Published on December 1, 2022 Updated on June 5, 2023
Communicating with your partner can be a challenge if they have an avoidant attachment style. Just when you need them most, they may create distance and withdraw from you. Actions that would, of course, leave you feeling hurt, frustrated, and confused.
It’s important to recognize that your avoidant partner’s distancing behaviors once served a purpose. They likely helped them feel safe in early life when their environment felt rejecting and unreliable. Yet, how can you forge a stable relationship when there’s a breakdown in connection?
This is where we at The Attachment Project can help. Building upon your awareness of how avoidant attachment presents in romantic relationships, as well as the effects of different communication styles, can help you (and your partner!) feel safe and more connected within your relationship.
To help answer any questions you may have on avoidant attachment in relationships, this article will cover:
Someone with an avoidant attachment style may struggle to let their walls down in a romantic relationship. They might set boundaries to keep you at arm’s length – preventing intimacy and emotional closeness – which can make relationships feel “surface level.”
In situations where they feel threatened, such as during an argument, disagreement, or misunderstanding, someone with an avoidant attachment style may be more likely to use “deactivating coping strategies.”
Deactivating strategies are behaviors that create distance between the avoidant attacher and their partner. These coping mechanisms could help an avoidant individual (unconsciously) suppress their emotions, making them less susceptible to uncomfortable feelings like pain, anxiety, and distress.
When someone with an avoidant attachment emotionally “shuts down” like this, they may seem cold and uncaring to their romantic partner. But remember, these actions are subconscious – it’s not that they don’t care. They’ve just been taught from an early age to protect themselves by shutting down their attachment system.
In stressful situations, avoidantly-attached individuals may also:
It isn’t always simple to communicate with an avoidant partner, especially during moments of conflict. However, effective communication is very possible when you understand how to adapt your communication style to suit their attachment patterns.
*Note: adapting your communication style is about reaching a compromise between your needs and those of your partners. At no stage should you sacrifice what you (reasonably) require in a relationship to feel safe and fulfilled.
Communicating effectively in any relationship can be challenging, especially if you don’t understand your partner’s attachment style. But with understanding, patience, and support, it’s entirely possible to help your avoidantly attached partner to open up and become more emotionally intimate.
The following are eleven useful (and evidence-based!) tips on how to communicate with an avoidant partner:
According to research, people who use “soft” communication during relationship conflicts have a calming effect on their avoidant partner.
Softening communication and behavior could involve:
This communication style utilizes positive regard and says, “I am trustworthy” to your partner. It also helps to prevent triggering feelings of shame and guilt in your partner and communicates that you are in control of your emotions.
A soft communication style may make an argument or disagreement feel less threatening to someone with an avoidant attachment style, potentially leading to a less defensive response.
Although easy to fall into the habit of, guilt-tripping typically isn’t effective when used on someone with an avoidant attachment style. When we think about common avoidant attachment behaviors, this makes sense.
Guilt-tripping involves attempting to encourage change by triggering the uncomfortable feeling of guilt. Effectively, we’re saying, “if you care about me, you’ll change.” Guilt-tripping could look like emotional expressions of hurt, such as crying, sulking, or pouting, and telling your partner how their behavior hurts or upsets you.
Guilt-tripping is a “negative-indirect regulation strategy” because it doesn’t directly confront the issue. Instead, someone who guilt-trips seeks reassurance from their partner. However, avoidant attachers can find dependence, control, and obligation suffocating. So, guilt-tripping often results in them pushing for independence.
Avoidant attachers may respond to such strategies with resistance and experience less motivation to change – making the problem much harder to resolve.
When we show distress through crying, shouting, or anxiety, we may communicate to our partner that we are struggling to manage our emotions and need support. While this might be a natural reaction in anxiety-provoking situations, it could trigger an avoidant partner’s attachment traits.
As we’ve mentioned, independence is usually very important for someone with an avoidant attachment style. So, when someone communicates, “I need emotional support,” to an avoidant attacher, this could trigger their fear of dependence.
Although it can be tricky to catch your emotions in stressful situations, learning to identify reactions and self-regulate is essential to avoid triggering your partner’s attachment style.
When your partner emotionally withdraws or “shuts down” in conflictual or stressful situations, it can be challenging to remember that they aren’t doing so maliciously. You may fall into the pattern of thinking, “they don’t care,” “they never let me in,” or “they’re pushing me away.”
In these moments, it’s important to remember that these avoidant behaviors may have kept your partner safe from emotional pain when they were young. These actions might be the only coping strategy they currently have to manage their complex emotions.
Reminding yourself that your partner’s intentions are good despite how they act makes it far easier to communicate with empathy, understanding, and patience.
Due to their early relationship dynamics, someone with an avoidant attachment style may feel like they can’t depend on others and that their problems and feelings don’t matter. You can provide a safe space for an avoidant person by listening to them when they open up rather than responding defensively.
We call this “active listening.” It involves giving direct eye contact, positioning your body to face your partner, nodding when appropriate, and asking non-judgmental follow-up questions.
Setting boundaries can also make people with an insecure attachment style feel safe. Boundaries make relationships predictable, which increases feelings of security. You may agree upon boundaries relating to:
Effective communication can bring about positive change in romantic relationships. However, to do this, we need to steer clear of criticism. Criticism can feel like a personal attack to anyone, let alone someone with an avoidant attachment style.
Criticism may likely activate your partner’s avoidant attachment traits, which could result in them withdrawing, resisting, or disengaging from the conversation. Therefore, the problem becomes even harder to solve and positive behavior change is less likely.
In contrast, “I” statements take the heat off your partner, making what you’re saying about you, not them. This may help an avoidant partner understand the impact of their behavior without directly attributing it to them.
The following examples are alternatives to criticizing statements:
|Criticizing Statements||“I” Statements|
|You never tidy up after yourself.||I feel annoyed when I come home to a messy house.|
|You never want to spend time with me.||I feel lonely when I don’t see you much in the week.|
|You don’t show me affection.||I get confused and upset when you aren’t affectionate with me.|
For effective communication with an avoidant partner, it’s vital that we understand both individuals’ attachment styles our attachment style as they have the potential to affect relationship dynamics in particular ways.
For example, the anxious and avoidant attachment styles are prone to certain patterns within relationships. Typically, anxious attachment manifests as a fear of a romantic partner pulling away, so someone with this attachment style may seek emotional reassurance from their loved one. Yet, as we know, such behaviors may trigger an avoidant attacher’s fear of dependence, which could make them emotionally withdraw.
This interplay of attachment behaviors could worsen the situation, making the couple less likely to constructively resolve a problem.
If you would like to know how your attachment style may be influencing your relationship, you can take the free quiz on our website here.
Partners with an avoidant attachment style may need time alone, especially during arguments. However, this need can be a source of shame for some avoidant partners, making it difficult to ask for.
To support your partner during a disagreement, you could offer to give them space. Doing so validates your partner’s feelings and needs without explicitly naming them. It also demonstrates that you’re in control of your own emotions, which can make an avoidant partner feel less smothered in stressful situations.
Evidence shows that someone with an avoidant attachment style may become calmer when their partner gives “instrumental” rather than emotional support. Instrumental support means offering tangible assistance, such as:
Instrumental support could come in the form of offering your partner a glass of water when stressed, cooking dinner when you know they have had a difficult day at work, or giving them financial support.
Research suggests that avoidant attachers may prefer instrumental support over emotional because it doesn’t make them feel dependent on their partner, so it doesn’t trigger their attachment pattern in the same way.
While an avoidant partner’s behaviors during an argument may make you upset or angry, it’s important to practice patience whenever a situation involves attachment styles.
We develop our attachment patterns for a reason. As we mentioned, at one point in our lives, these behaviors helped keep us safe from hurt.
It is possible to change our attachment style, but it doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye. It takes time, patience, and determination from both of you.
Practicing patience will give your partner the time to change on their terms, not through pressure or control (which would likely make them do the exact opposite!).
Romantic relationships can be challenging for anyone, especially when one (or both!) partner has experienced difficult early relationships.
Someone with an avoidant attachment style may struggle to let their walls down and connect emotionally with their partner. Stressful situations may trigger their avoidant attachment behaviors, potentially leading to withdrawal, emotion suppression, and defensiveness.
Communicating with empathy, using “I” statements, and avoiding blaming and criticism are some of the ways to help avoidant partners feel safe enough to express their thoughts and feelings, as well as change their behaviors in time.
“The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”Peter Drucke.
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