Question: Yangki, your site has kept me sane these past few weeks. I’ve learned so much about my attachment style and my fearful avoidant ex’s attachment style reading your articles. I have one question that I hope you can answer for me: How do I give my avoidant ex space?
You wrote in your article “How to make an avoidant ex feel safe” that giving them space makes them feel safe. How many days of space should I give a fearful avoidant ex to make them feel safe? I give my avoidant ex 5-7 days of space if he hasn’t reached out. Sometimes he responds right away like he’s been waiting for me to reach out. Other times he does not respond until I reach out again, which makes me think he needs more space. How much space does an avoidant ex need without creating more disconnection and more distance? I’m looking forward to your response.
Yangki’s Answer: It’s true that giving an avoidant ex space makes them feel safe, but it’s equally important not to presume an avoidant needs space (because you feel anxious) and give it to them unasked for. A dismissive avoidant might (if they notice it) see it as protest behaviour; an emotional over-reaction to something they said or did and emotionally shutdown. A fearful avoidant, because of their high sensitivity to rejection, and as I explain in the short video below might see you giving them space they didn’t need or ask for as you pulling away or distancing yourself. They’ll wonder why you feel they needed space. What did they do wrong? Are you upset? Do you want to break-up? Do you want no contact?
So yes, give an avoidant space but giving an avoidant space should be when they need it and in the amount they need to feel safe again. When you ‘force” space on an avoidant ex because you want to control how and when they distance; or as an attempt to calm your anxiety, you create an unsafe relationship for an avoidant.
Of course, it’d really help if avoidants communicated that they need space but most avoidants don’t openly communicate their need for space, and some avoidants aren’t even consciously aware they need space. All you can go by is a change in their pattern of behaviour: they take longer to respond, say less, show less affection, want to spend less time with you or avoid seeing you altogether etc. If this extends over a period of time, say 3 days of pulling away behaviour (deactivating), it’s pretty obvious that your avoidant needs space.
What I’ve found works best over the years is:
1) Have a conversation about an avoidant needing space
If an avoidant needs space give them space. If they say they don’t need contact for a specified period of time; don’t reach out until they reach out. But if “space” is not specified (how long and what happens when they’re taking space); it’s okay to have a conversation about space.
The right time to have a conversation with an avoidant about them needing space is when things are good; and not when an avoidant is pulling away or deactivating. Trying to have this conversation during deactivation is like trying to have a conversation with someone running a 100M sprint. No one hears the other.
2) Communicate your relationship needs
It’s imperative that you take care of yourself when an avoidant needs space. Reach out to your social support system and refocus your time and energy on what makes you happy and fulfilled outside of the relationship etc.
But in order for the relationship to be healthy and balanced, your relationship needs need to be met too. And this can only happen if you communicate your needs and try to work as a team to find ways both of our needs can be met.
It’s important that an avoidant understands that a relationship is not just about what they need; it’s also about what you need and what you need is connection. Explain this to your avoidant in a non-intrusive (non-violent communication) way.
3) Show them you care with check-ins
A check-in is a short preferably one or two sentence text you send out of concern for someone’s well-being. It’s not a text to tell them about someone or something you saw that reminded you of them, or some exciting thing that happened in your life. Check-ins don’t even require the other person to respond. You just want them to know they matter, and you care. That’s all. If they say they don’t want to be checked on, you respect that because it’s something they want and need (for their well-being).
This part is so important. A check -in should not imply that something is wrong and an avoidant needs your support or help, or that an avoidant is taking space (if they hadn’t asked or expressed a need for it). A check-in should only be to touch base. Something along the lines, “Hey, we haven’t spoken in a while, I hope everything is okay” or even “Hey, I haven’t heard from you in a while. How are you?”
Unless they specifically expressed something was wrong or they were going through a hard time, do not say “I’m here for you if you need me” or “You don’t have to reply”. This just creates stress and most avoidants don’t respond at all.
5) Let them reach out on their own
A reasonable check-in is 4 -5 days since last contact for a dismissive avoidant and 3 – 4 days for a fearful avoidant or whatever the two of you agree feels safe for both of you. A fearful avoidant ex who leans more anxious may need less space than a fearful avoidant who leans avoidant or a dismissive avoidant. A reasonable check-in for a fearful avoidant ex who leans more anxious is 2 – 3 days (preferably 2 days) since last contact.
If an avoidant ex pulls away for relatively short periods of time (1 – 3 days), there is no need for check-ins. They’ll reach out back on their own.
It’s important to note that while non- intrusive check-ins are game changers, not all avoidants are receptive to them. This is probably the first clue that an avoidant’s needs will always come before yours. Not a good sign.
6) Trust that your avoidant loves you
Trusting that your avoidant loves you even when they pull away is key to not freaking out when they deactivate.
Most of the time when an avoidant pulls away, it’s something they need to do for themselves. It’s not something they’re doing against you (to hurt you). They may feel less connected and their feelings for you may slightly change; but that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped loving you.
Getting to a point where you don’t feel threatened and trust that after an avoidant has processed their emotions, they will come back takes time. It helps during the time when they’ve deactivated to remind yourself of the times they’ve shown you they love and care about you.
7) Be consistent
The avoidant attachment style is a result of inconsistent, unreliable and deficient love and caregiving from primary caregivers. Because of this, consistency to an avoidant equals safety and security.
Consistency means showing you care and love them when they pull away and when they lean back in. It means being respectful of their need for space and not shaming or guilt tripping them for deactivating. It means not playing mind games to try to get a reaction from them (in a way making them feel unsafe and afraid to trust you).
When you’re consistent, reliable and supportive in a non-intrusive way; it makes an avoidant feel safe. This makes an avoidant feel less likely to get triggered and pull away.
8) Have some self-respect
Giving avoidants “all the time and space they need” without asking for your need for connection to be met may sound like an act love but over time it builds resentment and may even completely end the relationship.
It’ll will feel like a one-sided relationship to you because it is. Your needs don’t matter, only the avoidant’s need for space matters. Whether you are aware of it or not, this does major damage to your self-esteem and self-view, in addition to the resentment you feel.
Some avoidants also feel the one-sidedness of the relationship. They may feel that they can get away with anything and resent you for focusing on meeting their needs and neglecting your own (a.k.a. co-dependent). Most avoidants push you away because the relationship is one-sided. I know this as someone who had a dismissive avoidant attachment. It made me angry that 1) someone was “living my life” because they had no life of their own and 2) needed “taking care of” because they weren’t taking care of themselves.
Respecting your avoidant’s need for space while at the same time getting your need for connection met will strengthen your connection; and your future relationship.
9) Be patient
Finding the right balance between space and closeness takes time; some avoidant-anxious couples never quite find that balance. Working towards becoming more secure will help you stop feeling anxious while you both work on finding the balance that works for your relationship.
COMMENTS: This is a conversation that needs to be had. If you’re an avoidant, please let us know how you feel about check-ins while you take your space. And if you have an anxious attachment style, let us know how you self-soothe when your avoidant asks for space. What works for the two of you to get both of your needs met?