People with avoidant attachment can feel a deep-rooted aloneness, even while in a relationship. Those with a secure attachment style find it easy to accept their partners, flaws and all, to depend on them, and to believe they’re special and unique - but for avoidants that is a major life challenge. They might enjoy the company of others, but are quick to find fault and struggle to connect with those who attempt to form a bond with them. They always maintain some mental distance and an escape route, as feeling complete with someone else is very difficult to accept. They may yearn for a loving connection but find themselves running from scenarios where they are asked to commit—they cannot throw caution to the wind, and they struggle with spontaneity even when they see the value in it. In the face of real intimacy, they become uncomfortable and tend to slip away when things get serious. Even before they do, avoidants can be so afraid of giving too much and losing themselves that they give too little and ultimately push their partners away.
This comes from a deep subconscious assumption of abandonment - often some of their earliest developmental learning - that their attachment figure will hurt them in some way and will eventually reject them, particularly if emotions come to the fore. If someone tried to get close it is risking their non-negotiable self-reliance. So avoidantly attached adults always move away from true intimacy in relationships. Avoidance is a protective manoeuvre — a pattern of relating which centres around regulating closeness and how much of ourselves we show (or are able to show) to others. This relational stance isn’t usually a conscious choice, but created out of early attachment experiences that shaped us.
Avoidants often end up in relationships by accident, because they subconsciously want to be wanted. Feeling not good enough and fearing abandonment, avoidants often end the relationship out of fear, in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Meeting a partner causes unease, as they may have come to terms with the idea of growing old alone. To care about someone (the normal sign of growing interdependence and a healthy, deepening, blossoming relationship) becomes an unpleasant, dangerous thing - a weight around the avoidant's neck they must react against. The avoidant may then proactively leave, wanting to get rid of this unease and get back to the relatively easeful unhappiness of being alone.
Avoidant strategies take six months to a year to fully kick in for most people, as intimacy develops, early dating protocols and guards are dropped, and a partner starts leaning on them more within the transition to a serious relationship. At this point, although avoidants ultimately want connection and a secure long-term attachment like the rest of us, they will start to avoid it, self-sabotage and push away for protection. Having learnt not to expect to be reliably happy around caregivers - that love comes with a degree of neglect - they are always expecting something to go wrong, and their subconscious mind moves to recreate this output. They will find ways to mess up relationships by acting out, finding any faults, inventing problems that don’t exist or coming up with reasons why the relationship shouldn’t continue. If things are easy and going well for too long they unconsciously assume pain is coming - they know they survived painful situations as a child so can do it again, and need to act to protect themselves now. This means avoidants can in fact end up by default together for longest with whoever will put up with not being treated all that positively.
"After the 'falling in love' stage, secure relationships transition into an attachment relationship where the presence of the other has above all a soothing impact, in contrast to the early days of courtship where the presence of the other was chiefly exciting. If a couple stays together for a year or so they may transition into this relationship. In a secure couple both can be a source of soothing to the other, but for avoidants their partner is less likely to be soothing, they find the loss of initial excitement disconcerting, and a partner's expression of attachment needs can invoke avoidant withdrawing. So avoidant people find it harder to make the transition to an attachment bond and are more likely to leave a relationship at this point, prompted by an unconscious fear of dependency. This can be a trigger for coming to therapy - the wish to have a conventional family life but a history of always moving on after about a year to 18 months
Given that avoidant people are quite prone to having affairs, have less commitment and less pleasure in their relationships, why do they settle in couples at all? A theory is that investment (time together and shared activities) is weighed against satisfaction; thus when investment is very high we may stay together even if satisfaction is low. The further factor influencing this choice is the availability of alternatives, which has been changed by the internet."
- Attachment & the Defence Against Intimacy
When reading about avoidants in relationships it is important to stress that these behaviours are often deeply unconscious and in that sense not an avoidant's fault. Babies developing an avoidant attachment pattern resisted and distracted themselves from their caregiver with toys - it can be programmed as deeply as from infancy. When they are aware of their behaviours it can be very upsetting and confusing for the avoidants, and they carry a lot of shame over their avoidant needs. Part of what keeps them in the cycle is their inability to be vulnerable about these true feelings and desires - fearing the revelation would eventually push anyone away. So they sever their capacity for empathy and caring in order to wall off their inner world. Self-imposed loneliness is preferred over the risk of loss and failure. Often avoidants would rather hurt and even discard their partner than risk being too vulnerable to pain themselves, because ultimately they come from a position where everyone wants something from them and they need to protect themselves. Even when they're aware of how they're acting out, avoidants tend to assume that with the right partner these behaviours won't appear, outsourcing the responsibility. However the solution must come from within - not outside.
1. "I Want You, But Go Away"
Early in the dating process, an avoidant person can seem eager to connect with their partner. But once secure their partner is hooked and the relationship unfolds, they will flip-flop and can change into an entirely different person. Feeling suffocated, they grow more distant as relationships progress and instead of displaying a desire to connect they emotionally disengage, and may become cold, unavailable and unreliable, feeling their needs for space are not being heard. They miss their partner when they’re not around but can feel trapped and resentful when they finally see them again. If their partner stops pursuing they may become insecure and start to pursue, but only temporarily. Because they were programmed into an assumption of non-mutuality (see the 'What's this all about' page), they are unable to trust in true reciprocity - they understand interaction with an attachment figure as that person needing something from them, which ultimately will be draining. So although they value their partner's presence, they fear their engagement. This means too much interaction can be exhausting, and become annoying. In a short time the message seems to be, “I want you, but go away,” leaving their partner baffled.
Unconsciously, an avoidant's chief objective is to evade intimacy at all costs, because too much closeness with another is stress-inducing - it feels literally like losing themselves, and can even feel like dying. So they have a heightened focus to make sure their partner keeps from getting too close. So avoidants can often seem to be busy, find many ways to distract themselves and partners will feel in general that they register low on the list of priorities. Once secure in the relationship they may stop taking so much of an interest in their partner's life and concerns.
"In reaction to the loss of the True Self, avoidants often inflate the False Self in an attempt to look like the real thing. Inside they feel fragmented and afraid to risk the emotional closeness of an intimate relationship that could bring up old feelings. Their energy is spent maintaining their defences and they literally have no time and energy to focus on another person. Little energy remains for really getting to know people beyond seeing them as a potential threat to the avoidant's wellbeing."
- The Flight from Intimacy
Avoidants are masters of sending mixed signals to their partners. Since they don’t want things to get too close, they are good at sending you alternately “things are going great” signals along with “things aren’t going well” type signals. It's a constant micro-dance of pulling you in and pushing you away, often unconscious, that can make their partners head spin and make them feel like they don’t really know what’s going on. The avoidant partner may send just enough mixed messages to keep the fantasy alive— just enough to give some hint of what “might be” possible - which often they believe themselves. But without self-development, what is possible never will be.
Subconsciously, the avoidantly attached want at all times to be in control in the relationship (for example they may try to control the money, be more powerful or simply be the one valued most, or often in more subtle ways such as withholding information, avoiding validation, not resolving arguments or admitting fault). This deep need stems from a traumatising lack of control around people when they were powerless children, precipitating their greatest fear: that someone else dictate who they have to be. Unconsciously they need to hold the attention of the partner with the message “there’s something more important than you in my life.” Giving too much attention, validating behaviours, support, overt commitment, praise etc risk tipping the balance of power. This keeps the challenge of winning the avoidant’s heart in the centre of the partner's attention. But that very attention they have invited avoidants can then find cloying.
Avoidants often agree to almost anything to avoid conflict, and will frequently do things out of obligation to avoid it, so for partners it can sometimes be very hard to get a handle on what they really want. It can feel like they would rather be somewhere else, but they won't say that. When they have their own families, avoidants may avoid social responsibilities in a covert way, busy with practical tasks but avoiding deeper emotional connections, and they may have little idea what is going on in the family at a deeper level. They may have come from families where there was little real depth of connection or true sensitivity themselves.
Avoidants confuse neglect with independence, because their sense of independence grew out of familial pressure to be self-reliant. They aren't in touch with what are actually feelings of abandonment. For example, if your parents insisted you always put yourself to bed as a child you may have taken that as a sign of maturity and never registered the lost opportunity for intimacy. Then in adult relationships you may react negatively to a partner who expects to share bedtime rituals. Secretly they can feel above their partners because of their sense a partner (or ex) 'needs' them more - not able to understand that this vulnerability is in fact the braver position. With some avoidants there can be a sense of superiority in conversation, which comes ultimately from the undervaluing of connection (although they subscribe it to other things). It is tempting to think avoidants are more independent than they really are. Much as they push against it and can find it hard to recognise inside relationships, they need another to enable them to redress this abandonment and reconnect with true opportunities for intimacy, connection, support and self-expression that they otherwise live denying themselves.
Being in a relationship with an avoidant person can be demoralising and confusing at times. They do have an innate yearning to be loved, but because at some point in their childhood they had to repress that need, when they receive it it feels unbearably uncomfortable. Avoidants will avoid any meaningful conversation or giving all that much, and so for partners there can be real frustrations from absence, coming more from what avoidants aren't doing or saying than what they are. It can feel lonely. Attempts to connect with someone who has an avoidant attachment style may frequently lead to frustration and confusion; partners may find that connection is supplanted by remoteness — a reaching for someone who is emotionally unavailable:"It can feel like there is a void in the person who is distant, a remoteness between people that parallels the inner remoteness, an inner disconnect of the person who had to mute his/her desires and emotions." As well as loneliness and emotional deprivation, avoidance can also evoke feelings of betrayal (when they seem constantly preoccupied with their work, their family of origin, or other people or activities, including their alone time).
2. Disconnection & Non-Reciprocity
People with avoidant attachment receive love gratefully but don’t always understand how to give it back in exchange, because they didn't learn the tools. Researches found lower levels of receptivity, gazing, facial and vocal pleasantness, interest and attentiveness, less capacity to read a partner's feelings and less enjoyment in their interactions. Without the unconscious skills to always fully connect - to energetically be present and fully participating, staying engaged through eye-contact, touch, positive reinforcement, asking questions and referencing their partners experiences etc, the partner of an avoidant can experience regular low-level invalidation, disorientation and feeling inexplicably unsettled. Avoidants may use distraction tactics like being regularly on their phone or engaged with another activity to hold space. Not showing up or being present in a relationship, and difficulty with visual or touch contact, is re-enacting the way the parent may have been with them. But for partners it can feel painful and lonely to be in the presence of someone who is checked out. Often the avoidant person has no idea they are being hurtful or doing anything wrong, so a partner needs to make their needs clear.
For non-avoidants, kindness underpins a cycle of positivity that is the foundation for holding up happy relationships. Quite simply, kindness and giving begets more kindness and giving. Successful relationships are founded on an expectation and trust in reciprocity. But unlike the securely attached who can take pleasure in being needed and of value to others, avoidants tend to view relationships innately as hard work and full of sacrifice - because to take on any need of another's instinctively makes them feel put upon. Avoidants are busy denying their own needs - it perplexes them that someone else should attend to them and vice versa. So they may receive such acts but not return them. Quickly things may come to feel non-reciprocal, and can build a cycle of rejection in the other direction.
To be in a secure relationship is to try to meet each other's needs, while also each taking responsibility for our own happiness. But to avoidants this can quickly feel like an engulfing burden they don't understand how to cope with - if someone needs them, trying to live up to the task can produce paralysing emotions of guilt and shame. Avoidants are unable to healthily hold space for effectively reaching out to sympathise with, support and comfort someone from a place of separateness without feeling overwhelmed by empathy and responsibility for that person's emotions, and consequent paralysis over what to do about it - because the only thing they have learned to do to manage emotions is suppress them.
So until they have learned healthier ways to manage their own emotional processing and guilt as well as effective comforting techniques, avoidants will resent or feel trapped by expectations of reciprocity in the relationship. They deny their own needs and resent their partner having or expressing needs, harshly judging their partner as weak for having them. Emotion is a foreign language. Even when aware of their own needs, avoidants may feel they can't or don't know how to assert themselves - they are trained not to rock the social boat and worry their need for distance will trigger those around them, increasing and amplifying their partner's needs. So they may self-sacrifice because they feel guilty about how they're feeling, which then builds their internal resentment. They often feel blamed in a relationship by default (because they carry so much internal shame), but don't know how to please their partner.
For avoidants, closeness means emotion and emotion means pain - a pain they will need to push away. The longer there is emotional and physical distance in a relationship (while they still feel secure enough they are still wanted), the longer they may feel comfortable. As their partner gets closer, they get further away because emotional connection and vulnerability are a subconscious threat. Having learned early not to turn to people for support, they use repression to manage emotions in situations that activate their attachment needs - but when they do seek support in a relationship they are likely to use indirect strategies like disengaging, hinting, complaining and sulking. They seldom discuss their emotions with their partners and can interpret their partner’s regular need to speak about how they are feeling emotionally as needy, dismissing attempts to engage at a deeper level. This feels emotionally unsafe for a partner and can make it difficult to navigate relationship issues together. The needs of others outside the relationship can be a priority over their own and their partner’s, and a partner may be confused that they start to present to them as quite a different person to outside the relationship.
Avoidants have real fears of hurting their partner but also feel smothered and obligated by them, which can make them sensitive to even benign requests - and they may come to view generosity as a form of manipulation. Because they operate in survival mode, unconsciously anticipating being abandoned, they are more likely to hoard their resources when it comes to generosity, and to resist operating as a team. Counterintuitively it might start to feel like the most well-received thing you can do for an avoidant partner is nothing at all!
Joint purchases or any committed activities (such as couple holidays, hosting together or events with their partner’s family or friends) produce anxiety and can have them pulling away. It's hard for them to display appreciation and gratitude, and they may be reluctant to take the initiative (proactively buying flowers, organising dates, activities and surprises, suggesting things to do etc). Partners should be aware this lack of initiative is not disinterest, but an instilled adaptation - for example, when around their partner avoidants may not even know what activity they'd want to undertake, because they were programmed into automatically sublimating their desires to those of the people around them, which became a much safer position than attempting to gauge and assert their own. But suppression is always problematic in the end - avoidants do have their own desires here, they can just struggle to locate them around someone else - and this eventually breeds internal resentment, a feeling of engulfment and the need to distance.
Avoidants find it less easy to be unreservedly happy for their partner because they instinctively - even if unconsciously - perceive relationships as a win-lose power struggle. The avoidant has a greater tendency to be self-centred in relationships (even if they are the opposite outside them) with a controlling, uncooperative stance and a competitive attitude towards their partner, which minimises teamwork and communication for internal and external problems. There is contempt and criticism, denied praise, and missed bids for connection and positivity. This kills love, and kills the ability of their partner to fight off viruses and cancers.
Even a partner's supportiveness the avoidant can find uncomfortable while they haven't developed the tools to return it, and while it conflicts with their negative self-belief - a level of attention, interest in and support for their own needs that was something they internalised not to expect. Initially they may enjoy it, but subconsciously they also fear the more someone believes in them, the more they could expect - the more they will let them down (and underneath things they assume, irrationally, they must inevitably let their partner down, and so move towards this - the internalised working model is "I am not good enough:" and so it is inevitable. Until they address their core beliefs, a partner believing in them is too jarring. Eventually, assumes the avoidant, this person must and should come to disregard them as the caregiver did). So avoidants are more used to and comfortable not being seen or needing to see the other, even if it ultimately hurts them.
– the biological mechanics of resisting interaction
From a psychobiological perspective, the avoidant child lacks continual interaction with caregivers, and so settles into a form of self-stimulation and self-soothing called autoregulation. This turning to the self for all things foreshadows future relationship troubles on a variety of levels, most of which involve approach by a primary attachment figure.
Autoregulation tends to be a dissociative state, requiring little interaction and therefore causing little interpersonal stress. The autoregulatory play state operates on a timeless, spaceless continuum undisturbed by time-bounded, space-bounded reality. In adults, this presents a problem of intrusiveness whenever the autoregulatory state is interrupted by a primary attachment figure (i.e., lover or spouse). The approach of a primary figure disrupts the autoregulatory state, causing the stress of a fundamental adaptation much like that experienced during childhood. The avoidant’s rejection of the partner’s approach is not so much antisocial as it is energy conserving because the avoidant is simply trying to maintain psychobiological homeostasis.
The autoregulatory state is dissociative, energy conserving, and non-interactive. On a neurological level, brain metabolism is low, as is demand for the brain’s resources. Interaction requires greater central and peripheral nervous system activation, and therefore can be experienced by the avoidant as having to “wake up,” as if from a deep sleep. The avoidant may feel startled or attacked in response to the sound of an approaching voice or the visual of an approaching person, or for that matter, the experience of an approaching interpretation by a therapist. The avoidant’s reflex may be anger; dismissal; withdrawal; and of course, avoidance.
Secure individuals can switch easily between autoregulation and interactive regulation with another person. Interactive regulation is characterized by focused and sustained interactive play that involves face-to-face, eye-to-eye, and perhaps skin-to-skin contact with at least one other person. Secures are accustomed to moving between these two states without anxiety or depression because both states are pleasurable and because the transitions between them are pain free. However, avoidants are rooted in an autoregulatory strategy and are unaccustomed to switching between self-play and interactive-play. For them, the ball naturally rolls in the direction of self-play as a default, and does so without any awareness of it on their part.
The avoidant, for example, may show initial resistance when a partner makes a bid for interaction. However, after becoming acclimated to interactive regulation, the avoidant may show no signs of discomfort or interest in returning to autoregulation. Not surprisingly, though, if the avoidant is left alone for several minutes, the ball rolls back into autoregulation and the resistance to interact on can quickly reappear, leading to a renewed period of acclimation. Again, the avoidant is unaware of the immediate drift back into autoregulation, but is aware of, and inexplicably irritated by, the intrusion by the partner, who stands mystified and even miffed by the rapid, inexplicable shift away from interaction.”
3. Difficulty Committing
To feel safe in a relationship, people need to feel their partner is committed, something avoidants need and in fact seek out like any other - they just have difficulty giving it back. Secure relationships are founded on the basis of mutual commitment that makes each partner feel safe, unique, valued and independent. And as secure relationships deepen, partners are comfortable developing interdependence to take the relationship to the next level.
Avoidant people prefer (whether consciously or not) to be non-committal, and often a partner never feels like they’re totally in the relationship. This doesn't mean they don't want to stay in a long term relationship and often they may, as long as it can be with no noticeable signs of real commitment. This happens because on a physical level avoidants are operating more in survival mode (the 'anxious' sympathetic nervous system rather than 'relaxed' parasympathetic nervous system), which is concerned with surviving the present and does not encourage long-term thinking. The regular appearance of an attachment figure is a regular re-trigger for that anxiety. If they were to full commit they also imagine their worth would be sourced from the relationship, so they would need to uphold a level of perfection in it they feel unable to maintain.
Avoidants can explain this as (and believe that) they are "not ready" just yet and one day they will be, but then time passes and there is no real forward movement. They might talk about moving forward, but somehow it never happens or they get cold feet. Ultimately they prefer to resist any moves towards interdependence which can take relationships to the next level. Navigating the messiness of human relationships can feel scary and overwhelming, and avoidants feel safer when they know they have a possible way out at all time, so committing is inherently very difficult, which can leave a partner feeling deeply insecure. The avoidant may formulate an exit plan to reduces stress and fear of intimacy, such as demanding prenups.
Avoidants don't want to talk about the relationship, leaving their partner guessing what they're thinking. They rarely provide reassurance that they are entirely dedicated/devoted to the long-term growth of the relationship, may respond when asked by saying things to push their partner away, and can seem to have “one foot out of the door.” Often they have a difficult time discussing commitments and future desires like marriage, children or moving in together, and tend to avoid those conversations altogether or zone out when having them. They will make unilateral decisions and may talk about big possible life changes (e.g. relocation, new job, mortgage) without consideration of what it means for their partner. They may resist introducing a partner to their family and friends or people from other areas of their life, or limiting the time you all spend together, keeping their life compartmentalised. This may be as they are unable to control you or the things you say - they fear you may embarrass them or reveal things that damage their carefully controlled image. They can be uneasy spending time around a partner's family and close friends, as it signifies things getting serious. Tying in their lives in a way that creates any sense of dependency on someone makes them feel deeply uncomfortable by nature.
With the avoidant becoming agitated and reluctant/unwilling to discuss issues around commitment, a partner will feel rejected, that they aren't being invested in and their emotional needs are not being met. Avoidants may sense this, and feel guilt and confusion over their mixed feelings, not understanding they are just the inevitable product of their attachment wounds. People with avoidant behaviours are very conflicted - like all humans, they crave attachment and do better when they have it. So, the avoidant on occasion will let their guard down and step a little closer to their partner. But as soon as they feel a bit more capable, the fear of intimacy flares up again and the rollercoaster continues its bumpy ride, which can produce a relationship of highs and lows.
Feeling a lack of security in the connection, a partner may fear they are interchangeable. And to some degree, at least until appreciated in their absence, they are right - first, because avoidants often simply cannot recognise their own attachment and appreciate their partner's good qualities (not least a partner's patience with avoidant behaviours) so much while they are close (physically or emotionally). And second because without allowing themselves to be truly vulnerable it is difficult for anyone to develop a really deep connection - shallow connections are more replaceable. It is important to remember this is to do with an avoidant's capacity, not the specifics of the partner. Avoidants are more likely to be unfaithful. A lack of apparent strong feelings for their partner isn’t an avoidant’s person’s fault – they just don’t have much access to emotions, and when feelings arise they feel threatening and are suppressed or converted into annoyance. This is why they often can feel their feelings for someone only in that person's absence – when they are away from their partner, or when the relationship has ended and their deactivation systems aren’t being triggered by contact so their feelings are safe to appear.
4. Avoiding Bonding Conversations
Avoidants will seem unwilling to take intimate discussions seriously, because they make them feel trapped. Any confronting of emotional subjects is uniquely stressful and painful to them (which others may not realise if avoidants don't explain - to them it is just another conversation). Though on one level they crave access to their emotions and a partner who can help them do this, emotional openness and trying to build intimacy can also make avoidants frustrated, even angry at their partner - because it confronts their avoidant defences head-on. Their whole system is set up to avoid the pain of emotions and introspection, so they resent and can punish anyone who requires them to confront emotions or their behaviour. They may also say things they perceive as logical, but to their partner feels hurtful (which a partner can help by explaining).
Our understanding of love is shaped by our past experiences and the lessons we have taken. Open conversations about past experiences can help each person feel known and understood, establishing a deeper connection, helping each know what worked and didn't and thus how to support each other and feel secure in the relationship, as well as establishing healthy communication skills. But avoidants will avoid this, and be vague about what happened in past relationships and why they ended. Often the end of past relationships were beset with avoidant impulses they feel shame over, and do not want to admit to for fear of scuppering the next one. They always prefer to keep themselves hidden, hoping that this time these impulses will somehow just not appear. Masters of repressing any painful memories of the past and determined not to encounter uncomfortable emotions, they may punish anyone who brings up the past. And ironically their aversion to looking into their past an examining painful experiences means avoidants often don't take the right lessons for personal growth.
Likewise, thinking and talking about the future, while an exciting and bonding activity for others, brings avoidants straight up against core beliefs that they're not good enough - imagined futures where they cannot be the perfect partner, employee or parent that their fears and core beliefs project. It doesn't mean avoidants don't want such a future, just that it is safer not to have to think about that and just live in the present. Not understanding the fundamental difference in this experience of imagined futures, it is then easy for partners to interpret this personally as the avoidant not being interested in a possible future with them.
Avoidants avoid the “L word” at all costs: "Whether consciously or subconsciously, they're afraid an expression of love will mean they are attached. They’re also hesitant to share praise, acknowledgement, or appreciation. Over time, this wears on the partner who's left to shoulder all of the emotional labour while the avoidant remains passive. You're emotionally starved. Like a hungry person, you're constantly looking to your partner in the hopes that they will offer you some emotional nourishment, but it never comes."
5. Difficulty Responding to Signals for Reassurance
In a relationship, if a person experiences problems or a lack of recent reassurance, they signal. The other responds, and anxiety is reduced. The partner is responsive and respectful to requests for attention - they provide it just when needed, just the right amount—and are supportive without being intrusive. This results in a climate of trust and intimacy, with both partners more physically comfortable, with feelings of closeness, and reductions in stress and worry. This creates a sense of internal security which makes individuals less self-centred and more able to exhibit empathy. There is a sense of reasonableness and fairness between the partners, that it is easier to face problems together, and counting on each other is rewarded. This kindness and emotional stability results in satisfaction, where both partners feel understood, validated and loved. When, however, there is no response to signalling, anxiety increases and signalling becomes more insistent.
Avoidants have a general lack of trust in others and are intimacy-avoidant as a way of trying to avoid strong emotions. They attempt to control their level of exposure to intimacy by typically failing to respond to messages requiring reassurance. There is an inability and lack of desire to respond supportively to request signals or even simple requests, and they respond instead by retreating into their shell, and feel harassed at being asked to give positive feeling. The avoidant is uncomfortable with constant requests, making them less likely to tolerate a long relationship. Their time is spent fending off intimacy. The avoidant will flee to a fortress of solitude when intimacy threatens them.
The avoidant often thinks of themselves as self contained, logical and fair, and becomes tired of what they see as unreasonable demands for support. Deprecating, verbal expressions of indifference and contempt are indirect aggression, a way of indirectly blaming their partner for being so weak as to need support. They want to be left alone and feel provoked. As a result, the avoidant withdraws, physically by leaving or mentally by checking out. Early in the relationship there may be a pressing pretext such as work, or they may just leave with no reasons. They may take it out by refusing to snuggle or make love (withholding sex or affection), saying ‘I’m tired’, with an underlying feeling of ‘I gave enough today’.
The avoidant often wants to re-establish their independence by refusing requests such as for reassurance, which gives them a sense of controlling the depth of the relationship they require to feel safe. They may do this passively, by conveniently forgetting requests, making subtle attacks, or seeming to be cooperating but somehow never get around to doing their part. This is dysfunctional communication - the absence of responding honestly and supporting. One way or another, avoidants will let you know that your inner emotional state is your problem - when you are with an avoidant, you are really still alone, in an attachment sense. By only partly participating in the normal message-reponse of the attached, they subconsciously limit the threat another poses to their independence.
When requests for reassurance are not met, partners becomes increasingly distressed, with the avoidant unable to respond soothingly. The psychologically abusive attitudes of the avoidants include passive abusiveness such as saying or showing ‘I don’t care’, not listening when their partner speaks, or cutting them off when they try to speak. The techniques are subtle - the avoidant may begin by unconsciously testing their partner, for example responding "I'm not sure how I feel" to requests for reassurance, to establish whether their partner will tolerate this, before becoming more negative and aggressive in responses over time as their need for space dominates. This is often very unintentional - avoidants are typically not self-aware about their habits - and is simply a programmed response to feeling trapped and anxious: trying to push an attachment figure away with the aim of gaining space that will stop the avoidant feeling dysregulated.
For someone in a relationship with an avoidant, it is easy to become clingy, demanding and stuck in an unsatisfying communication pattern. This is amplified as the avoidant may criticise the anxious partner as ‘overreacting’. The avoidant’s tendency to deflect, avoid or go silent leads to lower satisfaction, less intimacy, poorer communication, anxiety, aggression, and urinary, bowel or erectile dysfunction. In attachment, a lack of responsiveness eventually leads to distancing behaviour, a lowering of expectations and the breakdown of relationship communication.
The failure to respond to signalling can come not just out of disinclination and the need to self-protect, but because avoidants are often just not very good at reading signals. Imagine if you were a parent and couldn't for the life of you read your infant's cues. You wouldn't be able to tell whether your child was hungry or tired, wanting to be held or left alone, wet or sick. How difficult life would be for both of you. Your child would have to work so much harder - and cry so much longer, to be understood. Having an avoidant attachment style can often make you feel like that parent. You're not strong in translating the many verbal and non-verbal signals you receive during everyday interactions into a coherent understanding of you partner's mental state and needs. The problem is that, along with your self-reliant attitude, you also train yourself not to care about how the person closest to you is feeling. You figure that this is not your task; that they need to take care of their own emotional wellbeing - if they put that on you it can feel too much and trigger the urge to back away. This lack of understanding leads partners of avoidants to complain about not receiving enough emotional support, and to less connectedness, warmth and satisfaction in a relationship.
6. Deactivating Strategies
Not consciously in touch with their needs and so often unable to communicate their boundaries, avoidants are triggered to use many sabotage or 'deactivating' strategies - an "anti-intimacy toolbox" of ways to suppress their attachment desires and create emotional space from people who begin to have power over them emotionally, and so pose a threat to this. These are often subconscious, but serve to make avoidants feel more unhappy in relationships as well as amounting to treating people worse instead of better the closer they get to them. Coming from a background where they may not always have been treated all that well, their unconscious default - without realising, may be to do the same to their partner. In their past and in rest of their lives they can feel vulnerable and liable to be walked over or used - so they need to protect themselves from the person closest to them being able to do this at all costs, and they will find a way to rationalise creating this distance.
Avoidants can start to see their partner as the enemy. Innately they understand love to be dangerous, so they can slightly hate themselves for desiring it, but once they fully receive it they also start to have conflicting feelings for and hate elements of the person providing that love - because it starts to make them feel dependent themselves, and this is a dangerous feeling. They resent people for being important to them. They then need to punish both themselves and the source for this feeling. Ultimately avoidants do crave more intimacy, but they will still punish and push away someone who provides it. Deactivating strategies will not operate so much if avoidants are not attached, or if someone is not providing visible love - they push away the people who are most important to them. These strategies (some covered above) include:
saying “I’m not ready to commit” and raising doubts, but staying together nonetheless, sometimes for years; the prospect of abandonment as a weapon; or professing some commitment but behaving in ways that cast doubt on it;
keeping secrets, withholding answers, lying or sharing information in a way that leaves things vague;
displaying disinterest in their partner’s life, internal world or concerns; not asking questions or initiating conversations; not making an effort;
focusing on small imperfections in their partner and allowing it to get in the way of their romantic feelings (judgements of a partner allow them to feel in control internally);
pining after an ex (the “phantom ex”) - a way to 'triangulate' the relationship, keeping their partner anxious;
flirting with others to introduce insecurity into the relationship - another form of triangulation. Can be drawn to emotional or physical affairs outside the relationship (although as a depressurising distraction - often they have no intention of leaving the relationship for a particular person because they are not seeking further intimacy); referencing or joking about the prospect of other partners;
absence of praise, compliments, affirming and normal validating behaviours that communicate acceptance, appreciation, support, safety and value of a unique bond;
not saying “I love you” while still implying they have feelings towards the other person; sending mixed signals;
pulling away when things are going well or getting too intimate, such as after a good date, a moment where they have been able to be vulnerable together, before a shared holiday or after sex; (so a partner can think they have finally had a breakthrough only to see the avoidant pull away more)
failure to repair relationships; or within relationships refusing to resolve conflicts or apologise, 'allowing' the relationship to continue to hold power;
criticism and subtle undermining;
passive-aggression and coldness (because direct expression of emotions feels too vulnerable and leaves them wide open for attack/rejection); stonewalling;
acting distant, checking out mentally when their partner is talking or actively seeking distractions (such as being on their phone or computer); making their partner work hard for their attention;
focusing their time on things outside the relationship; arranging to see their partner only according to their own schedule/desires;
disengaged body language, and avoiding physical closeness such as sleeping in a different bed, avoiding sex, cuddling or affection, avoiding opportunities for physical bonding after sex (there might be post-coital dysphoria - sadness/emptiness after sex), or walking ahead of their partner;
scapegoating and gaslighting - shifting blame, dismissing or invalidating perceptions/emotions/reality - telling their partner they should not feel a certain way (when in fact it is their fear of confronting emotions behind it), denying their deactivating acts (which they may not be fully cognisant of). As a result, partners may question themselves, feel pathologized, take on blame in an effort to preserve the relationship, and/or just suppress their discomfort;
rationalising: "after pushing others away, we create narratives to explain why we can't move closer to them. This often leaves us confusingly oblivious to our own strategies and the fact that we’re making things up as we go along." Even when avoidants are aware of their deactivating strategies they tend to interpret them as a reaction to the imperfections of their partner and a sign they're with the wrong person, unable or unwilling to look within.
subsequent denial of their own attachment needs - compulsive self-reliance, resisting connection, rebuffing help and erroneously believing "I am stronger not to need anyone", self-medication with drugs/alcohol, surface-level therapy sessions, retreating to a fantasy world of books and films, a pattern of trying to 'hold it all together' then experiencing emotional breakdown.
Denying actions and/or questioning the sanity of someone's responses, to cause them to doubt their perception of events. Accusing them of being too emotional or crazy and holding their emotional response to be the problem, rather than taking responsibility for the actions that caused that response.
Often the distancing of these strategies results in a partner becoming anxious and pursuing more. Avoidants tend to miss that their partner’s distress is a response to their distancing, and perceive it as excessive neediness. Partners can become angry, frustrated, sad, lonely, confused and desperate when continually denied emotional validation, feel taken for granted, and their attempts to reconnect can perpetuate the cycle as the avoidant further withdraws.
The experience on a partner can be subtle and insidious; without understanding the attachment roots of this behaviour or having an incredibly secure mentality, it can take a corrosive toll on their self-esteem. Because the rejection of their natural attachment needs unconsciously teaches partners that their needs aren't valid - in a direct mirror of what avoidants learnt as children. So partners may blame themselves, wonder what they're doing wrong, lose confidence, begin to doubt their worth and abilities, feel disorientated, unvalued, fearful, distrusting, powerless, rejected, nervous to bring things up, and unsafe with the constant prospect of separation anxiety, and even begin to think of themselves as unbalanced or crazy (notwithstanding of course that this tends to trigger anxious attachment patterns, even in the securely attached, and so they may be making extra demands). Of course, avoidants feel that they are being told their needs (for distance etc) aren't valid either - this is why they do what they do. It's a mutually negative cycle.
Word of warning: if you’re the avoidant it is important to become self-aware of all these deactivating strategies; while they are often very unintentional and can also feel necessary for protection, high levels can be toxic and tantamount to emotional abuse. Feeling unvalued in a relationship in the long term is also the breeding ground for partners' infidelity - seeking validation from elsewhere - as well as, more fundamentally, leaving. But once we are self-aware about and understand the source of these behaviours - our mistaken belief, arising from mistreatment when we were innocent children, that we are unworthy not to be neglected, used or engulfed - then we can respond to these behaviours with internal compassion and they can become much more in our control. And we can appreciate that they are essentially like a PTSD flair-up from the past that likely has little to do with the person innocently in front of us now, who probably would respect our needs as an equal and is not trying to engulf.
In essence, although consciously avoidants believe it’s the opposite of what they want, they will unconsciously test their partners to push them into a state of anxiety and neediness, rather than leaning in to the relationship to reduce it. This reduces their engulfment attachment triggers but by nature increases a partner's abandonment attachment triggers. And when this happens they take it as the confirmation they’re seeking that their partner requires too much, is stifling them, and of their deeply held belief that relationships are by nature unreliable, guilt-ridden and engulfing and they are better off alone – a reality they may have in fact unknowingly engineered themselves.
Eventually, a lack of empathy and care, and help given grudgingly, or a cool or unresponsive response to suffering partners becomes apparent. Years later as a partner you may realise you really aren’t important to them, when you’ve built a life but they’re just tolerating you. This withholding of responses is alienating to significant others. The avoidant’s lack of attention can extend to indirect passive aggression such as indifference, disrespect, contempt or cruelty. When unhappy, they use passive aggression and insults, and when cornered, suppression breaks down. The avoidant can become highly emotional when deactivating strategies don’t work or can’t be used, and they are overwhelmed by unprocessed feelings which are usually avoided. If pushed, the passive aggressive contempt can become verbally or physically abusive - they will say damaging and degrading things, gaslight and lash out. This is violence designed to get other to leave them alone.
Over time, the shaming inherent in these strategies can change those around avoidants.
"As they lose their light, they may initiate less, which may make them feel safer (less confrontational) to us. But what this also means is that they may be growing closer to the point of rejection that we expected all along. In this way, by rejecting their bids for intimacy, we create what we fear and expect: rejection by those closest to us."
- when non-avoidants stop trying to activate closeness and start to respond this way instead, then unlike avoidants it means they are detaching. At some point, relationship breakdown is inevitable. Unfortunately often by the time the avoidant realises the relationship is really at risk, the partner has passed their tipping point for continued investment in it. In couples therapy it is common to see 'the worn-out pursuer' - eventually the pursuer loses momentum, and they may only arrive in therapy in time for the worn-out pursuer to say goodbye.
But avoidants also sense their own aversion to their partner - a programmed distrust of an attachment figure that is not their fault - and can feel much shame and guilt over it themselves, fearing it will be noticed, fearing that behaviours they instinctively feel are necessary are hurting their partner, worrying they are 'not normal' and that it must mean they don't like their partner. Their own behaviours and anxieties can in fact be deeply upsetting for avoidants. Without being able to show themselves compassion by understanding the origin, in the end these feelings can become so overwhelming and punishing that they can feel they must break away from the source of their current attachment triggers.
When they self-sabotage by mistreating their partner (such as cheating, triangulating, lying or saying hurtful things), avoidants may subconsciously want to be discovered and called out - first because they have a sense they should be punished, second because it will push their partner further away which was the subconscious purpose of those actions, and third because they ultimately want to bring the view of a partner with positive expectations (to which the idea of living up can be engulfing) in line with their 'I am inherently bad and unworthy of love' view of self. Sadly, until they have addressed their core beliefs, supportive love is unfamiliar and the more positively a partner sees them the more strongly they may feel the need to do this.
One of the most difficult things with an avoidant partner is figuring out whether their latest withdrawal is due to their issues or simply them losing interest. This constant uncertainty means that for many partners of avoidants, detaching emotionally, at least to some extent, is the sanest thing to do. Thus even without a physical, “real” breakup, avoidant behaviour still creates a level of abandonment, isolation and lack of trust within the context of a committed relationship. Of course, this feeds back into the avoidant’s deepest fears, and ultimately results in even more avoidant behaviour. A relationship with an avoidant person is thus always at risk of devolving into a vicious cycle of mutual rejection, and is only likely to last if the partner is either anxious and obsessed, or if the partner is more secure, the avoidant is more self-aware, and there is constant, level-headed communication about the relationship between both partners.
Distance begets distance: the self-fulfilling prophecy
Once you care deeply about someone, there is always the threat of loss. Loss and caring go hand-in-hand. When others become important to us, they have considerable power — power to uplift, power to sway, power to hurt. The emotionally avoidant anticipate that this power will lead to pain. A pain that may arise from clashing agendas, incompatibilities of desire and interest, pain for caring more than the other, a pain that may be reminiscent of earlier relational wounds. For these people the residue of negative feelings resonates the loudest. Distress; helplessness; being overwhelmed; frustrations that consume; longings that go unfulfilled; shame and humiliation; rejection that immobilizes. These wounds shape the inner relational blueprint that mobilizes avoidant attachment, a blueprint that makes connecting with others feel risky.
Attachment neglect can significantly diminish our capacity to identify, regulate and use our emotional experiences (Stevens, 2014). Our disconnection with our inner life and our struggles with emotions make navigating relationships and intimacy more challenging. One solution to the dilemma of believing that others cannot meet our needs is to turn against ourselves, to attack or mentally disown the vulnerable parts of ourselves that hunger for emotional closeness. In these instances, a central part of who we are, our need for relatedness, places us at risk — a risk of further wounding at the hands of those we open ourselves up to. This felt-danger is stirred by our desire for connection, and to defend against this, we must somehow learn to keep these desires in check.
In order to manage our attachment needs, we may fall back on self-reproach (“You are so weak”; “Don’t be an idiot, you always get hurt”). We bully and shame ourselves into not needing, an ongoing inner battle that intensifies whenever we find ourselves caring for another. Or we may turn the reproach toward our partner, attacking her/him for having the very needs we’ve had to deny within ourselves.
The denial or muting of our attachment needs reduces the emotional impact others can have on us. The less hold our desire for connection has over us, the less someone (even someone important to us) can send us into an emotional tailspin. Here self-sufficiency is prioritized and prized. Yet it’s a defensive self-reliance that may not completely eradicate our desire for contact with others.
Expecting pain or disappointment, we may discount many positive interactions with our spouse/partner only to zero in on a particular painful event that reminds us of the dangers of caring, of opening ourselves to the influence of another. Our partner’s behavior can set in motion strong feelings in us when his/her behavior is reminiscent of the wounding we endured in childhood. These past-present collisions (the wounds of our past triggered in our current relationship) are often unconscious, occurring rapidly and without full awareness. We may lose perspective in the moment, discounting the circumstances surrounding what happened, feeling convinced that distance is the only viable option to being in a relationship.
This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your cynicism of emotional closeness frustrates others and they end up reacting accordingly to you: they become frustrated/angry, withdrawing, rejecting, needy etc; but rather than identify how you may have contributed, you experience their behavior as evidence that others cannot be trusted and you are therefore justified in keeping your emotional distance.
Relationships usually involve patterns of closeness and distance, a movement between the opposing poles of the close-distant continuum. Life circumstances, stress, and particular relationship and personal dynamics all contribute to this intimacy ebb-and-flow. It would be a mistake to think that closeness should be static and remain at the same level across time periods and circumstances. But understanding how these current protective maneuvers might also contribute to the pain we are attempting to avoid can be an important first step in healing the psychic scar tissue of our attachment wounds.
Those who suffer less from internal shame are able to talk more freely about their internal world without fear of judgement, which enables them to get close to people. To partners without an avoidant attachment style, it feels natural and an important part of bonding to share about their personal lives, connections to others, difficulties, past and internal experiences. But avoidants are deeply private individuals, because revealing themselves makes them feel inherently at risk of shame as well as being controlled (for example a caregiver's response punishing or neglecting them for showing they were upset). With their core childhood wound around a lack of control over engulfing behaviour and negative or indifferent caregiver reactions to the expressions of their feelings, this is something they must always resist.
As a way to hold space they need they may be very secretive and leave their partner in the dark a lot, or be vague when asked directly. To them it is simply an instinctive protective strategy when someone is getting closer without malicious intent, not an action to manipulate or control their partner - consciously at least. This preserves their independence, but at the expense of generating distrust. And while some privacy and separation can be healthy in a relationship, unfortunately, secrecy, duplicity and the disconnection it creates can be at the heart of lack of safety, distrust and relationship breakdown. And such actions that hold space can be so important for avoidants they will lash out and punish anyone who directly challenges untruths.
"Avoidant types often think someone is out to get them, including their partner. So, they hide aspects of their lives that make them feel vulnerable. They may create an invisible web of hidden people, facts, and histories, along with little white lies that often seem ridiculous or unnecessary. They are especially intent on hiding information from you because your attempts to get closer to them makes you feel threatening to them. To a partner it feels disconcerting. Why won’t they tell you about X, Y or Z? If there’s nothing to hide, they should be open and enjoy sharing. But that’s the last thing an avoidant wants to do."
Avoidants also instinctively lie and evade just to avoid conflict and hurting someone's feelings: avoiding any form of conflict, criticism or judgement is always top of the avoidant's priority list.
In childhood, developing secure attachment comes partly out of validating the truth of a child's experiences. But avoidants instinctively suppressed painful experiences in the interest of maintaining a positive relationship with the caregiver. The child's behaviour was not necessarily a reflection of their internal feelings. Thus avoidants internalised suppressing fundamental truths about themselves as habit, so have a different relationship to truth by nature. It is not so obvious to them that truths should see the light, and being truthful can feel uncomfortable and inherently dangerous.
For the avoidant it is important to understand that secrecy is in fact a form of (often unconscious) control that stems from low self-esteem - by keeping things from someone we seek to control their view of us because, at heart, we don’t believe they will accept the real, uglier version, so we don't want them to see it. Perhaps what we are hiding, or the act of hiding, embodies needs (such as for space) we haven't felt able to express. When we improve our own self-image and begin to unapologetically assert our needs, we will naturally less fear being exposed. But we are also just trying to save others pain in the short run and believe secrecy may be the best way to do it. When we recognise these just as the avoidant instincts they are, not about the person, and instead hold strong to our higher value of integrity, we can place this above our instinctive desire for a conflict-free resolution and to always minimise pain to others in the short run, recognising that in the long term honesty, even if difficult, even if it may be for something small and feels unnecessary and even strange, is what almost always serves both ourselves and others best.
8. Needing Space
Everyone needs space, but avoidants need it more than others. Avoidant children tend to feel safe seeking proximity to an attachment figure while not directly interacting or relating to them, keeping a distance that is close enough for protection but far enough to avoid being emotionally punished or rejected. This plays out in adult relationships once intimate: avoidants may prefer to be near their partner but withdraw from interactions themselves. It’s not that they don’t want anybody around. The ideal situation for an avoidant is somebody in the house but not in the same room, so they have a combination of safety and distance. If they spend too much time around someone they fear being pushed into interactions that will drain them or make them feel uncomfortable emotions - until they become comfortable experiencing their emotions, expressing their needs and trusting in reciprocity they will continue to feel this way regularly, and potentially even then.
9. Negative Thinking
When an avoidant person feels stuck or smothered - sometimes this doesn't take much - they start to pick apart the partner in their thoughts. Whether the partner is warm and loving doesn't change this. Avoidants have anxiety and negative emotions activated by this closeness - an attachment figure is a threat - but they unconsciously block awareness of the emotional distress, so their brains turn to nitpicking on their partner instead.
They are quick to think negatively and focus on flaws or imperfections, make belittling observations, look down on or devalue their partner, blame them for issues, and disparage traits they previously found to be positive. They may complain about or make fun of the person's mannerisms, hairstyle, general looks or abilities. Feeling irritated or overwhelmed by a partner's expression of needs and by requests for intimacy which trigger their attachment anxieties, they often perceive the partner as needy, emotional, insecure and over-dependent, feel suffocated and may accuse them of overreacting. Avoidants are also often easily embarrassed by their partners in public or in front of family and friends (particularly if a partner makes themselves socially conspicuous in some way - avoidants are primed to fit in) and may undermine them in front of other people, or criticise their social/public behaviour. These targets are all easily explained as we resent what we do not allow for in ourselves; avoidants do not feel they are able to go against social grain, coming from an assumption they are not good enough are highly perfectionist and self-critical, and do not allow themselves strong emotions.
This all works at a deeply unconscious level - avoidants may simply believe they are picky, but in reality it doesn't matter how many wonderful qualities a partner possesses; if things get close, an avoidant's unconscious triggered attachment anxieties will cause them to find something objectionable. By focusing on these negative qualities avoidants then convince themselves they’re not invested. They often feel that any relationship issues are their partner's as they're unable to identify the source of their feelings deep within.
When in a relationship with an avoidant, be ready for them to find fault after fault with you. It could be the way you eat, the way you fold laundry, how you load the dishwasher, etc. It really doesn’t matter - they are masters at finding fault in everything you do. Unless you are great at not taking anything personally, this can wear you down.
Avoidants can be so quick to be put off by flaws they see in others, that for their partners they expect it to act the same way - hence the need to hide themselves. Thus when they hear criticism or their flaws voiced, rather than hearing it actually as a partner's attempt to connect - to make their feelings heard, to request working on something in the relationship and to connect to seek a team approach in finding a solution, they will interpret it as an indication of upcoming abandonment and it trigger their own withdrawal or leaving. They are more comfortable with nothing voiced, even if it makes things unstable. With an avoidant’s worldview this makes total sense. They may not so easily comprehend that for others it is very possible to be fully cognisant of someone’s flaws and foibles and still be totally committed to, love and think well of them – and indeed, that this is the basis of a long-term partnership. As a child, while their internal world was unseen they were safe. If someone does love them they assume they are not really being seen, and once they are ‘seen’ they feel out of control and assume the relationship cannot work. Once this happens they may start feeling less attracted to their partner and prefer the idea of more shallow connections.
O.C.D. can frequently manifest as an obsessive quest for certainty in life around decisions about which we cannot be certain. When faced with many possibilities, by not choosing any option we may theoretically retain the control of all those options - but in practice we have none of them, create for ourselves a state of perpetual anxiety to live in about all the potential options, and lose out in life by not enjoying the benefits of walking a path.
Intrusive doubt and negative thoughts about the relationship and the quest for certainty you are with the right person may sometimes be a form of Relationship OCD, particularly if it compels rituals like compulsive ruminating on pros and cons, comparing their relationship to others, seeking reassurance from friends, behaviours to 'test' the relationship, researching perfect relationships and constantly replaying conversations to determine if the person is a good fit. Sufferers may not be aware these compulsions are OCD as they see them as a response to an important life decision. Over time many people have passing doubts, or get “cold feet” around when they decide to make a big commitment. However, a person with OCD will persist in seeking evidence that they are with the “right” person. OCD demands that there be no doubt in a person's mind they are making the right choice. These intrusive thoughts are a way of demanding certainty to make sure bad things won't happen in their lives. Because no person is perfect and life is uncertain, this thought creates loads of anxiety in people with OCD, which in turn compels the person to engage in compulsive behaviors and self-destructive actions in a futile attempt to arrive at certainty. Such compulsive thoughts and behaviours can be treated in therapy.
"Even though they are exhausted from this behavior, there is often reluctance on their part to see their fear of making this decision as just another form of OCD. They say, “But this is really important! I’m making a major life decision.” And I respond by saying, “Yes, but life is unpredictable. You have no idea how things will turn out. Do you want to carry on with constantly assessing whether this person is the perfect person for you, or do you want to get on with your life?” Since most of these patients have never sought treatment for OCD in the past, I explain how the content of their obsessions is irrelevant. I ask if there were other times in their lives when they had intrusive thoughts that demanded safety and certainty that bad things wouldn’t happen. And did they try to alleviate the anxiety caused by these thoughts by performing mental or behavioral rituals. Typically, I’ve found that they’ve struggled with OCD in the past, but had no label for it. Usually my patients come around to understand how OCD has impacted their lives in other ways outside of their relationship OCD.
When my patients understand how OCD demands certainty, regardless of the content of the intrusive thought, tackling their relationship OCD makes much more sense. I help them to stop checking with others about the suitability of their intended partner. I ask them to refrain from reading anything about choosing a spouse. I help them to limit ruminating (compulsive mental checking) about the pros and cons to marrying their fiancée. I ask them to embrace uncertainty and be willing to sit with the anxiety caused by the thought that they may not be marrying the “right” person. I emphasize that life is unpredictable and to live life fully one has to take risks. Once my patients understand this and stop engaging in a futile quest for certainty, they are able to move on with their lives."
Unaware partner experience with a narcissist avoidant:
“My partner began to nitpick at everything I did, even how I brushed my teeth. He pulled up the littlest things, like not turning on the bathroom fan after I showered, or for accidentally buzzing the hair at the back of his head unevenly. When confronted, he criticized me for being insecure or oversensitive.
Whenever we seemed to get closer, he’d bring up his “I promise they’re resolved, but I still remember loving her so deeply” feelings for his ex and compare them to his feelings for me. He openly discussed his attraction toward other women. He’d wonder out loud how much he was “still in love with me,” or if he’d ever be sure he wanted to marry me. It was torture disguised as open communication but, as he put it, necessary if I wanted to know him. Whenever I even hinted that I was unhappy, he took on the part of a man who was looking for real, genuine love but emotionally damaged and lost, and would express preoccupation with guilt over responsibility for me that pushed us apart (without actually trying to address the things he felt guilty for). To bring us together I'd end up apologising for asking for too much from him and comforting him for feeling bad, rather than the other way around with him looking to solve the things that had been hurting me.
The longer I stayed with him, the less happy I was. It began to feel like my very existence was annoying to him. But I kept thinking I was the one who was doing everything wrong, and I just needed to be “better,” trying harder and harder. I tried to bend myself into a smaller and smaller box to please him, not to express myself, to accommodate his needs. One night before leaving on a trip across the country, he broke up with me, citing uncertainty about me being his soulmate. I still remember the gut-wrenching feeling of standing in our shared living room, packing up my stuff and crying quietly so I didn’t wake anyone. For almost three months, I wouldn’t even tell him where I moved to. I was so hurt and angry, mostly at myself.
Afterwards, I felt brainwashed. My self-esteem was in tatters and I’ve struggled to successfully date other men. He’s come back a few times since then, with an aching love for me that quickly cools when he’s reminded I have flaws, or just needs of my own. I’ve put up walls and tried to block communication, but that doesn’t help get rid of his voice in my head. I don’t know how to stop craving his validation.
I have moments where it’s almost like he’s still convincing me he didn’t mistreat me, that I imagined it all. There are moments I feel like his quest to find true love is more important than mine, because he painted himself as a tragic hero and I the one trying to persuade him to love me. Like I was trying to steal a love that was intended for some perfect princess he failed to mould me into. But ultimately, this man’s fantasy girl has no thoughts, makes no sounds, asks for nothing. This man’s fantasy girl is a gaping void. It’s taken me years to remember that real love doesn’t feel like a fantasy. Real love feels like real life. My ex was someone who struggled mightily just to feel like he wasn’t being tortured, every second of every day. It makes me sad to think of it. He wore his pain on his face. He was not at peace.”