radical honesty - reframing it as a positive thing. You can still be thoughtful and caring in the way you deliver that information. Create an environment where you both feel confident to say things directly in a caring way. Take a risk and be honest and authentic. This means with your partner, but also with yourself.
Finally, remember that these are often simply emotional triggers from your past being set off and often not to do with the situation - these mechanisms were once there to protect you but are no longer relevant in the present. The aversion you feel is in fact aversion to original engulfing attachment figures, when as a child you could not control the relationship, that are now safe to take expression - but it's directed towards innocent people who are unlikely to be a threat.
An avoidant advises:
"Envision that you are a moving turtle, treading along the road at your own pace. When someone is giving you too much emotion, you have a tendency to shrink into your shell, feeling safe in your shell, they can’t hurt you anymore - but you also become unavailable to them. Once you become aware of your deactivating strategies, you must ask yourself whether or not your thoughts are real or if they are exaggerated by your avoidant tendencies. Are the imperfections you start noticing real deal breakers or is it that you’re overplaying them to distance yourself? Mental blocks also include fantasizing of sex with others and thinking they're pathetic for being so needy. Once you’re aware of your mental blocks, work around them. For example, when you feel the urge to pull away, explain what’s happening to your partner. Tell them you need time on your own, and that you will be back more energised to spend time together. As a matter of fact, to help your partner understand let them read about avoidant attachment too"
On Unconscious Gaslighting and Patriarchy
"There are small ruptures when you do not greet your intimate’s bids for connection with accessibility and responsiveness. These are moments when she turns to you to connect and you abandon her emotionally. These ruptures can be loud, as when she is in distress and clearly needs to be held, and you flail and lash out or run instead of coming close to nurture and connect, or quiet, when you simply cold-shoulder the offer. Stop. Take that in. This is key. If in these early moments of harm and disconnection, whether they are quiet or loud, instead of doing prompt repair you make the additional mistake of acting like nothing has happened, or worse, angrily blaming the woman you’re hurting for her expected feelings of fear and hurt at your hurtful actions, you may create serious harm by not seeing your own limited capacity is the cause of the distress. If you deny this reality to make it somehow her fault that you are not acting in a safe way, this is unconscious gaslighting [and in fact much gaslighting in relationships is unconscious]. It is emotional abuse, and it will be very hard for her to trust you after you do this to her, even if she doesn’t quite know why, even if she continues to believe you are trustworthy as you are doing this to her.
Patriarchy teaches women to be pliant and receptive, to adapt to maintain relationships, and most brutally, to doubt our perceptions. It may take a while before confusion and mistrust builds up to a point that can no longer be sustained. If this is a routine mode of operation for you, she may just feel crazy, or like the earth under her keeps shifting as you say you are being good to her and acting safe. If you do this unconscious gaslighting repeatedly without owning it fully, you actively break fundamental trust.
If the larger patriarchal fabric of our culture – if the people around the two of you – allow this process to be naturalised, you are contributing to psychic violence against this person, and you and those around you may not even realise you are doing it. Because patriarchy is in all of us, her distress may show up visibly to others while its causes in your action get silently disguised. This is what it means that we are all inculcated into systems of power. Unless we choose to see, privilege, which is in all of us, disguises its operation. We are never forced to see how we enact it in our own lives, unless we live with integrity, and learn how to deeply believe those whose experiences we do not share. If you gain women’s trust by talking about how safe you are while you are also unconsciously doing this to them, the gap may lead them to slowly begin to act ‘crazy’ around you over time. You’ll think it is them. You may tell them it is them. You may really believe this, even if some part of you suspects you are hiding something from yourself that you have yet to understand. You may tell your friends or family how ‘crazy’ your ex is. And because we live in patriarchy, in which women’s normal emotional needs are routinely deemed crazy, people will believe you. Policing women’s normal emotional needs to protect male fragility is a long and well-established tradition. Just because a paradigm is dominant and naturalised and happens to work in your favour, that does not mean it is real, or healthy, or just."
A key pillar through which the patriarchy is maintained is the policing (and self-policing) of women's feelings, so that men do not have to learn to handle emotions. This is passed down families as women take on the emotional labour of soothing the feelings of people around them, and as we teach children not to expect this care of men: 'don't bother your father with it'
When as men we reject a woman expressing strong emotions or in difficult situations, rather than take responsibility for effectively responding, this is a patriarchal action. Owning and working on our own capacity to express and handle emotions functionally, so not passing the labour on to our partner to uphold the relationship at their own expense - and not abusing the duty of care we have been trusted with, is not just the foundation of a healthy partnership. It is a radical feminist act.
Read this on how men benefit more from female caregiving, are less likely to provide effective caregiving when their partners have cancer, and are more likely to leave them in the middle of that cancer.
6. IN PARTICULAR, COUNTER NEGATIVE THINKING
"Disunity with oneself begets discontent, and since one is not conscious of the real state of things one generally projects the reason for it upon one's partner. A critical atmosphere thus develops, the necessary prelude to conscious realisation" (Carl Jung)
The key to countering negative thinking is to refuse to play the game with your brain by recognising that as an avoidant your brain wants to trick you into finding the negatives, because it sees those who get close as a threat and for safety your brain wants you to end up alone.
But you don't have to accept this automatic program. You have actively decided that this is not what you want and can choose to override the fear-based thinking.
Avoidants tend to find people annoying quite easily. This annoyance is in fact really an expression of our reticence to assert our own needs, to address things in ourselves we have perhaps not taken ownership of yet, and a feeling of being overwhelmed by intimacy. Be aware also that you may feel hostile towards someone for the sheer fact that you have to confront emotions, because you don't allow for them in yourself, but this is in fact a healthy thing to do. Regular negative thinking is a just a deactivating strategy your brain uses to stop you getting close - spot it!
Negative impressions are often amygdala reactions that there is something to be afraid of. When you have such a reaction, look into it—mindfully, objectively, carefully. Part of the reason we can be so fault-finding can be because we also hold ourselves to unachievably high standards - below this, we don't believe someone is worthy of love. We tend to think negatively of others according to how critical we are of ourselves. So be aware of the kind of faults you are seeing in others and begin by accepting your own faults, even as you seek ways to improve those that are destructive or getting in the way of what you want to achieve, and as you start to accept and feel happier with yourself you will become more accepting of others. It will make us a lot happier if we accept other people for who they are and stop looking for faults.
Identify your thoughts
Rather than succumbing immediately to negative thoughts, first step away and practise mindfulness by observing your brain in action when it takes a route of negativity: "My brain wants me to think this negative thing. That's interesting!" You are then not slave to the patterns, more free to question them and will realise you don't have to go down the road they present (see 'Identify & challenge limiting beliefs' in the Belief Strategies section).
Appreciate your feelings come from a place of safety
Remember the origin - and that it may well not in fact to do with your partner. Realise your critical faculties may feel safe to operate in fact because your partner has made you feel secure and valued in the relationship - and so has turned into a secure attachment figure, and the idea of their being always there stifling. Fundamentally because they like you you might assume they must be flawed, if it conflicts with you learned internal assumption (unless of course, this is objectively coming from them having behaved badly to you). Of course, it's important we all can respect our other halves, but the alternative to this situation - criticism being turned inward to a constant feeling of insecurity and self-doubt because you don't know where you stand with your partner, may actually feel more normal for you but ultimately is not something that is healthy or sustainable in a long-term relationship. And thinking seriously about it, would that be something you really want? It sounds exhausting and debilitating. If it's something you have experienced before, did that situation really make you feel happy? It is certainly important to have a partner who can make us think and grow, and challenges us to want to be the best version of ourselves. But partners should lift us up, not have us questioning ourselves all the time. It is commonplace for those with low self-esteem from rejection as children to confuse the anxiety of relationship insecurity (i.e. anxious-attachment-presenting) with a desirable relationship. They are not the same thing.
Question assumptions, replace judgment with humility
CBT yourself - engage actively with the critical voice you hear and question logically whether the things you are thinking are objective or fair. Remind yourself why your brain is behaving in this way. When you feel yourself becoming judgmental, question your evaluation, and practice humility. Remember in particular that avoidants are prone to assuming negative intent or desire to manipulate where there is none. If you keep noticing all the small imperfections or keep thinking that the person you’re with is not right for you; if you are adamant that only your needs matter in a relationship or what’s most important is to stay self-reliant; or if you obsess about how special an ex-partner was, then ask yourself a couple of questions. At least one, if not more, of these questions will be relevant to you each time and can help you think of alternative more helpful ways to view your situation. This can make you feel better and help you make better choices about what to do next.
Am I jumping to conclusions?
Am I thinking with inflexible words like “should” or “must?”
Am I thinking in absolute terms such as “everything” or “no one?”
Is this an accurate reflection of my partner? Do they really fall short? Am I discounting any positive aspects of the situation?
Are my standards absolutely infallible? Is it my place to question my partner’s path, preferences, or quirks?
What are the exceptions to this thought?
How can I view this in an alternative and more helpful way?
Where might these thoughts really be coming from? Is there a need that could be met within the relationship to reduce this anxiety?
- How important will this be in a year’s time?
It’s ok to have standards and a chosen path, but recognize that they are your standards and your path, and no one else is bound to abide by them, even your partner. While there is always room for growth on both sides, accepting your partner as they are will be much more relaxing than hoping they will change.
Look in the mirror
What does it say about your sensitivities, worries, or perfectionist tendencies? Perhaps your partner's behaviour reminds you of your own detested shortcomings. Let go of those unrealistic and unkind standards you hold yourself to, and you will eventually be able to do the same for your partner. You don't need to shame or punish yourself for feeling this way, but look non-judgementally into why you do, and that will help you with productive solutions. For example, is your partner genuinely being needy, or is it your own fear of vulnerability, strong emotions or being depended on? If so there are healthy ways to neutralise that fear that don't involve resisting the issue. When we are blaming people of finding them irritating, it is often because we are outsourcing a need we haven't been able to fully express to them - a need that we can own. And remember: we often feel frustrated by things we are not willing to take ownership of ourselves. What does your reaction suggest about the things you could work on developing?
Counter with positives
People who do not find the need to subconsciously push their partner away are busy seeing the positives. Actively expend effort to see the great things in your partner - make a gratitude list and remind yourself of these good things daily and in response to negative thinking (see 'Lean In' in Behaviour Strategies II).
Confront your denial of loss
The avoidant working model is to overestimate engulfment and underestimate loss. Unconsciously we expect people's attachment to be permanent and so (because we learned not to believe in real mutuality) they are engulfing (except if at a distance) and we feel negatively towards them. So it's important to become aware that as avoidants we often don't have a healthy fear of loss at a conscious level and to work consciously to remedy this by regularly imagining scenarios and working through exercises in which we lost our partner, what we would miss about them, how they contribute to our lives and how the loss we'd experience without them would really feel - journalling if possible. Sometimes by really understanding how it would feel to lose our partner or be lost to them, we uncover how we feel. When going solo feels instinctively alluring, work to actively remember the reality of your longing for connection when you were single, and how being alone really felt. Finally, it is important to be sensitive that adult attachment is not in fact permanent and if we treat someone poorly, even in small ways, we increase the chance of this imagined scenario manifesting. These strategies can help us appreciate what we have and to feel less negative.
Question your assumptions about external judgement
Question whether other people might be offended, or even notice or care - is this just your social anxiety and own self-judgement kicking in? What is the source of that? As avoidants we were trained to be hyper-attuned and self-sacrificing in social situations as an anti-abandonment defence, and ultimately to blend in and not make ourselves known in any way, believing we should not be important. That defence is no longer necessary as adults. And recognise that just because you are annoyed by your partner’s behaviour or appearance, it doesn’t mean that everyone else is. Most people are actually far too concerned with their own business to give that much though to others. And if someone judged you for your partner’s missteps? You’d do well to distance yourself from them, see it for what it likely is - an insecurity in the critic - and not take it personally.
See the quirks as enriching your partnership
Everyone has flaws, and it's a sign that our relationship has become closer that we are able to see them. It’s inevitable that when two individuals blend their lives together, quirks become apparent and conflict results. But when you ban, resist, or resent such quirks or conflicts, you only add to your distress. So you don't need to suppress it. Instead, embrace them, talk about it and see dealing with quirks as an opportunity to practise better communication skills, reveal your true self, and to get what you want. Although painful at times, these moments of vulnerability, if handled with care, can deepen your connection. You can also learn how to let go of control and go with the flow. Learning to deal with quirks and annoyances is a challenge but also leads to personal growth.
If in doubt, humour is the best medicine
The path to humour can be found in expressing your greatest fear, taking imagined consequences to extremes, or shining a light on a truth about yourself. “You should handle money my way because I’m so brilliant at it; I have billions to my name, right?” Or “I hate how stubborn you are—because I want to be the King of Stubborn!”
Shadow Work & Reclaiming Projections
'Projection' - putting the unwanted aspects of ourselves onto the other person
'Transference' - putting our past relationships (commonly with caregivers) onto the other person
In psychology, the 'shadow' refers to unwanted aspects of ourselves that we are unaware of, that we try to ignore, or that we can see only in other people. Reassigning your own shadow to other people and judging them negatively because of it is known as 'projecting'. Projection is a defence that people with unhealed developmental wounds use to avoid or hide aspects of themselves they learnt were unacceptable. Avoidants tend to be more aware of others' flaws and insufficiencies than they are of their own unmet needs and flaws. They use projections to protect themselves from encountering the reality of their own unmet needs. This projection allows them to see the other person as needy and them as the 'healthy' partner.
One of the core beliefs that avoidants have from childhood is that they are not enough. They hope no one will notice they aren't good enough, and they fear others will somehow discover this. This belief often drives their behaviour and everything they say and do. The most effective tool for making others split off parts of themselves is shame. This ultimately leaves you feeling flawed and defective, and that you are powerless to change. You distrust your own feelings and needs. It causes you to hide your inner feelings and thoughts from others, and means you must guard against letting other people see these inner thoughts and feelings. It also produces shame about shame - you are so ashamed to have shame you won't admit to it. In order to hide your shame, you may try to shame others (outwardly or to yourself), creating projections. So one of the most common ways projections are used - and one of the most destructive forces in relationships - is to blame others.
After most people have spent the first twenty or thirty years putting things into their shame bag, then comes the task of the next twenty or thirty years: realising what they have done and trying to reclaim these split-off parts. Your shadow is in fact none other than your inner child. Breaking free of avoidant attachment requires breaking free of shame: facing your weaknesses, insecurities and fears, and learning to love each one of them as you would love a hurt and rejected child. To reclaim your shadow (tbc)
7. COUNTER EMOTIONAL SHUT-DOWN
Emotions are a healthy thing, simply someone's way to try to communicate to you what they need when they feel strongly - to effectively connect. If someone is showing you their emotions they are showing you untamed honesty about their feelings, which gives you a genuine opportunity to fix any problems openly together. Without it, things go unsaid which causes much bigger disintegrations down the line. Honest expression of our feelings is vital to keep relationships afloat. And for trust in care and relationship longevity, it is important to show that you can both be with each other's pain - and it is within your capability to deal with it. As a child this may have been engulfing, but remember now you are always in control. There is nothing to fear from someone's emotions. If we can work on learning to become more comfortable around emotions and these discussions, then it will gradually reduce our latent anxiety in relationships - which stems from a fear of becoming overwhelmed, as well make our relationships healthier and feel safer to our partner, when they see we are able to be truly emotionally available and supportive of them.
Remember that someone being particularly emotional can be in fact a reaction to our closed off approach, and that when we shut down in response rather than look to soothe those emotions, even though it is an attempt to limit them, we are going to make those emotions and the situation worse, not better. Because to the other person it will feel that their pain - which is in fact an attempt to communicate with you and seek comfort and a solution - is being ignored and rejected - "I don't care you are hurting". This is a painful message to receive not least if someone is already hurting and makes most people more emotional - and through no fault of our own in fact mirrors and passes on the trauma avoidants received themselves from their own caregivers. Moreover, when partners sense their open expressions of emotions are not going to be well received they may start to suppress, just as you did as a child - and we know what problems that causes! Resisting or suppressing emotions will not stop them - there are always consequences. And if a partner feels shamed into to self-blaming healthy emotions and suppressing, this can be gaslighting. But if you work through your impulses to distance, and instead head towards someone's pain and engage with it head on, then it will much more quickly be resolved and the situation calmed, giving you the outcome you desire.
This is easier said than done because for an avoidant shutting down is a physiological response - these situations are physiologically overwhelming and it can feel like your systems are overriding you. Avoidants were programmed to appease everyone around them as a survival strategy, so any situation of conflict unleashes painful primal survival reactions. But like anything, new patterns can be learned:
Accept your reactions & identify your fear
Don’t judge or fear your reaction. Emotions will not hurt you and if you don’t recognise your feelings, you can’t change them. Remove any self-deception and accept that you react this way, that it is not your fault but a PTSD-like reaction based on the past, and identify clearly what the trigger is. In this reaction what is your fear, or your need? Is a person's emotionality really denying this need of yours, engulfing or controlling you? By exploring the source you can come to understand it is not a threat, that you are in control of your emotions and your reaction, and then through practice give yourself the chance to react differently.
Concentrate on staying calm
Emotional outbursts can trigger a freeze/flight state in avoidants, but this is something from which you can return. Remember there is no real danger, learn techniques to relax and return from a triggered state - relax and focus on your body, breathe slowly and try to clear your mind. Somatic Experiencing Therapy can help here.
Ask them for calm, take a time-out if necessary
Don't be afraid to explain that very emotional conversations are difficult for you - ask your partner to speak calmly and express exactly what their need is, Explain that if things become too heated you might need a time-out to return to a calm state but it doesn't mean you don't care, and do not be afraid to go to a new space and take this time if it helps you - it will benefit both of you. Let them know when you will be able to talk again.
Reframe the emotion, learn to take criticism, and ask
Remember, most people will get overtly emotional at times, and this in fact is healthy to express. This is not done to engulf or hurt you. As avoidant children our sense of self became unduly linked to a caregiver's needs, which means we can interpret partners expressing needs as saying there is something innately wrong with us, which quickly becomes overwhelming, rather than simply a request: "let's fix this fixable problem". And if we can't deal with criticism we'll never be able to improve and safeguard our relationships, so above all remember: this is not about inherent defects in you. You are safe. If you feel criticised, remember that whenever we criticise there is actually a wish and need behind it. Criticism is actually a cry for help. The key is to simply discover what is behind the emotion that they need to express. So the key to remember is: don't personalise criticism. Reframe it as your partner trying to tell you something about what they need, rather than an inherent statement about you - and if you need clarity request that they communicate clearly about what the need behind it is. We can perceive contempt where a partner can actually be trying reach out to show you their feelings - boosting empathy, honesty, togetherness and couple problem-solving. If in doubt - ask for specifics.
So rather than getting defensive, focus on trying to show you understand your partner's experience, even if you might think they're overreacting or their reaction doesn't make sense. Feeling unheard can be a scary emotional experience. Show empathy by mirroring back how your partner is feeling "I understand you're feeling abc. That might make you feel uncared for. That sounds hard". If they feel understood by you, their anxiety will lessen.
While it can be important to explain your needs here, you should nevertheless still encourage a partner to be open and express how they feel. Do not punish someone for being emotionally vulnerable in the way you respond. This will make them more likely to suppress in future and make things worse when they finally do come out. If you feel uncomfortable or a desire to push away, remind yourself this can be to do with your learned discomfort (through no fault of your own) with the engulfment of facing emotions, not a problem with them. This is something that can be worked through.
Beware a dismissive attitude and a sense that they should just 'get over' what they are feeling - dismissing pyschological causation is in fact a defensive tactic to prevent avoidants from having to uncomfortably confront their own identity around suppression, protecting our own vulnerability from facing up to historical pain and possible caregiver neglect, which we are psychologically defended against letting in. We can become annoyed by things we are not yet willing to take ownership of within ourselves. If you feel this way, see if you allow those emotions in your own life, and if you can make space for your own. Usually we can’t stand the emotions we don’t allow for ourselves.
If you partner's response does tend to be particularly emotional, remind yourself to show sympathy for their instinctive learned response and the innocent fears it might come from, just as yours is one. If you are non-judgementally open with them explaining how their way of expressing themselves affects you then, like you, they can make steps to sensitively adapt to your needs. But ultimately remember that provided they are not being manipulative it is not their job to suppress how they feel, and this is not what you should be looking for in a partner - it is your job to get comfortable with emotional directness.
Learn how to manage these conversations effectively
Use the new fixing skills you will learn of good communication, conflict management and negotiation, comforting, empathising, problem-solving as a team and, if necessary, apologies - see Behavioural Strategies II.
8. STOP LOOKING FOR AN ESCAPE ROUTE
Once you stop looking for an escape route - for fantasy solutions to your problems outside the relationship, you can start to really explore and master what it is you need from your partner inside the relationship to really feel safe and happy, and finally set about healing your core wounds. To address these fears you must finally fully accept the need for solutions to come from inside, and that unless the relationship is abusive or problematic it is likely your past that is telling you to escape, not your present. When your partner feels fully safe in your commitment to the relationship - reassured "I value what I have with you and am not going anywhere" - they will be able to really meed your needs and go on this journey with you. Ultimately any long-term commitment is going to have to involve being willing to ride out the rough times as well as the smooth.
Truly accepting interdependence - that we are all connected - is the first step to overcoming your fears and expressing your feelings. By then focusing on intimacy, you will begin the process of making your relationship strong. If you're the avoidant, it's ok to have intimacy with your partner. Connecting won't make you weak or cause emotional harm. But if you feel you aren't ready to love with your heart and you're unwilling to try, let your partner know so they can move on. The more you fight love, the unhappier you become, keeping you stuck in a cycle of fear and uncertainty that will take over your mind and cause you to emotionally abandon yourself and your partner. It's never too late to start opening your heart and sharing your feelings. Secure partners view the relationship as coming first and their role as a partner as a career, not a job they just leave as soon as something isn't suiting them.
The Couple Bubble - Stan Tatkin
The couple bubble is an agreement (once we get beyond the early phase of a relationship) to put the relationship before anything else. It means putting your partner's wellbeing, security, self-esteem and distress relief first. And it means your partner does the same for you. You both agree to do it for each other. Therefore you say to each other "We come first". When the going gets tough, the couple bubble is all you can really count on to hold your relationship together. Avoidants who have been unsuccessful maintaining relationships have often struggled to get to this stage because it feels innately unbalancing for them.
A couple bubble involves fully expressing, understanding and respecting each other's needs, and happily providing for them even if they may be quite different. Devote yourself to you partner's sense of safety and security and not simply your idea of what they should be. Your job is to know what matters to your partner and how to make them feel safe and secure. Acting in an ambivalent manner 'pops' the bubble and undermines the security you have created, and you lose all the benefits of the bubble.
This doesn't mean you won't make mistakes along the way or accidentally hurt each other. It doesn't mean you can never make a decision that puts yourself before the relationship, nor that you never should. These things will happen no matter what. However it does mean you will hold each other to the fundamental agreement: "we come first". Then when one of you makes a mistake the transgressing partner can give a gentle reminder "hey I thought this is what we agreed to do for each other". The transgressing partner can say "oh yeah, my bad", and quickly fix the situation.
Sometimes people say "I don't want to commit until I can be sure this thing that worries me about you won't be a problem". There's no better way to scare off a potential partner than to insist they prove themselves before security is assured. This kind of approach is doomed to failure. Partners entering a couple bubble agreement have to buy into it fully to fully appreciate it. They have to be in all the way. When partners complain they aren't being well cared for, often the reason is they get exactly what they paid for. Pay for part of something, and you get part of something.
Now you might argue "how can you say I must buy into them to know whether they are good enough?" If they are far from good enough, they shouldn't even be a contender. However, this isn't usually the case. Mostly I see partners who have carefully and thoughtfully chosen one another, but fear the problems that arise after getting to know one another better will become deal breakers. Typically these problems involve the positive features each chose in the other person, which they now realise also contain annoying elements. Sometimes partners in this situation want to bargain "can I just take you with the parts I like?" Sorry, this isn't a burger joint. You want it as it is or move on. When I say this to couples, generally they respond by taking stock of the situation and recognise the toll their ambivalence is taking on the relationship. They are able to move clearly in one direction or another.
9. NIX THE PHANTOM EX AND PERFECT PARTNER
"Idealisation (and its opposite, denigration) represents an attempt to enshrine a relational image and protect against experiences and feelings that might challenge it. It is in an avoidant's interest to idolise a previous romantic attachment as a defence against confronting their real difficulties with intimacy." (Clulow)
"The avoidant assumes permanence, but with neglect."
Imagine a happy, stable parental relationship, where parents are able to show and express love and care to each other and demonstrate to each other that nurturing their relationship is the most important thing in the world. When you don't have two such secure parents, you internalise that the one having the worse time, typically the caregiver, is weak, and unconsciously through your adult relationships will try to prove you can do better. In fact these very characteristics you may have been conditioned to reject are the ones that build strong, connected and stable long term relationships (provided the person does not stay in a situation where their needs are not being met). It's possible the qualities you might unconsciously prize, to not care, are the weak ones.
Why some exes are harder to get over
Inherent low self-esteem can result in the eroticising of rejection with a number of results:
We can feel more for people who aren't that good for us
We are attracted to distance or perceived challenge
We are attracted to silent drama
Particularly when we suffer from low self-belief, sometimes when we struggle to let go of someone they may have been someone who wasn’t particularly good for us, or to us. The worse being with them has made us feel about ourselves – a sense we are not good enough, so must keep trying - the harder it can be to recover, so the more tied to them we may feel as a way of proving ourselves externally. If someone has consistently shown some lack of interest and support, we can internalise that yardstick afterwards in a lack of interest and support towards ourselves. Sometimes those with whom we think we felt most deeply in love can in fact be the ones who trigger our attachment anxieties and insecurities - stable attachment feels boring. And if we were hurt in a relationship we may then be subconsciously more likely to present strong avoidant characteristics in our next ones, to protect ourselves.
We can also be attracted to those who don't seem to want us all that much, or want that much from us - those who are at a physical or emotional distance. It makes us less afraid we will be needed. While this yearning creates feeling of desire and a need to prove ourselves, in reality these qualities can make a stable long-term relationship difficult. We may also have projected onto this person an image of the future with our needs being met, rather than looking realistically at the dynamic in the present where we may not actually feel that safe, secure and happy. If you look back at the history of the people you have dated, you might find that the level of distance was actually making a big contribution to your feelings. But it is mainly other qualities that determine a successful long-term relationship.
Avoidants do not tend to like overt drama. But we may be remembering more feelings as a result of heightened silent drama - the drama, for example of not quite knowing where we stood with someone. Such drama can create distance which makes people more attractive to avoidants, as well as uncertainty that makes us feel we need to work for love. But if people are, for example, distant, disinterested, hard to please, unavailable, critical of us, moody, changeable or resist connecting, then securely attached people recognise that this is in fact a projection of these people's deeply held insecurities and troubles. This would be something to set boundaries with or step back from, not to interpret as a problem to do with ourselves. It's easy to slip into doing the latter, but this can cause us long-term harm. Healthy relationships do not rely on this drama for meaning, because meaning is created from appreciating and feeling secure in the quality of our day-to-day interaction.
It is harder to let go of toxic relationships than healthy ones. Because we did not feel loved as a matter of course, we need to find ways to prove we are. When we are looking to someone giving us unreliable signals, we come to feel more dependent on them for our happiness. In our eyes this person is everything we need, when in reality, it’s probably the one relationship that likely harms us the most.
People who don’t know how to let go of a relationship are often those who were in a relationship with someone who was either abusive or completely disinterested. That’s because, in these relationships, a breakup changes nothing. When they were together, the person spent all of their time and energy trying to win their partner over. After they split, they continue spending all of their time and energy trying to win their partner over. Same shit, different day.
Our brain always thinks that there’s one thing that will make us happy, that there’s one thing that will fix all our problems. And the same way we tend to falsely believe that achieving one goal in the future will make us live happily ever after, we also tend to falsely believe that recapturing something in our past will make us live happily ever after.
Conversely, when someone has treated us well and made us feel strong we may initially bounce back. We may then anticipate feeling this way with all new partners, forgetting to fully appreciate how much it is in fact a skill of that partner to lift people up and support us to feel this way. People who are good for us and secure in themselves should make us feel cherished, strong and safe to be ourselves (as we should do to them), not dent our ego. After a breakup, secure individuals do not need to prove themselves externally so much - they know to expect good treatment, and when they don't receive it they know it doesn't reflect on them.
When we compare our feelings in current to previous relationships, remember as avoidants we are comparing someone who is a naturally triggering attachment figure to someone from whom we have comfortable distance. It is not like for like. And it is easy to wistfully remember heightened feelings that may not have been a representation of the real quality of our interaction, how well our relationship worked or how happy, supported and secure we really were.
Ultimately what we are hanging onto when we struggle to let go of an ex are in fact often unmet needs from childhood, not the specific person. It’s possible that because an ex represents someone from your past, you seek their approval and love more intensely than you otherwise would. Once you recognise this, you can separate this person from your unmet need. As a child avoidants were imprinted towards a rejecting person where there was distance - so these relationships feel normal, even if they are ultimately making us feel insecure rather than happy. If we don't believe we are truly deserving of love, we are drawn to people who treat us as such, and push away those who treat us better. So question the relationship objectively - aside from the longing, how did that person really make you feel about yourself? Was it a properly functional relationship with strong communication? If not, it was unlikely to last. Were you always being treated as you deserve? Were you supported, made to feel good about yourself, given both space and closeness when you needed and your needs respected? Is that how you would be happy being treated for the rest of your life? Do you think it's possible you might, in fact, deserve better?
We might find it more exciting to be caught up in a push-pull dynamic with someone than to say yes to love that is readily available and healthy for us.The excitement comes from eroticising rejection - it feeds that part of us that still feels like have something to prove. Prove we’re lovable or worthy. That we are so special that we can change someone’s mind or behaviour. But that excitement also drains your energy, purpose and connection to yourself. Any time we waste chasing someone to give us love, there’s an unmet internal need for love and nurturance toward our inner-child. You don’t need someone else to reflect back your wounds if they're not willing to heal with you. You don’t need someone to trigger all of your insecurities by treating you like an after-thought or avoiding intimacy. Accept yourself and you can let healthy love in."
Similarly, if we're on the receiving end of a breakup, that can change our whole perception of it. Even when we aren’t completely happy or head over heels with someone at the time, things weren't all working well in relationship or perhaps we were even considering doing so ourselves, if they break up with us we often still experience our feelings turning on a dime. This is because of the combined impact of rejection, and the concepts of unattainability and scarcity. Avoidants are particularly sensitive to any form of rejection or abandonment, as well as attracted towards a feeling of longing particularly for something perceived as unavailable. Remember, "the avoidant assumes permanence, but with neglect." The flouting of this unconscious assumption makes true rejection unbearably painful. It may be we simply feel this way because someone is not available to us.
The key to both nixing an ex and picking a partner is to distinguish how we feel for someone, which for avoidants may ebb and flow according to our distance from them, from how we treat each other, which is the long-term predictor of relationship success. And to separate how we feel about them (obsessive early thoughts, again often to do with distance, eventually abate) from considering how they truly made us feel about ourselves, what we truly think of their character and their abilities to make a relationship work, and how we ourselves are showing up, which are the elements we are left with in the long run. In a stable relationship we shouldn't actually be always filled with feelings of yearning - we should feel safe enough to be able to focus on other things. With our neural pathways stuck in old patterns, loving relationships can feel boring and uncomfortable; it will feel uncomfortable at first and not what we are used to, but if we want to move to a secure mindset and happy long-term relationship we need to reprogram these pathways to learn that we deserve good treatment, and to feel up to the task of loving and showing love to people who show us real love in return, by first developing our own healthy self-esteem.
What to do
Whatever the situation, if you find yourself idealising a phantom ex, acknowledge that they never were a viable long-term option. Recognise that your longing can operate because someone is not around or is unavailable, and is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the quality of your interaction. The pedestal we choose to put people on is often an expression of ourselves, our past, insecurities and fears, not a reality. And the qualities that make for a lasting, rewarding relationships require much more than desire or chemistry - whatever the reason, the dynamic between you wasn't a sustainable one that would have made you both happy. It is important to acknowledge and accept that your relationship didn't work. Things probably didn't work out for a reason, now it's the present that matters. Memories of the past or a distant figure can be more comfortable that dealing with intimacy in the present, but it means we can miss out on witnessing everything beautiful in front of us. Recognising this thought for the deactivating device it is, remembering the valid reasons you're not with an ex and choosing to focus on the present will leave space for a fulfilling new relationship to grow.
And don’t wait for “the one” who fits your checklist, expecting everything to fall into place. No one's going to always intuit your needs unless you can get comfortable expressing them, and learn not to fear the effect of doing so. It is ultimately doing this that will make us truly safe and comfortable in a relationship. For relationships to work, we need to work. Research shows that people who implicitly think of relationships as perfect unity between ideal matches have worse relationships than people who implicitly think of relationships as a journey of growing and working things out together. Different ways of thinking about relationships lead to different ways of evaluating them, and different levels of satisfaction. So find someone who is also into growth and make them into your soulmate by allowing them to get close, letting them fully understand your needs, accepting theirs, working together when difficulties arise and making them a special part of you.
These particular distancing devices of the phantom ex/perfect partner can surface if some of your current needs aren’t being met. Are there fundamental qualities of the person you're with where you really aren't compatible, or do you just have some needs, such as for space, that need meeting? Instead of following the perfect parter fantasy, ask yourself what needs you might be missing and problem-solve how you exactly can go about getting them met with your current partner or yourself - being willing to speak to them and think like a team. The feelings we have with different people are just our own core wounds manifesting in different situations - this is what we must pay attention to fixing. Often it is not in fact as much about them as we think.
Be conscious that in relationships avoidants can be more tolerant of mistreatment. If someone is moody with us or we are not sure where we are with them, it snaps us out of our standard-operating fear of engulfment and into our fear of abandonment and need to please others, simulating a degree of distance we might not otherwise have. Ultimately we subconsciously expect not to be treated well by attachment figures, and if someone is consistently pleasant to us feel engulfed. It's harder for avoidants to miss someone when we know they are available. But if we look back objectively at situations where we weren't always treated well we might appreciate that they were in fact bad for our self-esteem and self-actualisation, and that seeking those out will not, ultimately, make us happy. We will ultimately gain more happiness and stability by rewriting our own patterns to nurture a loving, stable relationship. Be alert not to allow your brain's longing to confuse you about the objective quality of the object you are longing for. Make sure you are appreciating the right things.
And bear in mind that if we are carrying a lot of guilt for previous situations, this can lead us unconsciously to seek out people who will treat us badly, to justify the way we feel about ourselves. The best way we can counter this is by compassionately processing the guilt and building our self-esteem to accept that we deserve love.
Do not expect your partner to provide everything - this is a misnomer that only set us up for disappointment. A great partner can support you but they are not going to solve your existential problems for you. The point of a relationship is not for you to have all of your life’s problems fixed by your partner, nor is it for you to fix all of your partner’s life problems. The point of a relationship is to have two individuals unconditionally support each other as they deal with their own problems together.
And importantly, while you should ask them for things you need, do not put the expectation on a perfect partner to somehow keep your avoidant tendencies 'in check' by being disinterested, policing you, not expressing needs, not leaning on you or showing emotion, never being around, doubting the relationship, withdrawing and/or behaving negatively, distantly or playing games themselves, to stimulate you to temporarily 'snap out' of your avoidance and pursue; or alternatively by somehow always intuiting exactly what it is you want when you behave like this. In reality, these are unhealthy attempts to simulate a parent-child dynamic and will only lead to a cycle of negativity that hastens relationship breakdown. It rarely leads to a stable, happy relationship (some healthy independence within a relationship of course is also important, and if you need a certain level of space this is something you could discuss up-front - but this is a different thing). Holding someone else responsible for our deep-rooted behaviours is a victim mentality that hinders functional relationships. Ultimately these feelings are not down to your partner, and a partner cannot nor should not solve them (although they can definitely support you in it). Though not your fault, they are your responsibility. Instead, take compassionate ownership of your tendencies, where they come from, and how you can fix them, and bring a cycle of positivity into the relationship (see Behaviour Strategies II).
Finally, focus on ways to be happy rather than making the ‘right’ choice. The pressure of the latter brings us straight up against a core belief that we’re not good enough and will fail the task, imagined futures that we fear we cannot live up to, into black-and-white thinking and extreme solutions. There’s no such as thing as “the one” who is perfect. Recognise this for the distancing tactic it is. Occasional doubts are a normal and natural part of any relationship. There will always be many options, but without choosing a path we increase our anxiety as well as in fact end up with none at all - which can be the least-preferred option. Your salvation must ultimately come from working on your own self-belief, not swapping partners. Understand instead that you’re an active participant in making the relationship as good as it can be.
“Remember that real love doesn’t feel like a fantasy. Real love feels like real life, but a real life that you can finally experience with all of your senses. Real love is a divine series of clumsy manoeuvres, unnerving mistakes, flashes of joy and lust and self-doubt and fear and anger and irritation and also peace. When you’re in love and you’re seen clearly by another person whose only intention is to love you, here, in the flawed, real world. This person is not some fantasy “soulmate” with magical qualities that radiate around them and make you nervous and happy forever and ever. Ordinary, lovable people who can see you clearly and who understand that flaws are human and not a deal-breaker are everywhere, once you start to see yourself and your own flaws the same way. And when you are finally embraced by someone who accepts your good and your bad with patience and grace, it feels strange and amazing and frightening. It is not an escape. It is not always “romantic” in the “music swelling, cameras circling” sense. You don’t get to be the hero. You get to be a vulnerable human being, with needs, with problems, with emotions. That is enough. Start now. Be a regular person who has needs of their own. Don’t try to be a fantasy. Be an awkward interloper, someone who says the wrong thing and feels the wrong way and is all sharp elbows and mumbled words and lopsided smiles and perfectly timed mistakes. Open your heart and embrace the awkward interloper. Give the interloper your love. They are more than worthy of it.”
The sources of doubt in a long-term relationship
1. Fear. Fear of getting too close, fear of being rejected, fear of being left, fear of losing yourself, fear of losing the other person.
2. Unmet needs. Things your partner may not be providing (you or they might be unaware), that you have not voiced, or that you are not providing for yourself.
2. Trauma from past relationships and/or childhood. You don’t want to get the rug pulled out from under you via out-of-the-blue rejection again (in their determination to avoid this past trauma, avoidants may enact and so pass this trauma wound onto others)
3. Not knowing what you want out of a long-term partnership. Not knowing if someone is right for you usually has less to do with the person and more to do with not understanding what your priorities are so you are able to set reasonable expectations.
4. Not knowing if you share the same goals. Do you want similar things for the future? This can be hard for avoidants until they have done work on themselves, because often they are risk averse, don't like to plan ahead and don't know what they will want in the future.
How to overcome doubts
1. Clarify to yourself what you actually want in a relationship. Take some time to get clear about your wants and needs in a relationship—whether that’s through journaling, meditation, therapy, or anything else that helps you access your innermost thoughts.
2. Acknowledge whether doubt is a pattern and get to the root of it. Address the real fears behind the doubt e.g. being lost, being controlled, being left, being judged, being rejected, rather than get stymied by the doubt.
3. Don't do anything on a whim.
As well as hurting your partner and not giving them the opportunity to try, you won't know if you could have resolved your doubts so may come to regret it later.
4. Have an honest, clear conversation.
Express any unattended needs, and work on meeting them together. It may be you cannot meet each other's needs, but you can only know this by trying. Maybe your doubt is based on not feeling secure and you need reassurance, or feelings of overwhelm and you need some space within the relationship. Or perhaps your partner is having similar doubts. Get clear on your vision for the future as a couple, and get honest with one another about whether or not you are both in alignment about what it is you want, value, and envision your lives to be like together.
5. Set a time boundary and try to fix things
Having established what your needs are that the doubt is expressing, do everything within this time period to see if you can fix it. Make sure you regularly express what these needs are and communicate with your partner, finding out how their needs are being met too. Work on yourself to make sure you show up in the relationship in all the ways to be the best possible partner you can be. Then see if there is change. If things aren't improving then you can feel safe to part amicably, knowing you have done everything you can do to move on without possible regret.
6. Remember, a little doubt doesn't have to mean the end of your relationship. Talk with each other, often and about everything. Because once you get clear on exactly why doubt is taking up so much of your headspace, you can move on from it and go back to living your best life together.
Choosing someone for a long-term commitment does involve careful thought. You want to look for someone who shares your strongest values, and whom you enjoy helping to find fulfilment. You need to feel comfortable and both be able and willing to try to meet each other's needs. With the right person you should feel support and encouragement about your own growth both emotionally and intellectually. When you are with the right person, you will feel good about yourself, safe, and fulfilled. The right person will not be negative, selfish, wishy-washy, silent, dishonest, critical or engage in destructive behaviours. They are considerate and willing to share responsibilities. Finding them doesn't mean you don't have doubts or difficulties, but you will be able to work through the issues that could hurt your relationship. It's all too easy to choose a subset of the vast array of qualities each of us possesses, and then make a comparison between potential partners. At any rate, we usually do that simply to justify something we already want to do.
If you feel that the problem is your own habitual restlessness, then this feeling will recur in every secure relationship you establish. If that's the case, wouldn't it be better in the long term to look for other challenges outside of your relationships? You may consider applying for a new job, or going for promotion in your current employment. You could take up a new sport. You could join a political or environmental-action group - this would have the added advantage of satisfying your desire for intellectual sparring. Or perhaps you could plan a holiday with your partner.
On the other hand, the problem may be that you're no longer convinced you and your partner have enough in common to stay together and be happy. If you are concerned about your differing interests, you could suggest that you give one another more independence when organising your personal leisure time. If you are worried about your different attitudes towards having children, a compromise is more difficult to find - but it's still not impossible. Talk to your partner to see if you can resolve these issues. If you can't reach an agreement, you could decide to separate - but on a rationally considered basis.
Chemistry vs. Compatibility
"Every time I’ve had that intense feeling of chemistry, it's misled me into thinking the experience was something unique and divine. I’ve swept a whole lot of bad behaviour under the rug - and didn’t even realise it until it was much too late."
Chemistry can allow you to stay in relationships where you give more than you get, where you don’t feel safe or happy, and where you stay way past the expiration date - all because of the intensity of your feelings. But the truth is, this intensity will eventually fade. Dr. Helen Fisher’s studies for love report that chemistry usually lasts from 1.5 to 3 years before it wears off. At this point, you often become disillusioned with your partner, even though all it means is that you’re finally seeing them clearly. Chemistry is not a solid predictor of your future and often does not result in stable, happy, long-term relationships.
Qualities that attract us may actually be bad for relationships. For example, if someone appears very independent they may be inaccessible and emotionally unavailable, making lasting connection difficult and us feel under-appreciated long-term. Someone uncommunicative may appear mysterious but frustrate and unbalance the relationship in the long term as they can't express what they want or where you are with them. Very good-looking people may rely on the attention of others and flirting. Successful people might be workaholics who ignore the relationship. Highly educated people might be arrogant, stubborn and overlook our opinions. Creative, sensitive types might be moody and unstable. Of course this is not always the case, but it's possible that while the short run these characteristics can make us want to chase, in the long run they may make us unhappy. Chasing such a high can ignore something fundamental that may break you up in the long run. What's more, if someone is not prioritising the relationship and always treating you well then your continued presence and tolerance conveys acceptance. The second you stop allowing bad treatment, by being genuinely willing to walk away, is the second the bad treatment ends.
What we think we want is often not good for us. What’s good for us is something we often pass up. What you think is your “type” may not have what it takes to be your forever life partner. Conversely, the people you routinely discount might actually be the ones with the ability to make you really happy. The characteristics that make for fulfilling, happy long-term relationships aren't always the sexiest up-front - until we learn to recognise and appreciate them as such. So think about how you really want to feel in the long term, and take a moment to stop and look at what’s really going on between you. Beyond the undeniable “connection” - are the traits that make them attractive compatible with being a good life partner? Are they doing the things that a committed partner should be doing - or is it just the fleeting moments you spend together or moments of longing that are blinding you? Intermittent reinforcement produces intrigue and sparks - one can meet someone secure and it be so drama-free you find them dull. But once chemistry wears off - which it inevitably will, we lose the overwhelming need to impress a partner and, comfortable in ourselves, see their qualities starkly for what they are.
Chemistry is a wonderful sensation, but compatibility is what ultimately determines your future together. Real special relationships are easy, highly functional, and aligned. In these relationships, your values are the same, communication is strong and things naturally work out. Real love doesn’t make you feel bad about yourself, or insecure about your future. The key to identifying a successful long-term partner is learning to appreciate and value the qualities that make for our lasting happiness, not our temporary pursuit. In a healthy relationship you shouldn't actually be thinking about the relationship too much, or over-prioritising it at the expense of other areas of your life (although of course it's still important!). Your relationship should support you to feel confident in developing in those other areas.
You want to see what kind of person you have on your hands after the chemistry wears off. Are they consistent? Are they kind and supportive? Do they communicate? Do they have high character? Do they show they value commitment? If the answer is no to any of those, your chemistry won’t make you happy in the long-run. Just consider the relative importance of a chiseled jawline and a Masters degree vs. the ability to love you unconditionally and the desire to make you happy. You can have an amazing marriage to a person even if you don’t obsess about them, miss them mournfully while they're gone for a few hours, or be positive they're your soulmate. That stuff means nothing. It wears off. It’s distracting. That passion most couples feel for the first 18 months? It’s closer to obsession, hope and fantasy. Reality is the qualities left when the passion fades and you start building a life together.