Avoidant partners create distance, limit communication and fly beneath the radar in romantic relationships. These efforts can leave partners feeling confused, unimportant, frustrated or abandoned.
Avoidant partners’ distancing strategies often have deep historical roots. Some avoidant partners may have grown up repeatedly feeling overwhelmed by pressure from parents to be a certain way. Others may have gotten messages that it was not okay to say no to a parent or authority figures.
Often times as children avoidant partners’ emotions were discouraged or not reflected by a parent. These children may have felt they were a disappointment to a parent.
After repeatedly trying unsuccessfully to win a parent’s approval, some children tend to hedge their bets or eventually give up. As adults, they can unwittingly take that template of disappointment to their relationships in ways they may not fully realize.
Though avoidant partners may seem cool or unfeeling, research has shown that people with an avoidant style are just as emotionally anxious as those on the opposite end of the spectrum who have an anxious attachment style.
Partners with an anxious style worry they cannot meet their own needs and seek another person to do so. Avoidant partners have the opposite fear – that no one else will ever meet their needs – so they conclude they can only depend on themselves. Feeling on their own, they keep their distance in hopes of reducing the inevitable disappointments they fear.
Despite their fears, people who take an avoidant stance in relationships, if sufficiently motivated and with their partners’ help, can become more open to greater intimacy, communication and closeness.
If you choose to be with a partner with an avoidant style, here are 18 approaches that can help:
1) Don’t chase
If you pursue people who need space, they will likely run even faster or turn and fight. When avoidant partners withdraw, let them. It may be painful to let them go temporarily but pursuing them is likely to make it take even longer before they come back around.
2) Don’t take it personally
Avoidant partners seek distance out of self-protection. They fear a loss of self. It is not about you. If an avoidant partner seems overly critical of you, you don’t have to take it on. Remember, your partner is likely self-critical as well.
3) Ask for what you want rather than complaining about what you don’t want
Complaints are desires and longings in disguise. Few of us like it when someone complains about us. Most of us are more responsive when someone we care about voices what they desire.
4) Reinforce positive actions
When an avoidant partner does something you like, let them know. Talk about what you value in the relationship and what is working. This can balance an avoidant partner’s tendency to focus on the negative.
5) Offer understanding
One quality often in short supply in relationships is listening. Be open to hearing about your partner’s feelings and issues, however they are expressed. Be kind and compassionate. Listen to understand, not to fix a problem.
6) Be reliable and dependable
Avoidant partners expect to be disappointed. That makes it all the more important that you do what you say. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
7) Respect your differences
Recognize that your partner’s pace may be slower than yours but that does not necessarily mean your partner does not want to be with you.
8) Cultivate your own interests
No partner can fulfill all your needs. Have your own friends and activities. When avoidant partners see that you are self-sufficient and doing things without them, it may paradoxically draw them to you because they can have less fear that you will become overly dependent on them.
9) Recognize that you both may have unrealistic fantasies
Your avoidant partner may have a fantasy of a perfect mate who meets all of his or her needs. You may have a fantasy of a perfect relationship in which you never feel lonely or disappointed. Neither fantasy is realistic.
10) Be mindful about how you express strong emotions to your partner
You need to be able to express your feelings and wants to your partner. But emotional expressions delivered intensely often overwhelm avoidant people can’t hear your message because they withdraw or shut down. You are more likely to be heard if you communicate your feelings honestly and openly but in a moderate tone.
11) Give plenty of space
When things are going well and you feel your partner coming closer, it may be tempting to open the floodgates and voice all your pent-up desires for closeness. You may worry that the “open door” could close at any moment and seek to say everything you have stored up while you can. However, this is often counterproductive. Instead, enjoy your partner’s efforts to get close without overwhelming the moment. Doing so can make it feel safer for an avoidant partner to risk moving closer and staying closer longer.
12) Don’t get stuck in rigid roles
If an avoidant partner is always the one distancing or seeking independence and you are always seeking closeness, you can become trapped in those roles. There are probably times when you desire independence and space just as there are times avoidant partners desire closeness. The more you allow yourself to voice and follow your authentic needs, the more room you give your avoidant partner to move beyond the avoidant role, at least on occasion.
13) If you have abandonment issues, face them within yourself
If your partner distances, it does necessarily mean you are not loved or that she or he is not committed. In fact, it often does not mean anything about you. Work to contain your feelings of abandonment and soothe yourself rather than expecting your partner to do so.
14) Don’t try to change or rescue your partner
Trying to change someone’s basic attachment style is fruitless. As Robert Heinlein said, “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and it annoys the pig.” However, it may be that in a secure relationship an avoidant partner can become more willing to risk intimacy and closeness over time.
15) Be honest with yourself and your partner about your needs
If you need more than your partner can give, the relationship is probably not going to work. Be sure to communicate – clearly, calmly and with examples – your needs and desires. Your partner can then decide how to respond based on an accurate knowledge of what you want rather than just assuming or guessing.
16) Set healthy boundaries
Let your partner know you expect to be respected. Tell your partner what you need and what you won’t tolerate. Love does not mean accepting dysfunctional behavior.
17) Recognize your partner’s limitations
Avoidant partners may need more personal time and take more distance than you might like. That may never change. No partner is perfect.
18) Work towards growth
Both you and your partner will need to compromise for the relationship to work. You may need to give your partner more space than you might like and your partner may need to push him or herself to be closer at times than he or she might like. Over time both avoidant and anxious partners can become more secure in a stable relationship. Seek support including individual or couples therapy as needed. Things can get better.
This blog is the second part of a two-part series on relationships with an avoidant partner. You can read Part One here.
Copyright © Dan Neuharth PhD MFT