AVOIDANT TO SECURE ROADMAP: PART II
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 and express these needs directly
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
Feel compassion for themselves and others when there is suffering, but do not overextend 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
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 engage in compassionate dialogue to assuage the fears behind the impulse. And sometimes just to give voice to the fact that it's something we need to do to feel safe through no fault of our own, accepting ourselves non-judgmentally and trusting that if we explain it to our partner they can do the same. If we try to simply suppress the behaviours they will inevitably rear their head at some point in an explosion of avoidance!
RECONNECT WITH YOUR EMOTIONS
It all comes down to emotions.
"If you've been told your feelings don't matter, been told you shouldn't have them, or been asked to get over them,
it's a brave act to give yourself permission to fully allow them"
Understanding how we really feel is everything. Your emotions are protective mechanisms - there to show you what you need and so protect you from mistreatment. If we're not confident what our feelings are in real-time we will be disconnected from our needs and boundaries – until they become overwhelming. We can also turn them inward on ourselves and they become self-loathing. One of the greatest struggles avoidants have is a difficulty recognizing their own emotions, let alone talking about them. However, research shows that simply naming our feelings is key in diffusing and managing them. This is because cannot so easily be inside something while also witnessing it. And finding the right words is the first step in expressing them. Decisions are emotional more than logical, so figuring out our emotions is first key and will help with decision-making. And while this was an early defence mechanism against pain, our ability to experience distressing emotions is equal to our ability to experience pleasurable emotions - connecting to them finally opens us up to all the full and exciting experiences the world has to offer.
Emotions are actually somatic sensations in your body that are reflections of your thinking, so the key is to get back in touch with your body. First practise daily noticing sensations in your body and reconnecting with it. Then practise awareness of where in your body you feel different emotions. This may feel strange, but gradually you will start reassociating with your feelings. Relax all judgement when you experience emotions and allow yourself to feel whatever it is you are feeling, however ugly you might have been conditioned to believe it is. Most importantly, resist your instinctive urge to repress. Practise sitting with your difficult emotions, experiencing them, working through them and not trying to push them away. We do not need to fear the emotions of ourselves and others - at worst we will feel uncomfortable, but this will pass. Emotions are there for a reason - to tell us something about what we need - and facing them directly and exploring what is going on ultimately helps us. When we get used to engaging with them directly we discover they are not dangerous and we do not need to push them, or others who give rise to them, away. Once we are aware of and able to accept our emotions, the next step will be to verbalize them, and no more to deny yourself the right to speak about your experience.
Examine the physicality of your emotions
When you feel the onset of a feeling, particularly a sad one, do not try to repress it. Choose not to distract yourself. Allow it to come, name the feeling, and examine it within you as a form of meditation. What does it feel like? Whereabouts is it located in your body? What does it look and taste like? Get close to your emotions and you will discover they are just sensations, you can own them, do not need to fear them, and most importantly they will pass.
Somatic Experiencing Therapy
Ideally our body should be able to regulate itself from a triggered state into a relaxed one, but sometimes we override these natural ways of regulating the nervous system with feelings of shame and pervasive thoughts, judgments, and fears. Used for PTSD, Somatic Experiencing Therapy aims to help people move past the place where they might become “stuck” in processing a triggering event by guiding them in between these states. This helps people connect with their bodies and work safely away from their triggered states. The book "Why Can’t I Change?" by Dr Shirley Impellizzeri covers this - she herself had an avoidant attachment style which she changed using somatic experiencing therapy. Also check out Diane Poole Heller.
This is a very important technique help you get in touch with emotions, rather than disassociating from them.
An avoidant on journaling tips:
"Having avoidant traits simply means you have also avoided your own feelings. Sometimes when it’s really really hard to put it to words try writing to yourself first, pretend you are talking to journal therapist. Once you find the words for your feelings, you can start to find answers to why you are feeling this way.
Ask yourself “what words can I use to describe my feelings?” to find out “what am I feeling?”
ask “What do I actually want from this?” "what specific need are my emotions expressing to me?" You want to try to get as specific as possible so the problem doesn't feel overwhelming
ask “why is it I want to leave?” or “why is it I want to go back” or “why do I want to stay?”
ask “what am I looking for?” (or what feeling am I looking for)
ask “what am I afraid of?”
In terms of style of writing, I personally did it in chat log style, thinking I am talking to someone and back to myself. You can even make up a character for this and make it a fun experience! When you are confused about whether you want something, someone or not, ask yourself how much percentage is your Yes on this, is it 30% yes? 50% yes? or 70–90% yes? Anything below 50% Yes is a full “No.” I have to use this to realize what I am actually feeling. Don’t overthink, write as it comes out, it’s more accurate. It’s okay to hate your feelings, but accept they are there."
Recognise your distraction techniques
We all distract ourselves from difficult feelings. But while we are distracting, we are only suppressing rather than dealing with them, which means they stick around. Used too often, these are unhealthy coping mechanisms that suppress our feelings and only serve to distract us from learning through our emotions about the parts of our life and ourselves that may really need to change. It's important to become conscious of the techniques you use (drinking, drugs, shopping, food, tv binges, social, dating & sex etc) and how often you are using them. If you sense yourself reaching for these to block something out, consider heading through the pain, feeling, discovering and accepting it instead. This will set you on a more positive path to moving past it and working out what to do about it.
2. COME INTO THE PRESENT
Avoidant people can feel trapped in their head, analysing, disassociated from their body and unable to connect to the present - a reaction to escaping the physicality of emotions to avoid a painful present in childhood. This, and instinctively anticipating their equilibrium being disrupted by the appearance of unsafe, demanding attachment figures, can leave avoidants in a constant state of low level tension. Relationships, they ultimately learned, are not reciprocal, and so rather than being mutually enjoyed are governed by a constant state of fear - between either fear of losing themselves or the other.
To combat this experience physically, practise returning from the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/freeze - survival mode) into your parasympathetic nervous system (relaxing and calming) through anything that encourages your mind to slow down and become more present with what you're doing, such as:
3. IDENTIFY & COMMUNICATE NEEDS,
& MAINTAIN BOUNDARIES
Until we can fully recognise and communicate our needs we cannot protect ourselves, so as soon as a partner starts inadvertently infringing on them we will inexplicably get the feeling they are irritating or wrong for us. In order to be happy in a relationship, we need to find a way to express our needs clearly without resorting to defensiveness. Relationships aren't supposed to work perfectly by magic and we are supposed to get help from each other and work together to make the relationship meet those needs - it's very much ok to ask for things from your partner, even if you think they may find it difficult. Even if it takes a bit of time to work out what it is you need, that's ok, and it is fine to loop back to a conversation once you have worked it out. Because for both you and your partner, unexpressed needs won't go anywhere - they will just come out in other ways.
1. Identify needs
Reconnecting with our emotions is the vital step that should help us learn to recognise our needs in real time. Listen to and name how you are feeling, then take time to think about why that might be and what you could potentially need from your partner to alleviate it.
2. Communicate needs unapologetically
You may have limiting beliefs that you don't provide enough in a relationship and you're not good enough - when in fact when you ask your partner you will find they are getting or can voice what they need. And partners may be more comfortable handling avoidant behaviours than you realise, once they fully understand your needs, that the behaviours are not personal and not a threat to the relationship, and when they see you are trying and that you appreciate their presence in your life. When they live in fear it means you could constantly exit is when things become unstable. One way you can prevent that is by making sure you express your needs to them so you both feel safe they are meeting them for you.
Advice from someone who has worked through their avoidant attachment:
“Look for signs when you feel pressured, make effort to speak up and not run away. This one is hard because our tendency is wanting to run away, whether to shut down, be cold or literally run away. Do the opposite: stay, and each time a little longer, come back a little faster, make sure your partner/loved ones know you are coming back so you don’t break their hearts. Sometimes even giving that heads up is hard. (I have gotten used to giving heads up - achievement!)”
Never forget to not be shamed by your needs - it’s your right to meet them, will be healthier for you and the people around you. Everybody's needs are different and it's ok to need different things from your partner, and even to feel drained by connection - if you are able to explain (and remind them) they'll have the opportunity to understand that it doesn't mean you don't want them.
3. Assert boundaries
"When we learn how to keep our boundaries healthy enough so that only that which is true about us can get in, we cannot be victimised. Confident in what we know to be the truth about ourselves, we stop blaming others for 'making' us feel the way we do."
- Pia Mellody, Facing Codependence
If we feel overly worried about someone depending on us then we probably have a boundary problem. This means we don't feel confident that we could turn down requests to meet others' needs without either it jeopardising the relationship or making us feel unbearably guilty. We fear we will take on too much responsibility for the emotions and actions of others, perhaps because we only experienced love when we were providing a use to someone. Read this article on different boundary problem styles - in particular, Invisible, Distant and Enmeshed, and what to do to combat them. For example:
"When you use The Invisible Boundary Problem Style you put aside what is important to you. You might tell yourself “it’s not that big a deal” or “it’s not worth arguing about”. But you don’t realize, each time you choose to use invisible, you make yourself less and less significant. And, you are creating a of false portrait of you. Because of this, over time, you are eroding what could have been a good relationship. You build up resentments as you passively allow other people to shape your choices and design your life. You act as if it is someone else’s fault that you do not get what you want and are unhappy.
Sooner or later, you might explode. You use one final incident as the tipping point to finally share all your pent up resentments. Your reaction is out of proportion for the current situation. This leaves those around you feeling hurt, surprised and confused. They might try to listen to you more carefully for a while, but since you don’t address issues as they come up, they don’t know how important things are to you in the long run. At some point you might leave the relationship by saying they were controlling, invasive or self-centered. And maybe they were. On the other hand, if you have been using The Invisible Boundary Problem Style, and did not reinforce what you wanted by backing it up with consistent, congruent, impactful behavior you created a large part of the problem. Ouch!"
It is time to put aside your short term goal of avoiding conflict or making everyone else happy and focus on your long term goal of a healthy, respectful relationship."
Sometimes of course you make sacrifices for the people you love.The catch is that if you make a sacrifice for someone you care about, it needs to be because you want to, not because you feel obligated or because you fear the consequences of not doing it. So if your partner wants you to call every day which you do but hate it and feel like they're impeding on your independence and you resent them and you’re terrified of how angry they'll be if you don’t, then you have a boundary problem. If you do it because you love them and don’t mind, then do it.
It can be difficult for people to recognise whether they’re doing something out of perceived obligation or out of voluntary sacrifice. As a litmus test, ask yourself, “If I stopped doing this, how would the relationship change?” If you’re really afraid of the changes, that’s a bad sign. If the consequences are unpleasant but you feel like you could stop performing the action without feeling much different yourself, then that’s a good sign.
A person with strong boundaries understands that it’s unreasonable to expect two people to accommodate each other 100% and fulfil every need the other has. A person with strong boundaries understands that they may hurt someone’s feelings sometimes, but ultimately they can’t determine how other people feel. A person with strong boundaries understands that a healthy relationship is not controlling one another’s emotions, but rather each partner supporting each other in their growth and path to self-actualization. Practising strong personal boundaries is a way to build self-esteem and self-identity.
So once you're aware of what it is you think you need in a relationship, set pro-relationship boundaries and limits: acknowledge your boundaries, such as your need for emotional and physical space and explain to your partner that you need some time alone when you feel things getting too mushy, and that it’s not a problem with them but your own need in ANY relationship. They are then less likely to intensify their efforts to draw closer to you. Be unashamed in sticking to them. Giving voice to our feelings and setting loving limits will mean we are less likely to feel imposed upon or controlled, and both partners can feel safe.
Bear in mind that a lot of the guilt and anxiety you feel over responsibility towards people, and the frustration you may project onto them as a result, is likely unnecessary. Everyone likes connecting, but when required, most of us are also a lot more able to act independently than you might think. When people understand your needs and boundaries clearly and appreciate it's not personal, they can surprise you. Though being needed can also be a rewarding thing.
If you are feeling overwhelmed or smothered by someone, consider are they are objectively enacting this, in a self-involved way that disregards people's value or boundaries? If so this is a person to step back from unapologetically. If not, this potentially comes from your need to be able to effectively express your needs and be freely yourself, self-confidence in your capacity to meet someone else's, and healthy separation from too much guilt around responsibility for those needs - an understanding of your boundaries. If we take responsibility for addressing these, there are strategies to solve all of these things within a relationship. For example, we are not responsible for fixing or changing someone else, but there are lots of things we can do to positively transform the dynamic of our relationship.
N.B. If you have boundary issues in your relationships, then it’s very likely you have them in your family as well, and potentially friendships too. Boundary issues are the most difficult to deal with at the family level, as you can't dump your family if they're overstepping! But your mental health and self-esteem will improve if you can start unapologetically identifying and asserting your boundaries in all areas of your life, unapologetically asserting own identity rather than conforming to the expectations of others, and learning to say no. Confront people by speaking up immediately if you can (not days later). It can feel safer not to rock the boat, but ultimately doing this constantly does you and everyone a disservice. So don’t ever change yourself for the sake of pleasing another person. Stick to your views and preferences whether they be religious, political, philosophical, culinary, activity or fashion-related. Tell people what you like and don’t like. You'll be surprised by the reaction, and to find out you don't need to bend to others as much as you might have thought.
4. TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE
Use your new-found understanding of your needs, individuation and improved self-esteem to take control of your life in all areas. When we feel more in control in other areas of our life, we will be less likely to rely on unhealthy avoidant strategies to give us control in our relationships, and more comfortable going with the flow. So begin by setting specific goals in the different areas of your life (making sure they are all congruent with what you truly want, not others' expectations), and then break them down into very clear, detailed and actionable steps, working in small, achievable, practical stages and listing what you need to make them happen:
business & career
fun & recreation
health & fitness
money & wealth
Check out Tony Robbins' book and strategies on taking charge of your life, ranging from your mood to your finances to your relationships, here. Keep checking in on those small, actionable steps, but remember is important to attach to the intention ("I am going to move in this direction"), not to the outcome or expectation, otherwise we become perfectionist, deny ourselves flexibility and can set ourselves up for failure. Be prepared to change the approach as you go.
5. LEARN TO SPOT YOUR DEACTIVATING STRATEGIES
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. But 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. If you feel the need to escape from a long-term partner it doesn't automatically mean they are wrong for you. It means 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! Realize 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. Recognize 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 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.
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 but gets easier and easier. 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 from suppression.
If you feel 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. You can still be thoughtful and caring in the way you deliver that information.
lean into the discomfort of radical honesty - reframe it as a positive thing. Create an environment where you both feel confident to say things directly in a caring way.
When you sense yourself starting to shut down or focus on the negative, make an effort to remind yourself of positive relationship memories.
Take a risk and be honest and authentic. This means with your partner, but also with yourself.
Remember that these are 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.
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"
6. IN PARTICULAR, COUNTER NEGATIVE THINKING
Regular negative thinking is a just a deactivating strategy your brain uses to stop you getting close - spot it! It is important and will make us happier if we accept other people for who they are and stop looking for faults. 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. So 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 your self-esteem improves you will become more accepting of others.
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 of fair. When you feel yourself becoming judgmental, question your evaluation, and practice humility, by pondering the following: Is this an accurate reflection of my partner? Does my partner really fall short? Does my opinion matter? Who died and made me king or queen of what’s right and good? Are my standards absolutely infallible? Is it my place to question my partner’s path, preferences, or quirks? 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.
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.
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 section 7).
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. 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. You can also learn how to let go of control and go with the flow. Although painful at times, these moments of vulnerability, if handled with care, can deepen your connection. 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!”
7. PRACTISE VULNERABILITY
There is a reason it is difficult for avoidants to fall in love. It's not possible to really fall in love while we're too busy protecting ourselves. Like turns into love through vulnerability - we start to deeply love people when we feel seen and heard by them - we feel able to show and be open about our true selves (at our best and worst). Until we're willing to be vulnerable, we cannot truly love. When we become protective we ultimately become resentful because we don't feel seen, and partnerships become stale. A truly strong person is willing to be depended on and to let themselves be vulnerable enough to depend on others in the long term. Avoidants were programmed to believe we must rely only on ourselves. But true strength is not acting like you don't have needs and your partner doing the same. Strength is being brave enough to be vulnerable, and working through feelings of overwhelm and shame to be open with each other about what you both need and how you might help each other. So lean into the discomfort and reward yourself when you do so - remind yourself that when you do this it is a sign of bravery and strength. Take a risk and be honest and authentic. This means with your partner, but also with yourself.
Start to deliberately counter the inbuilt assumption that you must escape to soothe yourself in times of difficulty, and allow yourself to be comforted and supported by others - proactively go to them with your emotions and your difficulties, and let them provide the soothing words and affection you may not always have received as a child - if the old neural network finds it difficult then connecting with and reassuring your inner child as they do . It may feel uncomfortable initially, but try to relax into trusting you can rely on them to provide this, that your vulnerability is safe with them, and so being able to relax into find solace in it. Then over time you will not be so keen to escape when pain occurs.
But it is natural that if you haven't been used to any of this it will feel incredibly uncomfortable. So don't rush in, but expose yourself in incremental stages over time as you feel more comfortable, and very gradually you will find you learn not to fear it. Do not be afraid to reveal yourself - remember, although instinct might tell you differently, in reality nothing bad is going to happen if you are able to show a trusted person your inner world - and many good things can. You might begin by opening up to your friends. Try talking to friends or family about some of your innermost feelings and vulnerabilities, even if it feels uncomfortable, and rewire through repetition - make this a consistent habit. Allow yourself to be honest, even about something you feel might cause you shame, and let someone know the true you. When you are brave enough to do that you should see in the response that it won't cause rejection, is safe, and that people truly care in a way that may surprise you. Slowly you'll become more and more comfortable with these experiences, it will start to feel more natural, and you will feel safe to build deeper connections.
Advice from someone who has worked through their avoidant attachment:
“Make an effort to vocalize, in a non-hurtful manner: say “I feel hurt” or describe why you feel hurt. Do vulnerability, one bit at a time. It’s scary to open up, and it’s a lot of effort to open up, it's like a dam of emotions that you locked away but it’s important you become vulnerable in order to give yourself a chance to new experience so the old experience isn’t the only truth to you emotionally. If people you loved in the past have hurt you, try it with some stranger… whatever’s easier first. Find the secure type and try this with them. Start from the easiest, get affirmation from them, then use that confidence to try the harder targets. Sometimes the closer someone is to you the harder it is.
Finally, remember that to achieve a stable long-term relationship your partner also needs to feel safe to be vulnerable - to admit to their insecurities to a reception of understanding and comforting, and without fear it will cause distancing, rejection or you to be put off by their admission of flaws. We all have flaws. This may mean you showing sympathy and support for their own attachment style just as they should be willing to show for yours, reaffirming your commitment to them and giving positive feedback when they are vulnerable to you, and suggesting ways you can improve things together as a team.
How to create & sustain Love
To fall in love is to show our true selves – to have been vulnerable enough with someone we like that we truly feel seen, heard, understood and connected at a deeper level. But the plant needs to be constantly watered. Here are 13 tips to sustain love:
Keep the vulnerability alive – opening up atbou your day etc, interntionally sharing. Avoidants will share a lot less after the opening stage of the relationship, which affects feelings on both sides.
Depth of connection. Human beings are constantly changing so having learnt about each other initially isn’t enough – get to know each other on a regular basis. Ask deep questions regularly, like what are you struggling with, what is you biggest fear etc. then we both feel seen, heard, understood.
Communication. Avoidants, like many of us, can fall into the trap of expecting people to unconsciously know what our needs are and believing that is love – but it couldn’t be further from the truth. True healthy love is asking about each other's feelings, holding space and listening, not condemning. Fights and missteps are solvable through active communication - we can set boundaries to bad behaviour, but also understand non-judgementally what need wasn’t being met.
Learn each other’s love languages (the 5 love languages: acts of service, words of affirmation, gifts, quality time, physical touch)
Understand needs and create strategies to support each other’s. We should constantly speak up and remind each other of our needs – partners won’t always remember, things become normal from repetition.
Be aware of our unconscious expectations of how a relationship should look like – how we show up, roles, how often have arguments etc. It is healthy to voice these so we understand what each expects as it may be very different.
When we are irritated or upset by something, talk about the real stuff – what is behind that feeling? What is the meaning we have given to it that causes the pain?
Set aside time to be present with each other, connecting to the person themselves
Check in with each other – are your needs being met? What can I do more for you? Get feedback about the relationship
Keep playfulness alive
Keep your resentment tank empty – tell your partner when something has bothered you. But the way it is framed is important - studies show we should give 5 positive things to outweigh one negative thing.
Intentionally try to compliment – try to notice things your partner is doing that are beautiful, so they feel seen, heard and noticed.
Remember ultimately physical intimacy follows emotional intimacy, feeling that we are understood, otherwise we will seek it out elsewhere.
On This Page
13 behavioural strategies to move towards secure attachment (select):
Lean in & appreciate (accentuate positive, replace toxic with nourishing behaviour, validate bids, build intimacy, take initiative, approach, show empathy)
Counter emotional shut-down (accept reaction & identify need, stay calm, time-out, reframe, don't blame, conflict skills)
Become a fixer (stop reacting, think like a team, conflict skills, master apologies, master comforting, timing, what would a secure person do?)
"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 anxious or avoidant 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."
Kindness in Relationships
Contempt, researchers found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticising their partners miss a whopping 50% of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. People who give their partner the cold shoulder—deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally—damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued.
Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Research has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. There’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.
There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. People in successful relationships tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.
“If your partner expresses a need,” explained researcher Julie Gottman, “and you are tired, stressed, or distracted, then the generous spirit comes in when a partner makes a bid, and you still turn toward your partner.”
In that moment, the easy response may be to turn away from your partner and focus on your iPad or your book or the television, to mumble “Uh huh” and move on with your life, but neglecting small moments of emotional connection will slowly wear away at your relationship. Neglect creates distance between partners and breeds resentment in the one who is being ignored.
The hardest time to practice kindness is, of course, during a fight—but this is also the most important time to be kind. Letting contempt, aggression or distancing spiral out of control during a conflict can inflict irrevocable damage on a relationship.“Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger,” Julie Gottman explained, “but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and angry, and that’s the kinder path.”
When people think about practising kindness, they often think about small acts of generosity, like buying each other little gifts or giving one another back rubs every now and then. While those are great examples of generosity, kindness is primarily built into the very backbone of a relationship through the way partners interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, whether or not there are back rubs and chocolates involved. One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions. “Even in relationships where people are frustrated, it’s almost always the case that there are positive things going on and people trying to do the right thing,” psychologist Ty Tashiro says. “A lot of times, a partner is trying to do the right thing even if it’s executed poorly. So appreciate the intent.” Another powerful kindness strategy revolves around shared joy. One of the telltale signs of the disaster couples studied was their inability to connect with active support, excitement and interest over each other’s good news.
This advice is very simple — treat your partner like the most important person in the world to you, with the best manners you can muster. And even if you find it hard at first to habitually be kind when you are not feeling it, making the effort to fake it until it becomes a habit will pay enormous dividends in the happiness of your partnership, and the regard of everyone in your life as you treat them with more kindness and respect — because once you get in the habit, you will tend to treat everyone with more consideration.
8. LEAN IN & APPRECIATE
Read this long but important article, specifically for avoidants, about how securely showing up and lean-in strategies can look in a relationship.
Everyone (at least, once they have worked through their insecurities) needs to feel appreciated and valued - regularly - in a relationship to feel happy and secure - and, in the long term, to want to stay. Avoidants act distant to shield yourself from pain, but by constantly acting like your partner needs to earn you, you will eventually drive them away. Never take your partner for granted!
The Dependency Paradox is a well-documented phenomenon: when we feel we can reliably depend on an attachment figure for safety and security, we are more willing to explore independence and leave them to it. In healthy partnerships, couples are safe to fulfil each other's needs on the basis of a shared recognition of commitment and appreciation, which imbues everything with a feeling of safety. There is always a dependence on our partner, no matter how independent we are. And our ability to face the outside world at our maximum potential relies on the knowing that we can count on our partner. It’s the paradox of dependence that being vulnerable makes us stronger. Autonomy is something you create together, not something you take.
As avoidants we fear commitment could mean our needs being engulfed - but after the early dating stage (where everyone is usually safe from engulfment anyway) the less you are able to truly demonstrate commitment, the less someone may be able to fulfil and respect your needs. Without this awareness the world of human relating may appear utterly confusing, as needs appear to expand behind you as you run. It may feel counter-intuitive, but you will get what you desire by leaning in. So de-emphasise self-reliance and instead focus on mutual support. When your partner doesn’t have to work hard to get close, you’ll both be better able to look outward and do your own thing. You will become more independent and them less needy. If you feel afraid that by being needy or criticising you a partner is trying to control or change you, remember that often their behaviour comes out of fear, and the feeling of a lack of connection. The more connected to and reassured by you they feel, the less likely they are to act that way. So while your gut may be screaming for you to run away or shut down, the best way to get the space you want is actually to lean in to the relationship. If you remember to do the small day-to-day positive things below, your partner is much more likely to feel safe and less likely to start talking about emotions! When they do start to do that, take it as a sign that they may require some more of these lean-in techniques...
Intimacy-building has been shown to uniquely benefit people with avoidant attachment. After intimacy-building exercises like the ones below, participants with more avoidant attachment styles rated their relationships as higher-quality than they had beforehand. The benefits of this connecting appeared to be long-lasting, as well: according to a survey of participants one month later, more avoidant participants who had done intimacy-building had actually decreased in attachment avoidance. Researchers found similar benefits for spontaneous interactions that couples had at home. In a different study, couples filled out diaries each night for three weeks about their feelings and their partner’s behaviors towards them. The researchers found that, when participants’ romantic partners acted in positive ways—such as listening to them or making them feel loved—the participants felt more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions, and rated their relationship as higher-quality. These links were most pronounced for participants with more avoidant attachment styles, suggesting (again) that they can especially benefit from good experiences in a relationship. Importantly, the activities that helped people with an avoidant attachment style didn’t require a huge effort or time commitment. The researchers found that even simple things, like taking turns answering thoughtful questions with your partner or trying an activity together, can have benefits. (Another experiment they conducted found that simply reflecting on positive relationship memories could help reduce the elevated negative emotions that avoidantly attached people tend to experience.) According to Professor Sarah Stanton, to start cultivating a secure attachment style “It really can just be as simple as talking to your partner and opening up a little bit.”
7 Relationship-Activating (Lean-In) Strategies:
1. Accentuate the positive
Take time every day to notice the positives in your partner’s actions. Gratitude list.
2. Replace any toxic behaviour with nourishing behaviour
Nourishing behaviour is a consistent pattern of behaviour that makes others feel valued, respected, loved, capable, confident and appreciated, such as:
showing tolerance and being cheerful,
asking questions and taking an interest,
acknowledging others' views,
affirming, supporting and empathising,
seeing the positive,
giving compliments and praise,
positive and connecting body language,
communicating openly and honestly,
making only promises you will keep,
accepting and sharing responsibility with gusto,
not passing blame.
Commit to showing your partner you notice, appreciate and value them and to being present with them. Do things as a couple, pitch in more at home, be more available, and ask about their day. Do small things as well: Bring them a cup of coffee in the morning. Be affectionate. Leave a note professing your love. Call them from work just to say you're thinking of them. Compliment and ask questions about what they have been working on. Bring home a single rose. Surprise them and show your affection through random acts of kindness. As you do all this keep in mind the 5 Love Languages: Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Gifts, Quality Time, Physical Touch - trying to incorporate them all and being responsive to which your partner particularly responds to (which may be quite different to yours). And it is important that these things are maintained so that a partner always feels valued, not just a temporary response to damage repair.
3. Recognise, validate and return Bids
"Turn towards instead of away" - in relationships we are constantly making small bids for connection, but avoidants are often unattuned or indisposed to them and can turn them down from our partner without realising, which is demoralising for partners. When your partner is giving, you receive a compliment, a request to take an interest in something or to get your opinion, see it not as a smothering gesture but as a bonding offer being made; an attempt to build connection that you can reward and reciprocate. Validate it and return it - and better still, while it may initially feel counter-intuitive, try to initiate pro-active bids for connection yourself, to show your partner you see them, value connecting and are interested in their internal world. Compliment your partner, ask them what they think, and take an interest in discovering more about them.
4. Build Intimacy
Take an interest in getting to know each other's inner world, so you can both feel your truest selves are known and understood. If you're unsure how to action building intimacy, try questions that will deepen your connection such as:
36 questions for increasing closeness
5. Take the Initiative
Try taking the initiative with planning activities and dates to do together, and things that will surprise your partner. Take ownership for things you'd enjoy together - if you find it hard to know what you'd like to do with them in the moment, plan some things and make suggestions in advance. If you proactively initiate then you get to feel good about surprising and pleasing your partner, rather than always just doing things in response and potentially feeling weighed down by an idea of the expectation of reciprocity.
6. Approach for connection
If you can, make physical and verbal approaches when preferring to withdraw. Put your arm round them and show affection often and spontaneously.
7. Show empathy
Avoidants can be very empathetic internally but struggle to understand how to action it, which makes us feel distressed and trapped, as if we are taking on someone else's problems with no way out. So learn and practise how to show effective empathy (for example Empathetic statements for when you don't know what to say and How to be empathetic).
An avoidant person on practising displays of empathy:
“When someone told me “You need to have empathy!” I thought I was giving all the empathy I had (and I seriously was, but in reality, I had only been giving practical solutions to an emotional problem.) I found out I literally had to ask for the definition of empathy, and step by step how to achieve it! Let your loved one know, or through research into psychology and therapy, you can get methods on practicing empathy. It doesn’t come naturally, because we never got it. But by practicing a formula like it’s math, you can get there. That’s what I learned.
For example, ask empathetic questions: “How are you feeling today?” “What is in your emotional bottle right now? What’s the first thing that came to mind?”Whatever they input, affirm it, like “that must be hard” or find the closest experience you have to match what they have shared, encourage them to talk more, repeat the last few keywords of the answers as questions to encourage them to keep talking.
My suggestion for this is sometimes you can’t get “empathy” unless you experienced it yourself, so if you can listen to someone being empathetic to you on a regular basis, it’s a good way to “input into your mind” what empathy looks like, and mostly only therapists or some professionals are trained to talk like that. Know that if you can feel something from a story character in a movie, you can have empathy.
If people’s feelings stress you out or tire you out, or make you get angry, you have to do some inner examination on what part of the emotions trigger you, and see if you allow those emotions in your own life. Usually we can’t stand the emotions we don’t allow for ourselves.
If you can find willing help, find someone who can act as your parent(s) in a session and apologize to you for what they have done, in detail, and let you know it’s not your fault for becoming this way. (or your real parents, even better). For me my real mother has grown a lot in personal healing, she went from disorganized dismissive avoidant to a loving mom who could apologize to my inner child, and the child was healed after a good cry. My husband has been a good healing to me because he is emotionally available whenever I need to be vulnerable to him.”
9. NIX THE PHANTOM EX AND PERFECT PARTNER
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 - the harder it can be to recover, so the more tied to them we may feel as a way of proving ourselves externally. Conversely, when someone has treated us well and made us feel strong we may initially bounce back. When we struggle to let go 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. But ultimately what we are often hanging onto when we cannot let go are 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 recognize 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. Plus if we were hurt in a relationship we may be subconsciously more likely to present strong avoidant characteristics in our next ones, to protect ourselves. With our neural pathways stuck in old patterns, loving relationships can feel boring and uncomfortable; it will feel uncomfortable at first but we need to reprogram them to learn that we deserve to love people who love us back, by first developing our own healthy self-esteem.
So if you find yourself idealising a phantom ex, acknowledge that they never were a viable long-term option. Things probably didn't work out for a reason, now it's the present that matters. And don’t wait for “the one” who fits your checklist, expecting everything to fall into place. 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. 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 can surface if some of your current needs aren’t being met – instead of following the 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.
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. And importantly, do not put the expectation on a perfect partner to keep your avoidant tendencies 'in check' by withdrawing and/or behaving negatively or distantly themselves, stimulating you to temporarily 'snap out' of your avoidance and pursue. In reality, this is unhealthy and will only lead to a cycle of negativity that hastens relationship breakdown (healthy independence within a relationship of course is also important, and if you need a certain level of space this is something you can discuss up-front - but this is a different thing). Holding someone else responsible is a victim mentality that hinders functional relationships. Ultimately these feelings are not down to your partner, and a partner cannot solve them (although they can support you). Instead, take ownership of your tendencies, where they come from, and how you can fix them, and bring a cycle of positivity into the relationship.
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, into black-and-white thinking and extreme solutions. There’s no such as thing as “the one” who is perfect. 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. 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 interlope 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. Have an honest, clear conversation with your partner. 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 insecurity, and you need reassurance. 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.
4. 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 both be able and willing to try to meet each other's needs. 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 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.
10. 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. For trust and relationship longevity, it is important to show 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. When we shut down in response to someone being emotional, even though it is an attempt to limit it, 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 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. 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. 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, 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, and do not be afraid to take this time if it helps you - it will benefit both of you.
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. The key is to simply discover what is behind the emotion that they need to express. So 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.
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. And if their 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 about how their way of expressing themselves affects you then, like you, they can make steps to adapt to your needs.
Learn how to manage these conversations effectively
Use the new fixing skills you have learnt of good communication, conflict management and negotiation, comforting, empathising, problem-solving as a team and, if necessary, apologies - see below.
11. BECOME A FIXER - FIX, DON'T FLEE
"Confidence is not the belief that we won’t meet obstacles. It is the recognition that difficulties are an inescapable part of all worthwhile contributions. We must ensure we have plenty of narratives to hand that normalise the role of pain, anxiety and disappointment in even the best and most successful lives. We are familiar enough with the fear of failure, but success can bring about as many anxieties – and these may culminate in a desire to scupper our chances in a bid to restore our peace of mind."
All relationships start out good, otherwise people wouldn’t start them in the first place. But most people are never taught how to keep a good relationship going. We inevitably default to whatever we learned growing up, and if that wasn’t picture-perfect, there may be a lot to learn about how to be a good partner and keep a relationship healthy. Without that information, many people just fumble their way through relationship after relationship, learning through trial and error what works and what doesn’t.
It may not feel like it, but conflict is actually a vital and great opportunity for relationship growth – it can make you stronger together, air unspoken needs, breaking down things that weren’t working between you and how to improve them. Every relationship has patterns that don’t work and can be brought to a head through conflict; working through these conflicts is a positive opportunity to rectify them and for the couple to get their needs met together. So mastering the skill to work through disagreements productively is one of the most important things for relationships. While the relationship the maintenance strategies above so things don't regularly get to a 'fixing' stage is paramount, being able and willing to work to fix a problem is fundamental to the long-term survival of relationships, and as triggering as conflict situations can be for people with an avoidant style, we can't rely on our partners to unilaterally do the work for us. Remember caring about someone doesn't mean all that much unless we translate it into action and show up when things are hardest.
It's easy to be in a relationship when things are going well. But if every time the two of you don't see eye to eye on something, you end a relationship, you will probably regret it. Not only that, but you're also not going to do well in the next relationship, because you're going to put yourself in the position of always running away from conflict. Every relationship has conflict. Remember that when we leave a relationship we take ourselves with us. The problems in your current relationship would be in your future relationships too. Withdrawing from conflict or communication is a distancing strategy that erodes the foundation of relationships because a partner doesn’t feel safe, plus without the issues openly addressed you inevitably start a war within yourself. If you imagine yourself with a partner long-term but find conflict difficult now, think how it could be if for example you had kids, you’re sleep-deprived, you haven’t been getting on, you are juggling ailing parents, or if your partner is ill and you have the responsibility of caring for them… Problems are inevitable in life, and are the test of whether relationships work. If we walk without very considered reasons and discussion we lose trust, can do irreparable damage and are not treating our partners as they deserve. And within a relationship, distancing techniques like stonewalling predict divorce with 90% accuracy. The flight impulse can feel overwhelming for avoidants, but as adults we can remember we don't have to follow it and recognise breaking up a long-term relationship on a whim is not healthy or mature behaviour, unlikely to be reflective of our true feelings, risks transfer our childhood trauma onto others, and will not solve the underlying issues. Even when your instincts are screaming at you, walking out or shutting down from our responsibilities and connections can't always be an option. So unless the relationship is toxic and unhealthy, it is worth first trying to work through their difficulties together and get to the root of what the issues are expressing about your needs.So make sure not to let you relationship choices manifest out of fear, but instead rational, considered thought.
Having an avoidant attachment style can come with a "it's easier to give up" mentality. This can be because we are triggered into a flight response, because the idea of attending to someone else's needs feels exhausting (but it's a fundamental requirement in a relationship), because vulnerability or expressing needs is difficult and we feel shamed, but also because we often don't understand how to go about fixing something, or innately believe we are capable of it. But like anything, successful conflict management is just a skill that can be learned. Behaviours may initially feel counterintuitive and uncomfortable. But there is almost always the possibility that something can be fixed if you're brave enough to resist the impluse to run, stick through the process and do what it takes. Be prepared: in order to resolve difficulties you will have to be vulnerable. This will instinctively make you feel out of control. Lean into the discomfort. While as avoidants we avoid these things because they feel very painful to face, when we face up to it we may find, along with emotions in general, it wasn’t so bad after all, and gets easier every time.
This of course doesn't mean we need to stay in a relationship where we are persistently feeling unhappy or trapped. Sometimes people are just not compatible, and if you are long-term unhappy in a situation it is important not to stick in it. But it does mean that if we are feeling the desire to escape we should first consider at length what unmet needs it is expressing - and whether the feelings are really down to unfixable incompatibility, or in fact issues which we can voice and solve. And we need to put work over time into trying to secure those needs within the relationship before abandoning ship.
"Are you and your partner stuck? You keep having the same problems—sometimes for years. No matter how much you try to talk about them, they persist. Maybe you’ve even tried to ignore them, hoping they’ll go away. You don’t like yourself in this relationship. You don’t like who you’ve become—unfulfilled, depressed, anxious, angry. And maybe you’re feeling guilty, too—on the outside it looks like you have it all, yet you’re so unhappy.You thought you had gotten it right with your partner—things were so good at the beginning—but now you’re in a crisis. You feel so disconnected from your partner, and you don’t know how to move forward. Often, you think it might be easier to just start over with someone else.
But, unless you’re in a truly abusive relationship, leaving is the biggest mistake you could make. When someone comes to me and says they’ve fallen out of love, they typically believe it’s the other person’s fault, and they think they’ll leave and find something better. But here's the little detail they're missing. They take themselves with them. And so do you. No matter what the problems are in your current relationship, they will be in your future relationship too, even though you are partnered with someone else. That’s because you carry your issues from relationship to relationship. This means you will keep repeating similar painful patterns, no matter whom your partner happens to be. In other words, you’ll never be truly at peace and happy in a relationship unless you recognize and heal your wounds first. Leaving your relationship—other than an abusive relationship—before discovering the inner fears and beliefs that led you to the relationship in the first place, and attempt to solve them, is essentially a waste of time.
This is the reason why people leave a relationship only to feel defeated in the next one. They keep picking new partners thinking that “this one” will make everything alright. They start off with high hopes, only to eventually hit a wall and feel stuck yet again—because they never resolved their own issues in the first place. When you have two people coming into a relationship expecting the other person to make everything alright, you have the recipe for relationship dysfunction.
7 Fixing Strategies
1. Stop reacting:
For a partner to trust your reliability in the long run, you need to be able to show that you can be there with them in and support them through their pain, and face relationship difficulties, without running. When a tense situation makes you want to shut down or exit your relationship, remember this is just your biological threat response system kicking in, and probably not an accurate reflection of how you feel about your partner. So resist the urge to flee or clam up (take a timeout first to process if you need it, and to make sure you are reacting rationally not instinctively). Be aware of your tendency to misinterpret their actions negatively, and trust they have your best interests at heart. The best thing is to learn to show your vulnerability and respond by communicating openly and honestly and without judgement.
2. Think like a team!
Find ways to compromise. Think about “we,” not just “I” and “you.” In conflict situations the instinct might be to protect yourself, but more precious to look after is the relationship - a relationship is something that needs nurturing and protecting. Even if it goes against instinct in the heat of the moment, try to focus on resolving conflict and compromising from a “we” perspective – what is best for the relationship? The more couples are able to work through things together as a team, the healthier the relationship becomes.
3. Learn conflict management and negotiation skills
This won’t help your root issue, but it will help you in choosing not to “run away” more easily. These include effective communication, listening, discussion, patience, impartiality, not criticising, making resolution the priority rather than 'being right', not making it about past issues, knowing when to let go, and a positive attitude that doesn' play the blame game. An avoidant says:
"I found just knowing about the layers of conflicts, from different expectations, needs, goals, emotions, influencers outside of the conflicts, has helped me to “stay” better when someone challenges me. I can now more logically pick and choose which fight is worth it, which fight isn’t. If you have anxious friends, families or partners, you will need this knowledge big-time. Books/audiobook I recommend: Art of Conflict Management: Achieving Solutions for Life, Work, and Beyond Switch: How to Change Things, When Change Is Hard, The Art of Negotiating the Best Deal"
And remember, partners may have different learned styles in conflict. This can be frustrating, but it doesn't have to have bearing on the rest of the relationship if we learn to sympathise with and accommodate each other's style.
4. Master the art of the apology
The three parts of an effective apology
1. Acknowledgement: I'm sorry I did X
2. Empathy: I know when I do X it makes you feel Y
3. Restitution: Reassurance of care and value, understanding of why it happened and explanation why
it won’t happen again, asking your partner what they need from you, can I do things to make it up to you, etc.
It’s important to be aware that when behaviours have caused significant hurt they can fracture someone's reality, which takes time to rebuild. Their healing is a process through which they will need you to show that you care about the fact you hurt them and can express remorse and support multiple times. Often it may not be a case of a single apology. Explaining a transgression logically is also not enough. Hurtful acts and relationship breakdown produce a crisis of meaning - explain, reassure and show your partner repeatedly how much they mean to you and why you value them.
5. Master how to comfort someone
As avoidants we are used to self-soothing so may not be familiar with how to present to people in this way:
witness their feelings
affirm their feelings make sense
show the person you understand their feelings by asking questions (tell me what happened, how do you feel, help me understand your concerns, what's the thing that worries you most etc)
don't minimise their pain, tell them they don't have to talk about it or try to cheer them up or distract - be willing to stay inside the uncomfortable moment with them, saying and showing that you are here for them. When we emphasise "you don't need to tell me" if someone has voluntarily brought up something difficult, it can in fact imply to them that we are reluctant to hear, to be with them and support them in their pain. More supportive might be "If you decide you want to talk about it I'm here to listen and support you"
offer physical affection if appropriate
suggest action steps (and ask them what you can do)
affirm your support and commitment.
6. Timing is vital
Make quick and effective repairs to the relationship when a breach occurs, especially when the breach is due to avoidant strategies. When situations are left to fester it breeds resentment.
7. If in doubt, ask yourself “what would a securely attached person do?”
Secure habits are based on communicating effectively, not playing games and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable.
Finally, it helps to remember that like anything relationships have their rocky moments. Their irritating moments. Or even just their "blah" moments. And if you're in a relationship rut, that doesn't always mean you have to break up. A relationship doesn’t exist just to make you happy. It’s not supposed to solve all your problems or serve as an escape from all the bad things. Your partner is certainly there to support you, but that's not something your happiness should be dependent on. Never forget to always work on yourself. Because to have a meaningful relationship that works, you have to work. So no, things may not always be perfect, but don't immediately cast the blame on the relationship before first examining the bigger picture.
12. WORK WITH A SUPPORTIVE PARTNER OR WORK
ON YOURSELF SOLO, GO AT YOUR OWN PACE
Select a good partner when you're ready, and share the journey
For us avoidants, the idea of being responsible for someone else’s needs can feel overwhelming. We can be attracted to people who might appear less demanding because we feel less at risk of being overwhelmed by their needs. But everyone has needs – avoidant or anxious partners may just be more likely to suppress than effectively communicate them, so they can come out in less healthy, sustainable ways and without work the relationship can be unsatisfying for both. The key is not to look for someone who seems not to have or share their needs, but to first develop and practise confidence in expressing our own personal boundaries, wants and needs, and in separating from excessive guilt, so we feel safe we won't be overwhelmed. In reality we are each responsible for our own needs – but we can help each other.
So instead of the quest for autonomy, look for a partner with whom to establish a secure pattern. So be mindful of the characteristics you are looking for in a partner, what your needs are, and whether these characteristics and dynamics are really conducive to the long-term success of a relationship, if that is what you truly want. A solid relationship with a secure emotional attachment will makes you stronger and more confident. Look for someone who can be clear, direct and honest about their feelings, doesn't keep you guessing, is committed to teamwork in a relationship, and communicates well. Seek consistency, availability, reliability and responsiveness, and don’t mistake butterflies you feel when someone is being hard to read for passion. If you feel you need more challenge, remember you can find a partner who challenges you mentally without the stability of the relationship itself needing to be challenged, and you can also challenge yourself outside the relationship. To attract and retain stable partnerships, let yourself be more vulnerable and willing to compromise, articulate your needs and show up for theirs – getting clarity on what they require from you if needed. Bear in mind these partners are less likely to put up with deactivating strategies, refusal to compromise/address needs and other avoidant behaviours, so it's important to become self-aware and able to control these ourselves for a successful relationship. However, be aware of falling into the myth that there is a perfect partner who can solve this for you - success comes not from constantly swapping partners but from committing to be vulnerable, to working on ourselves, and working together on our dynamic as a team. Don't leave it to your partner to shoulder all the emotional labour of keeping the relationship working.
More relevant than partner choice, it is this honesty and teamwork that will greatly increase your chances of relationship success: if you are able to be vulnerable with your partner about your patterns, the work you are doing, and what you need from them. For example, when a partner understands that a need for space isn't personal and you can articulate needing it when you do, they will be happier to give that space to you. Once they do you will feel much less at risk of being engulfed, more comfortable, safer to return to them of your own accord more quickly and the dynamic able to return more swiftly from a triggered state to natural equilibrium for both of you, short-circuiting the push-pull pattern.
But remember you don’t need to run before you can walk. Changing patterns that have been embedded since we were young is hard work - this will take time, and that's ok. Understand it’s going to be slow, and it’s okay to go at your own speed - it's actually faster being slow. We may be prompted to change because it has been affecting people we care about, or we feel like we are behind by the standard of our community. But it helps to distance from those pressures and work on ourselves first. If we feel pressured we can end up back into our turtle shell emotionally and not move. The right partner should be willing to wait for us to move at our own pace, if we can treat them well on the way. So don’t put yourself down - however also appreciate that outside of childhood most acceptance is conditional, and that in a mature relationship commitment is (and should be) dependent on treating each other well. We were conditioned to expect an attachment figure to stay as much as we tried to escape them, so do not blame yourself, but do remember testing this in an adult relationship will not end well!
End and reunite healthily
Of course, just because you're not into someone that doesn't mean it's a problem with your avoidance. There are many things that go into a compatible match. And within a relationship, if things are not going well then being in a relationship should not be about stoically suffering in silence just because you have recognised avoidant tendencies. Some relationships are just not right for us, no matter how logically we try to think about them, when we cannot meet each other's needs. If you have been open, honest and tried working on things together within the relationship over time but still not been able to meet each other's needs, there is no shame in parting amicably. But out of respect for partners and to avoid trauma wounds, the end of long-term relationships should always be conducted in a healthy way - with open, calm discussion about what isn't working and might or might not be fixable, having worked through attempts to remedy together, and with each acknowledging one's own personal responsibility and avoiding blame. If you haven't had a go at fixing things, bear in mind that whatever inhibited you in your last relationship(s) you will take with you to the next.
Regarding reuniting with an ex, there is no one-size-fits all, but two people should consider getting back together only if both partners are openly committed to personal growth. In a situation where at the time neither of you perhaps had the tools to move through an issue together, but in growing apart since discovered things about yourselves through which you gain tools to see, communicate and be with each other in a way that is new, fresh and expansive - then this could provide a healthy and exciting foundation for reuniting and the tools for a successful relationship. You already know how each other operates, but can arrive with a new honesty and openness about how to keep things working, and a learned respect for these needs and willingness to work on yourselves. However, often couples have not done or are not prepared to do this internal work, and so it may instead be the ego at play - wish-fulfilment over unfinished business and a sense of proving one's worth. So it's important to be cognisant of you motivation (though if healthy, generally the sooner repaired the better. This can be very scary for avoidants but: tell them how you feel! And how you have grown). Sometimes it's something we only find out by trying. But partners should always enter carefully, with a mature approach of mindfulness and discussion around why they broke up and what in their dynamic has been or has the potential to be fixed. Many relationships end for good reasons.
Stay single if you're not ready, and be up-front
Finally, staying single may offer valid benefits that protect us against potential hurt and rejection in relationships. While humans are hard-wired for connection and people in relationships are more likely to be happier overall, avoidants register more happiness than most outside of them. If we regularly find ourselves feeling very stressed and unhappy in relationships, then staying out of a long-term monogamous relationship, at least in the short-term, is worth considering, and focusing on personal development so we could do well within one. Such relationships don't have to be for everyone, and provided we are not hurting anyone there is no shame in arranging something alternative to the standard accepted Western model (if easier said than done!). If a monogamous long-term relationship is we truly want then there are ways to change things, and it's good to take time to work on ourselves. But if we'd like to carry on dating and haven't put in the work yet, we need to consider that we may be using people as distractions and disregarding attachments they might develop. However, in many ways you can't practise these skills until you are in a relationship, so the most important thing is to go in self-aware and prepared to put in the work in the long-haul, and when things get tough.
The most important thing is to first know ourselves and be truly up-front about our intentions, wants and relationship capabilities from the outset. For example, if you feel space is so important you would prefer a relationship where you, for example, don't cohabit and only see each other once a week, then being confident enough to be clear about these boundaries up-front could help manage your partner's expectations, help you meet a person accepting of or with similar needs, spare others from hurt, and could be relaxing (it's possible the lack of pressure there might even help you both eventually move towards a secure pattern, if you're not able to do it in other ways). The most dangerous people to date are those who don't understand themselves.
The dual fears of losing the other and losing ourselves are the underlying causes of our unloving, reactive behaviour. These fears are deeply rooted. They cannot be healed or overcome by getting someone else’s love. On the contrary, we must heal these fears before we can share love with each other. Until we heal what hurt us, we may bleed on people who didn't cut us.
13. ASK FOR HELP
Asking for help doesn't come naturally for the person with avoidant attachment style as they fear being dependent and don’t like relying on others. Realise that it’s ok to ask for help and it is not a weakness, but a sign of strength in being willing to be vulnerable. Lean into that discomfort and remember we as people are wired for interdependence and it’s brave to not be self sufficient, as no one is completely. You can’t get all the answers alone.
In a relationship, you and your partner should be able to support each other no matter what (and to be able to be your honest self, this includes support around avoidant anxieties). Unfortunately, that's hard to accomplish if neither of you are actually asking the other for help when you need it. No one's life should be dictated by their partner, but your relationship should be a place you can go for guidance. It's a sign you don't have emotional intimacy if you don’t ask for each other’s opinion or advice. This could indicate that you aren’t emotionally secure enough in your relationship to ask for each other’s support. So assess whether the trepidation is on your end or theirs, and start to open up about it when you feel you can.
If you are confused about what your feelings mean for your relationship, speak to your partner about them openly and in a solution-focused way, ideally work through them with a therapist, or with a secure friend who might help with options for positive strategies and potential collaborative resolutions. It can be good to hear from avoidants who have worked on their own distancing strategies, but steer clear of advice from those avoidants who aren't self-aware - regardless of the situation, if you bring them problems they'll likely tell you to cut and run!
An avoidant's continuing healing journey
“I have known I’m a dismissive avoidant for some time now and the main thing I really want to stress is that this avoidance is almost entirely subconscious on our part unless someone brings our attention to it. I had no idea I was doing this for years and years and the result was that I truly hurt a lot of people. In college I started having unexplained physical symptoms (stomach ache, vision changes, heart palpitations, chest pain) which were later determined to be anxiety and depression after the doctors ruled literally everything else out. I did not believe it at all (again, all of these things were operating subconsciously so my emotional problems manifested as physical symptoms). That’s how powerful the denial can be.
I finally agreed to see a therapist, and as she treated my anxiety she began to notice the way I would talk about people I was dating. I would be dating a guy who I initially really liked, but as the relationship wore on I would decide they were not good enough due to some fatal flaw and they couldn’t possibly be “the one”. This decision always happen to coincide with these men wanting more commitment. I loved casually dating, but the second someone wanted to make things official or get emotionally closer, I would suddenly end it, much to their surprise. Keep in mind I really didn’t recognize this was what was making me pull away. I would typically pull away because of petty reasons, or decide that the job they had wouldn’t be conducive to a good future. I dumped one guy because he wanted to cuddle too much with me and I disliked it. At the beginning of the relationship this didn’t bother me, but as things got more serious, it was like I couldn’t stand it (or him) anymore. Often I would use my career aspirations.
Interestingly, I would become deeply lonely and sad during single periods, but would continue the same process or pulling away as soon as I started to get close to someone. Following that- I’d become lonely and sad again. I thought my problem was that “the one” was not out there. I would tell my therapist about these men, and eventually she pointed out I had dated several men in my time seeing her, and suggested I read a book about attachment styles. After reading a few books and articles about it, I finally started to realize that I exhibited literally every single dismissive behaviour. I talked a lot with my therapist about it and she definitely helped me bring awareness to my behaviours.
I thought that knowing I was dismissive might change how I operate in relationships - but I have to say this is still not always the case. I am currently in very loving relationship with a fantastic man and still find myself subconsciously pulling away as things get more serious (i.e. flirting with other men, considering ending it in my head due to some petty reason, physically pulling away from an embrace or kiss). Once I realise I’m doing it as an avoidance behaviour I always feel horrible and guilt-ridden, and sometimes even hate myself for being so unable to connect with people. Therefore, I recognise these behaviours and consciously resist pulling away when my partner gets close (I.e. forcing myself to continue the relationship and not end things because I know I care deeply about this person, being purposeful in telling my partner how much I love and appreciate him, etc). When I do resist these “distancing behaviors” or the urge to run, I am met with a crippling anxiety and feeling of dread like something will go horrible wrong if I don’t leave. This is likely due to a past of learning I couldn’t rely on my caregiver.
However, the silver lining is that as time goes on, resisting my distancing behaviours and being intentionally loving has become far less anxiety-provoking than it used to be. I think it’s important as a dismissive to question your every whim in a relationship and ask “am I doing this because I am afraid of being emotionally open? What are all the things I like about this person? Is this a real issue or am I running from something good?”
On Unconscious Gaslighting & 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 resist 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.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 naturalized, you are contributing to psychic violence against this person, and you and those around you may not even realize 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 naturalized and happens to work in your favour, that does not mean it is real, or healthy, or just.