One question that comes up again and again in my 1-on-1 conversations with my clients is “How can I be supportive to a fearful avoidant ex without pushing them to deactivate?” Another version of the same question is, “Why don’t avoidants want you to help them and instead push you away?”
Over the years, as more people are learning about how attachment styles can help them attract back their ex and really focusing on making the person they love and care about feel safe and secure, I’ve noticed a collective shift away from “How do I make my ex miss me?” to “How do I make my ex feel safe?”.
I think it’s great that attachment theory is helping many of us realize that ignoring someone you want a relationship with whether it’s an avoidant trait or an attempt to make an ex miss you isn’t the behaviour of someone secure within themselves or safe to be in a relationship with. I’ve been especially pleasantly surprised by the number of dismissive avoidant who now speak of “make my ex feel safe”. But even with the understanding of attachment styles and compassion and empathy, it’s not easy to provide safety or security when you’re also dealing with your own attachment trauma and triggers, or be supportive to a fearful avoidant ex who doesn’t want your help or support – and is pushing you away.
How fearful avoidant attachment handle stress
Stress takes away a lot of an avoidants emotional bandwidth and because avoidants prefer to deal with their stress alone, their limited bandwidth is often overloaded by stress so much that they have very little (or none) for a relationship or someone else. This is different from people with an anxious attachment who lean more on a relationship and others when stressed – and sometimes lean on others way too much and exhaust others’ emotional resources too.
Fearful avoidants most likely learned from very early on in life that others are not there for them when they need support and/or when they are, here’s often a hidden agenda or a price to pay. In romantic relationships they may have expected support but were disappointed or may have leaned on someone for support and later regretted it (wished they’d not). So when they’re going through something or feelings stressed, they prefer to deal it by themselves than ask, expect or accept support from you. And research shows that stress can cause a fearful avoidant to behave in ways that seem aimless, confused, dazed, self-contradictory, withdrawn and disconnected from their surroundings and other people. But because fearful avoidants don’t communicate what’s going on with them, it’s not always obvious that that they’re stressed about something. You only notice when they pull away, become distant, evasive or overly argumentative or rude. This can be off-putting and triggering.
This behaviour from your fearful avoidant ex is not personal. When under stress or when something overwhelming happens, avoidants in general detach from their emotions in order to function or carry on with whatever needs to be done to get through the stressful or overwhelming event. And sometimes this means pushing you away.
So when a client asks, “How do I support my avoidant ex without pushing them to deactivate?”, it’s usually because their avoidant ex is going through a difficult time and instead of it becoming an opportunity to get closer, it has become a source of frustration, irritability, anxiety, conflict, disconnection, anger and more distance from each other.
Like most people with an anxious attachment, they’re thinking “I love my ex very much. I want to show them that I’m here for them I want them to know I’m not abandoning them”, but the more they do try to show an avoidant they “love them”, the further they push them away.
Becoming aware of how your fearful avoidant ex responds to stress can help you not only to build empathy but also be there for them and provide support the way they need you to be there for them and not in the way you think you should help.
Avoidants have a hard time accepting help or support
Avoidants in general have a hard time providing support to a partner needing it, and even a harder time accepting support from a partner, let alone an ex.
Fearful avoidants learned from a very early age not to expect much from their caregivers in terms of comfort or support. They also learned that if and when comfort or support is given by a caregiver, pain in the form of rejection, punishment, or even abuse is not very far away. This confusing and chaotic nature of support taught fearful avoidants to fear accepting support. When support is offered, fearful avoidants often think there are strings attached to the support or the help they’re being offered. Most fearful avoidant exes fear that when you come to collect on your investment, they may be unable to reciprocate or not feel like being supportive, and they’ll be judged, punished or rejected as a result.
Fearful avoidants also feel guilty for feeling like a burden to someone and some fearful avoidants don’t feel like they deserve the help or support offered to them. They may even be attuned to their partner’s needs and even willing and capable of being the comfort or support a partner needs, but suspicious and rejecting of comfort and support when offered to them.
Why it’s important to still offer support to a fearful avoidant ex
Everyone needs support sometimes whether they’re dealing with work pressure, feeling down, have a health emergency, a situation with family or friend, a death, guilt, midlife crisis, child custody problems with an ex-spouse, financial challenges or even a break-up.
Being there for others when they need our support can be an opportunity not only to show someone that we love and care about them, and that they’re valued and are important to us, but also an opportunity to feel more connected, and feel more like a team “dealing with it together.”
So even if your fearful avoidant ex is pushing you away and acting distant, remember that no one likes to feel like they’re all alone in this world – not even dismissive avoidants who act like they don’t need anyone. Often times the people who are there for us during difficult times are the people we come to trust, rely on and love.
How to support a fearful avoidant ex and earn their trust
1. Be there for them
Show up in words and actions. I’ve said this so many times in my articles and will keep saying it, “it’s important not to presume an avoidant needs space and give it to them unasked for.” Fearful avoidants because of their high sensitivity to rejection might see you giving them space they didn’t need or ask for as you pulling away or distancing yourself. You need to be on top of things so you can be there for them in the way they need you to be.
2. Avoid coming across as you’re judging them
Let them know that you’ve noticed that they’re going through something, but don’t tell them that you’re worried about them or concerned that they’re not doing very well. It may be seen as you judging them or not happy that they’re not paying you the attention you deserve. Fearful avoidants already don’t feel that “they’re good enough” and/or “something is wrong with them”, don’t make them feel judged.
3. Try to understand instead of making assumptions
Most fearful avoidants feel that people don’t understand them, don’t make enough effort to and only care about themselves. Making assumptions about what they think, feel or need confirms these beliefs. When they share that they’re struggling, ask nonthreatening questions to really understand what your fearful avoidant ex is going through or dealing with. The better you understand the situation, the easier it is to be supportive in a non-off putting way.
4. Stay present and focused on them
When they share with you what’s going on, avoid bringing up your own problems or similar experiences, or even other people’s opinions. Even if it feels like sharing and empathizing, it takes away the focus off them and can easily become about you. Instead use comforting and supportive language that helps your fearful avoidant ex own and process their experience in a constructive way.
5. Check-in on how they’re doing
Follow up on the conversation the next day if it’s something urgent or if you’re fearful avoidant ex seems so overwhelmed by what’s going on. If they seem to being doing well, wait a few days and check in with “How are you doing?” kind of text
6. Don’t insist that they talk to you/or someone
If your fearful avoidant ex doesn’t feel like talking, do not push however much you think it’s what they need. Avoidants generally handle stress withdrawn and disconnected from their surroundings and other people. If they directly ask for space, tell them you understand and give them the space they need. It’s okay to ask if they’re okay with you checking in in a few days. The important thing is to leave the door open for further conversation/connection.
7. Ask how you can help and let them tell you
Often times people with an anxious avoidant think they’re helping an avoidant when in reality they’re actually preventing them from personal growth. I hear this from my clients a lot “BUT I feel so bad for them, they’re all alone” “BUT I want them to know I’m here for them”, “BUT they must think I abandoned them” etc.
It’s okay to ask an avoidant how you can help or if there is anything you can do to make things easier or if they have everything they need, but don’t project your preoccupied anxious attachment feelings and needs on them and assume you know what they need. Sometimes they may not need anything or there is nothing you can really say or do that will help, but it’s still important that they know you want to be there for them.
8. Offer suggestions not advice (or coaching)
Don’t rush to solve your fearful avoidant ex’s “problems”. Sometimes what fearful avoidants need is for you t understand that they’re going through something and want to be left alone. Sometimes they just want you to listen and hear them out without interjecting your views, what you’d do in their situation or coach them through what they’re dealing with. If they ask for advice or look like they want it, offer suggestions or information instead of telling them “what to do”.
9. Avoid silver lining or trying to cheer up them with jokes etc.
The natural tendency is to want your fearful avoidant ex to get over it, snap out of it, be happy again and start engaging with you again, but trying to “cheer up” someone going through a difficult time can come across a being dismissive, shallow, and selfish – and can be annoying and a turn-off.
10. Be a safe space for them to be vulnerable
Being a safe space for an avoidant ex to allow themselves to be vulnerable means being consistent in all the things mentioned above. When we’re consistently supportive, it builds trust or increases it steadily.
Trust is very important to a fearful avoidant. If they can’t trust you, a fearful avoidant will not want to come back, or will come back but end up breaking up with you again – because of trust.