AVOIDANT TO SECURE ROADMAP: PART IV
"A good partnership is not so much one between two healthy people (there aren’t many of these on the planet), it’s one between two demented people who have had the skill or luck to find a nonthreatening conscious accommodation between their relative insanities, in large part because they have a good grasp of how they are difficult to live with."
"Relationships usually go wrong not because we are ‘bored’ or ‘with the wrong person’ but because we have failed to make ourselves understood and haven’t managed to properly understand our partner. We often give up on each other too soon. Relationships that, with the right assistance, might have been good enough or even more come unstuck because we don’t work out how to speak about, and listen to, what is really on our minds."
Just because you may have different ways of approaching life, it doesn't mean the relationship has to suffer - you can both benefit from the other's perspective on doing things (which may be part of what attracted you to each other in the first place!)
Both take the time to learn the patterns and tendencies of the other individual, and rather than personalising it and inferring self-criticism, interact with it in a way to show you understand and respect their perspective - that it's each of your unique way of being who you are.
What many people don't realise is that couple conflicts and breakups often come down to one thing: different preferences for intimacy. To enjoy smoothly functioning relationships, partners must eventually learn to negotiate how much intimate contact they will have. People vary in the amount of closeness they prefer. Two people may have quite different thresholds for closeness, and even if they have relatively similar basic thresholds, they are not always going to be in perfect synchrony with each other. They will have different goals; their priorities may differ. One person’s attachment system may be activated while the other person’s exploratory system is activated. The ability to negotiate this honestly is what often determines the success of relationships. If we can recognise what is really at the heart of difficulties we can more quickly get to how we can successful solve those difficulties in ways that genuinely provide for the needs of both.
When things get triggered, it does not necessarily mean you’re in the wrong relationship (unless, of course, there is physical or emotional abuse), but rather that it’s time to heal the false beliefs that led to the self-abandonment and controlling behavior. If even one person becomes aware of how they are trying to control, and they heal their end of the dynamic, everything can change. Power struggles are replaced with compassion and understanding. Adversaries become allies. If once there was jealousy and hypervigilance, there’s now a boundless sense of freedom, trust, and security that makes the partners want to get closer.
No one benefits in a breakup. The problems in your current relationship you will take to the next. Particularly if you’re deeply invested, such as married or with children, you both need to change. It can be exceptionally difficult to get an avoidant to admit to their own behaviour and recognise a need to change (often they’re happy as their own needs are being met) - not least because avoidants tend to feel hostile, act aggressively towards and reject anyone who gets them to confront emotions - and then to proceed to develop enough trust and intimacy to change the underlying demand/withdrawal pattern. This may require compromise and restructuring, as well as developing a shared vocabulary to understand and address what is happening.
“I must have made the wrong choice.”
“He’s a jerk.”
“She treats me badly.”
“If only he would change, we would have a chance.”
“I’m further along than my partner is.”
These are the kinds of statements I hear all the time from clients, and perhaps you’ve said a few of them yourself.
All of these statements are placing blame for the problems in a relationship squarely on the shoulders of the other person. But the reality is that when both people come into a relationship with unhealed issues, they both create painful relationship dynamics.
That means that regardless of the particular problems in your relationship, both of you are creating the problems and keeping them alive. Each of you are playing a part in a finely orchestrated dance, as dysfunctional as it may feel. For example, one person may appear to tyrannically wield all the power: making decisions unilaterally, minimizing what the other partner wants, taking over the finances, etc. Meanwhile, the other partner feels dismissed, intimidated, and taken for granted. But what’s not so obvious here in this common scenario is that this partner is contributing to the dynamic by not speaking up, by going along, and suffering in silence.
When partners realise that they are both contributing to the problems, they can then stop judging and blaming each other. Instead, they can move into the intention to start learning about exactly what is causing their issues in the first place. Someone who has truly evolved beyond their wounding doesn’t feel superior to their partner and isn’t looking for deficits in him or her. When you have uncovered and healed your own issues, you stop playing your part in the painful dynamics that exist within your relationship. You effectively interrupt the pattern by removing your dysfunctional part in it. When one person stops fighting, withdrawing, or resisting, there’s nothing for the other to fight against, complain about, or resist. It’s not always about fighting—withdrawal and resistance are just as common in a struggling relationship.
At this point, one of two things will happen: The painful problems in your relationship will resolve, or it will become evident that your partner isn’t capable of creating the kind of healthy relationship you want. This is why you should never leave a relationship (unless there is abuse) until you’ve healed your part of the dysfunction. Once you heal your end, the relationship might heal. If you don’t take full responsibility for your own healing, you’ll simply go on to repeat similar patterns in your next relationship.
Couple starter strategies
1. Avoid the blame game
When your fears are activated, if we focus on who is at fault or who started it then we perpetuate the fears. Blaming another for our fears (and for our own reactive, unloving behavior) makes the relationship unsafe. Then both people in the relationship end up feeling bad, each believing that our pain is the result of the other’s behaviour. We feel victimized, helpless, stuck, and disconnected from our partner. It’s also easy to see that the anxiety of one partner (coming from the fear of rejection) and the resistance/avoidance of the other partner (coming from the fear of engulfment) create a circular system where each partner’s fears are triggered by how the other deals with their fears. Remember there are pluses and minuses on both sides and no one is the villain. Neither of your reactions are your fault, but they can both be in your control. Accept that you will both need to compromise for the relationship to work - one may need to give their partner more space than they might like, and the other may need to push themselves to be closer. It is important to both adopt secure principles of communication and conflict resolution.
2. Get closer indirectly
Avoidants have the tendency to get lost in their head and overthink things. So opt for quality time while doing activities—such as a hike or run, or even trying out a new sport together. This way, he’s present and in the moment while you bond and connect—and he’ll be more likely to relax and show you affection.
It’s easier for avoidants to get closer if there’s a shared task in between. In experiments, when avoidants were distracted by another task, their ability to repress lessened and their true attachments and feelings were more able to surface. For example, intimacy while cooking dinner and eating together is easier than sitting on a couch and hugging without doing nothing. So use the distraction technique of doing activities together to make it easier to get close to your partner and access their loving feelings.
"Researchers distracted the avoidants by giving them another task to perform - like solving a puzzle or responding to another cue - while a word recognition task was going on. In these situations, the avoidants reacted to words related to their own attachment worries ("separation," "loss," "death") just as quickly as other people did. Distracted by another task their ability to repress lessened and their true attachment feelings and concerns were able to surface"
- Attached by Levin and Heller
3. Avoid the pursuer-distance dynamic, affirm each other's way of doing things
A pursue-withdraw dynamic is when one person pursues the other’s feelings and the other withdraws out of fear that they will only make the situation worse. If this dynamic continues for an extended amount of time, it can be very bad for a relationship. But, as Scott R. Woolley, Ph.D., explains on the Gottman Relationship Blog, this dynamic can be fixed by identifying one another’s underlying needs in conflict situations.
Some couples are happy with pursuit and distance because in many instances the avoidant likes to be pursued and caught - they may want to be close to their partner but are psychologically unable to show it. Alternatively the pursuer may like to pursue because they are unable to let go of the responsibility. Other couples, however, resort to their respective corners where one has grown resentful of having to carry the responsibility for the relationship, and the other has grown resentful of feeling put upon, or if the pursuer has retreated, of no longer being pursued.
It's easy and common to slip into this familiar pattern. When problems arise there is very often one partner who falls into the role of distancer and the other of pursuer. Check out this and this on how to fix it.
Also read scripts to soothe an avoidant partner, an anxious partner, and how to calm yourself if you are feeling triggered. Be sympathetic to each other's different needs around expressing emotions, making efforts to provide but also respecting each other's limitations, otherwise the emotively inclined person will eventually feel uncared for and the apathetically inclined partner will feel burdened by their partner's need for emotional support.
Both ask yourself what you might be doing to create some of the behaviour that angers you in the other person
Include empathy for the other when you speak about your needs. Openly acknowledge the validity of the other's perspective: "I understand that you want to have connection/space - that's normal and I appreciate that about you"
No coercion - convincing/pleading/persuading. Speak in a calm, non-coercive way, respecting who each other is and giving them the freedom to do the thinking themselves
Resist immature forms of communication - finger pointing, sarcasm, sulking etc
Use neutral moments as times for affirmation - let it be known you notice the good things
You and your family member, friend, or partner are quite different. You react in different ways to one another. It takes a great deal of self-awareness to recognise your tendencies and actively work to correct them. If you tend to shut down when emotional conversations begin, a partner can actively push you to be open. If your partner becomes emotionally charged, you can employ ways to promote calmness. A partner needs to take energy out to encourage the avoidant back when they back away. And the avoidant needs to take up a bigger share of the space to assuage the partner’s anxiety. You can hold one another accountable, and you can become better communicators. Little by little, you can find healthier ways to communicate.
4. Relationship maintenance
Good communication is the key to a successful relationship. If you went through a problem, ask what were the dynamics that weren't working and how to handle the conversations differently - "what did you need when we went through these patterns?" Over time, reassuring each other of your care and respect for their needs will replace a fear-based connection (reaching out or acting out only when triggered) to a care-based connection.
Be always looking to improve yourselves individually. Typically when there is a problem there is responsibility on each side - remember that all we can really focus on is trying to make ourselves better. Take responsibility for your own personal development and be humble about taking on feedback, to avoid stagnation and self-actualisation.
Try some of these relationship maintenance games:
Connect: "a card game to foster connection"
Relationship Reboot: "Relationships usually go wrong not because we are ‘bored’ or ‘with the wrong person’ but because we have failed to make ourselves understood and haven’t managed to properly understand our partner. We often give up on each other too soon. Relationships that, with the right assistance, might have been good enough (or even more than that) come unstuck because we don’t work out how to speak about, and listen to, what is really on our minds. This box is a tool with which to save love."
5. Couples counselling
Couples counselling is a great way to take an objective step back and find solutions if you have been experiencing negative patterns together, find healthier ways to communicate and give the relationship an M.O.T. (article: should you go to couples therapy?)
Beginning any form of counselling is daunting, but people generally find it harder to start couple counselling than individual therapy. Instead of exposing your inner-most hopes and fears to a supportive stranger, your partner will be in the seat opposite ready to disagree. He or she already knows so much about you from your day-to-day life together that laying bare your soul or secrets can leave you feeling particularly naked. There is the added fear that the truth will upset or hurt your partner and make a bad situation even worse. When I finish counselling and ask couples to look back over their therapy, most admit that, although they knew I was trained to be impartial, they feared I would side with their partner. This is because couple counselling awakens long dormant sibling rivalry issues: "Will the therapist love me most?"
If you can get over the hump of entering relationship therapy, the rewards are often much greater than those of individual counselling. In many cases, couples get an immediate short-term boost. This is partly down to a sense of relief that something is finally being done, but mainly because our partner agreeing to this ordeal is concrete proof that she or he cares. Next, it soon becomes clear that a couple counsellor's responsibility is to the relationship and both of you will get equal time, attention and understanding. On a deeper level, couple work avoids the victim or "poor me" attitude that can be a by-product of individual therapy, which encourages people to dig deeper into their own worldview.
"A couples counsellor is an unbiased third partner. In joint therapy the aim is often to reduce the avoidant partner's reliance on deactivation and distance and for the couple to increase their capacity to co-regulate. But they can also point out codependent/enabling tendencies in the partner they may not be aware of. We hope for the avoidant partner to become more aware of their habit of under-responding. In a good outcome for the couple, the relationship will become more of a secure base and safe haven: a source of comfort and a place from which they can both go and and explore the world. We hope for care-seeking and care-giving strategies to be more appropriate and effective, and for the couple to have more confidence in their capacity for repairing ruptures, for each to feel understood and then to risk new attachment interactions with each other. For clients with avoidant strategies, we would hope for increased capacity to tolerate and share affects and thus to communicate about painful experience without minimising or idealising (they are prone to do this because just thinking about their relational needs threatens to destabilise their defence)."
Emotionally Focused Therapy
EFT is an attachment-based therapeutic intervention for couples. Relationship partners’ inability to manage their own attachment insecurities results in defensive responses to conflict, such as unresponsiveness and inaccessibility, which in turn result in further conflict and dissatisfaction. Defensive responses may also prevent relationship partners from providing support to and seeking support from one another during times of stress. The goal of EFT is to transform a distressed relationship into a secure attachment bond by minimising defensive reactions to conflict and teaching partners to use one another as sources of comfort. Given avoidant individuals’ tendency to rely on defensive strategies, especially in the face of conflict, and their apparent difficulties in both seeking and providing support, EFT may be particularly useful and has been shown to increase participants’ relationship satisfaction.
A joint way out: healing insecure bonding together within a conscious, committed, cooperative relationship
(from 'Counter-dependency: The Flight from Intimacy')
Any developmental process for secure bonding and psychological separation not completed as a child carries forward to the next stage of development. Unmet needs recycle over and over again unconsciously in your relationships as trauma dramas, until they are met. Avoidants are recycling these incomplete processes. Because they recognise this they try to hide this from others, and use indirect or covert means to meet their needs. Eliminating these requires breaking through the protective wall of defences and learning new skills together that open the way to true intimacy. But avoidants can be confident that true intimacy is not unbearable closeness: it is real understanding, respect for differing needs and interdependence.
Close relationships activate all our old traumas: our memories of engulfment, invasion, betrayal, abuse or manipulation. All the feelings related to our unfinished business and unmet needs begin to surface when we become close and intimate in a relationship. This is bad news. Avoidants will create conflict when the relationship is too intimate, so the stage is set for intense competition and conflict, resulting in little authentic intimacy. Much of couples conflict in fact involves a struggle to determine how much intimacy and how much separation couples can tolerate in a relationship. Avoidants often flee at this point.
The good news is that if avoidants can move beyond their instinct to flee and stay the course within a relationship, uncomfortable as it may initially feel, this is the first step to healing these counter-dependency issues. Partners in a sustainable relationship redefine intimacy and place it in a developmental context that includes healing their incomplete developmental processes. When we see the wounded inner child within each other and develop empathy for the pain each child has experienced, they are able to move to making an agreement to cooperate and help each other transform his or her inner child by contracting for corrective reparenting from each other. These ways of healing wounds develop an intimacy so deep it can be described as ‘touching souls’.
This type of work requires people with avoidant attachment patterns to take a leap of faith. They may become scared initially because they must become vulnerable and risk being hurt again. Because these are relationship dysfunctions, the best place to heal them is within relationships.
It takes a committed partnership to do this. For relationships to support change, partner must:
Agree to work cooperatively for a few months to allow enough time for results
Create a set of goals to accomplish together during this time, making sure they are manageable
Cooperate with your partner to heal your trauma through reparenting contracts
Tell the truth about who you really are and what your needs really are
Be assertive: be willing to ask for what you want 100% of the time.
Share power and find mutually developing solutions to all conflicts
Negotiate with your partner to meet your needs for separateness and closeness and to create opportunities for becoming interdependent
Agree to make changes in yourself or your behaviour if necessary
Commit to learning new communication skills that will help you make the relationship work
Set aside enough time each week to work on your relationship. This is important: if you don’t do it, it won’t happen.
Do periodically evaluate how you’re doing, and make corrections if necessary.
Agree to resolve conflicts without using power plays, threats or manipulation.
Don’t expect it to happen without planning or to work smoothly at first. Be patient and learn how to work on your relationship together.
Don’t have one foot out the door. Do close the exits by agreeing to stay in the relationship during a contracted period of time and not running away if there is conflict. If this makes you feel unsafe remember there will be a date when you can leave if you want to. Once you get there, you may also choose to negotiate future review dates. This can give one partner the safety from feeling trapped while removing the constant threat of separation.
Integrate: see your partner as a complete and separate person with some traits you like and some you don’t like
Such committed, conscious, cooperative relationships can be between friends, parents and children, or as a couple. But avoidants will need to learn to be vulnerable and take risks. Rather than remain guarded about their problems or needs, they must learn to ask for help from others, be less self-centred in close relationships, and develop empathy. Working together in a partnership is a great opportunity to teach each other how to develop and sustain intimacy.
The development of intimacy requires avoidants to learn important communication skills. It can take considerable time and effort, because it requires a shift from self-centredness to other-centredness, and learning how to safely release old repressed feelings.
Read Counter-dependency: The Flight from Intimacy for further details.
Finally remember: good relationships are important for our health
A bad relationship is defined by carelessness in requests and responses to each other's needs. Bad relationships harm your health. So do separations. For those in these relationships, an adversarial and undermining connection is worse than no relationship at all. Hostile relationships cause constant physiological stress.
A demand/withdraw relationship results in a frustrating cycle of contempt and anger, which hurts us psychologically and physically. It is documented that withdrawal/demand dynamics cause bowel, urinary, and erectile problems, adrenal fatigue and cortisol problems. Frequent worries and demands, suppressed emotions or frequent conflicts are linked to 2×3 times mortality, as well as cancer, heart disease and liver disease. Those who are sensitive or empathic are more likely to develop chronic fatigue and they are also more likely to get into and stay in relationships with predatory individuals such as narcissists.
There are heart health benefits to being happily married, and lower odds of diseases if married. Social isolation results in a death risk more than twice as high, as we are pro-social creatures. Our perceptions of relationships also influence us. Men release more cortisol in response to maritial conflict, with stressful social relationships are vulnerable to dying, and end up depressed if unhappily married. Marriage is, however, also more beneficial for men. Marrieds tend to be happier and healthier.
A relationship can be a source of stress, but the right partner and dynamic reduces stress. For this reason, it is important to determine if a partner undermines more often then they support.