You’ve probably heard, read somewhere or watched a video about dismissive avoidants and “phantom” exes.
If you’re new to attachment theory, a “phantom ex” in summary is an ex or past love interest that current or potential partner can never live up to. A phantom ex may be your first love, someone you made a deep connection with or someone you fantasized about but had no shot at becoming a couple. A phantom ex does not even have to be a real person but a romanticized idea of how romantic love is supposed to feel like.
The “phantom ex” theory was first introduced to us in the book Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel S. F. Heller as an avoidant attachment deactivating mechanism. According to Levine and Heller, by holding onto an idealistic romanticized version of an ex, avoidants avoid getting close to anyone else because it’s safer and non-threatening to fantasize about someone who doesn’t exist than get close to someone who exists.
I was a dismissive avoidant, and I never had an ex that I was “I’m stuck on” and maybe I don’t count because I’m primarily securely attached and leaned dismissive as a result of my adult experiences rather than my childhood programming. As part of my work helping exes get back together, I have the privilege of having very personal, vulnerable and stripped of all defenses and pretenses conversations with people of all attachment styles, so I asked my dismissive avoidant clients if they have a “phantom ex”; someone they compare to all others.
Dismissive avoidant’s idea of how romantic love is supposed to feel like
First, I asked my dismissive avoidant clients is if they’ve ever “felt attached” to someone they dated or had a relationship with, have ever “fallen in love” or “been in love”. I started by asking this question because:
1) Attachment theory suggests that dismissive avoidants have a hard time forming bonds or attachments with others and;
2) I noticed a pattern in almost all my dismissive avoidant clients’ stories that at some point or another in the relationship, especially when their partner asked (complained or demanded) for more closeness, dismissive avoidants ask themselves “Do I love this person?” or “Is this love?” or “Do I really want to fall in love?”. When the relationship ends, some of my dismissive avoidant clients are left wondering if they ever loved their ex, if it was just lust or it was the familiarity of being in a relationship.
Most dismissive avoidants have an idea of what romantic love is supposed to feel like but don’t have many experiences of “falling in love” or “being in love”. Sometimes they think they are “in love” but aren’t sure and other times they don’t think they love the person but they do. Many of my dismissive avoidant clients said the idea of “falling in love” feels scary, is inconveniencing and/or annoying that they end the relationship before they “lose themselves in the relationship” or “risk it all.”
Some dismissive avoidants told me that they often wondered if based on their idea of of what romantic love is supposed to feel like they’re capable of falling in love or if they even truly ever want to know someone deeply since it might lead to falling in love. When I pressed further as to why if they have feelings for someone they don’t let themselves fall in love, one of the responses I got was:
“I don’t know. I feel so strongly for someone, but something tells me not to act on my feelings. They’re just feelings and they’ll pass.”
Me: Do the feelings pass?
DA: Yeah, most of the time, or one of us breaks up before I find out.
Another response I got was “I start feeling things and I know they have feelings for me too, but I get scared that their feelings for me are stronger than my feelings for them and I want out”.
A good number of dismissive avoidants said say they don’t often tell people “I’ve never fallen in love/been in love” because of the negative reaction they get. “People are surprised/get weird when a 38-year-old man says they’ve never been in love. So, I just don’t tell anyone except my very close friends, my therapist and now you”.
Do dismissive avoidants have an ex they think of all the time?
I asked dismissive avoidants who said they believed they loved their ex but despite loving their ex things didn’t work out if they think about their ex and if they do, if they ever tried to get them back.
A few tried to get their ex back and some were successful, but most weren’t because their ex was “fed up” with them or they briefly got back together but broke up again for the same reasons – “they wanted more, I felt pressured, I ended things/they broke it off”.
When I asked if there is an ex they think about more often than others, some dismissive avoidants said yes, they had an ex they thought about more often but it’s because they live with a sense of guilt. They didn’t feel the guilt immediately after the break-up, but after months and years of distance from their ex, several failed relationships, therapy or new insight and perspective, they see the many ways they hurt their ex.
“I wrote a long apology and just never received a response. I didn’t expect her to reply.”
Others said because so much time had passed, they didn’t think it was fair to their ex who had moved on to bring up the past. But the guilt still haunts them.
The majority of dismissive avoidant exes responded with different versions of: “Once I’m done, I’m done.” They don’t look back, don’t think of an ex and don’t want their ex back.
Do dismissive Avoidants have a “phantom ex?
I then asked if they have a “phantom ex” and the consistent response is that they had one or two exes they really liked and thought they loved but they don’t consider them a “phantom ex”.
Many dismissive avoidants said the ex that comes close to a “phantom ex” was their first loves but many also quickly dismissed it with “We were young and looking back it probably was just a teenage crush”.
Another response I got was “He was different from anyone else I’d ever dated. I wouldn’t call him my phantom ex because although he was different from all my exes, we still had so many problems and ultimately couldn’t make each other happy.”
Me: Would you date him again if you were both single?
DA: No. I don’t think he’d want to date me either.
The overall feeling I got talking to many dismissive avoidant clients is the “phantom ex” is not a common occurrence with a dismissive attachment style. I’m not saying that there are no dismissive avoidants who have a “phantom ex”; avoidants exist on a continuum and are not all alike. What I’m saying is that because dismissive avoidants generally have a very low perception/view of their relationship interests or partners and are known to fixate on their love interests’ flaws to a point that they talk themselves out of the relationship, it’s less likely that a dismissive avoidant has an ex or past love interest who they put on a pedestal and no one ever quite measures up to them.
The impression I also got is that because dismissive avoidants are generally uncomfortable with emotions, feeling “stuck” in a thought loop over a past relationship is something they’d try to avoid as much as possible.
What triggers a dismissive avoidant ex’s memories of an ex?
When I asked what makes some exes stand out from all the others. The majority said the quality of the relationship followed by the “character” of the person or “who they were” and “how things ended”.
I then asked dismissive avoidants who said their ex passed 1) quality of the relationship 2 “character” of the person or “who they were” and 3) “how things ended” test if they think about their ex and if they do, would they take them back. Some dismissive avoidants said they’d take their ex back if they were confident the relationship would work. Others said they would not take their ex back even if there was a chance the relationship would work.
Me: Why not?
DA: She’s a really good person and one of a kind and I still care very much for her and will do anything for her, but as a friend.
Another response I got was “People move on and grow. Maybe I’ll meet someone better”.
Me: But do you ever think of when you were together and if so what triggers those memories?
DA: Yes, I have my moments, but it’s not because I want things to go back to when we were together. It’s just some random memories of this or that and to be honest I don’t know what triggers them. I think of something, and sometimes I text her about it or send a photo of a place we shared a memory. We chat or laugh about it and that’s it.
Me: Do you think that maybe those memories mean more to your ex than they mean to you?
DA: Probably. But she knows I’m not interested in getting back together. I’ve made that very clear.
Many responses to my question to if dismissive avoidant exes sometimes think about exes they felt a strong attachment to and if they did, what triggered their thoughts or memories about an ex came down to. If after the break-up there was no further contact or “reminder” of an ex, dismissive avoidants “forgot about their ex” until their ex contacted them, they saw a photo of their ex or ran into them, or they moved to the same city/country and all of a sudden they started thinking about them again. They say their ex reaching out, seeing a photo of them, running into them or being in the same city/country brough back memories they’d suppressed.
I asked if this was because they were lonely and an ex reaching out, seeing a photo of them, running into an ex or being in the same city/country made them feel even lonelier and this is what brough back memories they’d suppressed.
“Loneliness is a factor for sure. But it’s happened when I was in a relationship too. I ran into my ex and couldn’t stop thinking of her. We exchanged a few text messages, but I stopped it before it went any further. I didn’t want to hurt my current girlfriend.”
“My ex contacted me on Facebook. I was surprised because it’s been 4 years since the breakup. To be honest, I can’t remember if I ever thought of him or wanted any contact with him, but I responded. We have contact every once in a while maybe every month or other month. We are not getting back together or anything like that.”
The majority of dismissive avoidants said that with exes they didn’t feel anything for, there was more pain and hurt than happiness in the relationship or the break-up was horrible, there was no contact after the breakup. They don’t think about these exes, and it’s probably for the best.
Do dismissive avoidant exes fantasize about dating other people?
To really understand if dismissive avoidant exes fantasize about their exes, I also asked my clients if they fantasize about dating or being with other people while at the same time talking to an ex who they know wants them back. The majority of dismissive avoidants said yes.
When researching if dismissive avoidants test relationship partners or exes, I came across research (Dewall, Lambert, Slotter, Pond 2011) that shows that a dismissive avoidant attachment’s perception of relationships allows them to have independent concurrent “low-level commitments” based on the specifics of the relationship. Some of these “low-level commitments” are real love- triangles which is a test in their own right, but sometimes dismissive avoidants mention “interest in alternatives” as a way to test you.
When I asked my dismissive avoidant clients if this was just a test to see how a partner or ex responds or if they had genuine attraction for other person and fantasized having a relationship with them, most answered that it was both.
DA: It depends on the relationship and what is happening between us. Of course, if things are not good, I fantasize about dating or being with other men, but I often end things before acting on my fantasies.
Me: If you were talking to an ex who you know wants to get back together but also found yourself fantasizing about another man, would you would stop talking to your ex and pursue a relationship with your fantasy person?
DA: No, I’m saying it depends on what is happening between us. If things are good between us, the other man remains a fantasy and not someone I want to be with or pursue a relationship with. We all have fantasies about other people, right?
It really depends on what is happening between us is something I hear a lot from dismissive avoidant exes when talking about their exes. Because there is very little accountability or desire for dismissive avoidants to take responsibility for the relationship not working out, they maintain a romanticized idea of how romantic love is supposed to feel like. And rather than a “phantom ex” or even a “fantasy person” standing in the way of a dismissive avoidant’s current or future relationships, dismissive avoidants looking for perfection in their partners and/or relationships is the real problem.
Do dismissive avoidants expect their partners to be “perfect”?
The simple answer is yes, dismissive avoidants expect perfectionism from their partners and exes, and often times their unrealistic expectations of others leads to fantasizing about someone who does not exit.
Perfectionism is a personality trait requiring the self and/or others to be perfect or to present the self as perfect. Research show that self-oriented romantic perfectionism is associated with an anxious attachment style while partner-oriented perfectionism is associates with an avoidant attachment style.
What this means is that individuals with an anxious attachment (including anxious-avoidants or fearful avoidants) are more likely to set high and rigid standards for their own behaviours, as a way of appearing more attractive and lovable to their partner. On the other hand, highly avoidant individuals (mainly dismissive avoidants) are more likely to hold unrealistic expectations of their romantic partners and may react with anger when their expectations are not met or end the relationship when a partner discloses or shows flaws or shortcomings.
I know that having unrealistic expectations of a romantic partner was a problem for me. But for me it wasn’t that I was looking for perfection in someone; a part of me knew that nobody is perfect and expecting another person to be perfect was realistic or healthy, for me is was “Do they meet my standards for what will make me happy?”.
I wrote in a comment about my story that as a dismissive avoidant, I had the ability to separate the “person” from “the relationship”. There were many times that I liked the person very much, but ended the relationship because they didn’t meet the standards of what made me happy.
When trying to attract back a dismissive avoidant ex, the feeling that an ex lacks something that once made them seem perfect can lead a dismissive avoidant ex to expect a lot out of an ex. It’s like they expect their ex to prove that they can meet their set high standards of “what makes me happy” or idea of how love is supposed to feel like.
When I asked some of my dismissive avoidant clients if maybe they felt disappointed with their ex because they are focused on mistakes and imperfections, most agreed. A few argued that have “high standards” makes them more attractive.
Asked if expecting someone to meet their unrealistic expectations of how love is supposed to feel like is a factor in their failed relationships since no body seems to be “good enough” to meet their standards, I got major push back.
“I may be a dismissive avoidant, but I know the difference between a fantasy and realty, so give me some credit.”