Think you’re avoidantly attached? Here’s how to keep your relationship healthy

Gay Couple Relaxing In The Grass
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Last week, I introduced common attachment styles in the LGBTQ+ community.

In short, attachment theory posits that individuals with avoidant attachment evade difficult conversations and vulnerable feelings, while those with anxious attachment tend to turn towards them to a degree that the avoidant partner can find overwhelming, responding with “fight” rather than “flight” as the avoidant does. At least outwardly, they seem to want more contact and connection than their partners do and feel less comfortable being alone. Avoidants, on the other hand, seem to need less of this and have a greater need for independence and autonomy. They’re more uncomfortable about being too enmeshed.

This week, I’ll address what the avoidant person can consider about their contributions to the dynamic, according to psychologists and experts.

Look at your pattern of fault-finding and negativity bias 

According to Business Insider, “While people with secure attachment styles are able to compromise with their partners and focus on the positives, avoidant people zero in on minor flaws and imagine how they were happier being single, or how they might be better off finding someone else.”

Flaw-finding is one of their deactivating strategies, which the Atlanta Center for Couple Therapy describes as “those mental processes by which the avoidant person convinces themselves that being alone is just as good or better than being in relationship.”

Try to notice when your mind starts engaging in this way of thinking. Work to balance these negative thoughts with a more realistic picture of all that your relationship encompasses (good, bad, and everything in between). Remember times you were laughing, communicating effectively, or having another kind of healthy interaction. Acknowledge that imperfections will exist in any relationship, and that what you choose to pay attention or ascribe importance to falls within your power. 

Communicating your need for space could make all the difference

The founders of The Attachment Project acknowledge that it’s not possible (or necessary) to change your inherent needs.

“One thing that probably won’t change for an avoidant attacher in a relationship is their need for personal space – and that’s OK. Taking emotional space in a relationship when a conflict is starting to escalate is probably the constructive thing to do, and it may even help the relationship to grow.” 

But they do recommend communicating how long you’ll need so the anxious partner doesn’t interpret it as a rejection of them. You’ll help the health of the relationship if you don’t withdraw without any time frame for when they can expect you to come back.

The anxious partner wants to feel connected, supported, and considered — and when an avoidant shuts down without communicating, they feel the opposite of these things.

So practice asking for what you need. Know that you can take space without disconnecting entirely. Try to understand that stonewalling and putting up shields are not the same as setting boundaries. They are reactive and automatic responses. The direct communication of a need, on the other hand, is proactive and mindful.

Examine your relationship with conflict

Renowned couples psychologist John Gottman wrote that conflicts “are inevitable in a couple and even allow, when properly resolved, to move forward in a relationship.” The problem is that avoidant individuals have an especially difficult time engaging in these conflicts. According to life coach Free to Attach, their levels of the stress hormone cortisol soar to disproportionate degrees during conflict situations. 

As psychotherapist Treina Aronson phrased it, “If you have traumatic memories around conflict (example: your parents were engaged in a long-term custody battle) what comes up during these times is much more than annoyance or discomfort. You may experience your body become flooded with emotions.”

Maybe you stored those memories of early conflict out of reach, but they still take up space in your subconscious. An incident that may even only superficially remind you of it then springs that memory to life.

Understand that your current partner didn’t put those intense feelings there; they’re just the person who prodded them awake. Fear gets you out of a burning building, so it’s wise in a perhaps immediate sense. But what if the arsonist is your past, not your partner? What if what you’re feeling is real, but ultimately you’re the only one who can truly extinguish the flame?

Explore why conflict brings up such overwhelming feelings for you. What unresolved issues from past relationships and experiences might your fears be tied to? According to Carolina Pataky, PhD, “Therapy is an excellent way for people with avoidant attachment styles to understand where their root issues lie and exactly how they grew up to adapt this specific attachment style.”

You can learn to sense when your past is bubbling up and affecting your present behavior and to observe when they color your perception of events.

Examine how your own behavior affects your partner

Some avoidants cite their partner’s “needy” or “off-putting” behavior as justification for their avoidant responses. Even if their avoidant behavior emerged before their partner began behaving that way.

There’s an unwillingness here to account for how behavior changes remarkably depending upon how seen, safe, heard, and loved a person feels. People can behave dramatically differently when they feel these things versus when they don’t.  Even otherwise secure people might start acting anxious when confronted with a highly dismissive, stonewalling, or conflict-avoidant person. 

So consider your role as well. Reflect on how your own actions are contributing to eliciting your partner’s behaviors. Therapist Jessica Lang suggests: When that wall comes up what is happening internally with you? What physical sensations are you having and consequently what thoughts might come along with them? Now get curious about these thoughts. Are they something you really want or believe or are they getting in your way of what you want?” 

*Check back next week for an exploration of how anxiously attached partners can understand their role in the dynamic more deeply.

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