Have you noticed that after a conversation with your avoidant or anxious ex that went bad real fast or ended the way you did not intend, you suddenly see that there were other ways you could have approached the problem and other ways you could have responded or reacted? But in the heat of the moment, under stress and overcome with emotion, you acted exactly the way you’ve always acted and ended up in the same situation as many times before.
How we approach relationship problems and have difficult conversations is programmed in us
We all have mental scripts of how a conversation about a relationship problem will play out based on our earlier experiences from childhood or close romantic relationships. If conversations about problems or issues in the home we grew up were avoided or ignored or confrontational, ended with someone in getting offended, becoming defensive, or were loud and angry and ended in putdowns, means words, yelling, insults, banging doors, passive aggressive silence, walkouts, no resolution etc. that’s what you will come to expect every time you approach a conversation about how you feel about something or what is bothering you.
Even when you want more positive experiences and even try to be calm and confident, sub-consciously you’ve already played out how a conversation will start, and end based on your prior experiences. Because you’re transferring prior conversation results into the current situation, you’re going to introduce a problem, express your feelings, communicate what is bothering you or what you want to change as if the conversation has already happened.
At some point you need to talk about your problems for the relationship to work
Because our programming is so strong, avoidants complaining that people with an anxious attachment want to talk about problems all the time or are always complaining about their behaviours isn’t going to make someone with an anxious attachment stop bringing up their concerns, fears and worries about the relationship. Similarly, people with an anxious attachment telling an avoidant “Talk to me”, “Tell me how you feel” or “I’m here if you want to talk” isn’t going to make an avoidant want to talk let alone resolve relationship problems.
And contrary to most popular advice, just giving an avoidant space isn’t going to make the problem go away. Yes, let an avoidant feel what they feel and don’t force them to talk when they’re not ready or feel comfortable to talk, but at some point you need to talk about your problems for the relationship to work, let alone survive.
What will go a long way in helping you approach difficult conversations in a safe and effective manner is understanding how each attachment style’s past experiences shape their thinking, feeling and what they expect from conversations that are uncomfortable and difficult to have.
In my experience, it’s often not that an avoidant doesn’t want to “talk” about relationship problems, it’s how you approach the difficult conversation and how it makes them feel about having these kind of conversations. Hopefully, next time you want to bring up a difficult conversation, you’ll do it a way that feels safe for both of you and can help you find solutions that both of you will be happy about.
Anxious attachment’s approach to relationship problems – “We have a problem. We have many problems”
Why is that it’s always the person with an anxious attachment who wants to talk about the problems in the relationship? I’ll tell you why. People with an anxious attachment are sensitive to rejection and abandonment which makes them on high alert to any indication that there might be a problem that could lead to rejection or abandonment. You could even say an anxious attachment gives one a unique ability to sense when a relationship might be in danger. The downside to having this high alert sense of relationship problems is wanting to fix the problem and fix it immediately.
An anxious attachment’s past experiences have taught them that if they aren’t aggressive about addressing the threat to the relationship, they’ll end up alone. The same experiences have also taught them that others don’t show concern for their feelings and needs and might reject them and want nothing to do with them. So, when they have a concern or want to communicate what is bothering them, people with an anxious attachment go through all the possible worst-case scenarios. They see their partner or ex not showing concern, not taking them seriously or getting upset, pulling away and doesn’t want them anymore. They see themselves devastated and heartbroken even before they have the conversation.
But having anxious attachment, not solving a problem makes you more anxious than not trying to solve it. So even if you’re scared out of your mind of possible rejection or loss of love, taking out the threat to the relationship is something you feel they must do to calm down your anxiety. But because you already anticipate your ex not taking you seriously, getting upset and or having a generally negative experience, you approach an avoidant ex more aggressively than is necessary.
An anxious attachment’s approach to relationship threats has cascading effects on a relationship. Several studies show that anxiously attached individuals react with more anger when perceiving a potential relationship threat and often act impulsively to try to remove the problem. But this high sensitivity to relationship problems and need to immediately remove the problem leaves people with an anxious attachment without a flexible plan on how to deal with the problem or an effective solution to solving the problem. To an avoidant, this feels like going around and around in circles with no end. Eventually they’re like, “We’re always talking about problems. I don’t want to talk about the same thing over and over.”
My advice to anxious attachment – no one loves the messenger who brings bad news
When trying to get back with an avoidant ex, it helps to wait to bring up a conversation about a relationship problem until you get a clear indication from an avoidant ex that they’re truly there for you and that the connection or relationship is safe for these difficult conversations. And always remember, not every uncomfortable feeling your attachment anxiety creates is a problem you need your ex to solve. As the saying goes, “no one loves the messenger who brings bad news”; always talking about “problems” turns most people off.
You can learn something from people who have a secure attachment style. When there is a problem in the relationship, individuals with secure attachment do not think the other person is purposefully trying to hurt them or feel that these problems are a threat to the relationship. They see problems as opportunities to improve the relationship and to better themselves. Because they don’t see themselves as “victims of an avoidant”, they don’t obsess about an avoidant attachment shortcomings but instead they try to find ways to make the relationship better and safe for both people.
So instead of imagining worst-case scenarios and working yourself into a ball of anxiety waiting to explode, learn to self-regulate and calmly plan the conversations for a more positive experience and positive outcome. This way you don’t impulsively act on your anxiety then when you are more calm and centered suddenly see that there were other ways you could have approached the problem and other ways you could have responded or reacted.
Even if your past experiences have resulted in negative experiences, stop playing “victim” (of an avoidant) and learn to trust yourself because deep inside, you have the ability to show constructive problem-solving behaviour when you are more self-confident, can remain calm, are less “emotional” and present in the moment (and not reacting based on past experiences). The difference in mindset, attitude, and feelings about the conversation will help you achieve positive outcomes.
Fearful avoidant’s approach to relationship problems – “We have a problem but there’s no solution”
A fearful avoidant attachment is both anxious and avoidant which means that fearful avoidants too are highly sensitive to threats to the relationship and good at identifying the problems in the relationship. But because fearful avoidants are also highly avoidant, they’re also good at avoiding conversations about problems in the relationship.
While people with people with an anxious attachment see the problem and want to fix the problem and fix it immediately whether they know how to or not, fearful avoidants see the problem but don’t see how it can be solved. They often worry that neither they or the other person has the skills or ability to come up with good solutions.
A fearful avoidant’s past experiences have taught them that no one truly cares about them, what they feel or need and when they try to make others care, they get reprimanded, punished and/or rejected. And even in cases where someone listened to them and showed that they cared, there was no immediate solution or solution that made them feel safe for long periods of time. Sometimes the problem seemed resolved but they later find out that it wasn’t (and things may have even gotten worse). To a fearful avoidant, what’s the point of having conversations about relationship problems if nothing gets resolved, and how can they trust people who keep letting them down?
When a fearful avoidant has a concern, or when something is bothering them, they go back and forth between thinking about all the worst-case scenarios, second-guessing themselves and wondering if their feelings and needs are worthy of attention (anxious attachment) and if maybe they should just abandon the whole idea of a conversation about how they feel or what they need (avoidant attachment). Their fearful avoidant attachment is telling them that they have no options to manage the situation and there’s probably no solution. They’re only just going to end up creating more problems, ruin the relationship and get themselves rejected because they’re not good at these type of conversations.
How to approach a fearful avoidant ex about a relationship problem
When approaching a fearful avoidant ex about the problems in the relationship or trying to get them to have difficult conversations, it helps to understand that if they could talk about the things you want to talk about, they would. But it’s not that easy for them.
When someone is internally struggling to know if their feelings and thoughts are logical and don’t trust that you will understand them or care, telling them “Talk to me” or “I’m here if you want to talk” can be more unsafe than safe. If it was this easy they would do it, but it’s less stressful and safer to distance and feel judged, criticized, disliked or rejected at a distance than risk being reprimanded, punished and/or rejected for trying to do something one knows one is not good at in the first place.
Because of their chaotic, sometimes hostile and unstable childhood environment, fearful avoidants are particularly sensitive to aggressive behaviour, a threatening or hostile emotional environment and inconsistencies, especially words or behaviour that feels like rejection. To get a fearful avoidant to talk about relationship problems, learn from securely attached. They don’t approach an avoidant with “I want you to text me X times a week, see each other Y number of times and do this and that because this makes me safe and happy.” When a fearful avoidant who already thinks they’re going to be judged, reprimanded, punished and/or rejected hears that they’re supposed to do x and y or be rejected and abandoned, they will feel threatened and unsafe.
- What about me? What if I want less texting or want more space?
- What if I can’t do what you’re asking?
- What if this is not the solution to the problems we’re having? etc.
You see them pulling away and distancing because it’s safer to distance and be disliked or rejected at a distance.
Someone who is securely attached speaks up for themselves in a way that is honest and respectful of both peoples’ understanding of the situation, opinion, views and feelings and needs, welcomes feedback and encourage solutions that leave both parties feeling heard, understood, appreciated and valued. And because securely attached are not impulsive in their decisions or actions but take their time to think through how to make a difficult to have conversation a positive and constructive experience with positive outcomes, they often don’t trigger a fearful avoidant’s fear that they’re going to be judged, criticized, reprimanded, punished and/or rejected for having no solutions or being skeptical of the solutions their partner or ex brings up.
You have a better chance of getting a fearful avoidant ex to talk about the problems in the relationship or have difficult conversations when you don’t express emotions, expectations, ideas and behaviours that undermine reaching an effective solution or coping with the problem situation.
Avoid the anxious attachment playing the victim and blame assigning. You may be hurt and even angry (you have a right to your emotions) but when you approach someone with a list of problems or a list of all the hurtful things you believe they’ve done, they don’t see it as an attempt to resolve anything let alone find solutions. Instead, they see a hurting person trying to hurt them back, and back away.
Trying to induce guilt with “you’re this and you’re that, you did this and that, you hurt me this way, admit that you hurt me, if you don’t see how you hurt me you’re a horrible/evil person” approach to the problems you’re having in your relationship depicts you as emotionally unsafe. Emotionally safe people identify the problem, isolate the cause, acknowledge the different views or opinions, take responsibility for their role in the problem, present a solution, ask for the other person’s input/feedback, work towards a compromise and commit to a solution that works for both of people.
The less “threatening”, less hostile or aggressive you are and the less negative behaviours you show throughout the relationship (and not just when you want to talk about a problem), the more likely that a fearful avoidant ex (an a dismissive avoidant ex) will want to talk about problems, and be open to your solutions on how to solve your problems.
Dismissive avoidant’s approach to relationship problems – “Don’t bring me problems—bring me solutions”
Generally dismissive avoidants are considered effective and constructive problem solvers. This is why they make good leaders and can be counted to take charge in highly stressful projects and situations. They’re task-oriented and get the work done without getting entangled in their emotions or the emotions of others. Other studies have attributed dismissive avoidant attachment style’s good problem-solving abilities to the fact that dismissive avoidants like securely attached have a positive self model, sense of worthiness and a high expectation of competency because they believe that they can effectively deal with the problems they encounter in their lives.
But when it comes to relationship-related problems and difficult conversations about issues in a relationship, dismissive avoidants get very negative reviews from partners and exes. The complaint about dismissive avoidants is that they don’t want to be responsible for other people’s feeling and troubles and get frustrated when you want to talk about your concerns, feelings or the problems in the relationship, and may even pull away or end the relationship.
From a dismissive avoidant’s perspective, most relationship concerns and problems that their partners or exes keep bringing up again and again are not even actual problems or something that requires action. They feel frustrated and even angry that they’re put in a position where they are having to deal with “a problem” that isn’t a concern or a priority to them, or something an “independent and self-sufficient” person should be able to deal with on their own without bothering them with it.
A dismissive avoidant’s past experiences have taught them that when they have a concern or feel a certain way about something, they handle it themselves. Expecting other people to listen to them or comfort them is setting themselves up for disappointment. People may even use their vulnerability against them. They’ve spent years avoiding these kind of “unnecessary stress” and can survive and even feel perfectly okay without talking about concerns, feelings or needs, but their “emotional and dependent” anxious attachment ex or “unhappy with themselves” fearful avoidant ex always wants to stir things up because they need attention and the drama.
And even when a dismissive avoidant understands that there is a problem, and it needs to be discussed, they don’t want to spend time talking about problems, they want solutions. Some dismissive avoidants may even hurriedly try to solve the problem just to shut up a partner or ex, but what this does is prevent the resolution of the problem.
How to approach a dismissive avoidant ex about a relationship problem
When approaching a dismissive avoidant ex about the problems in the relationship or trying to get them to have difficult conversations, keep things calm, none-emotional and direct. And always remember dismissive avoidants think most problems aren’t really problems, and you’re blowing things out of proportion for attention or drama. Telling someone who thinks talking about problems is unnecessary stress, “Talk to me” or “I’m here if you want to talk” can be like talking to a wall, literally. That wall has been up for decades, it’s not suddenly going to come down because you said, “I’m here if you want to talk”. Some dismissive avoidants even see this as you trying to control and manipulate them because you are trying to force your way of dealing with problems on them. They’ll likely be thinking “You are the one who wants to talk, so talk!” and then they just tune you out. You keep talking but they’re not listening.
Approach a dismissive avoidant ex almost like you were talking to your work colleague about a problem at work. Direct, rational and no display of negative emotions. It’s “this is the problem and this is my proposed solution. Let me know what you think” kind of approach. No, “I feel this or that” or “my feelings blah blah” or “how we both feel…” talk. The less use of “emotional” reference or talk about feelings, the more likelihood that a dismissive avoidant ex will pay attention or take you seriously. Even your language should reflect control of your emotions, less drama and more solutions focus. For example, instead of “ I feel that…” use, “I’m concerned that….” Instead of “how do you feel about x or y?” use “what do you think about x or y?” etc.
And before you approach a dismissive avoidant about a relationship problem, make sure it’s not something you could have resolved on your own. Securely attached don’t trigger a dismissive avoidant because securely attached know which relationship problems they can resolve on their own and which ones to approach their partner or ex about. The relationship doesn’t feel like non-stop everyday problem-solving exercise. And when a securely attached brings a concern, need or request to a dismissive avoidant, a dismissive avoidant pays attention and listens intently because they understand that it must be important to their securely attached partner or ex for them to bring it up.
The key is to constantly make effort and to keep trying to be better
If you’ve read this far, one more piece of advice to anxious attachment, fearful avoidants and dismissive avoidants. Learning how to approach an anxious attachment or avoidant ex about relationship problem is a process. It’s like learning a new language; you can’t learn a new language in a few days. It takes time and lots of trials and errors. The key is to constantly make an effort and to keep trying to be better.
The more you understand how your ex thinks, feels and approaches relationship problems and their difficulty having conversations about issues, the more sensitive you are to their feelings, more attuned to their needs and the better you’ll be at making both of you feel safe to talk about your concerns, fears and hopes for the relationship. You find that you are more able to remain calm when having disagreements because there’s no need to get emotional, walk away and/or distance.
The more you practice what’s safe for the other, the less energy you will need to spend trying to untangle the differences in your attachment styles.