It’s a common problem: You are dating a guy. He’s great, and you can’t get enough of each other. But then, after a month or two—right when you think things are getting semi-serious—he pulls away. The texts slow way down. He’s not initiating anymore, only giving you vague nonchalant answers. Suddenly, it’s as if you’re at square one.
It can be easy to blame yourself, overanalyzing your every move. Perhaps you were too needy? Perhaps you shouldn’t have sent that sweet “good morning” text? Perhaps you haven’t made him work hard enough?
Or perhaps it’s not you at all, and you’re actually dating someone with an avoidant attachment style.
Attachment theory describes the influence our early-life bonding has on our current interpersonal relationships. It explains how our early years formed the ways we respond in relationships when we’re hurt or separated or when we perceive a threat. Researchers claim that by the age of 5, we develop an attachment style that will more or less dictate how we romantically bond with partners in our adult lives. There are three primary attachment styles:
Secure: People with a secure attachment style are not afraid of intimacy and are also not codependent.
Anxious: People with an anxious attachment style usually experienced inconsistent caregiving as a child. They fear rejection and abandonment, have a hard time feeling safe, and often mistrust their partner.
Avoidant: Those with an avoidant attachment style subconsciously suppress their attachment system and have a tendency to push people away when someone gets too close.
Avoidants make up approximately 25 percent of the population, so the chances of finding and dating one is high. According to Amir Levine, avoidants tend to end their relationships more frequently, have higher rates of divorce, and score the lowest on every measure of closeness in contrast with the other attachment types. Ultimately, avoidants equate intimacy with a loss of independence and idealize self-sufficiency—and in turn, subconsciously suppress their entire attachment system.
If this sounds like your S.O. or maybe even more like your own M.O., don’t worry, it’s definitely not all doom and gloom. If both partners have the determination to work together to become more secure, it can be an extremely enriching, loving relationship—though it will take a little bit more work upfront.
Here are five tips on how to love an avoidant type:
01. Tell him how his actions (or lack thereof) make you feel.
Maybe it drives you nuts when he doesn’t contact you for an entire day. Don’t be coy about your feelings—gently let him know. Together, you can come up with some tangible action items that will help him with his inclination to seemingly “go poof.” It can be something as simple as a text at lunch or a quick phone call at night. Of course, he won’t be able to change his behavior to accommodate all your emotional triggers—no one fully can. But he can be more sensitive to your needs and understand how small proactive actions can avoid a major frustration later.
02. Pick activities as dates.
Avoidants have the tendency to get lost in their head and overthink things. So opt for quality time while doing activities—such as a hike or run, or even trying out a new sport together (bocce ball, anyone?). This way, he’s present and in the moment while you bond and connect—and he’ll be more likely to relax and show you affection.
03. Practice patience when he pushes you away.
Avoidants feel safe when their autonomy or independence is not threatened, so when he withdraws, know that it’s not necessarily a sign of rejection. For a while, he may go through cycles of getting close and then stepping back. A pursue-withdraw dynamic is when one person pursues the other’s feelings and the other withdraws out of fear that they will only make the situation worse. If this dynamic continues for an extended amount of time, it can be very bad for a relationship. But, as Scott R. Woolley, Ph.D., explains on the Gottman Relationship Blog, this dynamic can be fixed by identifying one another’s underlying needs in conflict situations. If your avoidant partner is not ready to talk about his or her emotions and needs personal space, be patient and give it to them, as pushing or pressuring them will only make them more likely to withdraw.
04. Look at his intentions.
Especially if you are an anxious type, you may feel hyper-vigilant, intensely monitoring the emotions of your partner and extremely sensitive to cues that your partner may be pulling away. But quickly jumping to conclusions causes you to misinterpret each other’s emotional state, which can cause conflict and strife for no reason. Before you react, take a moment to look at your partner’s intentions. Then, gather more information and evidence before making a judgment. You’ll be surprised by how much easier it will be to accurately understand the situation when you delay your initial fear-based reaction.
05. Remember, you’re not his therapist.
One of the greatest struggles avoidants have is a difficulty recognizing their own emotions, let alone talking about them. However, significant research shows that simply naming our feelings is key in diffusing and managing them. Psychologist Dan Siegel refers to this practice as “name it to tame it.” He says, “Emotions are just a form of energy, forever seeking expression.” And finding the right words is the first step in expressing them.
That being said, if your partner won’t talk to you about his feelings, encourage him to go to a professional—you can only do so much. The more he can talk about his feelings with others, the more he can understand them for himself, creating awareness of his own emotions.
While it may seem like a lot of work dating this type, finding someone worth it could be the most rewarding experience of your life.