Do you feel like getting close to your partner is difficult? Have you been frustrated by the way your partner pulls away when you need comfort? If so, it sounds like you might be in a relationship with a person with an avoidant attachment style.
To find out if your partner has more of an avoidant attachment style and how to understand his feelings towards you, let’s dig a little deeper into attachment styles.
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Attachment theory is a mental health concept introduced by James Bowlby, a British psychologist. His theory focuses on how the way we bond with caregivers as a child impacts future relationships. Studies on attachment describe 4 distinct types:
A secure attachment describes the behavior of a child who is connected to their parent. These individuals were independent children who knew they could seek out their caregiver in times of stress. As adults, they are empathetic, mindful, and resilient1. They can form trusting and long-lasting friendships and marriages2.
Anxious attachment describes a person who was not always able to rely on their parents, resulting in a constant need for reassurance. As an adult, they pursue close connections but feel anxious about abandonment.
Disorganized, or fearful-avoidant, attachment can come from inconsistency in the behaviors of their caregivers. This person can be hot and cold, seeking connection and rejecting it. They have difficulty knowing what is appropriate behavior. They can give mixed signals that confuse people around them.
Someone with an anxious-avoidant attachment style was often hurt by their caregivers, resulting in withdrawal behaviors. As children, they tend to present as self-sufficient. As adults, these individuals have a lot of difficulties investing in important relationships in their life.
In the DSM-53, avoidant behaviors become a disorder when there is an overarching pattern of social inhibition. They have an inner narrative of self-criticism that they are anxious about experiencing in the world around them4.
Due to this anxiety, they avoid all social connections. They cannot handle perceived rejection, so they avoid any potential for rejection to occur. That can interfere with work and connections to family and friends.
Personality disorders are complicated to diagnose. They’re not for the purpose of this article, when we talk about anxious attachment, we will be talking about attachment styles and behaviors.
How we view connection and intimacy absolutely impacts dating. Ideally, we’d all feel secure. In fact, a secure attachment style is the healthiest option for a date mate.
Avoidant attachment makes people view connections as a source of potential pain. It’s no wonder, then, that they often keep their distance instead of committing to a serious relationship.
But everyone needs connection with others, it’s part of our biological makeup. There are very few people in the world who would truly thrive with no human connection at all.
For an avoidant person, dating can be deeply uncomfortable. Attempts to know someone on a deeper level can lead to mood swings. They might be happy to be around you, then suddenly close off and put distance between you.
This might lead you to sleepless nights wondering if your partner even wants to be with you. Below, you can find some subtle signs that your partner wants to maintain intimacy with you.
A huge sign of an avoidant personality is emotional avoidance in relationships. When you’re trying to connect, it’s hard not to focus on the obvious ways your person withdraws from you. But there are some subtle cues that you might pick up on if you are looking for them.
This might seem a bit opposite of what we’re talking about, but it’s actually one of the signs an avoidant person loves you.
The avoidance shield is a protection mechanism that can come into play when they feel insecure. And there’s almost nothing that makes them feel as nervous as someone trying to get closer to them, emotionally.
Remember, the root of your partner’s attachment style comes from experiencing distress, abuse, and/or neglect as a child. During that time, they would have learned that losing connections is deeply painful. They rightly avoid feeling that way again.
A boyfriend with an avoidant nature might find connecting emotionally difficult. He feels that if he doesn’t understand or respond appropriately, the relationship might end. So it’s a big deal if he’s expressing that he understands your feelings.
This kind of communication is vital to a healthy relationship. But an avoidant partner can be very sensitive to negative feedback and rejection. They avoid engaging with others’ emotions, as a rule. Breaking that cycle can take a lot of effort.
If you have an avoidant girlfriend, you probably spend a lot of time trying to guess what she’s thinking and feeling. So if you notice her letting you know about what she’s experiencing, even a little bit, it’s important.
Emotional expression is a huge part of effective communication. And for your girlfriend, communicating this way has been historically very painful. She is giving you the opportunity to connect with her, but also the opportunity to hurt her.
Your lover probably keeps to themselves. Often, people who are avoidant have hobbies that are single-person activities, like video games and reading. They can get defensive when someone tries to engage with them that way due to fear of criticism.
So when an avoidant lover goes out of their way to ask you about your hobbies, it's a big deal. They are doing something that would be very vulnerable for them if they were on the other side. They are attempting to establish or maintain an intimate relationship.
A good sign your avoidant partner loves you is that they find ways to be around you. Reading in the same room and watching TV from opposite sides of the couch are examples. While you might not consider that quality time, for him it might be.
Remember, being completely alone is what his mind usually requires to be relaxed. So he is either very anxious and pushing through, or you have become a person he can feel secure around. Either way, it’s a win!
Most of the time, someone who is avoidant loves sex. The physical connection allows them to feel connected to another person. Having casual sex is often the only way they let someone see them vulnerable. They can feel uncomfortable when things are over.
If your boyfriend stays to cuddle, even for just a few minutes, he’s allowing that time together to spread out. He is stepping outside of his comfort zone to remain close to you.
Avoidant people are often aware that their behavior impacts their romantic relationships. They experience reduced relationship satisfaction due to their actions5. Often they can recognize their unhealthy patterns, even if they don’t have the skills to stop.
This might be one of the most vulnerable things someone with this attachment style can show you that they love you. By apologizing, they are opening themselves up to criticism. They have stripped their defenses with the assumption that you are not going to be unduly harsh.
Now that you’re on the lookout for signs that an avoidant loves you, what do you do?
It can be endlessly frustrating to be in a relationship with an avoidant person. If you see all of the signs above, that doesn’t change the fact that they’re not always showing up the way you need them to.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that emotional intimacy can only come with trust. Your avoidant partner needs to know that they don’t need to defend themselves against you.
While I’m sure you’re doing everything you can to be a good partner, it’s not you that is the problem. For your partner, gestures of kindness and love have been a signal of incoming pain since childhood.
You can’t make the relationship work by forcing them to be around you. Avoidants tend to need space away from people to recharge. So if you notice that your boyfriend is spending a lot of time by himself, don’t “fix” it by being around him all of the time.
Let him initiate spending time together. You can let him know you’re there for him if he wants to talk or text, but don’t flood his messages. For him to allow a deep connection to grow, he needs to be sure that you respect his boundaries. Especially if he’s in his own space.
Avoidant attachment and intimacy don’t mesh without effort. You both will need to practice communicating effectively with one another.
Effective communication is not about getting the other person to do what you want.
Effectiveness is about being able to understand one another and set clear expectations. That looks different for everyone, so don’t be surprised if you have to change your communication style.
Your boyfriend needs his personal space, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expect to meet your social needs. It’s important that you have other people to talk to and go out with. That can be close friends, family, or even your colleagues.
The bigger your support network, the easier it will be to deal with his occasional need for distance. When you can have a good time with someone else, that also helps him to feel less pressure to perform “normally.” This time apart also gives him time to miss you.
Do you know your own attachment style?
How we approach our emotions can be triggering for one another. For example, a person with an anxious attachment style might become very distressed in a relationship with someone who has a disorganized attachment style.
Someone with an anxious attachment style might find dating someone who has a secure attachment a difficult prospect.
If you are an anxious type, being in a relationship with an avoidant type can bring up very strong emotions. As an anxious person, your drive is to find reassurance and get close. As the avoidant partner, he wants to put up his walls and withdraw.
Knowing is half the battle. Pay attention to what you do when you are feeling unpleasant feelings.
Your partner is likely distant from their emotions. In childhood, they may have been told they are overly sensitive. As they got older, they probably viewed emotions as something to avoid expressing at all.
When you bring it up, they will probably feel anxious and defensive. But even by showing interest in your partner’s feelings, you are encouraging them to open up. It may take a long time.
People with attachment issues tend to have lower resilience6. That means that it takes them a long time to recover from being hurt. And when they’re hurt, they self-isolate, which can make them feel worse.
I think everyone should be seeing a mental health provider or life coach. Trained professionals can help you to find ways to care for yourself. With tailor-made advice, specific to your needs, meeting with someone can help you make a lot of progress sooner than if you tried to do so on your own.
A professional can help in various ways. Couples’ counseling might be very helpful for your communication. You might need someone to help you with your confidence in setting and maintaining your boundaries. Whatever the case, you don’t have to do everything on your own.
Yes. As long as they are able to feel safe, an avoidant partner can open up. It can take them a long time to get to that point, but it’s not impossible.
Secure attachments are actually the best for any relationship. For a fearful avoidant person, consistency is key. Someone with an anxious-avoidant style needs someone who will demonstrate care. An anxious person needs reassurance. Secure people are able to meet all of these needs without triggering their own anxiety.
Leave them alone when they need space. Go out with friends, catch up with a family member, or engage in your hobbies. Without the pressure to be there all the time, your partner will want to spend time with you.
Everyone wants connection. Attachment style impacts how we seek or avoid connection to others. If you feel like your partner might have an anxious-avoidant attachment style, keep an eye out for the small things they do to say they care.