Many people feel very anxious in their relationship, because their partner avoids emotional intimacy. Despite how frustrating the avoidant partner may appear, not everything can be blamed on them.
Any relationship comprises a dynamic between two people, and issues within the relationship have to be examined in the context of both partners. To understand avoidance in the context of a relationship, let’s start with a list of avoidant behaviors.
Identifying Avoidant Behaviors in Your Partner
Here are some behaviors typically exhibited by the “avoidant” partner:
- Not returning texts, emails, or calls
- Forgetting plans, special occasions, or dates
- Not saying “I love you” or other expressions of love
- Deflecting conversations about further commitment, such as monogamy, engagement, or marriage
- Dismissing or mocking a partner’s attempts to be closer, or to engage on a deeper level
This behavior can be very frustrating, and can make the avoidant person’s partner wonder what is “wrong” with the relationship, and whether the avoidant partner even loves them at all. There are often arguments about the relationship, where one partner blames the other for not caring “enough” or showing their love in certain ways. These fights can undermine the strength of the relationship and erode closeness over time.
In this case, the avoidant person’s partner is usually considered “preoccupied” or “anxious” in the attachment literature. This means that they can act intrusive and controlling when confronted with their partner’s avoidance. The idea that the avoidant partner doesn’t love them or doesn’t want to commit to them fully triggers a panic response (called attachment panic).
What to do When You Recognize Avoidance in Your Partner
The first thing to do when you recognize that your partner is avoidant is to figure out how your own behaviors and past issues are contributing to the dynamic. It can help to work with a couple’s counselor, but generally, most people who are subconsciously drawn to avoidant partners have had experiences in their early life where a parent or other key attachment figure was emotionally unavailable.
When they meet an avoidant partner, these people subconsciously see a chance to finally make an emotionally unavailable person commit, and be present and attentive. These couples become trapped in a pursuer-distancer dynamic, which means that one partner pursues the other for intimacy, while the other pushes away to increase emotional distance.
For many people partnered with avoidant people, it can be very useful to examine their own responses to the avoidant behavior, and figure out if they are helpful or not. For instance, texting your partner 20 times in a row to tell them how hurt you are that they haven’t responded to you yet is not usually a helpful behavior. This can make the avoidant person feel stressed, overwhelmed, and attacked. So what should you do instead?
Accepting Your Partner for Who They Are
The key to a successful relationship with an avoidant partner is to accept who they are, while staying true to what you need. This doesn’t mean what you want — which may in the moment be a constant, ongoing text conversation that lasts 18 waking hours — but what you need to feel whole and healthy, which could be a partner who can say “I love you,” or one who doesn’t skip out on plans.
If the avoidant partner makes little or no effort to respond to your basic attachment needs, do not be afraid to end the relationship. However, if they are trying to meet your needs but still have their own issues to work through, this may not necessarily signal that things won’t work out.
The pursuer-distancer dynamic is common, and it doesn’t have to mean that your relationship is doomed. A therapist can help you distinguish which of the relationship issues are primarily due to your insecurities, and which are due to your partner’s pattern of emotional avoidance.
Strengthen Your Relationship with Couples Therapy
Most relationship issues are, as you may guess, due to the complex interplay between these attachment styles, which can often be explored beneficially with a couples counselor. Even if a happy relationship seems far away now, many issues can be successfully navigated with the help of a professional.