The more he avoids her
The more frustrated and resentful she becomes
Comes out as criticism and blame
He feels unappreciated and overwhelmed
He avoids her more
She gets more upset
Certain relationship patterns are related to poor health outcomes. These stem from attachment styles laid down in the first 0-12 months of life as a result of the responsiveness/lack of responsiveness from the primary caregiver/mother. They may even begin in the womb, if the mother’s body fails to respond to and sync with the infant due to stress or illness.
This lack of responsiveness is present in up to 35% of adults who have an avoidant attachment style. This is very stressful for those in a relationship with them due to their inability to form a solid foundation of support and intimacy.
For a quick summary of the types and a link to attachment style quizzes, see this New York Times article.
Physiological stress can damage health and longevity, this is true for the emotional stress of relatively poor responsiveness. (This is also true for avoidants, who despite their apparent coolness, are also physiologically stressed). Bad relationship is defined by carelessness in requests and responses. For those in these relationships, an adversarial and undermining connection is worse than no relationship at all. Bad relationships harm your health. So do separations. A demand/withdraw relationship (below) results in a frustrating cycle of contempt and anger, which hurts us psychologically and physically. Hostile relationships cause constant physiological stress. Frequent worries and demands, or frequent conflicts are linked to 2×3 times mortality, as well as cancer, heart disease and liver disease.
There are heart health benefits to being happily married, and lower odds of diseases if married. Social isolation results in a death risk more than twice as high, as we are pro-social creatures. Our perceptions of relationships also influence us. Men release more cortisol in response to maritial conflict, with stressful social relationships are vulnerable to dying, and end up depressed if unhappily married. Marriage is, howevere, also more beneficial for men. Marrieds tend to be happier and healthier. A relationship can be a source of stress, but the right partner reduces stress. For this reason, it is important to determine if a partner undermines more often then he supports.
It is documented that withdrawal/demand dynamics (outlined below) cause bowel and urinary, and erectile problems. It could be extrapolated that the stress could also lead to adrenal fatigue and cortisol problems- all of which are commonly found in ME/CFS & fibromyalgia. (Because of this, an interesting study would be to rate the incidence of chronic fatigue in partners in relationships with an avoidant partner). Those who are sensitive or empathic are more likely to develop chronic fatigue (not based on maths, see here) and they are also more likely to get into and stay in relationships with predatory individuals such as narcissists (more on that below).
Jeb kinnison’s work on attachment styles and relationship dynamics (including ‘avoidant’, ‘bad boyfriends’ and other) is science, clinic and case study based, with references to journal articles and seminal bodies of work. I have outlined the main points below and strongly recommend purchasing the book or audio book available on Audible for a reasonably low cost. It is by far the most useful guide to attachment and relationships I have read. (Earlier books predating it include ‘Men who can’t love’- which outlined the effect of ‘commitmentphobic’ men on women, i.e. turning them crazy and exhausting them, but did not understand or explain the mechanism, which is crucial to understanding and working with attachment styles).
For a quiz and to find your style, there are many online quizzes available. You can probably elucidate by reading the examples below.
‘Touch communication’ within a relationship is security strategy. If a person experiences problems or a lack of recent reassurance, they signal, the other responds, and anxiety is reduced. The partner is responsive and respectful to requests for attention they provide it: Just when needed, Just the right amount—and are supportive without being intrusive. This results in a climate of trust and intimacy, with both partners more physically comfortable, with feelings of closeness, and reductions in stress and worry. This creates a sense of internal security which makes individuals less self-centred and more able to exhibit empathy. There is a sense of reasonableness and fairness between the partners, that it is easier to face problems together, and counting on each other is rewarded. This kindness and emotional stability results satisfaction, where both partners feel understood, validated and loved.
Secures are honest, straight forward and consistent. They know they are worthy, and aren’t playing games. This is how a secure attachment functions:
When, however, there is no response to signalling, anxiety increases and signalling becomes more insistent.
‘Avoidants’ have a general lack of trust in others and are intimacy avoidant as a way of trying to avoid strong emotions. There is an inability and lack of desire to respond supportively to request signals or even simple requests. They respond instead by retreating into their shell, and feeling harassed at being asked to give positive feeling. The avoidant is uncomfortable with constant requests, making them less likely to tolerate a long relationship. Their time is spent fending off intimacy. They can be sub-typed as dismissive (primarily) or fearful (a small percentage- the fearful avoidant needs some intimacy and seeks positive reinforcement), or both. The avoidant will flee to a fortress of solitude when intimacy threatens them.
Avoidants often believe that love doesn’t last and is inevitably disappointing. The find it harder to fall in love and doubt it’s possible or believe it is a fiction and a trap. They may not want to be truly known, may believe there is no safety or security when open, and may subconsciously believe they’ll be hurt or abandoned. They want to avoid being ‘taken advantage of’ and ‘sucked in’.
Despite this though, they subconsciously seek out attachment, and are somatically affected by separation. When upset, avoidants are viscerally affected, with a racing heart, disturbed sleep and digestion. Consciously they don’t mind, as their feelings are habitually suppressed and denied. This is because in infancy the baby creates a blockade of attachment related emotions to survive inattention or abuse, or to escape experiences which would have stopped their will to live, such as cold, unresponsive, depressed, unemotional or blank faced care givers. This firewall functions to leave emotions in the body completely out of awareness, using a lot of energy in the brain, and reflecting a changed brain and nervous system which minimises the importance of attached others.
Alexathymia is the inability to describe emotions in words, a skill which comes from an internal dialogue or stream of consciousness. Many avoidants can’t be consciously aware of their emotions which are instead manifested as somatic symptoms. This then interferes with psychological intimacy and their capacity for interpersonal sensitivity. (For a discussion see Psychology today).
Their avoidance can produce intrigue and sparks for partners initially, by triggering the attraction system with intermittent reinforcement or by appearing as a strong, alpha male. Underneath this, they want their practical and immediate needs met by a compliant partner, but often don’t want to meet others. They are not loyal, will not protect their partner, and will be passive aggressive. Sexual behaviour is often focussed on the avoidant’s own needs with dismissal/ blindness to partners need and wishes and they may pursue sex while avoiding a relationship. There may be promiscuity promoted by insecurity, narcissism or a wish to elevate self image with peers. Avoidants are more likely to cheat, or deny their current partner affection while pursuing secretive sex lives. This is because dismissive avoidants want to have the balance of power and keep their partner at a distance but on the hook. They are ready to exit as soon as they experience relationship distress. They are often dissatisfied in relationships, and express dissatisfaction by leaving. Avoidants have less regrets and feel relieved at leaving their partner, but will then seek out someone the same. They’re generally not loyal to stay through richer/poorer, sickness/health and are likely to leave when you need them most.
They do not approve of need or vulnerability, and consider it a drain on resources. More importantly though, other’s needs mirror their own suppressed needs, weaknesses and vulnerabilities—which they need to feel superior to and separated from—so they may ignore the person suffering, help with a superior attitude, behave insensitively, use pity rather than sympathy/compassion, or even engage in hostile dismissive humour where they enjoy another’s suffering. These harmful strategies allow them to project and then distance from vulnerable qualities, and keep their own suppression intact.
Avoidants often end up in relationships by accident, because they subconsciously want to be wanted. Feeling not good enough and fearing abandonment, fearful avoidants often end the relationship out of fear, in a self fulfilling prophecy. Meeting a partner causes unease, as they may have come to terms with the idea of growing old alone. The avoidant may then proactively leave, due to wanting to get rid of the unease and get back to the relatively easeful unhappiness of being alone.
Once attached, this type often engage deactivating strategies and rationalise creating distance. This can include saying they’re ‘not ready’ for a commitment, but then staying anyway; focussing on small imperfections (internal judgemental of partner to feel in control, later used hurtfully), having exacting standards the make the current partner not good enough, pining after/romanticising a distant ex, flirting with others to create insecurity, not saying I love you, pulling away when the relationship is going very well, choosing an impossible or long distance relationship (which has distance built in for whatever reason), checking out mentally, leaving things foggy & keeping secrets, or avoiding physical closeness and sex. The avoidant may formulate an exit plan to reduces stress and fear of intimacy, such as demanding prenups. This may extend to not wanting to introduce you to friends or people from other areas of him life and keeping his life compartmentalised. This may be as he is unable to control you or the things you say, you may embarrass him or reveal things that damage his carefully controlled image. The avoidant tends to be self-centred with a controlling, uncooperative stance and a competitive attitude towards their partner, which minimises teamwork and communication for internal and external problems. Where there is contempt and criticism, the partners will miss bids for connection and positivity. This kills love, and kills the ability of their partner to fight off viruses and cancers. Overall, there is a tendency to maintain distance, reduce physical contact & accessibility.
The dismissive avoidant may pursue a partner in the beginning, being charming and interesting in courtship, and may enjoy thrill of hunt and capture. After acting very interested in the beginning, they may suddenly become cold or emotionally distant, leaving their partners confused and distressed. The partner may wonder if the original attraction a lie. Not exactly, as lying has awareness. The avoidant has a lack of emotional connection to memories which allows for an inconsistency of feeling that is hard for us to understand. A normie would think it was odd to randomly change their feelings from wanting to rejecting, but the avoidant is not conscious of a remembered landscape of feeling. They’re often conscious of what they’re doing and have a made up rationalisation.
The avoidant often thinks of himself as self contained, logical and fair, and becomes tired of what he sees as unreasonable demands for support. Deprecating, verbal expressions of indifference and contempt is indirect aggression, as a way of indirectly blaming their partner for being so weak as to need support. They want to be left alone and feel provoked. As a result, the avoidant withdraws, physically by leaving or mentally by checking out. Early in the relationship there may be a pressing pretext such as work, or they may just leave with no reasons. They may take it out by refusing to snuggle or make love (withholding sex or affection), saying ‘I’m tired’, with an underlying feeling of ‘I gave enough today’. The avoidant often wants to reestablish their independence by refusing requests, which gives them a sense of controlling the depth of the relationship they require to feel safe. They may do this passively, by conveniently forgetting requests, making subtle attacks, seeming to be cooperating but somehow never get around to doing their part. This is dysfunctional communication, absent of responding honestly and supporting.
Eventually, a lack of empathy and care, and help given grudgingly, or a cool or unresponsive response to suffering partners becomes apparent. (Years later you may realise you really aren’t important to them, when you’ve built a life but they’re just tolerating you). This withholding of responses is alienating to significant others. The avoidant’s lack of attention can extend to indirect/passive aggression such as indifference, disrespect, contempt or cruelty. If pushed, the passive aggressive contempt can become verbal or physical abusive—this is violence designed to get other to leave them alone. When unhappy, they use passive aggression/insults, and when cornered, suppression breaks down. The avoidant can become highly emotional when deactivating strategies don’t work or can’t be used, and they are overwhelmed by unprocessed feelings which are usually avoided.
For someone in a relationship with an avoidant, it is easy to become clingy, demanding and stuck in an unsatisfying communication pattern. This is amplified as the avoidant may criticise the anxious partner as ‘overreacting’. A partnership between an avoidant and an anxious-preoccupied is common and forms a ‘demand/withdraw cycle’ that can lead to stress and crazy behaviour, and is predictive of violence. This persistent bond is based on the unmet needs of the anxious partner and the willingness of avoidant to accept attention without providing security, and results in mutually reinforcing insecurities. The anxious partner may be afraid of rejection or abandonment with a strong need for love and attention. When their partner is non-responsive, their protests intensify, there may be difficulties managing anger, and they may strike out as a mean to regain proximity. The avoidant’s tendancy to deflect, avoid or go silent leads to lower satisfaction, less intimacy, poorer communication, anxiety, aggression, and urinary, bowel or erectile dysfunction.
The psychologically abusive attitudes and actions of the avoidant can cause the other partner to react aggressively. This includes the avoidants passive abusiveness such as saying or showing ‘I don’t care’, not listening when their partner speaks, or cutting them off when they try to speak. Requests for reassurances are not met and the partner becomes increasingly distressed, with the avoidant unable to respond soothingly.
In attachment, a lack of responsiveness eventually leads to distancing behaviour, a lowering of expectations and breakdown of relationship communication. A secure is likely to give up, whereas an anxious-preoccupied will stick with a bad relationship. This forms an interlocking dependency full of stress. While the dismissive enjoys control and confirmation of beliefs, as well as the ego-boosting (and so may settle in), the anxious sticks around unhappy with feeding on crumbs. Real closeness triggers the avoidants anxiety, and their distancing triggers requests from their increasingly anxious partner.
When individuals are insecurely attached due to upbringing or being with an avoidant (or, in my experience, from past relationship betrayals, probably with other avoidants, or traumatic losses such as deaths), they may require more signalling reassurance, which can will test the patience of secure partners (causing them to act dismissively), and exacerbate problems with an avoidant. Anxious partners have less respect for their partners state of mind and can struggle to curb the impulse to request attention when partner is busy or irritated. Constant patient reassurance is required to bring them into security even when they’re being unreasonably demanding. In crisis, the preoccupied anxious will revert back into self-centredness and anxiety. Over time this problem can ease.
Anxious ambivalent or anxious avoidant individuals attachment styles are also formed during infancy, and these are reinforced and exacerbated in relationship with an avoidant. Although dissatisfied, they may be less likely to leave than a secure, may become attached easier and doubt their own ability to face life’s challenges. This reluctance makes vulnerable for abuse and they require a supportive network to help them leave. Anxious partners are more likely to still have unresolved feelings 6 months after.
It is important for these partners to quit when opportunity cost outweighs investment cost, and to quit if not satisfied. Investment stops people from mentally cutting their losses, they may feel quitting is failure, and not recognise that previous investment does not justify future investment.
Happiness with an avoidant
No one benefits in a breakup. If you’re deeply invested, such as married or with children, you both need to change. It can be exceptionally difficult to get an avoidant to admit to their own behaviour and recognise a need to change (often they’re happy as their own needs are being met) and then to proceed to develop enough trust and intimacy to change the underlying demand/withdrawal pattern. This may require compromise and restructuring, as well as developing a shared vocabulary to understand and address what is happening.
Good relationship requires sustained hard work and a generous spirit. It can be hard to motivate an avoidant to work, as they believe others are the source of the problems. The avoidant can’t detach from themselves to objectively view their behaviour. Self-reflective reappraisal might not work, as there is no down regulation of amygdala reactivity. It is necessary to make the avoidant conscious of distancing behaviour and his fear of intimacy. A good strategy involves teaching them to use empathy, explain how it hurts and asking them to consider family and friends feelings.
It’s one thing to read self help books all day, but to heal attachment, you gotta get dirty under the hood. Attachment is a messy experience that comes from a limbic bond to change it, it takes practice to form attachment bonds. This emotional healing requires being limbically known, and having someone else ‘catch your melodic essence’. This level of self is like wandering in a museum in the dark, where anything could exist and you can never sure of what sensed. A good therapist/seer is precise and brings light, to assist you succeed in revealing self to another, and slough off ill fitted trappings of unsuitable lives/change life path. Limbic healing cannot be done alone, it requires a joint expedition to a better future. This involves enrolling friends and family, to talk about it with others and build internal understanding; This exchange of views is what makes closeness and intimacy so valuable for health and actualisation.
The avoidant has blocked emotional memories and denial of needs for attachment. It is important to find a therapist with a good understanding of attachment, to provide a realism of expectations and actions the individual has taken. Therapy is a process, a journey together. For the individual, seeing their interior thoughts and feelings through eyes of therapist can help pull ship of emotional life to a calmer shore. This requires being open and describing feelings, and sharply questioning stories and rationalisations. Reqiring limbic attractors means living it. This requires a good therapist who can drift, eyes open, through even connection that touches the worst in the therapist. This provides a temporary residence to alter and overthrow the previous patterns. Therapy is the ultimate inside job.
Becoming attached/ rewiring attachment requires verbally describing experience to allow it to come under conscious control, through a process of review and transformation, as part of a working model which is flexible and rethinks the past, and allows the individual to reattribute meaning to behaviour. Understanding that others actions are usually not an attentional assault on you.
What can an avoidant do to be more comfortable?
Attachment orientated therapist
1. More reading.
2. Reparent yourself, care and love to self, sensitive and supportive. Bring security and insight
3. Talk about how you really feel. Regular time, be kind and honest
What can their partner do?
It is necessary to convince the avoidant’s subconscious you are reliable and won’t hurt them. It can be helpful to change communication style to avoid the avoidants dislike of dependence, such as using low volume for requests, signalling only when really need help, as repeated requests for assurance drive people away. Where possible protect yourself, approach him differently, give him space. Use tools to ignore the feeling of anxiety. Sometimes needed to ask for reassurance. If you’re off balance from the avoidant- do what you can do to make the environment better. Develop outside friends and others to rely on, and find tools and ways to cope. Consider the good things he does and develop and focus on gratitude.
While 50% secure of individuals are secure, 25% dismissive 5% fearful, 20% are anxious ambivalent or anxious preoccupied. (These numbers are larger within the single population). For anxious individuals, insecurities will build in the absence of reassurance. They can then damage to social ties by acting clinging, controlling and possessive. Fear of abandonment is self-fulfilling. These individuals are often scanning for what is right or wrong and not on appreciating their partner, and may give reassurance when not required or when their partner is busy or irritated. This is because insecurity makes them self-centred, and effort is required to be consciously sympathetic and understanding.
Key strategies for the anxious is in working towards inner security and independence. This comes from a secure partner who provides consistent reassurance.
– absorbing activities to distract
-self coaching dialogue will reassuring self talk about failings
– Build confidence in self and value by accomplishing real tasks
– See others perspectives before acting on fear and anger
– soothe worries before they trouble others
– faith in good will before assuming the worst
See Part 2 (link): secure attachment for strategies and information about functional attachment.
In addition to avoidants, there is the subtype fearful avoidant. This type doesn’t understand that their nitpicking and emotionally stinginess stops their partner being confident. The fearful avoidant doesn’t see his part in their partners insecurity because he sees himself as meaningless and his actions are meaningless.
The avoidant may be devoid of emotion, not showing a lot unless attempting to win over the partner, expressing anger at parents, or when protesting with demands for attention. Despite the disconnect and unhappiness, the avoidant may keep wanting to have sex- this is very common. The avoidant can be psychologically abusive, causing aggression in their partners. This tends to build up to a pattern of subconscious intent over time.
Empathy makes the world go around, and is essential to human functioning as a social glue. On the other hand, high narcissism may be extreme avoidance. These individuals can use empathy when directed, but the skill isn’t used- they’re focussed on own needs. They require consistent rewarding of empathy. For this reason, sub-clinical Narcissists don’t make good friends or lovers. Tend to cheat and end messily, and are deviant academically.
— can help feel the pain of others. Thinking about it activates the response. Extreme narcissists had low heart rates listening to a recording of a women in distress if told to think about it, otherwise they’re in a state of disassociation.