I work with many clients who need help communicating with an avoidant who doesn’t believe they genuinely cared about them, is holding a grudge or doesn’t trust their ex’s intentions. They’ve tried everything from no contact to being nice and using positive words and nothing seems to work. What gives?
First you need to understand something. Avoidants in general do not think their partners genuinely care about them. When the relationship ends, most avoidants aren’t sure if an ex really cared about them, if they imagined the whole thing or allowed themselves to be fooled into what was a lie or wasn’t there. They look at their ex’s words and actions to determine what is true and what is not, and if they can trust an ex.
They’re not just looking for what you’re saying and if you’re being “nice”; they’re looking for how you make them feel; do you genuinely care or will you hurt them?
The message we send (what we say, how we say it and when we say it ) and an ex’s reaction is influenced by the sender and receivers attachment style. Even simple words like ‘okay’ or ‘sure’ have a different meaning with an avoidant who doesn’t feel you genuinely care about them or one who doesn’t trust you.
It’s therefore important that when you communicate with an avoidant that you don’t only use positive words or phrases but that you communicate that you care and are not trying to hurt them (at least not intentionally).
An anxious attachment makes you emotionally unavailable
Being able to communicate with an avoidant in this way after a break-up may require a mind and attitude shift. Like many exes with an anxious attachment, you probably feel that an avoidant is the one with a “problem” because they have a problem with being close or showing you that they care. And you’re absolutely right to feel this way. Avoidants neglect their partners and often show no care for their feelings and needs. Avoidants also initiate most break-ups, don’t reach out even when they’re obviously the reason the relationship ended, don’t respond and ignore texts… the list is endless.
But an anxious attachment is just as bad as an avoidant attachment. They are both insecure attachment styles and one is not better than the other.
People with an anxious attachment like to think they’re “secure’ because they want to be close, and avoidants don’t. What they don’t realize is that their anxious attachment also makes them emotionally unavailable. You may feel like you’re an open book; open to giving and receiving love and intimacy, but fear of rejection, abandonment and/or not being good enough makes anxiously attached people afraid of revealing who they truly are, saying how they truly feel or asking for what they truly feel. You don’t think you’ll be loved just as you are and edit and present the version of you that you think is loveable. You don’t say how you feel because you fear pushing away the person you want to be closest to. You don’t ask for what you need because that will scare someone away. As a result, you are not as emotionally open, vulnerable or accessible as you want to think you are.
Furthermore, an anxious attachment makes you overanalyze and exaggerate relationship threats and have a hard time self-regulating. You are always anxious and stressed about relationships and need constant reassuring making you emotionally unavailable to manage the emotional aspects of a relationship.
Even when you try to be vulnerable, your vulnerability is carefully edited to elicit a particular reaction or response. When you don’t the reaction or respond you expect or hope for, you engage in protest behaviour which makes it hard to communicate let alone emotionally connect.
To better communicate with an avoidant turn a perceived weakness into a strength
If avoidants being discomfort with being close is a problem, it’s only fair to point out that an anxious attachment’s excessive need for closeness is a problem too. It’s not always clear who starts the anxious-avoidance dance; whether because they’re avoidant they pull away when someone gets close and the person with an anxious attachment feels insecure and become needy and clingy which then makes an avoidant pull away further OR whether the person with an anxious attachment needs (complain, demand and/or push) more closeness than avoidants feel comfortable with, and this causes an avoidant to feel pressured, intruded upon and overwhelmed and pull away which then makes the person with an anxious attachment protest (complain, demand, act needy, push and/or pull back too).
To better communicate with an avoidant ex, you first and foremost have to embrace the fact that you have an anxious attachment and because of this, you’re likely to want more closeness than most avoidants are comfortable with, and communicate your need for closeness in ways that may trigger an avoidant.
Nick from Evolving Minds, who I think is a brilliant example of a self-aware and evolved anxious attachment, and whom I’ll refer to now and again in this article calls embracing your anxious attachment as “turning a perceived weakness into a strength”. He writes “If you have an anxious attachment style, pay close attention to the part about being honest about your attachment anxiety; and turning a perceived weakness into a strength. Better to be honest about this and have the 99 people withdraw who cannot meet your needs and meet the 1 person who can.”
In addition to weeding out partners who can’t meet your needs, being honest about your anxious attachment style communicates vulnerability in a way that helps create balance in fulfilling each other’s needs.
If you know anything about an avoidant attachment it’s that they struggle with vulnerability, and don’t feel safe opening up. The reason avoidants are more vulnerable and open up with a partner who’s securely attached is because people with a secure attachment style express themselves without the fear of rejection, abandonment, losing someone or being overwhelmed. A secure person’s vulnerability gives an avoidant permission to be vulnerable as well this leads to people feeling emotionally safe with each other.
An anxious attachment can communicate vulnerability by being honest about their feelings and needs in a way that feels safe to them, but also gives an avoidant permission to be vulnerable.
Communicating vulnerability as someone with an anxious attachment
Nick writes, “Relationship advice may tell an anxious person; “Play it cool, don’t be needy, appear confident and strong to attract a mate”. Whilst it may be true that a self-confident secure type who does not need another’s reassurance in order to feel valid is an attractive quality in a partner; if it is not who we are then we will risk attracting someone who when we finally reveal our true vulnerability and need… will never be able to give us the support we need.”
Set the tone for the relationship as one where you can both be honest and share responsibility to look out for each other’s well being. “The difficulty of expressing one’s needs as an anxious person is that we often don’t know what they are! Instead, we tend to get overwhelmed by emotion and lash out. Followed by shame for having got angry. In contrast people with a secure attachment style don’t react so strongly, don’t get overwhelmed as easily, and can thus calmly and effectively communicate their own feelings and needs. Secure people also believe they are worthy of love and affection and expect their partner to be responsive and caring. With these self beliefs they find it easier not to let negative thoughts take over”.
Unlike a secure person you’ll be easily flooded by emotions, will fear that the relationship is fragile and easily broken; and don’t expect your partner to to respond positively. Fearing the fragility of the relationship you’ll find it harder to express your feelings or communicate your needs effectively. When you express your feelings or communicate your needs and an avoidant doesn’t respond or pulls away, you feel, you’ll feel that you ruined everything; “If only I had played it cooler, now I’ve lost the only one who could have made me happy”.
To overcome the fear of rejection, abandonment, losing someone, reduce the likelihood of being overwhelmed by emotions, and communicate like someone worthy of love and affection and deserves a partner who is responsive and caring follow Nick’s principles of effectively communicating with an avoidant.
1. Use non-violent communication
Violent communication is when you intentionally or unintentionally make the other person feel unlovable, unworthy, selfish, incompetent, inadequate etc. Communicating in this way hurts an avoidant and hurts you too. When expressing your needs for example, it’s helpful to avoid making it about about your ex’s short comings. Instead of using words like “emotionally, unavailable” or “afraid of getting close” or some other attachment theory words, use verbs such as need, feel and want to describe what you need, want or feel.
A book called Non-Violent Communication explores this in much more detail. The author, Marshal Rosenberg, describes a model of communication based on expressing objective facts, feelings, needs and a request:
“When I sent you a text yesterday morning and you did not reply until today at lunch time I felt upset, because I need to be confident that you can make time for me. In future I would really like it if you replied when you see my message, even if its a few words to say you will reply fully later if you do not have time to text right then, would you be willing to do that?”
This is very different to saying something which blames the other or makes them wrong. Rosenberg’s central premise is that when others hear a feeling and a need they will hear what you are asking for.
2. Be clear, direct and honest
With avoidants, always be direct and specific. Short, simple and direct is easier for an avoidant to quickly process and respond.
Rosenberg’s encourages to state an objective fact rather than emotive statements. Rather than “You are so inconsiderate for keeping me waiting for half an hour” which may just trigger an avoidant to defend themselves, rather than feel the upset you feel.
Rosenberg suggests express things in a factual way: “When we arranged to meet at 1pm and you arrived at 1.30 pm I felt really annoyed as I need to know I can trust people to value my time. In future, please arrive at the time we agree or text me so I know you are late, and I can decide what to do”.
Being clear, direct and honest minimizes miscommunication and misunderstandings and promotes positive outcomes when dealing with an avoidant ex. Being clear, direct and honest helps fearful avoidants who have underlying anxiety about rejection and/or abandonment, have a hard time trusting others (or trusting themselves), have a hard time sharing their feelings, thoughts, views or needs, and shy away from conflict see that there’s nothing to worry about and that they’re safe; especially if you follow-up or follow through with what you say you’ll do (are consistent).
With dismissive avoidants who tend to be self-focused, are not good at reading how you feel or what you need, are vigilant about others wanting to control them and suspicious of conversations that “trap” them into committing to something they’re not ready for or don’t want to commit to, being clear, direct and honest helps them relax somewhat and take down their guard because they can see that there is no emotional manipulation or trying to control them.
3. Be assertive and non apologetic
As the author of Attached says: “your relationship needs are valid – period”. People with different attachment styles may not see your needs as legitimate but they are essential for your happiness and expressing them authentically is crucial to effective communication.
The author makes the point that this is especially important for people with an anxious attachment style; as our culture encourages us to believe that many of these needs are illegitimate. Instead, if a person feels the importance of close contact, emotional availability, loving reassurance when feeling anxious about not being wanted or valued; then these are authentic needs.
When your authentic needs aren’t consistently met, it produces anxiety which often creates a multitude of problems (including resentment, negativity, hostility or expecting too much of your ex) that lead to an avoidant disconnecting. This is why it’s important to communicate your feelings and needs with your avoidant ex.
“Assertive and non-apologetic” communication requires you to come from a place that assumes the best about your ex and why they’re acting the way they do, and approach them believing that you are deserving of their love and that they’ll do the right thing by you. This is the attitude that securely attached people bring to a conversation and why they have healthy relationships.
Think about it, why would an avoidant want to talk to you or communicate with you when you blame, shame, or criticize them and communicate that you don’t believe you are deserving of their love or that they’ll do the right thing by you?
4. Practice empathy and perspective-taking
I can’t end this article without my favourite word, “Empathy”. Whether you have an anxious attachment or avoidant attachment, communication dramatically improves when you practice empathy and perspective-taking.
Perspective-taking helps us communicate “I hear you (or I get it) even though we may see things differently” and empathy helps us cultivate a feeling in our heart that: “I’m ok and you’re ok” and communicate it to the other person in a way that they can see that we have their interests at heart as well as our own.
Nick writes, “Instead of coming from a place of judging ourselves or the other; or of feeling we need to fix our self or the other, we enter into an honest connection with how we are and how the other is. This may mean recognizing that how the other is incompatible with what we need; and rather than making it our mission to mold them into our perfect partner we leave them to find someone who loves them as they are; as we stay open to finding someone who will love us as we are”.
My hope is that this will help you communicate with an avoidant in ways that will help you get heard, listened to and validated; and also make your avoidant ex feel safe to emotionally open up; and have real-heart-to-heart conversations about feelings and needs.
If you need help with an avoidant who doesn’t believe you genuinely cared about them, is holding a grudge or doesn’t trust your intentions, I ‘m happy to work with you one-on-one to change that.