How do you deal with a fearful avoidant ex’s inconsistent contact? They seem to want to keep the lines of communication open but keep dropping conversations, ignoring texts and don’t respond for days at a time.
I’ll give you a clue, not these three things:
1) Demand that they step up or “call them out” for not responding. This is hard to hear and it hurts. When you’re in a relationship, it’s a reasonable to expect that when you reach out, the other person will respond. That’s the unwritten “social contract” of relationships. When you break up, that contract is dissolved. You’re not in a relationship anymore, your ex doesn’t owe you a response just like you don’t owe them contact. If you don’t want to reach out, don’t, but if you are the one who wants your ex back, you’re going to be the one trying to make that happen. They’re not required to respond or take you back.
2) “Give them space’ or go no contact hoping that your ex will miss you and reach out. There’s a chance that a fearful avoidant will respond or even reach out when you give them space, but this does not solve the problem of them reaching out, responding and even fully engaging in conversation then just stop responding and disappear for days or even weeks.
3) Assume that they don’t want to talk to you – Anxious attachment and avoidant attachment are two different attachment styles. Someone anxiously attached will always want more contact than an avoidant, and this means that most of the time contact will seem or be one-sided. It doesn’t mean an avoidant doesn’t want contact, it means that they have less need for it.
What you need is to directly address both of your different needs for contact like someone securely attached would do; set boundaries.
Communicating boundaries is critical to feeling safe and being safe to others
Strong and healthy boundaries are as important a safe and secure relationship. This is something securely attached communicate from the beginning of a relationship or beginning of trying to get back together. They understand based on their internal working model that self care, self-responsibility, self-accountability, and self-respect are critical to feeling safe and being respected, and communicating with a partner or ex about attachment and relational boundaries is critical to the success of a relationship in general and to successfully getting back together.
They try to cover almost every aspect of connection and the relationship to make sure a connection or the relationship is safe and secure for both people. They are also open to further discussions and renegotiating boundaries if and when the need arises.
How do fearful avoidant exes approach contact with an ex?
Fearful avoidants as most people who’ve studied attachment theory and understand attachment styles in depth know are avoidants who have high anxiety and high avoidance. This means that fearful avoidants can be highly anxious when there’s no contact, worry and stress about a relationship, and seek contact because they crave connection and closeness, but they also have an intense fear of rejection and abandonment and avoid seeking out others for their attachment needs. They’re said to have a “disorganized attachment style” or called anxious-avoidants because sometimes they are hyperactivated and act like an anxious attached person and sometimes they deactivate and act like a dismissive avoidant.
This means that sometimes a fearful avoidant ex can be fully engaged in conversation and clearly show they wanted contact and connection and other times they’re distant, ignore texts or don’t respond at all. What I’m trying to say is, a fearful avoidant ex wanting to keep the lines of communication open but dropping conversations, ignoring texts or questions, not responding for days at a time is something you should expect. It doesn’t mean they don’t want you to reach out, are uncomfortable with contact or that you’re bothering them. A fearful avoidant might actually want you to contact them, they’re just afraid what it all means, if they’re ready to fully open up the lines of communication or if they’re ready or can meet your need for contact.
And because fearful avoidants are not just conflicted about whether they want contact or no contact, but also conflicted about their feelings for an ex, they have an unhealthy habit of wanting to “test” that someone does indeed care about them and wants to be with them – and is willing to go to lengths to prove it.
Securely attached people typically don’t engage or encourage these unhealthy behaviours. If someone securely attached is reaching out first and a fearful avoidant ex is fully engaged in conversation and clearly shows they want contact and connection but regularly ignores texts and (this is very IMPORTANT), it is clear to securely attached ex that their fearful avoidant ex is 1) is invested in keeping the lines of communication e.g. they’re engaged, reaching out and showing interest that they want some kind of relationships and 2) is trying to get them to chase or engaging in other unhealth behaviours, a securely attached ex will set clear boundaries on contact
Fear of setting boundaries with a fearful avoidant ex
Most anxiously attached and some fearful avoidants fear setting boundaries because they’re afraid of how their ex might respond. They’d rather keep their frustration with an avoidant’s contact behaviour than risk pushing them further away with boundaries. What they don’t realize is that their frustration is slowly turning into resentment and their resentment is dripping into their interactions with their avoidant ex and poisoning connection. People who don’t feel safe are unsafe to talk to or be around.
The second reason anxiously attached fear setting boundaries is because they don’t know how. When they try to set boundaries, they make it about how they feel (which is always negative) and what someone else should do about how they feel. It often comes off as reassurance-seeking, complaining, accusations, criticism or an ultimatum because anxiously attached people are mostly focused on “I want to feel safe, and this is what YOU need to do to make me feel safe” (and if you don’t I’ll punish you e.g. I’ll end things, stop reaching, move on, start seeing someone else etc.). The irony is many avoidants react to “threats of punishment” negatively or don’t respond at all, and an anxious person because they crave contact and connection is forced to walk back the threat/ultimatum. In the process they lose the respect of an avoidant and some avoidants even feel less attracted.
Securely attached don’t engage in accusations, don’t project their worries and fears on a fearful avoidant or set “boundaries” to try to force others to do what they want them to do e.g. I want more contact or I want you to answer my questions/ask me questions, or I want longer/deeper conversation so I’ll threaten you with a “boundary” to force you to step up. They don’t send “If you’re uncomfortable with me contacting you, tell me” or “If you want space, I’ll give it to you” or “I keep asking for reassurance and don’t feel like I’m getting it, I’m going to stop reaching out/end things.” texts. “I’m going to stop reaching out/end things” is more an ultimatum than a boundary and fearful avoidants don’t respond positively to ultimatums because they feel like pressure.
Setting boundaries for contact with a fearful avoidant ex
People with a secure attachment set boundaries that are respectful of a fearful avoidant’s way of protecting themselves from harm, but also respectful of a securely attached person’s need for a safe relationship that does not include unhealthy habits. They state what THEY need (not complain about what they’re not getting) and what THEY believe is their responsibility in maintaining connection and also protecting themselves.
A securely attached ex’s boundary for contact with a fearful avoidant ex would look something like this:
1. “I’m okay with reaching out first, however, I need to know that you want contact as well. I can only reach out 2-3 times with no response, if there’s no response, I will wait for you to reach out”.
2. “I’m okay with a text every couple of days, but I’m not okay with a week with no contact. If I don’t hear from you for 3 days in a row, I’ll send a check-in text because I want to know that you’re okay. If there’s still no response, I I’ll check in again at least one more time, but after that, I’ll assume you don’t me to contact you and I’ll not contact you again.”
A securely attached ex’s boundaries don’t automatically assume that a fearful avoidant dropping conversations, ignoring texts or questions, not responding for days at a time or cancelling a meet-up is something bad or means that they don’t want contact or don’t care. This is a clear contrast to anxiously attached automatically assume the worst when a fearful avoidant ex ignores a text or question, or takes long to respond. They project their negative feelings, worries and fears int the situation and their worries and fear turn into “My ex needs space” or “I’m making my ex uncomfortable”. Next thing you know, they’re sending “If you need space, just tell me” or “If I’m making you uncomfortable, please tell me” reassurance seeking texts.
Do boundaries work with a fearful avoidant?
Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. If a fearful avoidant doesn’t care about keeping the lines of communication open or isn’t interested in having any kind of relationship with you, a boundary is waste of time, and will not make any difference. A fearful avoidant ex isn’t going to suddenly start responding because you set a boundary.
But if a fearful avoidant ex is invested in keeping the lines of communication open or in having a relationship with you, initially, when you set a boundary, they may react with feeling reprimanded. This has more to do with their past experiences where they were regularly scolded or punished for not doing something “right” and less to do with you setting a boundary. They may feel that they have done something wrong and your boundary is a “punishment”, but as you continue to reach out as you said you would in your boundary and show consistency, they’ll begin to appreciate where you are coming from, and that this is something you need rather than a rebuke of something they did.
It’s important when setting a boundary to keep in mind that a boundary is not about eliciting a response, or bending the other person to your will or expectations. A boundary is about your safety, your self-respect and you communicating how you need to be treated while also respecting the other person’s needs including their need to feel safe.
It’s also important to keep in mind that boundaries are a two-way sword. If you want to be respected and treated with respect, you also must respect the basic norms of social interactions and specific boundaries that other people set to protect themselves.
Respect for others’ boundaries is big part of being a person safe to talk to
Sometimes fearful avoidant exes ignore texts or don’t respond because a boundary has been violated, but being an avoidant, they don’t often communicate their needs or even concerns.
Individual with an anxious attachment are often criticized for not respecting other people’s boundaries, and deservingly so. Anxiously attached don’t just have no boundaries or have weak boundaries, have difficulty saying “no” to things they don’t want or need, they’re also the most likely attachment style to violate others’ boundaries. Because they have difficulty trusting that their needs will be met, they overstep other people’s boundaries to try to get their needs met, and have difficulty accepting “no” to things they want.
Overstepping other people’s boundaries seems to get worse when an anxious person is hyperactivated and self-sabotaging. They push the limits of what an avoidant ex is willing to accept or can tolerate, and sometimes even keep text-bombing an avoidant who has repeatedly made it crystal clear that they don’t to be contacted, or wants contact but is so frustrated by an anxious attachment pushing to talk about things they’ve been repeatedly told to stop talking about because an avoidant can’t take it anymore.
I’ve heard different versions from avoidants of how they feel about an anxious person overstepping the boundaries of contact. One fearful avoidant ex said “It’s too much. I’m at a point where I get anxious just seeing a text from my ex. So I’ve blocked her”.
I don’t personally believe blocking someone improves anything. Yes, it sends a message that someone’s behaviour is unacceptable, and it may give one peace of mind, but its doesn’t do anything to improve the situation especially if you still love someone and want a relationship with them. I believe in communication and tell my avoidant clients put off by their anxious ex’s “too much” contact for two people who are not a relationship, set boundaries.
Don’t just accept behaviours that make you feel unsafe
It’s okay to want your ex to make you feel safe and okay to as ask that they make you feel safe, but at the end of the day, you are responsible for your own safety. The need to make others responsible for your safety is what makes you feel powerless, unworthy of love, need constant reassurance, too afraid of losing someone and unable to completely trust others.
An important part of being securely attached is taking responsibility for your own needs and your own safety. This means setting boundaries and following through on your responsibilities for the boundaries you set. If you say, I will do XY if my boundary is violated, do XY. When you don’t enforce your boundary, you disrespect yourself, and that’s on you and not on an avoidant. Don’t disrespect yourself and expect the other person to respect you. If you’re not ready to follow through and enforce your own boundary, don’t set the boundary. A “boundary” you’re not ready to enforce is not a boundary but an insecure person’s threat or ultimatum. It’s useless at best and exposes you as unsafe at worst.
So if you’re working towards becoming more secure, don’t just measure your progress by how you don’t overcontact your ex (or self-regulate) but also measure progress toward developing secure attachment by looking at how much you hold yourself responsible and accountable for making you feel safe and how much you hold your ex responsible and accountable for your needs, safety and happiness.
If you’re spending more time and energy looking for reassurance from an avoidant and/or trying to make an avoidant see or understand that they need to make you feel safe and less time creating your own safety, you’re still relying on an avoidant for your happiness, sense of self-worth, and value. Still insecurely attached.
How contact can be respectful for anxiously attached and a fearful avoidant ex at the same time
Boundaries as I discuss in my article on Setting Boundaries An Avoidant Ex Will Respect are about loving and respecting yourself and loving and respecting your ex simultaneously. In order for contact to be respectful for both people, first you both have to recognize, acknowledge and accept that you have different attachment styles. Someone anxiously attached will always want more contact than an avoidant, and this means that most of the time contact will seem or be one-sided.
Find ways to get both of your needs met. For example, if you’re talking everyday for a few days and an avoidant is responsive and engaged, this meets an anxiously attached person’s needs more than an avoidants needs. And that’s a good thing. When a fearful avoidant starts to take longer to respond and engages less but does not deactivate, it doesn’t mean that they don’t want you to reach, it just means that they’ve reached the limit of how much contact and connection their emotional bandwidth can allow, and need more space between contacts so they can self-regulate.
Don’t continue to reach out everyday to try to force contact to meet your anxious attachment needs and force an avoidant to deactivate, or “leave them alone” as this breaks connection and momentum. Every time you break connection and momentum, you have to build it back up. This slows things down and increases the amount of time it’ll take to get back together, and may even negatively affect your chances.