Intimate relationships require balancing closeness and distance, interdependence and autonomy. Healthier relationships flow between these poles with both partners seeking either side of the spectrum at various times.
However, when one partner consistently takes a position of distancing and autonomy, intimacy can suffer or become non-existent.
Here are 16 characteristics to look for that can help you recognize avoidant or unavailable partners:
1) Commitment shy
Avoidant partners may avoid making long-term plans or talking about the future of your relationship. They may be vague or non-committal when asked what they want. When you propose a trip or activity that could bring you closer, they may say something such as, “That might be nice,” but avoid moving ahead. They may have a history of being the one who ends relationships and of preemptively leaving partners for fear of being left.
2) Not fully invested in the present
Avoidant partners may idealize a previous relationship. They may hold on to fantasies about a past lover in a way that makes a past relationship feel somehow unfinished, unresolved, or still alive in the present, making them less emotionally available to you.
3) Buzz kills
They may sabotage a relationship when things are going well by becoming childish, angry, sullen or picky. The closer you start to feel to them or the more you desire a deeper commitment, the more they may pull back, expressing a wish to see other people or becoming less communicative.
4) Buzz words
Avoidant partners tend to talk more about independence rather than closeness, freedom rather than intimacy, and self-reliance rather than interdependence. They fear “clingy” people or being seen as clingy themselves.
Avoidant or unavailable partners tend to believe they can only depend on themselves. In a crisis, they often put up walls and want to handle things on their own. Their motto: “I’m all I’ve got.”
Avoidant partners may find it difficult to trust others. They may view you in negative ways or see your actions in the worst possible light, suspecting that you are out to take advantage of them or restrict their freedom.
7) Mixed messages
Avoidant partners maintain distance by sending mixed signals, sometimes drawing you in with bids for closeness, other times pushing you away. They may say one thing but do another, such as telling you they want to spend more time together but then cramming their schedule with other commitments.
Avoidant partners often prefer to make decisions on their own — even decisions that affect you. They may decide things about finances, career, travel or other plans and tell you only after it is too late to change. They tend to prefer solo rather than collaborative planning and decision-making.
9) Limited affection
They may be stingy with physical affection or show physical affection only during sex. Their libido may diminish the closer you get or the deeper the relationship grows. They may say “I love you” sparingly or without much feeling.
10) Lots of conditions
They may have rigid rules, find it difficult to be flexible, or let you know that certain things such as their job, freedom, or family of origin are higher priorities than you and your relationship. They may set in stone some condition at the start of a relationship, for example, saying something like, “I am not the marrying type,” or “I will never give up my freedom for anything or anyone,” or “I could never imagine living with someone.”
They may stonewall when you want to address relationship issues. They may detach or threaten to leave if your feelings (or theirs) become too intense.
Avoidant partners may be quick to find fault with you. They may have a checklist of near-impossible standards in a partner, ensuring that no one can measure up. They may focus on what is not working or what could become a problem rather than embracing the positives in your relationship, thus dampening feelings and slowing a relationship’s growth.
13) Limited communication
They may want to limit conversations or daily contact, often bristling at suggestions that they text or call when they are out for the evening, traveling, running late or at the end of the day. They may become overwhelmed when you want to talk about the relationship.
14) Not feeling-friendly
Avoidant partners may fail to acknowledge your feelings or rarely express their own emotions. They may not know how to handle emotional conversations or issues. If you have an emotional response, they may tell you it makes no sense or try to reason you out of your feelings. They may call you “too sensitive.”
It may seem like there is always something more important than you or the relationship. They may fantasize about or dwell on how much more freedom they had when they were single. They may say it is much easier to be alone, as they can make their own decisions and answer to no one.
When you most need them, avoidant partners may find ways not to be there. They may say you are the cause of any relationship issues. They may find it difficult to see their own part in problems.
People have an avoidant style or are unavailable for many reasons. Often, an avoidant stance stems from repeated experiences early in life where they felt dismissed, pressured, taken advantage of, or not valued by one or more key caregivers.
At their core, avoidant partners tend to believe that no one will ever meet their needs. They expect that others do not want them to thrive or will not allow them to be themselves. They also may fear that they cannot measure up to what others want. In response, they wall themselves off for protection.
While we can have empathy for early-life wounds that led someone to an avoidant style, if you are in a relationship with an avoidant or unavailable partner, these distancing techniques may leave you with many of the following difficult emotions, such as feeling:
- Not valued
- Emotionally deprived
- Unable to truly connect
- Held at arms’ length
- Not good enough
- As though you are doing something wrong
Such feelings, if experienced too often or too intensely, may ultimately make a relationship non-sustainable.
Read Part Two of this blog to learn ways you can work with an avoidant partner to increase cooperation, communication and closeness.
Copyright © Dan Neuharth PhD MFT