I’m often asked by my clients, “Can someone with an avoidant attachment style change?” Yes. It is possible for avoidants to change their attachment style, but usually an avoidant has to hit “rock bottom” for them to realize they need to change or go through breakup experience that it literally changes them.
A client (I’ll call Joe) signed up he said unsure what to expect since he’d never worked with a relationships coach or done therapy. We talked a little bit about his relationship history, his recent break-up, the regrets he had about the break-up and what he had learned about himself since the break-up.
One of the things he was concerned about was that the same pattern repeated itself in all his relationships. He either ended the relationship because he felt pressured or his exes broke up with him because of lack communication or inability to emotionally open up. Immediately after the break-u he cut off all contact and tried tried to move on but always ended up getting back together with his exes. They’d get back together or a month or few months and then break up again for the exact same reason. After 2 or 3 on and -off again break-ups, his ex moved on, or he moved on. That had been his pattern but the recent break-up a month ago hurt so much that he realize that he needed to change.
Joe: I just didn’t want to deal with it”. I shut down emotionally but sometimes I fought back. There would be yelling and cursing. At some point I’d tell myself enough is enough and walk out. We would not talk for days, sometimes weeks but eventually we’d get back together.
Me: And how did you guys work it out?
Joe: We didn’t. We’d go no contact then she’d reach out first and sometimes I did, we met up and and we just got back together.
Me: Until the next fight?
Joe: Yeah. Until the next fight.
Me: Would you say that not talking for days or weeks helped?
Joe: Maybe it did. I don’t know.
Me: How do you think it helped?
Joe: I guess not talking for a few days or weeks helped calm down the emotions.
Me: Did you ever talk about what happened?
Joe: No. I guess we both wanted to move on from it.
Me: Except that you didn’t.
Joe: What do you mean?
Me: It kept happening again and again.
Joe: I tried, we both did, I think. I just know I need to change somehow.
Me: What would you want to change?
Joe: Stop running away, I guess. Learn to sit in my own s**t and clean up the mess like a grown up man. It’s easier to avoid the tough conversations but how what I feel now is guilt over how I just ran away.
Me: She deserved better.
Joe: She did. It’s only now after the breakup that I’m not realizing I love her very much but didn’t show up for her as the man she deserved. I don’t want to lose her forever because I can’t keep my f*&%*g s**t together.
Me: I can tell you love her. But easy with the swearing.
Joe: Oh s**t! Sorry. I apologize. I just don’t want to keep repeating the same mistakes I’ve made in my relationships.
What does it take for an avoidant to change their attachment style?
Every avoidant who ends up doing their personal work has that moment when enough is enough. Often times it happens when a significant relationship with someone they developed an attachment or fell in love with ends, but sometimes the realization that they need to change happens when an avoidant feels fed up with being an avoidant and wants a different experience.
Wanting to change is the first step and the easy step for most avoidants, the most difficult step for an avoidant is actually getting the help they need. First avoidants generally have a hard time asking for help or talking it when offered, and secondly, most avoidants don’t trust other people including coaches, therapists etc. So for an avoidant to reach out and say “I need help”, they must have had enough and see the point of changing.
But like I said, wanting to change is the easy step. If your avoidant ex has promised to change first see if they’re taking the necessary steps to change before you get your hopes up that an avoidant has changed.
It takes a lot of work and months to years to change one’s attachment so make sure there’s consistent effort towards changing and at the very least that they’re showing an awareness of their avoidant tendencies and making effort to communicate.
How you can help an avoidant change their attachment style
First of all, dumping an avoidant does not motivate an avoidant ex to change. That’s not the impression I’m giving when I say breakups make many avoidants want to change. And trying to make an avoidant change by psychoanalyzing them and “lecturing” them on attachment styles or sending them articles and videos about an avoidant attachment style if it doesn’t push an avoidant further away, will not motivate an avoidant to want to change.
An avoidant has to realize their own issues and want to change. What you can do to help an avoidant change is be the secure base or stabilizer in the relationship.
We know from numerous studies that h a securely attached partner can over time transform someone with an anxious attachment or avoidant attachment to a securely attached partner. An affirming and nurturing relationship with a securely attached romantic partner, therapist, coach or mentor can also move one from an insecure attachment style to a secure one.
Having a secure base or stabilizer allows an avoidant to explore emotional experiences, let down their guard, accept support when distressed, develop the capacity for reflection and responsiveness, examine their beliefs about relationships, be themselves in the relationships et., . safe in the knowledge that if you are safe.
To be able to be the secure base: from which an avoidant can lean to be secure, you need to start with yourself. Don’t just look at an avoidant as the only one with a problem. You both are insecurely attached, the only difference is one wants too much space and no closeness, and the other wants too much closeness and no space. Both are equally unhealthy, so you both equally need to work on healing your attachment styles.
What do you do if an avoidant doesn’t want to change?
Again, it is not your job to fix an avoidant attachment style; that is an avoidant’s job. An avoidant needs to do “the work” to heal their attachment wounding. Your “job” as someone who wants a relationship with an avoidant is provide them with the security that they need to experience what a “safe relationship” looks and feels like.
It’ll take time for 1) you to become secure enough to be able to provide your avoidant ex safety while making sure you’re safe yourself; 2) your avoidant ex to see the change in the dynamic and feel the stability and consistency you are providing to the relationship and 3) an avoidant to change as well.
In my experience it takes anywhere from 4 – 18 months to become secure enough to be the relationship stabilizer and change the anxious-avoidant relationship dynamic. This is where being friend or staying friend with an avoidant pays off. It gives yourselves time for all these changes to happen while enjoying each other’s company and building a healthier and stronger bond.
If your avoidant ex still doesn’t want to change or at least become self-aware enough to recognize their avoidant tendencies and acknowledge that they too need to change, then you have only two options. Accept that things will never be different and 1) you love your avoidant ex too much to walk away or 2) you love your avoidant ex but you love yourself more and need to walk away.