Communication is a skill that helps a relationship to thrive. It allows both parties to understand each other’s inner worlds, values, and fears. Effective communication requires understanding and, above all, vulnerability.
Depending on your partner’s attachment style, being vulnerable can have mixed results. Your partner might demand reassurance that you still love them. Or they might unexpectedly close off.
Attachment style has a huge impact on adult communication. If you understand your partner’s attachment system, you’re more likely to communicate effectively.
Table of Contents
Attachment theory describes the ways in which people respond to the relationships in their lives1. There are four styles of attachment in adult relationships: secure, anxious, disorganized, and avoidant.
Someone with a secure attachment style is confident in their relationships. They feel emotionally safe and generally assume that the people in their lives mean well.
People with other attachment styles are insecurely attached. They can find it difficult to connect with others.
A person with an anxious fearful attachment style is constantly worried that their loved ones will abandon them. Disorganized attachment describes a person who is uncomfortable getting close to others and distressed when left alone. And avoidant attachment describes someone who feels that close relationships are emotionally unsafe.
Your partner’s insecure attachment style might not be obvious at first. Most issues relating to attachment become a problem only in certain stressful situations. Intense emotional experiences can trigger maladaptive coping skills2.
An avoidant person can come across as self-assured and independent. They don’t rely on anyone else, which can feel very refreshing at first. But that independence is reinforced by the deliberate avoidance of deep and meaningful connections3.
In dating, a person with an avoidant attachment pattern is going to feel more comfortable in more casual, short-term relationships. When things get “too involved,” they tend to create distance by reducing communication. Sometimes, they might cut communication altogether.
If you notice that your partner starts to get cold or distant when emotions come up, you might have an avoidant partner.
Avoidant attachment can lead to hyper-independence as a result of not being able to rely on others. They make independent decisions, sometimes disregarding the input of others altogether4.
Being able to make their own decisions, or participate in decisions that impact them is very important for someone who is avoidant. They need to know that they have choices, that their partner is safe to be emotionally vulnerable around.
An avoidantly attached person often has a strong preference for time to themselves5. While they benefit from connection just as much as anyone else, they’re often introverted.
Having a place to retreat can help an avoidant partner cope with strong emotions. Being stuck with people can often make them feel out of control.
A need for reassurance tends to be associated with anxious attachment. But avoidant individuals need to be loved just as much as anyone else. The distance they keep with others doesn’t meet that need.
This can be confusing because avoidantly attached people are prone to pushing people away when they need support. They might become distant or critical of their partners when they’re feeling disconnected6.
An avoidant attachment style spawns from not being able to rely on the people around them. They take care of things themselves because they’ve often had to.
If this is your partner’s attachment style, it’s going to be important to be reliable. Your partner will not feel secure if they can’t trust you at your word.
Communication is a big part of building strength and trust in a relationship. If your partner resists deep conversations, though, you might be tempted to give up.
But studies suggest that commitment to the relationship is what leads to communication, not the other way around7. If you know you both want to make it work, consider these tips.
Conflict can be difficult to navigate. You might feel vulnerable and hurt, and your partner might too. If your attachment and communication styles are different, you’re probably frustrated. But your partner’s defense mechanisms will activate if you jump feet first into emotions.
A calm body is less reactive to stress. So when a conflict arises, practice taking three deep breaths before you speak. This brings your focus to your body and can help to begin the relaxation process. Next, relax your hands and unclench your jaw. Take three more deep breaths.
This can feel like a lot of work, but this communication technique can help to reduce your partner’s negative reactions to conflict8.
In a romantic relationship, it can be easy to assume you know each other down to your bones. But a strong bond doesn’t mean you know everything about each other. When there’s an issue, it’s important to remember not to assume you know what your partner wants.
We can only be in our own heads. So it’s important to communicate using “I statements.” This communication style avoids the blame game. Instead, it allows both parties to take responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Using I statements also encourages active listening. You have to be curious, pay attention, and ask questions to be able to understand where your partner is coming from. And they have the opportunity to do the same with you.
Your relationship isn’t all bad. Though you have your differences, you and your partner love each other. You might be tempted to let the defense mechanism of criticism take over, but that’s actually the opposite of helpful.
When things are difficult, be open to talking about positive feelings and experiences with the same level of care as the unpleasant feelings. Your avoidant partner is ready to have to defend themselves. Sharing what you love about them can help them to feel more emotionally safe.
Tell your partner that you care about them. Remind them of what drew the two of you together.
I find that one of the biggest barriers to communication is a lack of clarity. Instead of saying “I would like it if you would XYZ,” people will ask, “If it’s not too much trouble, can you do B?” This leads to hurt and frustration for both partners. The first for not getting what they need and the second for doing what they’ve been asked and still coming up short.
Whether you’re doing it consciously or not, by editing yourself, you are attempting to predict and control the person you’re talking to. Technically, all communication is meant to influence someone. But in a conflict, this pattern can feel manipulative.
Unclear communication can make your avoidantly attached partner clam up. They’re independent and like to know the truth about something. This helps them make a decision about how to proceed.
In the face of intense feelings, avoidant partners tend to withdraw. If you’re in the middle of something important or exciting, this can be jarring. You might be tempted to reach out and try to bring them back into the moment. Unfortunately, that can make them even more distant.
Avoid pushing your partner to respond to things - good or bad - immediately. If you notice that your person is withdrawing, give them some personal space. If you know that intense emotions might arise, you could even give them a heads-up so that they can prepare themselves.
At the same time, let yourself have some space. If you’re anxiously attached, this might seem like a terrible idea, but it’s important. Alone time can help you to connect with yourself.
Love languages don’t always line up between partners. The things that make you feel connected may make your avoidant partner feel uncomfortable. The ways that your partner tries to show up in your relationship may have you feeling unloved.
Avoidantly attached partners often resist receiving affection in ways that are deeply meaningful to them. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want physical touch, gifts, or the chance to spend quality time together.
Pay attention to the things that excite your partner or make them feel good. If you think they’ll answer, ask what kind of actions you can take to show them you love them. Then, start small. Physical affection can be as simple as a brief kiss on the cheek, which might not be too overwhelming.
Feeling seen and understood can go a long way to improving communication. One thing that can help with this process is empathizing, or identifying what your partner feels and why. This can be difficult with an avoidant individual who tries to hide their feelings.
When you can connect with your avoidant partner on this level, it’s important to respond appropriately. This can build their trust in your relationship and their ability to be themselves with you.
Practice using this empathy statement: “It seems to me that you are feeling (emotion) because of (cause). Is that right?” By asking the question at the end, you are honoring your partner’s autonomy and giving them the space to correct you.
When you believe in your heart that your partner means well and values the relationship, you are more likely to communicate effectively.7 When you assume positive regard, you are trusting your partner not to hurt you on purpose.
This can be difficult when your avoidant partner starts their disappearing routine. If you have different attachment styles, you might find yourself having a hard time feeling secure. But they’re withdrawing because they feel emotionally vulnerable, not because they don’t love you.
I recommend that clients dealing with communication issues declare their assumption of positive regard. At least every other day, remind each other that you love each other. State plainly that when hard things happen, you’ll work together as a team to address them.
When one partner has an avoidant attachment style, it can be tempting for the other to bend over backward to try to save the relationship. But in order to have a healthy relationship, there have to be limits to the actions you’ll take.
I believe that boundaries are for the person setting them, not the people in their lives. That’s because we can only control ourselves. If something is important to us, we have to be able to make choices to protect our peace.
Identify some of the things you want to see in your relationship, and frame your boundaries around them. If you often feel lonely, for example, your boundary might be that you’ll text your partner three times to ask them on a date, but after that, you’ll spend time with friends.
In learning how to communicate with an avoidant partner, it’s important to include them in the process. After all, your avoidant partner is the only one who can speak about what they want.
Being included in the conversation helps your partner feel more in control. They have a chance to weigh in on any changes to your relationship patterns. They can decide how they want to be addressed and you can set expectations collaboratively.
Your avoidant partner might not always know exactly what they need. By working together, you can create a safe space for them to learn what they need to be more present in the relationship.
Your communication style might compel you to try to resolve an issue as soon as you can. But sometimes it’s self-care to walk away from a topic until later. If your avoidant partner’s behavior is making it hard for you to regulate your own feelings, it’s time to take a break.
When things get heated, it’s important not to neglect your emotional needs. Anger means you need a change in your environment. Hurt and sadness prompt you to seek support. An avoidantly attached partner is not likely to help with either.
This doesn’t mean that the conversation is over. In fact, something this emotionally charged will probably need to be addressed for either of you to feel secure. I would recommend picking a date within the next week to touch base with each other. If you feel like you can discuss things with a level head, proceed. If not, give yourselves another week.
A stable relationship is one that is open to change. You are learning how to communicate with an avoidant partner, but reading an article isn’t the same as working on the issues together.
If you and your avoidant partner miss some of the triggers for avoidant behavior, working with a professional can be a structured way to grow together. Scheduled sessions can give you and your avoidant partner space to discuss your goals and make needed changes.
I recommend that when a couple goes to counseling, the individuals also have someone separate to talk to. This could be a mentor, spiritual leader, mental health professional, or even a trusted friend. This is a place for you each to receive emotional support through difficult changes.
An avoidant partner needs to hear that they are loved and wanted and that they can make their own decisions. They need to know that they can take their time if they need to process their emotions.
Be consistent with them, and respect that they are their own person. When you have a problem, be honest and don’t try to manipulate them into doing what you want.
It’s never a waste of time to put effort into a relationship that is important to you. Communicating with an avoidant partner might be difficult, but it doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed. If you are both committed to improving the relationship, you will see progress.
Even if you know your avoidant partner loves you, communication can be tricky. By committing to meeting your partner where they are at, and honoring your boundaries, you can be sure to be more effective when you talk to each other.