AVOIDANT TO SECURE ROADMAP: PART III
STRATEGIES FOR A PARTNER
If you are in a relationship with someone with an avoidant attachment pattern, there are lots of things you can do to support their development and your own, and to improve the quality of your connection and the happiness you both feel. Also check out videos for partners in the Video Tools section. If you are avoidant, see if you can show your partner this page. That may feel very exposing, but ultimately it can build trust and help you work together as a team.
Although attachment styles are set earlier in life, they can slowly change as individuals have new relationship experiences. An avoidant or anxious individual whose partner is more securely attached can gradually learn to tone down their insecurities. However, it does take a lot of insight and effort on the part of the securely attached partner to effect this change and not to go the other way, tipping them into insecure attachment themselves. Buffering yourself against an avoidant's deactivating strategies and trying respond to your significant other in a way that fits their attachment style requires a considerable amount of self-awareness, self-esteem and a willingness to, at certain times, act against your intuitions. But remember that intimate relationships are all about meeting each other’s needs, not our perceptions of what they should be. Instead of giving our significant others what we ourselves want, we need to give them what they want. And when we meet their needs, they’ll feel secure enough to meet ours.
Good relationships require sustained hard work and a generous spirit. It can be hard to motivate an avoidant to work, as they believe others are the source of the problems. The avoidant can’t detach from themselves to objectively view their behaviour. It is necessary to make the avoidant conscious of distancing behaviour and their fear of intimacy. A good strategy involves teaching them to use empathy, explain how it hurts and asking them to consider family and friends feelings.
If you are in relationship with someone with this style, be patient. Realize that it is not in your power to take away all of their pain. But you can be there for them, provide comfort and support and be a secure base while they explore their own inner workings. If you want to stay in the relationship, you should be aware that you may also have to endure some “testing behaviors.” The avoidant may engage in some negative or challenging behaviors and push you away if you get too close, to see if you are going to reject or hurt them. After all, that is what their experience has taught them to expect. If you take these behaviours for what they are, however, and don’t take them too personally - I know; easier said than done - the person is likely to start effectively regulating their emotions and become much more comfortable with intimacy in the relationship.
However, it is still important you maintain your own boundaries, to stay conscious of whether the relationship is still making you feel good and providing for your own needs, and not to allow mistreatment. For example, if you're feeling concerned that your partner could always be on the brink of leaving you then your concerns might be justified - until they work on themselves avoidants can be overcome by flight mode, and in times of crisis prioritise running from the relationship over protecting it. Things must go two ways - we all deserve to feel safe in a relationship, and if your partner has not yet reached stability in working through these impulses then it is fair to recognise they are not a safe long-term investment. Being a runner does not make anyone a bad person. Often they tend to be beautiful souls with the kindest hearts, but without work the internal conflicts created by the emotional attachment to someone else in a romantic relationship make them feel inherently unstable.
Ultimately, avoidants have a right to be who they are, and for that to be respected. Be mindful to always accept your partner as they are. Seeking to change people or extract something they cannot give will only result in frustration and disappointment. Our setting of boundaries with avoidants comes primarily from our own decision over the extent to which we interact with them, choosing to participate only in relationships that feel mutual.
But while it may sound challenging to date someone with an avoidant attachment style, the good news is, through support from their partner and their own self-work, they can move from avoidant to secure. Once they realise that they are safe and that intimacy will not control or cause them the same pain they experienced as a child, a healthier narrative becomes reaffirmed through time and experience, and they gradually rewire their baseline. If both partners have the determination to work together to develop a more secure dynamic, it can be an extremely enriching, loving relationship—though it will take a little bit more work upfront. Ultimately avoidants can become very giving, sensitive, practical and reliable partners. Their relationships are built on a solid foundation of shared experience in a relationship that feels stable, calm, harmonious and easy, rather than heightened emotion - ultimately, if we accept it as their path to love, such a basis can be secure and reassuring.
1. Don't take it personally
This is the key to dating an avoidant! Don’t fall for that trap: it’s not you. And it’s not your partner either, in a way. They are avoiding a feeling of anxiety inside - don’t take it personally. Know that the way the avoidant deals with your relationship has nothing to do with you but is based upon their childhood experiences. Appreciate the behaviours are an ingrained self-defence coping mechanism that originally came out of hurt and they are often not consciously directing. Remember what comes across as coldness is how they learned to cope when imbalance by withdrawing into themselves. Desire for less contact doesn't necessarily indicate a lack of interest, just different needs. Recognize that when the avoidant person shuts down and becomes dismissive that means they are anxious and are trying to clamp down on the experienced emotions. And if you feel invalidated by their lack of positive feedback and appreciation, know it can be hard for them to connect with those feelings in real time - for anything. It doesn't mean that overall they don't feel them for you. If they seem critical of you, remember this is a reflection of how critical they are of themselves. If you are feeling unsupported, recognise they may not understand how to do this - this is something you can calmly explain to them and a dynamic you can potentially improve. Above all, remember it’s not about you and try to respond with compassion rather than hurt. When you pursue them they may feel helpless, believe they cannot meet your needs and fear they are bound to be viewed as a disappointment. Responding with empathy paves the way for true intimacy and ending the cycle.
Do not judge or shame someone with an avoidant attachment style – their early childhood experiences wired their relationship to intimacy in a way that often causes them great loneliness. They subconsciously suppress their attachment system – this is often something they’re unaware that they’re doing. They need and want love as much as anyone else. Despite their distant manner they are above all frightened, and not indifferent - unconsciously afraid to let their guard down and risk rejection, betrayal and abandonment. The real tragedy is that they do this with the people who mean the most to them - they will often seem to give more time to casual friendships than to their partner, because those do not require vulnerability and are not a threat. They do not put up barriers because they don't care but because being cared for with kindness generates unfamiliar, daunting feelings. They are not trying to push away you - but their own need for love.
If you feel personally rejected you risk trying to take the blame, self-abandoning and your self-esteem tanks (read how low self esteem can open the doors to abuse). So try to avoid getting anxious about perceived behaviours by recognising they aren’t personal. This will help keep things in a manageable light. But be kind to yourself. It takes a lot of work not to take things personally in an intimate relationship.
2. Be reliable
Since the avoidant had an unreliable caregiver growing up, showing them that you are dependable can go a long way in developing trust in the relationship. Avoidants view a healthy relationship as a stable, peaceful one. So being that steady presence gives them something they aren’t used to – in a good way. Be consistent in words and actions, don’t introduce instability and try if possible not to respond to things in an overly emotional way, which is very debilitating for avoidants (though easier said than done in the face of deactivating strategies!). Enough volatility over time can break any relationship, and avoidants are hyper-sensitive to volatility. If you can, don’t punish their impulse to flee, but accept it as a reaction to the inherent risks of love and work to make closeness feel safe.
We talk about increasing intimacy, but rather than sharing everything about themselves, intimacy for an avoidant can mean feeling really understood – that their needs are seen, respected and not judged. So affirm and validate their feelings, even in painful triggering moments so they feel heard. It is important to them that they feel trusted - they worry if they will ever be enough for you, and want to know you see they're trying. Recreating past wounds from childhood will keep hardwiring their programming further. Above all, avoidants want to feel you are predictable and safe.
3. Communicate your needs, avoiding strong emotion or blame, and validate
With an avoidant, if you are not communicating your feelings and needs, the relationship won’t last long. Making your own needs and desires smaller to fit in with them doesn’t help either of you. Doing things that we do not want to do not only wastes our time and energy, but it also brings on resentments. Saying things that we do not mean only hurts us, because we then are living a lie. For example, you can’t resolve not to be clingy - you have to feel understood and supported, and then you’ll — quite naturally — be less emotionally needy, because you’ll trust that your partner is there for you. Be honest in your communication and in expressing your needs and desires.
Having a solid sense of who you are and what’s important to you is always a good thing. If they never want to go out on a date but that’s important to you, let them know. And stick to it. If you want repeated eye contact over dinner then specify. Communicate your needs directly, consistently, repeatedly and with patience, though make sure they are worth bringing up. Avoidants don’t want to read between the lines. If you learn to regularly communicate to your partner what you are feeling and why, this way of communicating can provide an emotional mirror that will help the avoidant person gain more personal awareness, and hopefully start to reciprocate.
So be honest with yourself and your partner. If their avoidant behaviours are getting you down, tell them gently how their actions make you feel. But rather than spending a long time on the emotional side, which they can find overwhelming because they don't understand how to respond, try to express what you need in terms of solutions. Together, you can come up with some tangible action items to address. Of course, they won’t be able to change their behaviour to accommodate all your emotional triggers—no one fully can. But they can be more sensitive to your needs and understand how small proactive actions can avoid a major frustration later.
It is necessary to convince the avoidant’s subconscious you are reliable and won’t hurt them. It can be helpful to change communication style to avoid the avoidants dislike of dependence, such as using low volume for requests and signalling only when you really need help. Be mindful of how you communicate strong emotions to your partner. Understand that for avoidants emotional conversations with you can be very exhausting. Intense, emotional conversations overwhelm avoidant people - they struggle to hear what you are saying because their systems are already overriding them to shut down and withdraw. If possible, try not to express emotions intensely or give a sense all your needs are hinging on them. Respond logically rather than emotionally, avoid communicating when you are angry, anxious, frustrated or distressed, instead finding a calm moment to communicate your feelings honestly, openly and in a moderate tone.
And it is important to learn to express the need without too much criticism or blame. Criticism in childhood preceded punishment, so as soon as we hear it we tend to shut down, prepare for pain and respond from a place of defensiveness rather than a rational space - for no one is this more true than avoidants. So express a problem from a place of personal feelings of impact/vulnerability rather than a direct criticism of them. The key is to come from a place of how it made you feel, not a damning accusation of something wrong with them, followed by a positive specific strategy for how they can meet your needs. Ask for what you want rather than complaining about what you don't want. Clear and consistent communication over time from a place of vulnerability will help avoidants feel it is safe to give. Remember it's not that avoidants don't want to give you what you want, they just don't know how. They will distance when they feel helpless to meet the needs they are being asked to meet.
Finally, when they do connect and meet your needs, validate this - with specific examples of how they are meeting them. Tell them the ways you value them and the relationship. Be kind and complimentary and show you appreciate when they are making an effort, especially when you understand how difficult it is for them.
4. Be patient & don't push too hard
As the partner to someone with an avoidant attachment style, it’s key to build up trust and demonstrate that you’re dependable - but this will happen over time. Don’t try and force your partner to express their feelings (although you can encourage it). Be understanding of their responses. Accept them as they are and don't expect them to move at your timeframe. Closeness has to develop gradually, as avoidants can take a long time to feel safe.
Bear in mind avoidants aren’t used to nor do they like sharing their feelings. Avoidants have been through a lot of emotional neglect - closeness for them meant pain early on, so needs to be done very gradually over time. If an avoidant partner is not ready to talk about his or her emotions and needs personal space, be patient and give it to them, as pushing or pressuring them will only make them more likely to withdraw. When you push to have them share feelings, all that’s going to happen is the door is going to stay shut. Avoidants may fear that the more they give the more will be expected of them, and may intentionally withhold for fear of losing themselves in the relationship. Remember that for avoidants privacy simply means retaining agency which is important to keep them feeling safe. It's not about secret-keeping with intent to hurt you.
So create a safe environment but don't force it. If they manage to be vulnerable, let them know you appreciate it. As you stay steady and reliable, the trust will build and when the time is right, they will share how they feel. If they do manage to express their emotions, know it’s hard for them, hear them and try not to push further. Such can be the relief at their finally opening up it can be tempting to meet this with an outpouring of your own emotion, but this can be overwhelming for avoidants. Try to appreciate their efforts without overwhelming the moment, so they can learn to trust it is safe for them to share with you. This is how you create a safe space which ultimately they will become able to stay in for longer.
Try to avoid ultimatums or making them commit to any decision in the moment. Avoidants can have a hard time accessing what they want in real time, particularly under any kind of pressure. Finally, giving is a wonderful part of a relationship, but try not to go overboard at least early on. In avoidants it can inspire uncomfortable feelings of debt and guilt until they learn to enjoy returning it. Try to make sure levels of investment are reciprocal, drawing back if necessary.
However, while it helps to be cognisant and supportive of these things, you also need to feel comfortable being your natural self, not treading on eggshells, so remember also this must not mean compromising your own needs.
5. Give them space & time
As you would think, avoidants are used to and typically enjoy being on their own. In any healthy relationships, a couple should enjoy doing things together but also on their own. So give them regular space and time, respecting their need for “me time”. Don’t try to do everything together - with an avoidant it's not going to work.
Work to make sure they feel independence and autonomy, that there’s no pressure for them to be a certain way or move at a certain pace, and that partners aren’t overly reliant on them for their needs. Ultimately avoidants want to feel that their autonomy is respected, supported, understood and not questioned, so that if they need to be alone or on their phone for a while, that there isn’t punishment. They want to feel their behaviours are unconditionally accepted and not shamed or criticised - they likely carry a lot of internal shame about it already.
Avoidants feel safe when their autonomy or independence is not threatened, so when they withdraw, know that it’s not necessarily a sign of rejection. For a while, they may go through cycles of getting close and then stepping back. If an avoidant starts pulling away, let them know that you care but do not chase them. It may be very painful to do this, but pursuing them is likely to make it take longer for them to come back. They need breathing space, to feel safe with their own thoughts and unengulfed. Taking a time-out can be stressful but becomes easier if you learn to expect it and work on developing coping strategies for yourself during this time - and the more avoidants can become used to relying on you to do this, the faster they should eventually be able to return. You can work on being emotionally resilient, self-soothe and meet your own emotional needs when you are feeling emotionally imbalanced.
Avoidant partners are often masters at making their significant others feel like the “crazy one.” If you are finding yourself using more and more manipulative behaviors in order to get your partner to react or if your anxiety is through the roof, stop chasing. This will feel completely counter-intuitive because it probably seems like your chasing is the only thing keeping the connection. The reality is that your anxiety, whether warranted or not, feels engulfing to you partner. Creating some space can give your partner a chance to become less reactive (because their attachment triggers, which make us all operate in a more primal way, will switch off), and so hopefully more connected.
Especially if the uncertainty is bringing out anxious attachment patterns, you may start to feel hyper-vigilant, monitoring the emotions of your partner and sensitive to cues that your partner may be pulling away. But quickly jumping to conclusions causes you to misinterpret each other’s emotional state, which can cause conflict and strife for no reason. Before you react, take a moment to look at your partner’s intentions. Then, gather more information and evidence before making a judgment. You’ll be surprised by how much easier it will be to accurately understand the situation when you delay your initial fear-based reaction.
6. Stand your ground & catch negative thinking
It helps to come from a place of understanding, but this doesn’t mean sacrificing your needs or becoming a doormat. People dating avoidants, particularly if anxiously inclined, can have trouble, or begin to have trouble, with boundaries. We may not know where our needs begin or where the other’s end. Be compassionate with yourself that this is a natural reaction to a situation where your needs may not be fully recognised by your attachment figure, so the temptation is to self-sacrifice to remain close to them. But don’t let your sympathy for their situation descend into sacrificing yourself. Always be mindful of what your own boundaries are in a relationship and what you require to make you happy. If there is something you need, communicate and be prepared to stick to it. Be conscious that regular avoidant behaviours may be activating a lack of safety and fear of abandonment in you, which can make it hard to relax and see the relationship objectively.
Catch yourself when you begin to think negatively. If you begin to think that you deserve to be treated badly, catch yourself and change your thoughts. Be positive and have higher expectations. Question your own commitment to the relationship. Not that you should leave – but taking some ambivalence about the relationship for yourself means that your partner can’t hold on to it all. Even while wanting things to work, it helps to retain an objective distance. Things might not work out if you are too far apart on what’s important to you, but that’s true of any relationship. Don’t lose yourself and stay true to you.
7. Don't try to fix them
While it's very important to come from a compassionate, understanding place, taking on someone else's problems can actually make them feel further engulfed. It may appear you're giving them what they're asking for, because on a conscious level people with insecure attachment styles want to be rescued. But on an unconscious level they want a challenge to prove themselves - to prove their low ego wrong. So trying to rescue them can actually contribute to their lack of agency and fear of failure.
It is very tempting to want to be there for the people we love in every way we can, but positioning ourselves always in the role of rescuer is also a form of self-abandonment, convincing us that our value to someone is in how we can help them rather than innate. So offer support and sympathy, but with healthy separation - allow people to have their own challenges and experience their own conflict, because it's part of their growth process - and yours. If you find yourself tempted to do this often, identify what it is you might need from your partner to avoid too much self-sacrificing (for example, for them to take a bit more of a clear interest in you by asking questions) and ask them directly for it.
If your partner won’t talk to you about their feelings, you could encourage them to go to a professional - you can only do so much. The more they can talk about their feelings with others, the more they can understand them for themselves, creating awareness of their own emotions and needs. But you cannot be their therapist.
Ultimately, remember avoidants have a right to be who they are and to do what makes them comfortable. You will feel better when, rather than try to always request things from them, you accept them for who they are, what their limitations in a relationship are, and instead live in the reality and just draw your own personal boundaries by seeking more of your needs from others, figuring out how to take care of yourself in the situation rather than try to get them to be different. If we hope for things to be different to how they are then we will live in a state of disappointment.
Be careful to not want your partner’s growth more than they do. We cannot control other people, nor should we. You cannot save someone; it is a path they must take themselves. If they are not invested in growing, and working together to move forward, you will either need to accept them as they are, or move on. If their avoidant attachment style is causing you too much pain, you’ll need to decide if a more secure partner is a better fit for you in the long run. Ultimately - remember you cannot resolve someone's issues for them. Do not feel to blame - someone does not enter a relationship and suddenly become this way. Rather than trying to fix, when dating avoidants our power ultimately comes from knowing our own boundaries, what we are and aren't willing to entertain, and when we are willing to walk away. In the end, remember to protect yourself by staying away from people who make you feel too hard to love.
8. Seek connection outside the relationship
If you’re off balance from the avoidant, do what you can do to make the environment better. Develop outside friends and others to rely on, and find tools and ways to cope. Consider the good things he does and develop and focus on gratitude. Understand that if you need a great deal of intimacy in your relationship, you may have chosen a partner who will have great difficulty giving it to you. Avoidants will always need more space than others and are never going to be comfortable with a lot of vulnerability; it's better to accept a relationship with an avoidant is probably always going to be low on intimacy and it's important you get some of these needs met elsewhere, and not to rely on your partner to ease your anxiety. Spend your time on various activities, and look for a social support system among friends etc so you aren’t reliant on your partner for all your emotional support. Work with a counselor or connect with other members of your support system to help with this. Trusting that you are going to be ok no matter what happens will help tremendously. Seeing this will also ease avoidant anxieties that they may not be able to give you everything you need.
The way out may not require leaving the relationship. Freedom is an inside job. As well as developing a support system, look to become more independent and assertive. Take responsibility for your happiness by developing your passions, instead of focusing on the relationship. And practising setting smaller boundaries will build your confidence within the relationship.
9. Focus on you
All relationships are a dynamic between two people, and we can focus on improving our own side. So avoid thinking in terms of “I’m right, he needs fixing” and focus on what you might be doing to contribute, and could do to improve things. Recognise that neither of you chose your emotional patterns—you both adapted to your early environments and learned how to survive - treat yourselves and each other with compassion. And in any relationship, push-pull dynamics are just very common - it's natural that as one person moves away the other moves towards and vice versa. Recognise that this is a team game - its partially you and partially them, but that you can only focus on working on yourself. If even one person takes responsibility for a shift it can have a huge impact on a relationship dynamic. Lots of people aren't aware of how or why they behave as they do, and so just victims to their repeating patterns. If you are it puts you at a huge advantage in relationships.
Explore what your choice of a partner says about you. There’s usually a reason why we pick who we pick - gaining insight into this can help steer your existing relationship in a new direction or help you pick differently in the future. Consider, when we choose a partner who has difficulty being close over those who are more emotionally available, we likely have intimacy issues of our own. Where avoidants avoid intimacy directly, we can escape by assigning the problem to our partner - there is a certain safety in seeking intimacy from someone who will have difficulty giving it to us. So instead of thinking about your partner, take a deep dive into what's going on and what you can do about your own patterns. For example, if we have elements of anxious attachment then until we develop our loving adult who can define our own worth and take emotional responsibility for our own feelings, our needs will feel a bottomless pit. No matter how much time and attention our partner gives us, it will never be enough. But by each taking responsibility and committing to self-work we can free ourselves and our partner from cycles of unhappiness and blame, accept our mutual difficulties with true intimacy, and transform relationship codependence or independence into loving interdependence.
So learn to spot when you become emotionally activated and how to break the cycle, and take responsibility for, read up on and work on your own attachment style and possible codependent behaviours (there are many books and online resources on codependency and transforming to secure patterns). When we understand what is behind our reactions they can become much less stressful and more in our control - if even one of us takes responsibility for changing our patterns this can bring huge changes to the relationship. Develop tools to self-soothe the feeling of anxiety you can get from avoidants. Although sometimes you'll need to ask for reassurance - and that's ok. Avoidants can make use feel we are asking too much too have needs - but remember you needs are valid. Learn also about your own boundaries, and what you are and aren't willing to put up with. And consider your own response in conflict, and brush up on your conflict management skills.
When you improve yourself, you cultivate a higher level of expectations for the people in your life. This puts the other person in a dilemma. They have the choice to either improve themselves and rise up to your new expectations, or they stay where they are at and let the relationship die. Either way, it’s a win-win situation. When you improve yourself, you improve the quality of your relationships. The relationships that don’t improve along with you cease to exist.
A partner takes responsibility for their part in fixing the anxious-avoidant dance
"When Ben and I entered our own “power struggle phase” and began to have conflict, we realized we were playing out old patterns. I played an anxious role, and he played the avoidant role. I would lean in and apply pressure. “Let’s fix this problem now!” He would take space, sometimes even an entire day without communication. If you’re an anxious type, I don’t need to tell you how long a day feels when there’s disharmony in the relationship. For a while, I looked at the issue as a “him” problem. His avoidance was clearly in the way of us being able to relate consciously, and for the pattern to shift, he was the one who needed to lean in. My blind spot was the fact that he couldn’t possibly lean in when I was energetically launching at him every time we had a conflict… (oopsie)
Both of us have been engaged in Conscious Relationship work and group therapy together since the inception of our partnership, so we would sit down and have clearings about our conflict style and deploy plans to “break the pattern.” We shared what each of us represented to one another during a conflict and softened to one another along the way.
I explained that when he shut down or took space from me after a fight I felt like an abandoned three-year-old again. He shared that he felt overwhelmed by my big emotions because he grew up in a home with an overbearing and dominant brother who always took up a lot of energy. This helped us both understand our behavior and have compassion for each other and ourselves. As I was able to see his avoidance for what it was (fear, overwhelm, stress), I was able to be in my heart with him more and stop taking his behavior personally. As he learned more about me, he was able to see my scared, sensitive inner child seeking love and acceptance. We put photos of ourselves as little kids up on our fridge as a little reminder of who we’re dealing with in those trying times.
He let me know that when he was taking space, he was never thinking of leaving the relationship and that he would always come back. Ben revealing this to me showed me that he was more or less secure in the relationship, and to him, taking space was just a necessary self-care piece. But due to my own anxiety, I had turned the whole thing in my mind into a very big deal - that it could mean he was doubting the whole relationship. Thus, it became one! We really struggled with this for while. Then one day, when conflict arose, and he started to shut-down, I chose a different path. This time, I asked him once to hold space for me, and when he said he couldn’t, I let him know that I was going to go into the other room and move some energy. I wrapped myself up in a blanket and placed my hands on my heart and womb. I cried, thrashed and felt into the pain and fear of abandonment welling up inside of me. I spoke to my inner-child and let her know she was safe and loved. I grieved the lack of emotional support I had as a child and began to rebuild a relationship with my “little girl” as a mature, adult woman who could now do something different.
As I started to take care of my own emotional needs and create space for Ben in times of conflict, I noticed something shifting. Rather than shutting down, he began moving toward me. I felt calmer because I no longer needed something from him, and he felt freer because he was no longer on the hook to be different or show up on my terms.This was when the pattern began to shift. It took us about 1.5 years to get to a place where we can now move through conflict in just a few minutes (most of the time), and we rarely spend much time “fighting.” But the pattern didn’t shift because I was able to convince him that his behavior was a problem, nor because he decided to jump in and save the day whenever I was having a tough time. The pattern shifted because we both learned to develop compassion for each other in times of conflict. We chose to deepen our self-awareness and let go of our position a little bit faster each time. Slowly, we developed the maturity in our relationship to drop our projections and stop responding to one another from our wounds. In essence, I no longer indulged the “poor me, you are abandoning me” tendencies, and he no longer indulged the “I don’t want to feel, you’re too much for me” tendency. As I grew in my capacity to self-soothe, Ben grew in his own capacity to hold space, support and to withstand difficult emotions."
All relationships will go through dysfunctional patterns at times, but if you aren't both willing to look into and take responsibility for the source of that dysfunction, then no matter how much you wish it were possible, you can't - and shouldn't - make a relationship work if you're the only one who wants it to. Not all relationships are meant to work out. If you try the strategies here you can feel you have tried to make your relationship work yourself before making such a call. But we both need to come to relationships as team players, both interested in self-work and self-development for ourselves and the relationship to grow. Healthy relationships require effort from both partners, and you can't blame yourself for not being able to uphold a relationship on your own. Two people need to show up to do the work. Give yourself space to realise some relationships are worth your effort and some aren’t.
Limit the time you spend with someone rather than try to change them. Notice what your sensations and thoughts are around them and take actions for your own self-care, potentially pulling back and reserve your own emotional energy. If someone is regularly 'checked out,' for example, making it feel lonely and painful to be in their presence, it is best to find something else you want to do (whether temporarily or permanently) and let them be who they are. Be aware that a relationship with an avoidant will always be low on intimacy, and that without awareness and work the relationship will almost always be on their terms - when they feel uncomfortable they easily withdraw or leave. If you stay in this pattern with an avoidant who is unwilling to work at things, you will not be able to experience a satisfying intimate relationship. Though it may feel like the avoidant partner holds all of the power, this person will be unlikely to ever experience real love unless they change. Psychologist Lorri Craig sums this up:
"This behaviour is a desperate attempt to gain control over the uncontrollable: love. It’s a way to feel love without getting hurt. But the partner, who’s committed to playing safe, will never allow himself or herself to experience love. They’ll toy at it, dipping their toes in and out of the water without ever getting wet."
People who are attracted to partners who hurt them often confuse chemistry and compatibility. In fact, these are both essential to a long-lasting healthy intimate relationship. Whereas chemistry (how interesting and stimulating you find the person) is essential to keeping couples interested, compatibility (sharing common values, goals, having fun together and being able to provide for each other's needs, support each other and work through things) will help a couple get through tough times.
If a relationships has become toxic or detrimental to your wellbeing you may have to acknowledge the need to step away. This doesn't mean you have stopped loving your partner or that you blame them for the things that didn't work out - it means you are taking care of your own psychological and emotional needs. Ask yourself how are we growing? How does this relationship serve me? How does it make me happy? If you're struggling to find the answers, you may already know the answer as painful as it might be. You will need to decide if you are able to truly accept the distance. If it causes you more pain than you can bear, and leaves you in a mindset of bitterness and resentment, then you need to consider leaving. You shouldn't have to dismiss your needs and accept the absence of connection if it's having a damaging impact on you. Everyone has different levels of closeness they can tolerate - no one is to blame, it's just not the right fit.
"We might find it more exciting to be caught up in a push-pull dynamic with someone than to say yes to love that is readily available and healthy for us.The excitement comes from eroticising rejection - it feeds that part of us that still feels like have something to prove. Prove we’re lovable or worthy. That we are so special that we can change someone’s mind or behaviour. But that excitement also drains your energy, purpose and connection to yourself. Any time we waste chasing someone to give us love, there’s an unmet internal need for love and nurturance toward our inner-child. You don’t need someone else to reflect back your wounds if they're not willing to heal with you. You don’t need someone to trigger all of your insecurities by treating you like an after-thought or avoiding intimacy. Accept yourself and you can let healthy love in."
What we accept in a relationship is a measure of what we think we deserve deep down. So own what you want and desire – you start maximising opportunities for yourself when you say no to things that aren’t that. It is ok to declare that you want to be with someone who has an ongoing and deepening connection to you. If someone is just giving you crumbs ('breadcrumbing') they are not feeling good enough in themselves to be able to give what a relationship requires. Hurt people hurt people. Nothing on the outside will change how they feel on the inside - a person can’t be ready to give love if they aren’t fully sourcing it from within. Only once they feel truly worthy of love are they able to give it. It is not up to you to change them. So if they show or tell you they can’t do it, hear this from them – and that it doesn’t mean anything about you or your value. Someone else’s behaviour is not an indication of your worth.
When dating, stay focused on the three simple steps:
1. My desire for attachment is legitimate.
2. I will invest my energy in people who make me feel good.
3. I will express my needs directly, and respect the needs of others.
Above all, don't excuse someone's bad behaviour with attachment theory. It may explain some things, but poor treatment is still poor treatment. This kind of thinking is the slippery slope of, at the extreme end, "he beats me because he loves me". Strong avoidance can be dangerous - it is a natural part of partnership to expect support and safety from each other, but without vigilance avoidants can come to make you feel bad about yourself in ways that may be quite insidious. Always retain clear boundaries about the treatment you deserve. If you want someone who’ll reach out, show support, make an effort to connect with you on a deeper level, then hold your partners to that standard — stop making excuses for them when they don’t measure up. The road to committed partnership is not paved with breadcrumbs.
“It took a breakup for me to realise that I was not responsible for Alex's happiness and can only truly make myself happy. He never treated me right and was unwilling to plan a future with me." Kate realised that she didn’t have any energy left for herself when she was always so concerned about Alex's well-being.
And if you're finding it difficult to get over someone who behaved avoidantly? It's possible you were addicted to the fantasy and promise of how things might have been rather than how things were.
Things to look for in a partner
Seek a partner you can be yourself with and is easy to be close to. In other words, you don’t have to walk on eggshells with him or her. You feel safe in the relationship and free to express your thoughts, feelings, and desires openly without fear of rejection.
Always remember you deserve to feel cherished, valued, supported, appreciated and lifted up. Distinguish between spending and investing your emotional input - investing is where you receive proper reciprocation.
Take the long view - look beyond your enjoyment of the first few dates into whether they have the skills to nourish long-term relationships. Chemistry can blind you to red flags - don't confuse it with compatibility.
Trust your gut. Do you feel positive, worthwhile, confident and valued being around them? Make sure you are feeling safe, happy and supported in a relationship, and are not self-abandoning spending too much time worrying about what the other person feels. If the person makes you doubt yourself too much this is not a good sign. Be conscious not to confuse love with limerence (obsession stemming from insecurity around someone's feelings)
Set an expectation of mutual respect. You can accept, admire, and respect each other for who you are. If you don’t have respect for your partner, it will eat away at chemistry until you have nothing left. But if he or she values you, gives you compliments, and encourages you to do things that are in your best interest, your partner will be a boost to your self-esteem.
Though some compromises are always necessary in a relationship, life will be easier with someone with whom you don't have wildly different needs for space and affection.
Don’t compromise your values. Figure out your core beliefs and stand by them. Ask for what you need and speak up when something bothers you.
Be assertive in relationships. If you want to form a new relationship based on trust you need to speak up when you have a concern or a request. Dating can help you learn what your non-negotiable or deal breakers are.
In romance, one of the most important questions to discover is "how did your past shape how you experience relationships today?" Our understanding of love is shaped by the love we have experienced and the lessons we have taken - our past love shapes our present love. Having an open conversation about how we have been hurt in the past helps each person feel understood, establishes a deeper connection, helps us know how to support each other, and establishes healthy communication skills going forward.
Plan to extend trust to a partner who is trustworthy. Put your trust carefully only into someone who deserves it in the long term, judging on their actions from many situations. Someone isn't kind, trustworthy and supportive just because they say they are, and trust means much more than just fidelity. Does your partner call when they say they’re going to? Do they show you that they care with positive signals? Are they emotionally available and show you they want to be with your feelings and support you? Do they hear and respect your needs, and show they are willing to work together on the relationship? Do they show willingness to learn from their mistakes? Are they dependable in difficult times as well as the good ones?
Likewise, if you are potentially interested in having a family, might they make an emotionally available, attentive and reliable parent, proactive about shouldering responsibilities? Do you imagine you could feel confident and supported as a co-parenting team? Parents need to be able to thoroughly support each other, and you should not be left shouldering all the emotional labour for relationships with your children as well as your own.
Make sure you are interested in the genuine mutual connection you two have in person, not the high the chase for validation may give you. As you separate what someone’s attention makes you feel from what you actually feel about them, your choice of partner becomes more conscious, and guided by better parameters.
Select a partner who talks about your future together. If he or she says they’re not ready for a commitment, take them seriously – they’re just not the right person for you. Don’t get into a relationship based on promises on the future ("I will get there," "things will be different when"), rather than your needs being met in the present - fall for reality, not potential. And don't waste your time on a relationship that doesn’t have a future.
Avoid partners where...
You sacrifice too much. Since your partner is unable or unwilling to compromise – you morph into someone else to accommodate his or her expectations, needs, or desires.
The relationship brings you down or you are often dissatisfied with it. Ask yourself: does your significant other inspire you to do your best? Perhaps he or she is overly critical or too focused on his or her needs to be supportive of you.
You feel you have to change yourself – your values, goals, or dreams for your partner to accept you. Above all, always steer clear of anyone who makes you feel difficult to love. Do you want to spend your life with someone who doesn't make you feel good about yourself?
You find yourself having to use manipulative behaviours to get what you need such as making them jealous, mirroring their avoidant behaviours, threatening to leave, or you are spending too much time thinking about them and how to get what you need at the expense of your own emotional wellbeing.
They are becoming more and more distant and emotionally unavailable as time goes on, and start devaluing your connection - and you might find yourself feeling more desperate and clingy.
You are ready for a commitment and he or she is not. This is one of the main causes of breakups. Being in a relationship where two people hold drastically different goals can set the stage for disappointment and unhappiness that are rarely reversible.
Spot an avoidant when dating and whether it could still work out
Do not believe that you are needy, wrong or not worthy of a stable relationship. Real strength is the ability to maintain contact and intimacy.
When first meeting someone get to know them slowly. You need to establish their romantic history and willingness to work with their insecurities before choosing to invest in them. Find out if they have had on-off relationships, run without warning or are still friends with many of their ex partners. Find out what they learnt about themselves from previous relationships and the experience they had with their parents in childhood. Be conscious of whether they are curious to get to know the inner you, and to show you that part of themselves. See if they are able to talk about feelings - if they can't, the relationship will only ever operate at surface level and they may not be able to support effectively, which is vital for the ups and downs of life (not least if you were to have a family).
If you start noticing an avoidant pattern, directly communicate to them about this and how it's making you feel. Ask them if they have noticed the pattern and if they know what might be causing it. If they say they do not want a relationship then do not think you can hang around for them to change their mind. If they say they are unsure what they want, then start dating other people and take your focus off them.
When you talk to them about a it if they try to avoid the topic, are continuously getting hostile, defensive and blaming external factors for their behaviour, than you have someone who is unable or unwilling to change. They are mostly using the relationship as an ego boost and may display traits of narcissism. I would recommend that you cut your losses and move on.
If they reveal an inner conflict, guilt or concern then they may have the capacity to change. You must be both willing to put in the work to understand what each of your fears are and work on ways to help each other overcome them. But make sure that actions are backing up words - if you are both trying to change then you will start to feel some growth in the relationship, though it may be slow.
When the avoidant partner pulls back and withdraws, do not chase them or react angrily. An angry or chasing reaction is part of what keeps the cycle going and the ambivalent partner distant.
However, the avoidant partner must also learn that when they want to run away as fast as they can, this is the time that they need to turn towards their partner. The first step may be that they let the responding partner know that they need some space to think and will be back at some point. When they are able to do this they can next work on trying not to run and instead communicating to the responding partner that they are scared and the feelings they are experiencing. The occurrence of vulnerable, honest communication should start to improve the relationship. This really does require both partners to work together to stop the dysfunctional behavior.
Red flags of the avoidant include not responding reassuringly to simple in-person requests, not showing much interest and concern for your feelings, having avoided cohabitation, and having a history of bad, long distance or no relationships, or running from them (if they are usually the ones to end things rather than put in work). Superficial looks and accomplishments should not be seen as indicating that your new prospect is a success in emotional or relationship spheres. Always remember when you meet someone intriguing that you know next to nothing about their personality until you have seen them in many situations over many months. Don’t try to have a significant relationship with someone until you have enough history with that person to be able to rely on their feelings for you in bad times as well as good. Remind yourself that there are many possible partners out there, and don’t settle emotionally on someone who may not be right for you, who could want all the benefits of your attention without putting effort into the relationship, just because they have shown interest. It is meaningless unless it is sustained, reciprocal and reliable.
Finally, beware the signs of a toxic relationship
In an argument they inflict damage rather than solve problems - afraid to be vulnerable, they must engage in retaliation, stonewalling or one-upmanship
Treat everything like an attack - meet attempts to discuss problems with shut-down, aggression or threats to the relationship so you're afraid to bring things up - and other forms of control (which may be subtle)
You feel constantly criticised (criticism to belittle rather than occasional constructive feedback to improve the relationship). Convince you and themselves you are the problem, rather than admit fault. Don't take responsibility for their actions.
Will show love not when you are feeling strong but only when you are weak, because then it's safe to do so. Conversely may shower with affection in good times, but disrespect, hurt or humiliate when you are vulnerable.
Uncomfortable with your success - don't celebrate your achievements, praise or support you, belittle any successes
Lack of communication or encouragement
Not being truthful
Too much flirting, emotional intimacy outside the relationship, or being hung up on an ex
Doesn't accept your flaws
Uncomfortable spending time with your friends or family
Insufficient support, unable to turn to each other over issues
Questioning your own sanity
Feelings of unworthiness. Negative relationships insidiously leave you feeling like you don't deserve any better.
He didn’t mean to, it was my fault.
He puts up with me and still loves me.
He had a terrible childhood, I feel sorry for him.
I can help him to change with love and support.
He deserves a fair go, he doesn’t mean to hurt me.
This is how the victims of trauma bonding minimise and deny abuse in order to uphold the positive image of the perpetrator. But real love means you feel loved while expressing yourself, and you do not need to search for love to feel good about yourself. Real love is not conditional upon pleasing someone, but being true to yourself. Real love is not romanticised love, but how you deal with the ups and downs of living in reality and seeing each other for who you really are.
If someone is feeling frustrated, trapped and angry, these feelings will eventually turn towards you. Abuse is sneaky. No one thinks they will become a victim. Trust your gut - you are right to feel scared and you are not overreacting. You have not lost out with this person - they are going to mistreat the person in their next relationship too.