If as an avoidant you have ever wondered why you dislike conflict, there is a biological reason: people with an avoidant attachment style experience disproportionately high levels of stress hormone cortisol in conflict situations. Avoidants learned early to suppress physiological responses related to distress because caregivers did not respond effectively to their signals. This suppression does not mean that they do not feel distress, but they are unable to generate a physiological solution when they feel overwhelmed. As a result, they overregulate to appear as if they are unaffected and are in essence emotionally paralyzed, stuck in a freeze response. The person with an avoidant attachment style may present as if they are very calm in a distressing situation when in fact their internal experience is quite the opposite.
This is because in infancy the baby creates a blockade of attachment-related emotions to survive inattention or abuse, or to escape experiences which in infancy equate with the trauma of potential abandonment and death, such as cold, unresponsive, depressed, unemotional or blank-faced care givers. This emotional firewall can prevent things from coming into consciousness and functions to leave emotions in the body completely out of awareness, using a lot of energy in the brain, and reflecting a changed brain and nervous system which minimises the importance of attached others. If a partner is absent, for example, this is reflected in racing heart, disturbed sleep and digestion, even when the avoidant may tell you and consciously be aware they feel nothing.
When deactivating strategies (intended to reduce the importance of an attachment relationship) fail to work or can’t be used, the avoidant can be overwhelmed by unprocessed feelings that are normally blocked or avoided. The unconscious avoidant strategy is to never be put into a position where deep feelings of loss might break out by distancing anyone who gets too close and minimising the importance of attached others.
So often avoidants will do almost anything to avoid conflict. Avoidants above all do not want to feel. Unbeknown to a parter without the same experience, emotional upheaval is strongly triggering of historic wounds of being engulfed and rejected by another. Their whole regulatory system is designed around repressing emotion - so any situation or person through which they have to encounter strong emotions will repel them, and is perceived as something to get away from until they learn not to fear these emotions. When confronting conflict or emotional pain, they may react by “disappearing” for a long time and keeping isolated from the partner. Their ‘escape’ might not necessarily be physical: avoidant adults might simply show indifference to emotionally intense situations – this does not mean they’re not feeling anything, it means their tendency is to privilege rational points of view to affective ones. When triggered, it feels instinctively vital to show the attached other (and to themselves) that they do not need them, that they can walk away - and sometimes, to do this.
In relationships, withdrawing from conflict is also a subconscious distancing strategy. Conflicts are often left unresolved because the resolution itself often brings a couple closer together - a scenario that, however unconsciously, the avoidant person wants to avoid. Failure to negotiate is a strategy to block intimacy - "I don't care about your needs" -, but learning to successful negotiate together is vital for relationships to survive.
Avoidants do not approve of need or vulnerability, and consider it a drain on resources. More importantly though, other’s needs mirror their own suppressed needs, weaknesses and vulnerabilities—which they need to feel superior to and separated from—so they may ignore the person suffering, help with a superior attitude, behave insensitively, use pity rather than sympathy/compassion, or even engage in hostile dismissive humour where they enjoy another’s suffering. These harmful strategies allow them to project and then distance from vulnerable qualities, and keep their own suppression intact.
Conflict presents an acute risk to the safety of relationships with avoidants. Avoidants need to stay in control and, however unconsciously, giving ground for them would upset the balance of power, which can be too torturous a position. They find it very hard to think like a team as they innately view this as dangerously giving up part of themselves. While they may believe they want relationships in theory, in practice they experience regular aversion to their partner - no stronger than when inevitably faced with issues or forced to confront emotions, which means they are much more at risk of walking away. Partners often sense this, which creates a problematic power imbalance in conflict, when both are not showing up with equal desire to move towards resolutions and to make the relationship work as a team.
Why avoidants are conflict-averse
"Rupture and repair is a key pathway by which a relationship is deepened. These are hard for avoidant people who usually respond to conflict by deactivating the attachment system and withdrawing, being so often governed by their preference for self-reliance rather than collaborative exploration."
- Attachment & the Defence Against Intimacy
Attachment is like the big red emergency button in your brain. When life is good and fun, the button is mostly turned off. As a child, we pick our nose, play in the dirt, and explore the world around us in all of its capacity. As adults we see friends, work on our dreams, and enjoy the leisure of life. Then something bad happens; we scrape a knee and think we see bone. Joe, the school bully, pours chocolate milk on our sandwich. Our boss threatens to fire us. Your fiancée is thinking about calling off the wedding. All of these experiences create anxiety, and this anxiety activates our attachment system. For avoidants, this will mean feeling the need to escape from attachment figures. So while they may be able to bumble along in a relationship reasonably happily (or at least indifferently) while things are outwardly good, testing life events, conflict or difficulty will trigger an array of anti-relationship behaviours.
Triggered by these biological mechanics, when a potentially hurtful scenario arises such as a serious argument with their partner or a threat to the continuance of their relationship, avoidants respond with 'flight' or 'freeze' and push away intensely. In conflict people are in fact trying to be seen, heard and understood, but avoidants will simply interpret arguments as a threat of abandonment. Because they “shut down” emotionally when they feel any source of pain or instability, they come across very dismissive around displays of emotion, even unresponsive to a partner's suffering, and punish a partner's healthy expression of their emotional needs. They may interpret displays of distress as criticism and respond defensively, stonewalling or leaving after arguments. Even when they are at fault, unconsciously to seek to make amends is to make themselves vulnerable, to put someone else in the position of power and so leave themselves open to being controlled. They cannot see it as a constructive opportunity, because remember the avoidant has internalised emotional abandonment - that their needs will not be met - and has learnt not to try.
Avoidants also take longer to process things after conflict because it's hard to access their feelings. And they can fail to recognise the impact this is all having on their partner - in experiments it was common for them to rate their partner's reaction as indifferent when in fact the partner had been highly upset by something. Over time this apparent indifference to their partner's suffering makes it instinctively hard for their partner to trust them and to feel protected and safe in the relationship, even if they may be confused by this at a consicous level given an avoidant's otherwise polite and seemingly well-meaning behaviour.
Research measures avoidants as low in effective problem-solving communication. Conflict can ordinarily function as a vehicle where unspoken needs are finally aired, improving a relationship. But an avoidant's interest is in getting away from any conflict rather than speaking their mind, so with them it won't work that way. Because their whole mental system is structured around suppressing their feelings at all costs, the appearance of emotions feels deeply threatening and if a partner tries to force them to confront these, or their own avoidant behaviours, they can become very uncomfortable and resentful. A partner can start to feel they are responsible for holding up relationship maintenance all on their own.
The quality of discussion decreases as the level of conflict being discussed increases. For example, avoidant individuals were less likely to talk to their romantic partners when they were suspicious about their partner’s fidelity. Instead, they tended to distance themselves from their partners, to deny the problem, or to use other indirect coping strategies (e.g., giving their partner the “silent treatment”). Rather than easing suspicions or resolving conflicts, this kind of behavior may further alienate romantic partners.
Avoidants tend to grow more hostile and distant as disagreements progress. Inherently assuming attachment will equal pain, avoidants are primed to zero in on negatives, discount positive memories and fail to keep context in perspective. They react differently to disagreements to other attachment styles, turning off all attachment-related memories and remembering the worst of their partner, producing a hostile response and resulting in a worse position than the original conflict. This is “defensive projection” - in threatening situations, such as where criticised, avoidant individuals’ self-appraisals actually become more positive (whereas the self-appraisals of nonavoidant individuals either remained unchanged or became slightly more negative) and they instinctively project the problems onto their partner as an attachment defence. In this scenario it usually becomes incumbent on the partner to unilaterally resolve things, and without recognition over the course of a relationship their partner gradually loses ground.
Sensing a negative reaction and with emotional responses producing coldness, partners may feel the only option is to acquiesce and start suppressing their needs. Ultimately avoidants can unconsciously exist happily in a relationship with their partner showing signs of unhappiness while things are not brought to the surface, because it has a distancing effect. For partners this may create a perverse feeling that the more quietly unhappy in the relationship they are, the more comfortable is the avoidant. While their partner is reluctant to raise issues, the avoidant person is relieved not to feel challenged or criticised, but through the relationship their partner becomes more unhappy and the relationship unstable.
If partners respond passive-aggressively (sulking etc), the distance can actually make the avoidant more comfortable. They were also taught to expect negative signals from a caregiver, which didn't signal physical abandonment, so these may not particularly concern them provided they are not overly emotional, as at heart avoidants don't expect or believe they really deserve respectful behaviour. A partner not treating them well sits more comfortably with their view of themselves. But with underlying grievances unattended to, the lack of resolution and buildup of resentment eventually erode the relationship beyond repair. Conversely, if the partner forces them to confront things by voicing that unhappiness emotionally, or becomes volatile as a result and hints at leaving, then avoidant trigger systems are heavily activated. Suddenly and without warning, but because of their inbuilt physical response to threat, they find they don't want to resolve things. Avoidants are in a bind.
Avoidants, Distress & Caregiving
Care-giving and care-seeking are both vital skills in a couple relationship, and both are difficult for someone with avoidant patterns. Their defences prompt them to miscue when they need to care and to withdraw at the point a partner needs it. When a more secure individual has the resources to allow themselves to become involved in the other's distress - to listen, to offer help - a more avoidant individual will tend to be threatened by the partner's distress and the implicit or explicit request for care-giving. Protecting the self become the primary objective and overrides the ability to respond to or be empathetic to the partner and the expression of the partner's natural attachment needs. Avoidants are also less likely to feel comforted or soothed by the presence of their partner, particularly in stressful situations.
These misattunements are specific to the attachment experience: avoidant individuals may be unsupportive, distant, or overly self-reliant primarily in certain kinds of situations, specifically those that are threatening because they activate attachment-related thoughts and emotions. Provided he or she is not under stress and the partner only needs instrumental help, and avoidant person can do reasonably well at caregiving. If the partner's distress is about the relationship or a joint distress, avoidant people find it particularly hard to give comfort because at that moment they need to regulate themselves by withdrawing. The need to minimise the significance of attachment-related feelings diverts their attention from the needs of the partner and they may only offer support to eliminate repercussions or to eliminate a source nuisance.
As a way to distance themselves from expressions of negative emotion and others’ distress, avoidant individuals seem to be unresponsive precisely when their partners most need their support. Those on the receiving end of this unsupportive behaviour, although dissatisfied with their partners’ response, may learn to avoid seeking support or expressing distress for fear of further rejection.
- Attachment & the Defence Against Intimacy
There is a reluctance, fear even, to get drawn into people's messy emotional needs. When other people express strong dependent feelings or show distress, anxiety and irritation increase. This might be met with withdrawal, boredom, control, detachment, criticism, impatience, even contempt: "What's the matter with you? Don't fuss", which are not good for a relationship. Avoidants reportedly failed to provide care to their partners because they were uncomfortable with their partners' distress, perceived that helping would lead to negative consequences (e.g. their partners being difficult to interact with or lacking appreciation) and because they felt their partners were too dependent on them. Because they are reluctant to provide support, if they deliver it it may be in a manner that makes their partners feel weak or needy, inadequate or incompetent. The relative lack of sensitivity means that partners feel misunderstood and emotionally neglected, and both often dissatisfied in the relationship.
Difficulty caregiving also appears in family relationships, for example adults classify as avoidant view their ageing parents' increasing dependence with some anxiety. Their well-rehearsed defence when confronted by other people's weakness and need is to back off, be critical and disapprove. The sense of obligation and burden are high compared to secure individuals and can lead to increasing their emotional distance. They are less likely to think about providing care for a parent and more likely to have them placed in residential care."
- Attachment Across the Lifecourse
How it goes down
While they steer away from open conflict, there is another type of conflict avoidants are masters of: silent conflict. Mood swings and stonewalling are the preserve of people who aren't experiencing enough access to their emotions to understand what is going on, may not be ready or able to voice it, and who (often unconsciously) prefer to push others away to articulate their dissatisfaction. This and other unconscious control games are valuable defence mechanisms for avoidants to create safety and distance when they feel threatened, to avoid bumping into their feelings and diffuse feelings of suffocation. While it serves as a valuable tool in modulating the amount of separation, it also prevents lasting intimacy and keeps them from effectively addressing their unmet childhood needs because they are never voiced or owned, can hurt and confuse partners and lead ultimately to a cycle of mutual rejection if the other responds in kind.
The Abandonment Move: Why it’s hard to stop and why you’ll be glad when you do
When you do The Abandonment Move - "I don't need you", you pull away all your connection from your mate. You might do it by leaving the room, becoming cold and aloof, ignoring invitations to connect, just by withdrawing your attention, or ultimately by threatening to leave. As a result your mate will either respond by clinging or one upping you by pulling the abandonment move as well. If because of their anxiety, they cling, they stop focusing on what they want and dive into meeting your demands. They will have less status and be more accommodating and needy, giving you control. Remember, these moves and motivations are usually unplanned and unconscious. But they are strong. And once you understand the dance, you can see the pattern of predictable reactions as you switch from one position to another.
When someone is using The Abandonment Move, they might be feeling hurt and are trying to express it in a way to get what they need. They want someone to be sensitive and attentive to their needs. They might be feeling overwhelmed and upset and doesn’t know what else to do. Maybe they are angry and just want to leave. Maybe they need more attention and aren't getting it. In any case they're trying to resolve something and are leaving or threatening to leave to see if this will work.
When you play The Abandonment Move, you are in the power position. You are in charge of when and how separations occur. To you, this feels better than taking the chance someone could leave you - it gives you control. You are reassured by the feeling of power as you watch your partner squirm, collapse and finally allow you to do whatever you want. You don’t need to be accountable for your behavior in the relationship because they don’t have the strength to take a stand. If they do, you just leave them. Or at least threaten to.
The Abandonment Move is the most powerful manipulative move you can use. It gets an immediate primal response. Why? Because it threatens our safety and survival. Or at least it feels like it does. As an adult, when this abandonment fear gets activated, it means we’ve regressed to a child state. And we will do whatever you can to stop it. Perhaps we become desperate, subservient or clingy. We repeatedly ask, “Do you love me?” We do whatever you can to get someone to stay. If we are feeling alone, we might reach out to find anyone to temporarily fill that void, even if it is clearly a bad choice. Maybe we become angry and threatening. Or maybe we protect ourselves by acting like we don’t care. All these moves are ways partners deal with the threat of abandonment.
If you stop using The Abandonment Move, does that mean you can never pull away from a conversation or leave a relationship? Of course not. Knowing how and when to leave an interaction or end a relationship is important if you’re going to have a life filled with good relationships. But once you know this move, you will realize you weren’t trying to end or leave anything. You were trying to get the upper hand and keep the relationship going, albeit in a damaging way. When you instead consider and then calmly express a need to disengage, the reasons why, and what you would need to return, you are making an adult choice. It is calm, well thought out decision not a knee-jerk, childlike reaction. Others might still think you are trying to manipulate them or threaten them, but you know inside you have simply made a quiet, grounded decision to separate yourself, momentarily or permanently, from the relationship. There is no underlying, manipulative hidden agenda.
Once you stop doing this dance, you’ll finally deal with your own fears of abandonment. You will be more open and vulnerable in a way that creates intimacy. Sure, it might feel scary at first, but the payoff is worth it. You’ll know the love you get is authentic. When you feel bad or angry, you’ll discuss it openly instead of manipulating or scaring others. And you’ll pick partners who are confident and open instead of suppressing and insecure.
The type of conflict avoidants are masters of
Eventually, avoidants may realise that their closed, defensive responses in open conflict and silent conflict alike ultimately cause them to feel isolated, lonely and alienated. When this happens, they may decide to make new choices. Becoming aware of your own wounds and the wounds of others removes a major barrier on the road to connection. By learning empathy: with compassion and care for your own wounded inner child and the wounded inner child in others, we can see conflict situations in a whole different light.
If you’re never fighting with your partner you might actually be in trouble! Most people think that not fighting is a good thing. After all, who actually wants to have conflict with their loved one? It’s hard, scary and confusing. But the issue with always keeping the peace and not rocking the boat is that you can end up feeling miles apart from your partner. Why? Because you’re not talking about the important stuff, airing and then solving underlying grievances. Because you can’t be fully yourself if you are hiding or ignoring what is really important to you. Because it is in working through tension that great intimacy is created. We sometimes think that couples break up when they have too much conflict. But being conflict-avoidant could be just as damaging, and it’s not as obvious of a problem. Without discussing difficult topics, we never resolve them.
So how do you get out of a cycle of constantly avoiding conflict and thus feeling distant from your partner? A good first step is to ask yourself, “What do I need in order to really feel good in my relationship?” “What do I want more of or less of?” “What am I not sharing with my partner that is actually important for me?” It’s scary to talk about the hard stuff. But it’s even scarier to think you could go days, months, or even years sweeping things under the rug and not getting to be your true, honest, open self with your partner - and the outcome will be a lot worse.
Avoidants must become cognisant of their attachment triggers and try to work through them during conflict. They must remember that refusal to compromise is a form of control that puts ourselves before the relationship and hurts our partner. Partners should also understand where an avoidant is coming from - namely painful childhood wounds - and take responsibility that if they go in guns blazing the response will likely be for the avoidant to clam up and retreat. If both parties are willing, then calm, blame-free discussion with specific, positively framed requests is the solution with longevity. Validating each other's position so you both feel seen and heard is very important. It can also depend on a secure partner to leave the door open that avoidants try to walk out of, without pressuring them back (if the parter is prepared deal with these behaviours). Avoidants aren't adept at interpreting their partner’s needs and how to fix them from vague signals, but they want to please and are very good at meeting needs expressed clearly, consistently and without blame. They require direct communication rather than reading signals - see the solutions section.