Everyone showcases their love and affection in different ways.
Loving someone with an avoidant attachment may not feature in many fairytales, but that doesn’t mean that healthy relationships can’t be formed.
Understanding and respecting your partner’s attachment style is key to a healthy union, where both your needs are met. Even though loving an avoidant takes may take more patience, hard work comes with a happy ending.
There are many different types of attachment styles that can be present in romantic relationships, including several insecure attachments.
Avoidant attachment style is a type of adult attachment that describes a kind of dismissive or distant behavior, whereby the person withdraws from their loved ones due to learned behaviors from their childhood.
This kind of attachment style can be defined by a variety of terms, such as fearful-avoidant attachment, dismissive-avoidant attachment, or another manifestation of an anxious attachment style.
“Anxious-avoidant attachment, also called dismissing attachment in adulthood, refers to a strategy developed in early childhood to maintain a connection with an important person,” says Dr. Krista Jordan, a psychotherapist at Choosing Therapy.
“In childhood, this person is our caregiver; in adulthood, it’s our romantic partner. Children with an avoidant style grow into adults who believe that the best way for them to stay close to a partner is to make a small footprint in the relationship.”
According to Bowlby’s attachment theory, these childhood experiences greatly shape their relationship patterns in their adult life, with childhood trauma installing them with a fear of abandonment which shapes their emotional responses.
“They have a subconscious assumption that if you’re too dependent on your partner you will be rejected,” says Dr. Jordan.
“So they swing the other way and become fiercely independent and repress their vulnerable emotions and deeper needs for connection.”
This reactive response means that they can struggle to develop a healthy emotional connection with their loved ones — opting for the safety of distance and withdrawal over emotional closeness.
Avoidant attachment can manifest in several different ways, with the severity of the symptoms depending on a variety of life experiences or other conditions.
The most common symptoms of this insecure attachment style include an overly dismissive or disinterested personality, who can’t empathize or respond correctly to their partner's needs.
“What this looks like on the surface is a person who can be cool, aloof, unresponsive to bids for intimacy or connection, and uncomfortable with any signals of dependency from the partner,” says Dr. Jordan.
“The problem with this is that in order for a relationship to thrive in the long term, both partners need to be interdependent — they need to lean on each other in times of stress, share deeply with each other in times of joy, and feel a solid sense that their partner has their back.”
Therefore, this attachment system can greatly affect intimate relationships, with a lack of emotional intimacy making it difficult to develop a healthy connection.
“If you do not have an avoidant attachment style and partner with someone who does, you are likely to feel that there is a wall up around that person that you cannot penetrate,” says Dr. Jordan.
“They may also criticize you for wanting or needing more connection because they have cut themselves off from their own natural and healthy needs for that.”
If you have a secure attachment style, loving someone with an avoidant attachment can be incredibly draining and confusing.
Since there are so many different attachment styles, it’s important to understand the distinctions in order to respond correctly.
“Current theories on attachment often conceptualize these styles as anchoring on opposite ends of the attachment continuum,” says Dr. Jordan.
“The avoidant person is too independent, too emotionally shut down, and too fearful of closeness while the ambivalent person has intense needs for connection under stress, over-expresses signals for attention and closeness, and often has trouble staying emotionally regulated.”
Since these sit on different sides of the spectrum, if these attachment styles are present in a pairing — it can be very hard to find a middle ground.
If you’re in a relationship with an avoidant personality, it can lead to fearful questions about the validity of their feelings. However, there is no proof that avoidants can’t form loving relationships.
“There is no research to suggest that people with avoidant attachment are incapable of love,” says Dr. Jordan.
“It’s important to note that the original research that created these styles showed that some kids had high levels of avoidant behaviors while others had more moderate levels. Yet all were included in the same general category. So some adults have minor features of avoidance and others may have all of the traits.”
Therefore, there are different magnitudes of avoidants, with some more able to communicate and cope with emotional intimacy than others. Even though avoidants may seem more emotionally unavailable, this coping mechanism doesn’t mean they are incapable of love.
Avoidants may act differently in romantic relationships and may not follow the typical love language patterns. However, when they first fall in love, they don’t have the same barriers that you might expect.
According to Dr. Jordan, signs of avoidant attachment style often don’t appear until further on in the relationship. During the early stages of a romantic relationship, they are able to foster emotional and physical intimacy without much difficulty.
“Avoidantly attached folks look much more secure during early dating,” says Dr. Jordan.
“They may be comfortable with high levels of physical contact, eye contact, deep discussion, deep emotions, and interdependency during that phase.”
Therefore, this behavior doesn’t raise a red flag in the early days of dating, with both partners able to communicate effectively and showcase affection in a seemingly sustainable way.
“Anthropologists and social psychologists generally believe that humans did not evolve for lifetime monogamy,” says Dr. Jordan.
“As such we have no built-in systems to help us maintain a smooth, interdependent, and sloe connection over decades with the same partner. By early on there is a biological push to continue the species, so it’s easier to handle.”
However, once the relationship starts to progress, avoidant tendencies start to appear. This sudden switch-up can be emotionally destabilizing for their partner, as it can feel like they’ve simply lost interest in the relationship.
“After 12-18 months though, you can expect that people with an avoidance style will revert to wanting more alone time, being more private, potentially keeping secrets, or being cagey about being questioned to deploy about their thoughts feelings, and behaviors,” says Dr. Jordan.
“They may also want sex less often, maybe less comfortable with physical touch and eye contact — generally not responding consistently and sensitively to a partner's bid for connection.”
This may seem like a lack of interest, but this preference for personal space doesn’t mean that they have fallen out of love. When an avoidant becomes overwhelmed, they often lapse into a kind of withdrawal known as autoregulation. This self-soothing tactic allows the avoidant to step away from relationship aspects that they find stressful.
This sudden preference for autoregulation over communication can lead to several relationship problems. As the avoidant redraws, it’s harder to upkeep a healthy relationship.
Even though this tactic is common amongst avoidants, it’s not a crime to want some time to yourself. Spending time by yourself can benefit your mental health and well-being, which can, in turn, have a positive effect on your relationships.
“It’s important to note that everyone, even people who are securely attached, autoregulates some of the time,” says Dr. Jordan.
“What differs about the avoidantly attached person is that they prefer this strategy above being with others and they use it reflexively, which often signals the people around them that they don’t want to be bothered by anyone.”
While it’s hard to self-diagnose an avoidant attachment, it’s easier to spot signs in your romantic partner.
Learning how to support an avoidant partner is essential to forming a healthy relationship. With the help of couples therapy, it’s easier to identify your emotional needs and work on your partner’s attachment style in a productive way.
If you feel that your significant other displays these tendencies, it’s important to know how to react with patience and understanding — so as not to trigger more avoidant tendencies.
“Helping an avoidant partner to move toward what researchers call ‘earned security’ can be facilitated by either a partner who has a secure style themselves, or a therapist or partner who has significant knowledge of how to appear attachment wounds,” says Dr. Jordan.
If you have identified signs you’re dating someone with an avoidant attachment style, it can come with a certain degree of relief (as it’s not simply a lack of interest) while also triggering a number of questions.
Take the time to fully understand why your partner may have developed this attachment style. Due to childhood experiences, avoidants have a hard time forming healthy adult relationships. This situation is largely out of their control and should be treated with care and understanding.
“The avoidantly attached adult had a childhood in which their caregivers were not consistently available and/or they were encouraged to take care of themselves too often and too early,” says Dr. Jordan.
“So the key is to gently and with patience offer opportunities to connect in ways that don’t feel too overwhelming or stressful to them. This must be done in small increments at first.”
While introducing connection is important, avoidants may need more space in a relationship and that’s okay. Particularly during times of conflict, it’s essential to be mindful of their personal boundaries, so as not to overly invade their space and trigger an adverse reaction.
“Another mistake that partners often make is to follow them around the house when arguing, usually because the avoidant person is trying to walk away,” says Dr. Jordan.
“If you do this they will feel trapped and you will become even more identified with the insensitive early caregivers. Give them space to get themselves back together if they need it. This doesn’t need to be hours but giving them ten minutes to an hour can help them feel that you know what they need and are trying to respect it, rather than trying to mow them over.”
Loving an avoidant partner is all about balance. With time it’s easier to identify times for personal space and times for connection.
“While you do need to leave them alone at a time for short intervals, it’s also important to periodically draw them into connection,” says Dr. Jordan.
“The avoidant partner does not realize it, but being alone too much is actually not good for their health,” says Dr. Jordan.
According to research, extended alone time and avoidant tactics can lead to heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, autoimmune diseases, and endocrine dysfunction in later life.
“So it’s really good for the avoidant partner to learn to lean into connection but it must be done slowly and in a way that they feel they have some control over,” says Dr. Jordan.
“However, don’t let them be alone all the time! Even though they think that they prefer this, on a biological level it’s not good for them.”
There are a number of techniques you can try to introduce connection into your relationship, such as the ‘Catch and Release’ method.
“Remember the avoidant partner doesn’t have a lot of experience with interdependency and deep connection, so they can be flooded in a way that is uncomfortable if you come on too strong for what they can tolerate,” says Dr. Jordan.
“Hold their hand for a minute and then let go, or hug them for two seconds and then break it off. You need to re-train their nervous system so that closeness is not entrapping and they can move back into autoregulation when they need to. If you’re patient and consistent with this “catch and release” technique, your avoidant partner’s nervous system can begin to recalibrate.”
Physical intimacy is an important part of any relationship and is a common love language. Physical touch goes far beyond just sex, including holding hands, cuddling, and more.
“Skin-to-skin contact releases oxytocin which combats cortisol levels and also triggers natural bonding system in the body,” says Dr. Jordan.
“I recommend at least 20 minutes per day of bonding time for couples that includes skin-to-skin contact. This can be watching a program together holding hands, or having your feet touching while reading the paper.”
Even though loving an avoidant partner may not always be smooth sailing, it’s important to focus on positive encouragement. Without being patronizing, praise them when they engage with connection or compliment the effort they’re making.
This can boost their self-esteem and make them feel accepted and supported in the relationship.
“Be aware of the hard-wired fears that avoidant partners have,” says Dr. Jordan.
“They are extremely sensitive to criticism, expect to be judged, and feel that their purpose in a relationship is to perform in some way. So be on the lookout for ways to combat this, like praising them for things that don’t involve performance, and be careful when giving negative feedback so that they don’t feel too criticized.”
Autoregulation is a common behavior among avoidants. Although we can all lapse into autoregulation, you should be mindful of this self-soothing strategy and how they react when you take them out of this safe space.
“Keep in mind that because avoidant partners slip into autoregulation easily, they often look startled (which may look like annoyance) when you break them out of that,” says Dr. Jordan.
“This can look like they’re mad at you and don’t want you around. In fact, it’s just their system feeling startled by moving from that relaxed, slightly disassociated place of autoregulation into interaction with another person.”
Since everyone has different avoidant attachment styles, it’s important to showcase your support.
“It’s helpful and tremendously trust-promoting to let the avoidant partner know that you know about their foibles,” says Dr. Jordan.
“They often feel like they’re keeping a deep dark secret around their discomfort with the connection. Letting them know that you understand their style and the predictable fears can help them feel fully seen in a way that they probably haven’t felt before.”
While it’s important to openly recognize their attachment style, it’s also important to stress your own emotional needs.
“Make sure to let them know that you have your own struggles as well,” says Dr. Jordan.
“Otherwise they may feel overly pathologized and since they’re sensitive to criticism, this won’t go over well.”
With all the love potions in the world, there is no way to make someone love you.
“Unfortunately, there is no way to make anyone, regardless of their attachment style, love you,” says Dr. Jordan.
“But you can help an avoidant partner feel more understood and more comfortable. Since they’re so easily misunderstood, if you make the effort you can win their deep love and appreciation.”
Dealing with a differing attachment style can allow insecurities about the relationship to develop. However, you must remember that you can’t change someone’s personality and shouldn’t be offended by their inbuilt relationship style.
While you can’t change them, you can create a new dynamic that allows both of your needs to be met.
“Remember that these patterns were laid down between birth and three years old, so they had decades of reinforcement before you came along,” says Dr. Jordan.
“Don’t expect to change all that in a few months of dating! Show the avoidant person that you understand their attachment wounds and want to create a safe space for them to heal. That’s a pretty compelling strategy no matter what non-secure style a person has.”
Relationships are all about supporting each other, no matter what. Taking the time to adapt to your partner’s attachment style showcases your love for them, creating a healthy platform from which your relationship can grow at its own pace.