Avoidant Attachment, Part 2: The Downside of Preservation

Couple sits together on window seat, deep in conversation, leaning back and looking relaxedEditor’s note: This article is the second in a two-part series. See Avoidant Attachment, Part 1: The Dependence Dilemma.

When we live in a continual state of freeze, we aren’t only hiding, we are living alone (even when we’re in a relationship). Focused on the preservation of Self and resources, driven by self-sufficiency and independence, we come to believe that outside support is not an option. From the outside, it may seem as if we are hoarding food, money, time, words, emotions, and so on. It can also be framed as a conservation of resources in a closed (isolated) system that does not expect any exchange of resources between systems.

With limited resources, efficiency becomes paramount. Many people on the avoidant end of the attachment spectrum may come to depend on the creation and maintenance of a predictable and efficient routine that does not require energy expenditure on avoidable and unresolvable situations like interpersonal conflict.

The Myth of Functional Dissociation

The freeze state, which prepares us to hold and preserve until safety or support arrives, is a very efficient survival response. As such, it brings with it the valuable tool of self-regulation by dissociation. If something feels uncomfortable, we just turn it off. Compartmentalize. Stuff it away. By breaking life into fragments, we can remain present with the portions that are tolerable.

While in many cases this happens automatically, we may also feel as if we’ve mastered dissociation. Though this can happen at both ends of the attachment spectrum, on the avoidant side it can feel functional and intentional. We then might ask our anxious partners (often with disdain versus curiosity, because resentment does tend to build in avoidant attachment), “Why can’t you just turn off your emotion? Why does it have to get so big?”

Dissociation does bring with it some challenges. Memories, emotions, and bodily sensations may become inaccessible. Sometimes the remaining present feels unbearable, so we disappear. If we feel unsafe and dissociative while in a particular moment of life, sometimes we appreciate that moment (or entire relationship) only in retrospect.

Dissociation can also be activated by conflict. The more the other person amplifies, the smaller and more still we might become. Some even dissociate to a point where they become mute (or even fall asleep) during an argument.

If we feel unsafe and dissociative while in a particular moment of life, sometimes we appreciate that moment (or entire relationship) only in retrospect.

So we continue to live in an isolated bubble, preserved and protected, our resources limited because exchange feels unsafe and we believe “Nobody really loves anybody.”

Communication Resignation

“See me. Don’t see me. Get away from me if you can’t see me.”

The spotlight is our nemesis, and words take effort because they elicit our own physical emotional expression, which those around us may judge and reject. The words we put out into the world can be used as weapons against us: they not only reduce the deniability factor when the spotlight comes back around to us, but when others don’t like our words, we may face conflict.

We often resent those closest to us for their perceived judgment and rejection, for crossing boundaries we never articulated, or for not knowing how to draw us out from our silence (that to us is speaking volumes). From our perspective, we’ve been sending out very clear signals that nobody is picking up.

There is a fatalism inherent in the freeze state.

The Evidence

Showing a person on the avoidant end of the attachment spectrum that it’s okay to need people can be a hard sell. So, let’s take a look at the evidence. The following traits are often indicators of an unacknowledged need for people:

  • An instinct to hide or diminish personal expression or physical presence in public settings
  • Limited assertiveness until trapped (like a cornered animal)
  • Caretaking, or lack of self-care when in the presence of others
  • A struggle to access empathy in conflict
  • A focus on independence or one foot out the door (“I don’t need you.”)
  • A search for a partner who looks good or presents well rather than one who fits (with the belief this will reduce negative focus)
  • Distraction, deflection, or disengagement in response to uncomfortable emotion
  • Functional dissociation (“Just turn it off.”)
  • Dissociative activities (movies, social media, porn, and so on) dominate the seemingly elusive alone time when a loved one leaves, suggesting discomfort in a space that was so ardently pursued

Many of us learn early in life to separate from uncomfortable sensations and emotions by dissociating and compartmentalizing. We may become so good at it that we don’t recognize when it’s happening. This is how we handle things like separation. We don’t realize we miss anyone because we dissociate from loneliness. And when they return from that trip to the store, we can fall right back into our story that says we need nobody, that nobody should need anyone.

Healing

If the dilemma lies in our dissociation from discomfort and our own internal denial of social needs, then healing comes in recognition and gradual exposure to discomfort in feeling and expressing those needs. This healing might include leaning vulnerably on others and feeling met at our own level. A sense of agency in meeting our own social needs can feel liberating, and as our bodies learn to relax, over time we may find it even easier to meet those needs. We experience others as more safe and open as we ourselves open up to their presence and accept ourselves the way we wish to be accepted by others.

These tips can help further healing:

  • Notice your use of dissociation and dissociative activities.
  • Notice your breathing and heartbeat when conflict approaches.
  • Speak more. Experiment with using words, directly and precisely, even when uncomfortable. (Keep in mind that language centers in the brain can go offline when heart rate increases or breathing becomes constricted.)
  • It’s okay to ask about intent instead of automatically attributing hostile or manipulative intent to the actions of others.
  • It’s okay to ask for do-overs.
  • It’s okay to ask for breaks during conflict and return once bodies calm.
  • It’s okay to express what you know they need to hear. You may be surprised at the lack of judgment, even if you “go overboard.”
  • Learn to apologize.
  • Express a need each day.
  • Express an emotion each day.
  • Experiment around emotions, discovering which feel safe and which feel like a struggle.
  • Notice patterns you’ve inherited from parents or caregivers. Own those as changeable generational patterns versus unchangeable identity.
  • Read and memorize the list of avoidant strategies and notice when you use them.
  • Know that transition from self-time to together-time might feel unsafe and energetically draining. If we learn to recognize and observe safety in connection (in the present moment), this can become a source of energy rather than a drain on our reserves.
  • Securely attached people more often make decisions that are good for all partners in a relationship.
  • Learn to differentiate fear from anger (in self and others) so you can meet your partner when they need you most and when you need them most.
  • Get out of your routine. Travel together. Get away from familiar resources to places where your partner becomes your resource and automatic and dissociative activities are not an option.
  • Make some household chores a shared process.
  • Articulate thoughts and emotions as they arise, just for the sake of feeling known.
  • Ask for the spotlight.
  • Ask for help, even if it’s just a small favor each day.
  • Join a group.
  • Notice resources you hoard and practice sharing them until it feels comfortable.
  • If your relationships feel “broken,” find a therapist who specializes in attachment.
  • When your partner asks for a big response instead of a calm exterior and moving toward them feels unbearable, consider leaning into their emotion, validating it, taking responsibility for your part, and experimenting with the idea that allowing things to get bigger may bring you closer to the safe space you seek.
  • Observe someone loving you. Notice their face, their posture, and the experience in your own body when holding that space. Love need not be felt in retrospect alone. It can feel very present, and this is where the healing happens.

References:

  1. Kinnison, J. (2016, October 18). Type: Dismissive-avoidant attachment style. Retrieved from https://jebkinnison.com/bad-boyfriends-the-book/type-dismissive-avoidant
  2. Sattin, N. (2015, December 29). 19: Recipe for a secure, healthy relationship with Stan Tatkin. (2015, December 29). Retrieved from http://www.neilsattin.com/blog/2015/12/19-recipe-for-a-secure-healthy-relationship-with-stan-tatkin
  3. Tatkin, S. (2012). Wired for love: How understanding your partners brain can help you defuse conflicts and spark intimacy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jeremy McAllister, MA, LPC, therapist in Portland, Oregon

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 32 comments
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  • Matsha M

    Matsha M

    February 7th, 2018 at 6:45 AM

    My wife and I have problems in our marriage. We are no longer intimate. There is past problems of cheating although resolved our relationship is still not working.

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    February 14th, 2018 at 11:26 AM

    Attachment is the primary source of ‘unresolved’. Other arguments will come to some resolution, but people will play out the same attachment arguments over and over, day after day, for decades. This is where it’s often valuable to bring in a third party to help with ‘translation’ of attachment messages to one another. It sounds like you’re uncomfortable enough to post here, so potentially ready to begin experimenting with other changes as well. I hope the best for you.

  • Lance V

    Lance V

    February 8th, 2018 at 4:31 PM

    I had an ex-girlfriend who was like this. She came from a broken home, so “hiding” was her default state. If someone ever raised their voice at her, even in a happy-shouty way, she would end the conversation ASAP and leave. The only people she would ever relax around were me and her little sister (Her older siblings got the same cold shoulder as everyone else.). Is it possible to be avoidant around most people but securely attached to a few? Or do you become secure once you have a few healthy relationships under your belt, and the rest is just a matter of trust?

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    February 14th, 2018 at 11:20 AM

    Lance, yes, it’s very common to be triggered by ‘happy-shouty’ or any intense emotion that ‘demands’ response. Secure attachment is still possible. Trust can be learned. It requires some selective risk-taking. It may start with just one other person, and with that relationship as a reference there is a lot of space to build.

  • Jan

    Jan

    February 9th, 2018 at 9:55 AM

    Really enjoyed this article and the practical tips. I like the idea of “it’s okay to ask for a do-over” and to keep practicing the skills. Thanks!

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    February 14th, 2018 at 11:11 AM

    Thank you, Jan. :)

  • Doron

    Doron

    February 15th, 2018 at 3:13 AM

    Thank you for sharing. It is a blessing .

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    February 15th, 2018 at 12:14 PM

    Thank you, Doron.

  • Gordon

    Gordon

    May 1st, 2018 at 8:32 AM

    Hello Jeremy and thank you for making your article available which i found be one of the most insightful i’ve read and i’ve read a lot over the years. So many articles come from the position of the partner of the avoidant or just describe the traits and their possible causes, which though helpful doesn’t really describe what its like to suffer as someone with an avoidant attachment style. Sadness, confusion and frustration are some of the words to describe my own experience of relationships over my adult life and reading your article i could identify with some much of what you describe and somehow that in itself is a relief. Many thanks Gordon

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    May 4th, 2018 at 10:01 AM

    Thank you, Gordon. I do agree that the avoidant perspective is under-represented in the field. And thank you for offering the connection of saying, “I’ve felt this too.”

  • Dawne

    Dawne

    May 12th, 2018 at 10:15 PM

    Hello Jeremy. What an enlightening and informative 2 part series on this attachment style; one in which I am personally familiar with and affected by. I believe I am currently in a long-term relationship with an avoidant attachment fellow. It seems he tends to have a special knack for drawing in and creating intimacy and closeness, but then seems to become critical and sensitive to imaginated slights and perceived issues about what I think or feel (which I don’t); thereby validating the creation of distance, instant devaluing our contact and relationship and a “you just do your thing for a while and I’ll do mine” type of mechanism. It always seems to come out of nowhere, and usually leaves me scratching my head like “what just happened?” moment. I’ve known instinctively it’s “off” and seems counter healthy/normal to me, and I struggle at times walking away because he is genuinely a special person, and the connection (when it’s good and he is able to be present with it), is exceptional and seems a good “fit” and natural to us. He spontaneously mentions this. Until…

    Your information has been truly helpful in my understanding and decision making. Your inclusion of loved ones “loosing their light…” and investing/extending less is exactly what’s happening, and I don’t want to change and loose my naturally free and easy-going, generous tendencies in love for this. However, I feel compassion for him, and do love him, and have a sense of loyalty which inspires me to try all I can before tossing in the towel. Which brings me to a request for advice, if you would be able to take the time, along with a quandary: Since avoidant people seem to avoid the issue and protect themselves … how to request and/or invite his engagement with a third party without triggering his “freeze” or outright disconnection? I mentioned someone who could help us feel better and make things easier (simple emotional language) before, and he took the “I’m content the way I am. I don’t need someone to tell me I’m screwed up, I already know I’m screwed up. Therapists are manipulative.” reaction. Any suggestions? Or just face reality and compassionately break things off? I don’t want to do that, but I’m also ready to hear it straight. Thank you in advance, and thank you again for your articles. I feel I’ve learned a lot. :-)
    Dawne

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    May 15th, 2018 at 1:24 PM

    Hi Dawne.
    It’s not uncommon to feel completely drawn in to this type of dynamic, and the one on the avoidant end may be quite adept at reading needs and playing the chameleon during the courtship phase, up to the point where dependence sets in – that’s where attachment patterns start replaying themselves. After that, resentments start building, and your partner may be looking for ways to justify his need for space – as if it’s something he has to prove, even if it means blaming you or others for his struggles in life. It may seem to come out of nowhere because he is unaware for himself, because resentment has been building but he has been hiding it for fear of getting trapped in conflict, because in his mind he has been sending every possible signal (aside from actually verbalizing), or just because his body is reacting to some threat – potentially not even related to you – and he knows he can regulate in his own space but not while others are around.

    There are actually quite a few less-threatening ways to make requests to any person that defaults to avoidant strategies – and most of these ways require finding space for him where he does not feel ‘on the spot’ and feels no pressure to give an immediate response. Basically, it means presenting requests to him while he is in his safe single-person system. This might be a letter, an email, a text message, or even a phone call or in-person request right before leaving him for some period of time, while he is transitioning to alone time. It’s something presented without panic or urgency – just clear and direct with a request that he think about it over time. If it really is a panic issue for you, he will pick up on that – especially if the request is made in person or he can hear your voice. The more he believes you’re okay and calm, the easier it will be for him to hear. He may put it off. He may say he’ll think about it. It may take longer than you like. Just remember he moves on a different timeline and he’s conserving energy/protecting status quo. It’s a fine line between letting things return to default versus gently maintaining your boundaries and requests as something you know you need and know you can follow through on and still be okay. If he doesn’t trust therapists, it may be a deflection, and it may be real and connected to past experience, so just maintain your own legitimate requests. This is something you need. It doesn’t make him a bad person. It’s just something you are not flexible on. And he needs to know the places where you’re not flexible, because you may have played the flexible role in the past. If he needs to pick the therapist himself, let him have some level of control. Just stay with what you know is true for you, and utilize all the internal and external support you have. Best wishes to you both.

  • Dawne

    Dawne

    May 15th, 2018 at 7:20 PM

    Jeremy, thank you. Incredibly spot on. Wow, have you been listening to our conversations and observing us from afar, perhaps? ;-) Very helpful insight and suggestions. Can’t say that enough. I appreciate you taking the time. Blessings to you.
    Dawne

  • Bernadette M

    Bernadette M

    May 13th, 2018 at 11:39 AM

    Hello Jeremy I’ve felt like this in close relationships like there’s a perspex wall between me and a man. I’m terrified of being hurt and vulnerable. I have no idea what how i can be safe in a relationship to take down the wall. The article felt overwhelming and upsetting as ive had 3 failed relationships in 7 years ..2 with men who were secure/ anxious the other avoidant. Huge anxiety and panic attacks with secure/ anxious men but none with avoidant. I find it hard to stat out of my head and in my heart in feelings.
    Bernadette

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    May 15th, 2018 at 1:38 PM

    Hi Bernadette. This invisible wall you refer to is actually something that is quite changeable in therapy – in practicing connection gradually and in a safe setting where someone else is attuned to your bodily reactions and there to help you regulate whenever discomfort becomes too intense. In mindful/somatic therapy, we can slow things down, examine the whole sequence of internal events one by one, recognize bodily reactions in the moment, and practice being with intense emotion and getting outcomes that genuinely FEEL better. With attachment work, it’s important to have another calm body around to help you witness and reflect patterns, even if your eyes are closed and you’re just looking inward. I would encourage you to find someone trained in mindful-somatic attachment work to work on resourcing and finding ways to gently access your body and all the information there. It’s so common for us to move into our heads when the sensations in the body get overwhelming. Our thinking and planning (though sometimes frustrating themselves) can provide some sense of control and even feel like a safe retreat from the physical threats of the body. There is good information in what you already know: people that avoid intimacy feel safer to you and bring less of an immediate physical response in your body. Best wishes to you.

  • Bernadette M.

    Bernadette M.

    September 14th, 2018 at 10:22 AM

    Hi Jeremy
    Apologies for not replying sooner. I have just seen this now due to the last reply sent from Luke. I’ve been seeing a psychologist for a few months but find her energy overwhelming as she has reflected how i talk around my feelings but not really with them. We are at stalemate as she has given me practical exercises like sharing something about myself ..I have no problem doing that with friends or colleagues but it’s on a one to one situation. I’m finding it hard to trust her and that she gets me ..she tells me to trust her but I find there’s no continuity so we hope all over the place with her giving me random exercises to practice sharing parts of myself but that takes time as we spend it with another and take turns opening up bit by bit.

    I will see if I can find a therapist who uses Somatic/ Mindfulness to help.
    I recognise that I fantasise about a man i find attractive, when in reality i have no idea if we are compatible..another avoidant strategy!

    Thank you and kind regards
    Bernadette

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    September 14th, 2018 at 4:13 PM

    Hi, Bernadette. Thank you for visiting the GoodTherapy blog! If you would like to find a mental health professional in your area, please feel free to return to our homepage, http://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area. If you’re looking for a counselor that practices a specific type of therapy, or who deals with specific concerns, you can make an advanced search by clicking here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/advanced-search.html

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. Alternatively, you are welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

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  • Luke

    Luke

    September 14th, 2018 at 7:30 AM

    Good afternoon, Jeremy. Thank you for writing this article, it was very enlightning. I’m almost 21 years old and I feel like it’s possible I have fearful-avoidant attachment. My parents didn’t spend a lot of time with me during my first years of life and one of them was abusive towards me. I would spend all my time with my toys and watching TV, so I believe that didn’t help in terms of emotional development. As a kid, I was very dismissive in terms of other’s feelings, being cold and using humour to cope, but at the same time, I didn’t think that was the real “me”, since after that I would be surprised of the way I acted because I didn’t want to hurt other people. I still do that, but I learnt how to have more tact so I just forget that part of my mind and listen to people and give them the emotional support and advices they need. I am seen as a very empathetic and kind person who cares about others, but I don’t feel connected to no one. I just feel like I have a moral code and do to others what I would like them to do with me. I don’t like the idea of being abandoned and rejected, however, since I don’t bond with others, I understand if that happens. As a kid, I feared that so much I would cry, but as I got older, that diminished, even though I still don’t like the idea. When I am anxious, during the moment, I don’t feel anything and just do what I have to do, thinking after how I did it, considering I have anxiety. I hate to show vulnerability and I hate to see strong emotional reactions in front of me, but I don’t say anything to not hurt the person. I pretend it’s ok when in fact I just want to get away. So, basically, I don’t understand how people can show strong emotions and I am dismissive toward them, but I act extremely “nice” so people like me and see me as a good person. I don’t mind conflict, but if it’s with people “close” to me, I close myself because I don’t know what to do. I can connect so much better when I watch/read something, even the news, maybe because I’m by myself and I don’t expect reciprocation. Is this fearful-avoidant attachment and do I experience dissociation?

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    September 14th, 2018 at 3:47 PM

    Hi Luke,

    Thank you for your message. You’ve obviously been paying attention and building awareness around yourself and your patterns. From the pieces you’ve shared here, you’ve listed a few avoidant ‘symptoms’ / strategies: playing a role, caretaking (a word to denote again the role and perceived necessity of it, versus caregiving which feels more natural), fear of hurting others, an awareness of anxious attachment in your past (fear of abandonment) that seemed to diminish as you grew older (which is common and frames avoidant attachment as a defense against or way to contain or separate/dissociate from underlying anxious attachment), fear of vulnerability and strong emotions (and the ability to hide internal responses in presence of someone else’s dysregulation – to stay small and quiet inside to avoid escalating anything), closed off in conflict with those closest to you because you do not know how to respond, finding connection when alone, skilled at reading people/empathy (often a survival mechanism), and when anxious feelings arise, you say, “I don’t feel anything,” which is a commonly reported description of dissociation. On the outside, without meeting you, these sound more like dismissive-avoidant patterns versus fearful-avoidant/disorganized patterns. For more confirmation of this framework in your life, there are many attachment quizzes available online. Best wishes…

  • Luke

    Luke

    September 15th, 2018 at 3:45 AM

    Hello Jeremy,
    Thank you for the quick reply, it was indeed interesting to read this and other articles on this website. I’ve started to pay more attention to my strategies and ways to cope some years ago to understand myself better. After reading different articles about style attachments and even doing tests online, I thought it could be fearful-avoidant since I have low self-esteem and trust issues, while dismissive is associated with high self-esteem, although some tests I made would say fearful-avoidant and others dismissive. Is it possible for dismissive type to have low self-esteem, anxiety and depression symptoms as well?

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    September 17th, 2018 at 12:55 PM

    Luke, first of all, it’s amazing that you’re even building this awareness in your early twenties.
    A lot of this attachment stuff is not cut-and-dry or black-and-white. We can carry strategies from both extremes and even a few secure strategies at the same time. Different people and situations will trigger different responses. We may have an overall pattern, and depending on which relationship fills your thoughts at the time, results on quizzes will come out differently. If we tend toward one extreme and pair up with someone on the other end, it’s very possible to polarize one another and move to more extreme positions.
    With self-esteem, those on the avoidant side tend to be seen as more confident. This is not necessarily the case internally. There’s just a lot of effort to be seen a certain way and to avoid any negative judgment from those around us. So, yes, someone that would identify as dismissive can also have low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Depending on their level of awareness and comfort in dependence on others, they may even have friends that they allow to see some of these vulnerable aspects of self.

  • Luke

    Luke

    September 18th, 2018 at 11:43 AM

    Hello Jeremy,
    Again, thank you for the quick reply. I’ve started to get interested in psychology and mental health when I realized something was not “right” and soon developed a need for introspection. I had no idea about thonse nuances, especially since dismissive attachment seemed more associated with confident people who really think they don’t need no one while fearful-avoidant still have some hope in building healthy relations and know they need them, but are afraid to do so. Is it also normal to be perceived as “cold” and “weird” because it’s easier to create attachments to fictional characters, for example, rather than people and be to called manipulative? I don’t know if that’s a pattern, but I’ve been told I’m impossible to read and can manipulate others easily, which makes me feel like a bad person and that’s my biggest concern: that I don’t care about no one and only use people, which makes my self-esteem get even lower. I’m seriously considering therapy to help me overcome this type of attachment and try to gradually get closer to a secure attachment.

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    September 18th, 2018 at 12:24 PM

    Hi Luke,
    If you’re interested in psychology, I would definitely recommend some therapy. Depending on the approach and your connection and safety, it can feel like nothing, or it can feel like an adventure, where you are actually learning and growing and connecting to yourself and others. Yes, dismissive perspective often involved beliefs, like, “I don’t need anyone.” That’s counter-dependence. It’s protective – in the idea that you’ll be okay. It’s also reactive or adaptive, in the sense that it is secondary to the belief that nobody will come, nobody will be there to support you. And, at a third level, it presents what you believe others need to hear – that you do not need them, that you will not burden them, so it suggests memories of exposure to people that reflected you as a burden. For the dismissive, it is very common to be perceived as cold, non-reactive, flat-faced, hiding, reserved. And, yes, those of us on the avoidant side will attach more easily to fantasy, because we believe the connection we want is not possible in real life. We can even attach to future-objects, or to the idea that ‘someday’ we will be seen, recognized, appreciated, connected. And, yes, anytime someone is hard to read, some others will feel manipulated, just because they suspect they are not getting the full, genuine story. It is possible to care about others. The struggle lies in trust. It’s not that we see ourselves as ‘better’. It’s that we struggle to trust anyone outside of self. We expect judgment and rejection, so more often we tend to keep it all inside — which ironically creates judgment and rejection because nobody really knows us.
    You’re getting an early start on this exploration. Just the fact that you’re writing here suggests that you do care, that you do feel in big ways, that you desire to connect, even if some underlying beliefs (like counter-dependence, for example) sometimes inhibit your expression in relationship. Those of us on the avoidant side tend to choose physical calmness over intimacy. Just know that intimacy and conflict come hand in hand, and that it is entirely possible to adapt to a space where conflict actually feels like a healthy and positive aspect of relationship. Best wishes…

  • Louise

    Louise

    October 2nd, 2018 at 8:26 PM

    Hello Jeremy,
    I have found this to be a very interesting article and believe this Avoidance Attachment may pertain to my personal situation with my (ex) partner. I personally think I have Anxious Attachment. I was with someone for 4.5 years until we broke up 6 months ago. We are still seeing each other on a weekly basis though, and would ultimately like to make things work. In the beginning, our relationship moved very quickly. We got engaged 3 months in and originally had a lot of boundaries (e.g. neither of us would hang out with someone with the opposite sex). As time went on, he was no longer comfortable with a lot of these boundaries and made it clear they needed to change. Freedom seemed ever so important to him and always has been. He had never had anyone care what he was doing, where he was going or who he was talking to before. He pulled away from me almost because he was guarding his privacy when I was just trying to be caring and interested.

    He definitely was neglected as a child and continues to be by his family. He ended up being raised by his father who had brain damage from the Vietnam war. I think so many people in his life have let him down, especially his mother. He just seems so intent on being free and independent and doesn’t want to rely on anyone. I will say that despite him feeling that way, during the majority of our relationship he was being taken care of (mainly monetarily) by me. While he has expressed gratitude for this, he said he only ever wished to be understood by me and that was all he really wanted. His love language is definitely one to create new experiences together like traveling whereas mine tends to be more gift-giving. He is an incredibly good listener, a fair person and non-judgmental which is what first attracted me to him.

    After awhile he no longer wanted to be engaged, but still be together. It broke my heart. He said he would rather make the commitment to be with one another each day, than commit to a whole future. I think the “rest of your life” thing freaked him out. He has said sometimes he is afraid to talk about his emotions with me because he says I’ll get too upset or emotional. He also thinks I will judge him if he opens up because I openly express my judgements about others to him. He remembers things I said very early on in our relationship that I don’t remember but has clung onto those memories because they made him feel emotionally “unsafe” expressing himself. One example is I told him to stop PMSing once when it was probably myself who was and he hadn’t done anything wrong. He can’t forget that. He also seems to share more on social media than he does with me in person. He is very active on social media. It is almost like a superficial family for him, because the relationships from there just seem to lack depth from my perspective. On the very rare occasion he has expressed fear at being so close to me and that he has never been so close to anyone in his life as to me.

    The very biggest issue is now that we have been separated he feels physically ill in my presence. His stomach hurts, head is foggy, his head and chest hurt. it makes him SO uncomfortable that he can’t even talk to me for days after following an episode. I think it’s anxiety although he never uses that word. I have been seeing a therapist all summer and when I have suggested one to him he completely shirts the idea down because he believes that therapists teach people to behave in a way that is disingenuous to themselves. I obviously don’t agree but you can’t make someone go to therapy.

    He loves me, he wants to be with me but seems to love me the most when he’s had a chance to miss me the most, like after several days of not talking or whatever.

    He thinks that if he could get rid of the physical ailments that he feels around me we could make everything work. I don’t know how to help him!! He says it’s nothing I’ve done and it’s his fault for feeling this way but he’s not TRYING to feel like shit. I’ve never heard of this before. Any help would be much appreciated.

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    October 21st, 2018 at 5:21 PM

    Hi Louise. Thank you for your response. You’ve given examples here of many of the patterns seen in avoidant attachment: highly valuing freedom, fearing commitment, not wanting to rely on anyone, yearning to be seen at a deep level, fear of big/intense emotions (or feeling put on the spot to meet them), fear of losing Self in relationship (even fear of a therapist telling him to do so). It all makes sense given his background, and it leaves you confused and in many ways abandoned. This, unfortunately, is not an uncommon pattern. People do often exhibit somatic symptoms when internal filters are over-active or when they do not feel safe to speak their truths. He may be ‘too kind’ for his own good. And sometimes kindness/compliance/people-pleasing is actually fear of conflict, a way to placate Other and avoid triggering big emotions that feel like such a trap on the avoidant side. Unfortunately – and I don’t know the whole story here, so take it with a grain of salt – there may be nothing for you to do on your side. This may have more to do with his assertiveness than about anything you’ve done or could do. Does that feel like it matches at all with what you’ve seen?

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    October 8th, 2018 at 12:40 PM

    Hi Jeremy,
    I write to you with hopefulness.
    Two months ago, I discovered my avoidant partner or 3+ years, with whom I was living in his house for six months, was having both an emotional and sexual relationship with his ex (they broke up 3 years before we met). To make a long-story short, he told me he was not interested in continuing to see her, wanted to be with me and agreed to go to couples counselling. Despite this, I was so hurt, I moved out (I had maintained my apartment in the meantime). We did attend therapy together twice and felt that things were improving, however, we had never really discussed the affair and I kept pushing him to have a heart-to-heart about it, though he had never really opened up to me about anything before, except to tell me twice (once in the first year we met, the other in therapy) that he had never really felt loved by his parents. We were trying to make things work and were going on dates and trying to “start over”.
    Anyway, one night I was feeling anxious and upset and really felt like it was time to discuss the affair (this was five weeks after the initial discovery) and he broke down, saying he didn’t feel “like he was the man for me” and that he wanted a “pause”. He assured me that we were not breaking up and that he simply wanted to pursue individual therapy to “work on himself so he could be a better man for me”. Needless to say, I was devastated. In the two days following his announcement, he refused to answer emails or phone calls urging him to define this break, how long it would last and whether or not he wanted to see other people. I finally got angry two days later and left him an angry voicemail stating that we had to define this together. He then emailed me back saying he was waiting for the therapist to get in touch with him and that he didn’t want to speak to me on the phone because he was upset that I had pointed out some of his flaws to him. It’s been over a week since I’ve heard from him.
    A few days after his last email, I sent him one stating that I would respect his space and would work on myself and that I would from time to time get in touch to ask how he’s doing. I also let him know that I am always available if he wishes to reach out. I then sent a text message to him this morning simply saying “Hi, How are you doing?” keeping it light and friendly. No answer thus far. I feel shattered. He is classic avoidant, he may even have an avoidant personality disorder, but I know I shouldn’t be trying to diagnose him. I’ve tried taking ownership of my anxiety and feelings which are intense and mixed given that discovery of an affair has been thrown into the mix.
    I don’t know what to do, if anything at all can be done. I feel I’ve tried to reach out and break down his walls multiple times over the last 3.5 years, but to little avail. I feel the only reason he’s going (or says he will) to individual therapy is because his sister (whom he’s close to) has suggested it.
    I feel that my partner’s emotional reactions or dissociation has too much power in our relationship. He withdraws and I am always forced to go running to him to pull him back to reality. It’s like I have to soothe him. He apologizes after arguments (actually, I do all the arguing, he withdraws), but is never the one to break the silence. It is always me, which makes me feel unloved.
    I’ve been discussing this issue in therapy, with close friends and family. For the most part, the reaction is “forget about him, move on with your life”. The only person with an alternative view is his best friend, whose wife is a good friend of mine. He says my partner has always been socially awkward and may not know how to speak to me. He does not condone any of my partner’s behavior and was shocked by it and reassures me that I could find a better partner, that I should only stay if I really want to. He and my partner have not been in touch since this “pause” started and so my partner is not aware that his best friend knows.
    What should I do? Is it time to simply cut my losses and move on? Is there any hope? How do I let my partner who is not engaging with me know that his reactions, which may feel like self-protection for him, are very much the source of distance and conflict in our relationship? How do I reach out if he won’t? Where do we start from if he does say he’s willing to work on this? How do I speak to him without scaring him away since his tendency is to run? How does one recover after being mistreated by an avoidant?
    I’m looking for some good advice.

    Thank you,
    Lisa

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    October 22nd, 2018 at 2:44 PM

    Hi Lisa. Thank you for sharing your story. It sounds like you’ve put so much work into this relationship and invested so much for very little payoff. Unfortunately, it is the nature of this dance to play out so often and so long. The nature of anxious attachment is willingness to accept anything and keep going no matter what. And the fear of assertiveness on the avoidant side robs many relationships of the clarity and closure that would set both sides free. Each side waits on the other to end it, and so often it plays out years beyond any point of real loving connection. One recovers from an anxious avoidant dance by ending the dance – which often means ending the relationship, though not always. If either side stops dancing, the dance is done. And to stop dancing means to reprioritize relationship with Self or Other, which in itself takes time and effort. Stopping the dance often means finding a whole new balance in holding presence for Self and Other simultaneously. It’s reprioritizing time alone or with others. It’s navigating the transitions between alone time and people time. Sometimes it’s creating a palatable story of closure that a partner, in their fear, was not able to provide. It’s gathering reliable resources – even objects you can carry – that remind you of the being you are and calm your body in any situation. Sometimes it’s stepping out to try something new. Sometimes it’s stepping in. On the anxious side, it often involves sitting with the abandoned child inside, in all of its pain and anger, even for seconds at a time — holding it gently, without judgment. Some therapists actually specialize in walking you through this process. Best wishes to you…

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    October 26th, 2018 at 12:05 PM

    I wanted to thank you so much for writing these two articles. It really has been a game changer, reading something that describes so accurately and in detail what it is like being me. Writing it in a way that tells the story and experience of someone living this is so much more powerful than the comparatively dry, academic, third person descriptions I have read in the past.

    I’ve been aware for a long time that I do a lot of this stuff, but your articles allowed me to join up all the dots and, most importantly understand WHY I am doing these things. My constant avoidance of everything; relationships, responsibilities, day to day living in general – now I get it. For someone who spends a lot of time in her own head it seems ridiculous to say that I’m unaware of my emotions but I am totally unaware of my emotions and I’m continually moving away from them and shutting them down. And now that I can see myself doing this, and understand why, I can change and I am starting to learn how to tolerate them instead.

    I’ve grown up with a fearful-avoidant Mum and a dismissive-avoidant Dad (I’ve ended up ‘fearful-avoidant dependent’ which just makes me laugh, because seriously, how mean is that?! To be avoidant AND dependent?! Just as well I’m married because I’d hate to put that in my Tinder bio) and I see our family dynamics clearly in what you write. A real ‘aha’ moment was about conservation of resources. My Dad has always had an issue with ‘conserving’ food which I had previously understood in relation to his family background. Now I can understand it from the point of view of him living in a ‘freeze’ state I’m able to feel a lot more compassion for him. My whole family have definitely been living in this state for a long time and it’s something I plan to research in more depth.

    The most important realization for me was understanding my relationship with my young son. When he was a baby I really struggled with his dependence on me though at the time I didn’t recognize it for what it was. I felt like it threatened my very sense of self, it was so fundamental and so overwhelming. And now I understand why I found it so hard to soothe him (probably the thing that broke my heart the most) – because how could I soothe him when I was in that state? (I’m pretty certain I was also majorly depressed at the time, which didn’t help). I think me and my son have a pretty good relationship now, all things considered, but again, I am now able to spot when I’m pushing him away because I feel threatened by his need for me.

    My long-suffering, securely-attached husband is also grateful for these articles. He immediately recognized me in them and they have given both of us reassurance that we can fix the issues in our relationship that my depression and a variety of external factors has caused. I haven’t always acted from a place of fearful-avoidance within our relationship so I know that although these are patterns of behaviour I’ve learnt from a young age they are not who I am. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. You have helped to free me from the iron coffin I had built around myself. I just hope I can keep learning and keep moving away from it because I sure as hell don’t want to be trapped in there again.

  • Jan

    Jan

    November 8th, 2018 at 7:28 PM

    Reading all these comments makes me incredibly sad. I just ended a 4+ year relationship with an extreme fearful avoidant. I became anxious as soon as he began exhibiting avoidance. My question is do these avoidants ever really change? I spent years being ignored, stonewalled, blocked, avoided. My friends didn’t understand why i stayed. I knew it wasn’t his fault, he was abused in childhood. He claimed I was the love of his life. His actions were horrible though. Can they ever really change? Because it seems so many poor anxious people here are wasting their time being treated incredibly bad by avoidants who just “can’t.” I will say getting out is the best thing I ever did. Focusing on myself. Changing the story in my head. Speaking to myself daily and reminding myself of how great I am and that I will find love with a secure person again. I wish I had educated myself and ended the sooner. The heartache of extreme avoidance/anxious cycles is physically and mentally exhausting. All these stories sound the same. Very sad.

  • Pandaspanda

    Pandaspanda

    November 12th, 2018 at 6:31 PM

    Thank you for this article. It is beautifully written and nonjudgmental. It has helped me understand myself tremendously. This article has laid out my flaws so considerately and intelligently that the work I need to do on my innerself is undeniable. However, I am devastated at the idea of working on my emotions. It is something so painful to me. I think I know, but am still a little uncertain, as to how I got into this dismissive avoidance canoe. I was not abused as a child, at least not that I can remember, and if it is buried somewhere deep let it lie there. I did grow up in a home full of adversities, as every home experiences. I suppose that I was relied on so much at a very young age that I always felt the needs of other superceded my own and thereby surpressed my own needs. I was always told that I could “handle” essentially anything. I have been told this is one of my most admirable qualities along with my empathy. I have a genuine and earnest empathy for others. You know how “when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” well not I, I become a fortress that protects all others, and the combination of that along with my dismissive avoidance attachment style becomes too much to bear. Do you know what I hate? I hate how if I ever were to ask for help it would be perceived as a joke: “Oh no, you’ve got this. You can handle it. You are fine. You don’t need help.” Perhaps, I am just in too deep and I can’t change.

    I do have empathy that motivates me to action and then exhausts me. I grew up in an environment where empathy became my main personality trait… I grew up in a house where ppl were sick and depended on me. I have so much empathy that others, friends, children, even strangers seek me out to share there most intimate and dark secrets, betrayals, heartbreaks, abuse etc. It is hard to be the rock for everyone else, even new acquaintances in one breath and then in the next be told that “I have no feelings.” I am a person that people find easy to talk to and instantly seek intimacy from and it is destroying me. And you know what, I can’t handle it! It feels good to admit it, even if it is selfish. I try, but it is just too much. I am constantly making new friend’s while distancing from other sets of friends. This leads to social embarrassment at least in hindsight, when confronted with my poor behavior. I don’t know if any of this is making sense. But, as of late I quit. I can’t do it anymore. I don’t want to disappoint anyone anymore. I think I am an advanced case, haha. And I am female, which doesn’t fit the stereotype. This article makes me rethink the few relationships that I recall with fondness…that maybe they weren’t as great as I thought. I don’t know. But my question is, am I doomed here? Shall I become a recluse? The rub is that I have such a strong sense of empathy and concern for others that they automatically fans intimacy with me that I can not maintain and then are hurt when I can not reciprocate. I am so industrious and independent that no one believes I need help when I ask, but when I don’t want it it is shoved in my face. I want to change, but I don’t HOW to start. I know I probably need therapy, but I can’t bring myself to do it. (I am just hiding at home these days) waiting for things to cool off, waiting for “the coast to be clear”, so I can rewind on this whole ritual again. At least I have stopped embarrassing myself at the expense of others feelings. I used to be soooo “How to Lose A Guy/Friend/Everyone In 10 Days.” I stopped being an I want to save (YOUR) face by throw a pie on MINE person to a person hiding at home. Frozen. Why do so many artice say steer clear of dismissive avoidance style people? I am kind. I just need a lot of space (sometimes) and time to think (sometimes). Why are we the worst style? What is ALL this love people need? Maybe if someone would stop and explain it to us in real time rather than “assume” we have any idea what is going on…or am I glamourising this “THE ONE” person who doesn’t exist? Anyway, yea, I am rambling to cope with this existential crisis that I am left with. It is like you flicked me on the nose and said “Aha!” Yes, it’s getting weird in this paragraph because just as soon as I started to slightly process regret and a need to change and self examination it is gone. I am deflecting even as I type.

  • Becca

    Becca

    December 3rd, 2018 at 6:50 PM

    Hello Jeremy,
    Thank you for writing these 2 articles. I was disturbed by how much I related to. I have a question though. Most of the quizzes and articles I find online measure attachment styles in terms of romantic relationships. I am 30 and have never been in a romantic relationship. After 3 or 4 dates I always find an excuse to cut and run. While I do have friends I am not close to any. I ended my last close friendship over 6 years ago. While I relate to all the anxieties you list I do not know how I would relate in a close relationship so I don’t know if I am avoidant. Also most of the advice to remedy this attachment requires having someone to be vulnerable with. Should I try that with aquintances I am not close with?
    Thanks!

  • KT

    KT

    December 13th, 2018 at 2:22 PM

    Great articles. The most painful thing for me with dealing with an avoidant has been feeling as if he just doesn’t care at all. It’s what I talk about most in my therapy sessions. I’ve been back and forth with an avoidant for going on two years now. He recently attempted to come back into my life (was very eager to make plans to see one another, made plans) and then he started with his old distancing strategies: he also wouldn’t get on the phone, texted rarely etc. He was insisting on coming to see me and spending a long weekend together while STILL distancing. This was petrifying to me as I saw that he didn’t seem to change much (although he now goes to therapy 2x a week). So, to protect myself before I agreed to actually meet up I approached him about it and said, “Doesn’t seem like there’s much space in your life for me.” Naturally, he flipped out and hasn’t spoken to me since. I asked if he was ghosting me and he answered, “No” but never spoke again to me. I wrote a very kind letter to him (seems he can’t be reached any other way) and he texted that he received it and wanted to take the time to write back a letter that was deserving of mine. It’s been a week. I’m guessing it’s too scary for him? He never wants to end it with us, it always seems like it’s pending and he wants the door open, even though he’s petrified of integrating me into his life. I know I need to move on, but he just keeps coming back and we connect on many other levels (plus, I’m an anxious…so there’s that!) I just can’t understand why it would take over a week to return an email….he might think I’m ending it or something. When we broke up last, it took him ONE YEAR to return my stuff. One year exactly. He wants us, but only on his “safe” terms. I never meet his kids, family or anything. He won’t admit that, but it’s what happens. It’s hard to not feel like he just doesn’t love me even tho he says it constantly.

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