“My Ex says she doesn’t know if she wants a relationship right now. She says she needs time to find herself and become independent on her own, and I understand that. She also wants to stay in contact, why would she want to continue contact if she wants space? What do you think? Should I agree to staying in contact? If so, how much contact is appropriate, and what is the purpose?”
On the surface this seems like an ex who is conflicted and does not know what she wants. She wants space and she wants contact, hello! Make up your mind.
But there is no conflict here at all. To to understand or properly process the words and actions of a relationship partner or in this case of an ex, it is important to first and foremost understand how your own closeness/contact-seeking and closeness/contact-avoiding pattern filters what you hear and the feelings they trigger in you.
What is contact-seeking and contact-avoiding?
Contact-seeking and contact-avoiding also know as (relationship) attachment styles describes how we seek closeness, how much closeness/contact we are comfortable with and how we respond (react) when a partner distances or pulls away from closeness/contact. Our contact-seeking and contact-avoiding behaviours are not unique to gender but rather how we learned to attach or bond with a childhood primary caregiver or attachment figure.
When an attachment figure was consistently available, was able to recognize and promptly respond to our attachment-related needs, we learned that closeness (and relationships) are safe and rewarding, people who love and care about us behave and act like they love and care about us, and when we need them to be there for us, they will be. As adults, this secure-base imprinting allows us to be confident and secure in how we seek closeness, contact and connection, and when a valued connection or relationship ends, we are able to remain calm and connected to our ex even in emotionally upsetting, or uncertain relationship situations because of the tools and emotional resilience we developed during our early childhood secure-base bonding experience.
When a primary attachment figure was not reliably available, did not promptly or adequately respond to our attachment-related needs, or was emotionally cold or abusive, we learned that people who are supposed to love and care for us don’t always act like they love and care for us. Some of us learned that you have to “work really hard” to get the love and care you need (anxious-preoccupied), others learned that attachment figures can not be depended on when you need them and they may withhold love and care to manipulate us into giving in to their will (fearful-avoidant), and the third group learned that there is no point in actively seeking love and care from an attachment figure because they will never be there for you (dismissive-avoidant). It is best to avoid getting attached to others and to avoid emotionally stressful, upsetting, or uncertain situations because nothing good comes out of it.
How is contact-seeking and contact-avoiding triggered?
On most part, we bring our childhood contact-seeking and contact-avoiding imprinting into adult relationships. It is the filter through which we hear what a relationship partner or ex is saying, and what we use to understand and process their behaviours, especially those that don’t make sense to us. For example:
1) A dismissive-avoidant
Will hear “I don’t know if I want a relationship right now” as proof that getting attached to someone is risky and nothing good comes out of it. This triggers a script that reads:
I have always known that wanting closeness and having emotional attachment needs makes one vulnerable to hurt and pain. It is best to avoid getting attached and to avoid relationships in general. No one will hurt me if I don’t let them get close.
Attachment figures showing you that seeking closeness is unsafe is too familiar, but as a child, you could not walk out of the situation, all you could do is emotionally shut down. As an adult, you can walk away from the situation – cut off contact, ignore them and just drop off the face of the earth without so much as a word. The less contact you have with someone who has proven to be unavailable, rejecting and unsafe, the less chance of you getting hurt again.
An ex saying they want to stay in contact seems like a waste of time. What’s the point?
2) A fearful-avoidant
Will hear “I don’t know if I want a relationship right now” as proof that you can’t trust and depend on relationship attachment figures. This triggers a script that reads:
When I get too close to someone, they pull away. Even if I want to be close to them, it’s safer to keep my distance – cut off all contact and access, and try very hard to protect myself from getting hurt or being manipulated into giving in to someone who doesn’t want me.
But because you had a childhood primary caregiver who acted as both a source of fear and a source of comfort, you do not really know what to expect from a relationship attachment figure when you feel that they pushed you away. Do you seek contact and make yourself available and responsive? If you do, will that make them even less available and responsive? Do you avoid contact and leave them alone? If you leave them alone, will that make them available and responsive?
Staying in contact with an ex is confusing and scary. On one hand, it will be too painful and there is also the chance of being friend-zoned. On the other hand, they’ll still be in their ex’s life, no contact will lead to growing further apart, their ex moving on or finding someone new. Fearful-avoidants leaning more towards high-anxiety will want to stay in contact and fearful-avoidants leaning more towards high-avoidance will go for no contact.
Will hear “I don’t know if I want a relationship right now” as proof that you are not worthy and good enough. This triggers a script that reads:
This is what I was trying hard to prevent, but if I want closeness and contact, I must behave even better, I must show them how much I love them, and I must work really hard to earn their approval, attention, love and care.
You think you are doing what someone who loves and cares for another is supposed to do but because you had a caregiver who was sometimes available and was occasionally responsive (when it suited them), you have no secure script for how to love and care about someone, you end up overwhelming your ex and causing them to get triggered and pull away.
An ex saying they want to stay in contact is reassuring. It means they still have feelings for you and still want you in their life. If an ex is unresponsive however, there is a high chance that you will slowly become a fearful-avoidant.
When you understand how your own contact-seeking or contact-avoiding style influences what you hear, and how you react to it, you can catch yourself from getting triggered by what you think your ex said, and instead focus your attention, time and energy on understanding your ex’s relationship attachment needs, especially how much contact they need to feel safe and secure, and to want to be in a relationship with you.