An avoidant ex can get angry and pull away for reasons that have nothing to do with you. They get into their “I want space” or “I don’t feel like not talking” mood and everything you say or do annoys them. But sometimes an avoidant ex shuts down and pulls away because of too many arguments, fights and conflicts.
How we individually deal with conflict is baked in our attachment style
Secure attachment is associated with positive conflict resolution strategies; anxious attachment with active conflict engagement strategies including pushy or intrusive behaviours, criticisms, personal attacks and losing control; and a dismissive avoidant attachment is associated with conflict withdrawal strategies such as refusing to discuss the issue further, defensiveness, hostility, evasive communication, ignoring, pulling away and deactivating. Fearful avoidants fluctuate between active conflict engagement and pulling away. The former is driven by a fearful avoidant’s need for connection and closeness and the latter by their fear of rejection and abandonment.
Both active conflict engagement and conflict avoidance strategies are considered destructive because they induce elevated levels of fear, anger and sadness and potentially destroy a relationship.
How a dismissive avoidant ex handles an argument or conflict
In my experience with anxious and dismissive attachment exes, most arguments and fights happen because an anxious attachment ex tried to seek validation or reassurance and a dismissive avoidant ex was dismissive, insensitive, cold, distracted, didn’t respond at all or pulled away.
These situations happen so often because individuals with an anxious attachment look for emotions to understand what the other person feels or thinks. When they say something, they often have a response they hope for to reassure them that “everything is okay”. Dismissive avoidants on the other hand deal with things in a practical and logical way removed of emotions and sentimentalism. Most of the time they say things in a matter-of-fact way not thinking about how the other person will feel. And sometimes they take the opportunity to communicate something else completely unrelated to the topic.
The unemotional, practical, insensitive or distracted responses trigger an anxious person, and in their attempt to get the reassurance they need, be heard or give their “correct” version of events, they engage in active conflict-enflaming behaviours.
Someone with a secure attachment will recognize an anxious attachment’s destructive active conflict enflaming behaviours and quickly de-escalate the situation. But a dismissive avoidant will not understand why someone is upset, making a deal about nothing or starting an argument, fight or conflict (drama). Instead of de-escalating the situation, dismissive avoidant exes get angry, stop responding, pull away or text “don’t contact me again”.
How a fearful avoidant ex handles an argument or conflict
Active conflict engagement is inevitable in an anxious attachment and fearful avoidant (anxious-avoidant) relationship. The relationship is more likely to have more conflict because both attachment styles are highly sensitive to rejection which makes them not trust each other’s intentions and motives.
You can imagine what happens when two people who don’t trust each other and assume the worst of the other’s intentions and motives try to communicate. Add into the mix the fact that text messaging even with the use of emojis don’t accurately communicate intentions and motives.
The majority of the time, an argument or fight is a result of “miscommunication problems”. An ex with an anxious attachment wants to talk about something that confuses, concerns or bothers them, but because people with an anxious attachment use emotions to understand what the other person feels or thinks, and because there’ s history there, they project and make assumptions about what a fearful avoidant thinks, feels or what their intentions and motives are. This triggers a fearful avoidant’s concern and fear that others don’t understand them, they’re not good enough, and their feelings and needs don’t matter. Things quickly become accusatory, emotionally charged and hostile and a fearful avoidant ex’s conflict avoidance coping mechanism kicks in.
Something that started with good intentions and motives escalates into a misunderstanding, an argument or full-blown out conflict. A fearful avoidant ex stops responding, deactivates and pulls away. And because both people with an anxious attachment and fearful avoidants are passive-aggressive, sometimes both people go on social media and continue the argument or fight without directly communicating with each other.
Fearful avoidants and people-pleasing conflict avoidance
As mentioned above, fearful avoidants fluctuate between active conflict engagement and withdrawal. But unlike dismissive avoidants who mostly avoid conflict because they don’t want to be bothered or because they’re afraid of dealing with their own emotions or the emotions of others, a fearful avoidant’s conflict avoidance behaviour can sometimes be a type of people-pleasing behaviour.
Individuals with an anxious attachment, which includes fearful avoidants especially those who lean more anxious fear upsetting others. They learned early in life that if you don’t make others upset, they’ll like and love you, but if you make them upset, they’ll withdraw their love. They engage in people-pleasing behaviours because they expect conflict to result in a negative outcome, and would rather silently withdraw, change the topic or tolerate uncomfortable situations than upset someone who might reject and abandon them.
When trying to get back with a fearful avoidant ex, you will experience times when their people-pleasing behaviours are in full force, then almost suddenly they actively start arguments, fights and conflicts, are angry, hostile and pull away. Sometimes these behaviour can happen all within a couple of days, within one day or even hours – and its very confusing.
Unnecessary and constant conflict push avoidants further away
Misunderstandings, miscommunication and unnecessary arguments and fights when they happen so often make an avoidant pull away or even conclude that there is just too much conflict or that the relationship has too many problems that it can’t work.
What fearful avoidants and dismissive avoidants hear and feel when there is constant miscommunication, misunderstands, arguments, fights, conflict and drama is:
- You’re making me unhappy/you failed at making me happy
- It’s always your fault when we argue, fight or break-up
- Your reasons for being angry or hostile are petty/unreasonable/not valid
- Admit that you’re always wrong and accept that I’m always right
- Something is fundamentally wrong with you
- Change or nobody will ever love you
This often leads to resentment, anger and decrease in feelings of attraction (and even liking). And when conflict is allowed to escalate, some avoidants (and individuals with an anxious attachment) say things they later can’t take back. The combination of resentment, anger and dislike kills any chance of ever getting back together.
It’s better to avoid miscommunication, not start an unnecessary argument or a conflict
Now that you know why unnecessary arguments and fights make an avoidant ex pull away, and how conflict and drama reduces their feelings of attraction, it’s better to minimize conflict as much as possible. This is not only healthy for your relationship but also because it’s easier to avoid conflict than try to deal with an angry avoidant ex who has pulled away, shut down, or wants no contact.
You can minimize conflicts by choosing your battles very carefully. Some things are not worth arguing or fighting over especially those that won’t matter when you’re finally back together. It’s perfectly okay and normal to be annoyed or irritated by some things your ex does or says but don’t turn anxious thoughts, projections, assumptions, pet peeves and “a bad mood” into an argument, fight or conflict.
Spend your time and energy on things that bring you closer and not on what pulls you and your avoidant ex apart, and you’ll find that some battles you win by not fighting at all.
Learning conflict de-escalating strategies gives you an advantage
Considering that how we deal with conflict is baked in our attachment style, it’s tempting to conclude that because individuals with an anxious attachment are often not aware when they’re engaging in active conflict behaviours or enflaming an argument, they’ll always create the very experience they’re trying to avoid, that is, push an avoidant ex away. It’s also tempting to conclude that because avoidants avoid disagreements or arguments, pull away or shut down when there’s conflict, issues that need to be addressed will never be addressed and the dynamics fueling conflicts can never be resolved – and there is no point in trying to get back together.
Arguments, fights and even some drama is an unavoidable part of trying to get back together with an ex. Both of you are in “self-protection” mode because neither person wants to go through the same relationship again or get hurt again. But just because you have arguments, fights and even some drama doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed.
The conflict de-escalation strategies I’m going to give you will help you avoid unnecessary and avoidable conflict, recover from a shut down and make an avoidant ex pull away less after a disagreement. This will increase your chances of getting them back.
1) Recognize your triggers and state-shift
Learn to recognize when an avoidant’s words or actions are starting to trigger you and don’t take the bait or allow your emotions to “run the show”. When you’re both triggered and emotionally charged, no one hears what the other is really saying.
Triggers often distorts what’s really happening and reinforce beliefs that are corrupted by past traumas and are problematic. To identify what is triggering you, pay attention to what is generating strong emotions or what reminds you of past situations, experiences, events or traumas and try to bring your attention back to the present, what is happening now.
This is called state-shifting which is consciously shifting your energy out of your triggered state to re-establish control of what your brain is doing in autopilot mode. Train yourself to do this as quickly as possible, so that you can respond appropriately to triggering situations
2) Avoid inflammatory language and words
I hear from my clients all the time “I was calm and didn’t raise my voice” or “I was polite the whole time” and they don’t understand why an avoidant ex got angrier and pulled away. Then when we dig deeper into what happened, they begin to see why despite them being calm and polite the conflict escalated instead of de-escalating.
Words, language and attitude play a critical role in whether a conflict escalates or de-escalates. Fearful avoidants are especially sensitive to “blaming” language and dismissive avoidants to boundary violation (including projections and assumptions about what they think or feel). In addition to being calm and polite, try to avoid language that may be seen as criticism, confrontational, emotionally charged, hostile or accusatory. Language that’s simple, direct and taking ownership of (only) your role in the conflict has a better chance of de-escalation than condescending, accusatory and victim playing language.
3) Understand and validate your ex’s perspective/point of view
When a conflict starts, what an angry avoidant ex wants is for “it to stop”, but what they need more is to feel like they’re understood and/or their perspective is taken into consideration.
Most avoidants don’t feel confident to express their emotions without feeling judged, weak or ridiculed for them. This is why most would rather withdraw in silence. So whether you agree or not with your ex’s perspective and how they feel, try to understand where they’re coming from. Your ex may have a different understanding view of the issue or the events leading to the argument, fight or conflict but that is their reality, try to understand it.
Feeling heard and understood helps avoidants people feel respected, supported, and safe – and calms them down. The way to do this as someone with an anxious attachment who tends to project and make assumptions about what others think and feel (something that triggers and angers most avoidants) is step back from the argument and ask yourself if you are genuinely trying to understand where the other person is coming from or if you are projecting, assuming or trying to give your “correct” version of events. If you really think about it, it doesn’t matter who is right or wrong, conflict escalation hurts both of you in the end.
4) Sincerely apologize (right away)
If you can catch yourself actively engaging in conflict and can stop yourself, apologize right away. Recent research suggests that whether a conflict escalates or de-escalates depends on who generates the conflict topic. The conflict has a better chance of de-escalating if the person who generates the conflict topic does the de-escalating.
An apology that includes the words “IF I said/acted/offended/hurt you” is not an apology. It’s a passive aggressive way of suggesting that the hurt may have not happened or that someone is exaggerating their feelings about it. It’s a fake apology the same as “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry, BUT…”
A sincere apology takes full responsibility and often de-escalates the situation. A fake apology makes someone angrier and resentful. Most people won’t want to talk to you again because if feels like you don’t think you hurt them and are grudgingly apologizing .
If things escalate so quicky and an apology is not likely to be heard, received or wanted because an avoidant is angry, wait a few days or a week to apologize.
5) Respect an avoidant’s boundary
When a conflict escalates, what an avoidant ex wants is for “it to stop”. The way they “make it stop” is shut down, walk away, stop responding or ask for no contact. Not a healthy way to deal with conflict, but it’s an avoidant’s way of de-escalating, self-regulating and drawing a self-care boundary.
Individuals with an anxious attachment are typically boundary violators and may not recognize an avoidant’s boundary or respect it. They’ll keep contacting an avoidant who has said “do not contact me” because anxious attachment type 1) can’t self-regulate (or self-care) and looking for reassurance and 2) think it’ll show an avoidant how much they love and care about them. When something goes wrong in the relationship, people with an anxious attachment need and seek more closeness. They want reassurance that an angry avoidant still cares about them is not pulling away or abandoning them; and there is nothing wrong with needing reassurance. Where people with an anxious attachment go wrong is making assumptions about how an avoidant feels based on how they feel. This often ends up backfiring.
When an avoidant is frustrated, emotionally overwhelmed or angry, they don’t care if you love or care about them. At this point, an avoidant is probably already shutting down and deactivating and telling them how much you love and care about them is like saying “I want us to get close”.
Respect that they don’t want to talk anymore and stop trying to talk. And if they say they want no contact, stop trying to contact them. Wanting to talk about things after an avoidant ex has indicated they don’t want to talk, has shutdown, pulled away or deactivated even if you’re seeking understanding feels to an avoidant like continuing or escalating the conflict. They’re trying to self-care and manage their feelings about the argument but you just keep triggering them.
A securely attached person will recognize that an avoidant has maxed their emotional bandwidth and respect their self-care boundary. They may send a text acknowledging their role in the conflict, apologize and communicate respect for an avoidant’s need to self-care. They trust that when avoidant is ready they’ll re-engage, and will give an avoidant a reasonable amount of time before concluding an avoidant has likely completely detached and wants permanent no contact.
6) Communicate with respect and understanding
Both of you deserve respect and consideration. When bringing up something that confuses, concerns or bothers you, describe how you feel about it rather than what you think the other person is doing wrong or did wrong. Let your ex know how their words or actions effect you and let them on their own figure out or decide how they’re going to respond.
Don’t try to make them see things your way, instead communicate your confusion or concern in ways that are respectful and show understanding and thoughtfulness, and most of all, do not project make assumptions about what an avoidant thinks or how they feel. This is a major trigger for most avoidant exes especially if there is a history of you making assumptions about what they think or feel.
If you and your ex are from different cultural backgrounds, it’s always important to think carefully before approaching your ex to resolve a conflict and before making demands when competing interests are involved.
In addition to your ex’s attachment style, the difference cultures can affect how often two people argue, fight or handle conflict. Some cultures nurture and encourage a confrontational approach especially in situations with competing interests, and other cultures prefer a non-confrontational approach.
People who use a confrontational approach may come across to someone who prefers a non-confrontational approach as angry, emotional, too aggressive, wanting to fight or even energized by the conflict. On the other hand, people who use a non-confrontational approach may come across to someone used to a confrontational approach as evasive, trying to avoid the conflict, cold and cowardly.
As someone who was raised with a non-confrontational approach to conflict resolution and have lived much of my adult life in a culture that encourages a confrontational approach, I find that both approaches have a time and place. Sometimes one works better and other times the other works better.
7) Regulate your emotional state by yourself
There is no right or wrong way to feel, only the right or wrong way to respond or react. Sometimes the right response is a little emotional and physical distance especially when emotional temperatures are high both sides. This can help both parties ‘cool down”, gain some perspective and recommit to making the relationship work.
Learning to self-regulate your emotions on your own is especially important for individuals with an anxious attachment style. Instead of trying to find healthier ways to stop feeling anxious, worried, afraid, rejected and abandoned on your own, you keep trying to beg or force an avoidant to talk/communicate or feel the need to “tell an avoidant off” – only to regret it later when you’ve had time “to think”.
My working model is 3 – 4 days for a trivial conflicts and up to 10 days for a more intense conflict. Too much emotional and physical distance hurts rather than helps the relationship especially because of avoidants’ emotional detaching tendencies.
8) Don’t take everything personally
What I’ve found over the years is that at the root of many arguments, fights and conflicts between exes is lack of trust. So many things happened during the relationship, during the break-up and after the break-up that eroded trust. In addition, many people with an anxious attachment, fearful avoidants and dismissive avoidants tend to view their ex’s words and actions as “not to be trusted” and often interpret text messages, emails, social media stories etc., through these lenses.
Sometimes exes with an anxious attachment see hostility or withdrawal and start an argument or fight when there is no hostility or withdrawal, just an ex trying to cope with the break-up the best way they know how to, or living their life with no malice or ill intentions. My role as their coach is to try to make them see that there may be another way to look at an ex’s words and actions, and to understand them better.
It’s hard to take the leap from someone hurting you to complete trust, even naïve to do so. But it really helps not to take everything your ex says or does personally. This is how you slowly begin to trust them again, avoid the unnecessary arguments, fights and drama and stop an avoidant ex from pulling away after an argument.
9) Let go and get out of your own way
People with an anxious attachment feel the need to “set the record straight” or give “the correct version of events”, and there is nothing wrong with trying to put things into context, but if going back to specific issues or fights that “started everything” becomes an obsession you risk escalating an argument or conflict.
Always remember that what you feel is based on your perceptions (and you’re entitled to it) but it’s not necessarily an objective reflection of the facts. Often times, what “started everything” isn’t as important as “how do I move forward?”.
Let go of trying to “set the record straight” or give “the correct version of events” and focus your time and energy on making sure the argument, fight or conflict doesn’t make an avoidant ex pull away or even ruin your chances of getting back together.
10) Know when to walk away
I agree with people who say avoidants need to work on themselves too, this is certainly helpful, but I’ve also seen cases where an anxious person working on their active conflict engagement behaviours helps de-escalate conflict.
Try learning positive conflict resolution strategies before demanding that an avoidant change. If after working on you own conflict style, conflicts still continue just the same or get worse, walk away. Even if an avoidant says they want to change but make no effort to change, love yourself enough to walk away. Sometimes no amount of love or empathy can save a relationship – but you don’t know that if you haven’t tried everything within your power and control to save it.
As Thich Nhat Hanh in “How to Love” put it: “Your good intentions are not enough; you have to be artful. We may be filled with goodwill; we may be motivated by the desire to make the other person happy, but out of our clumsiness, we make them unhappy.”
Can an avoidant recover from a shut down after an argument or fight?
Yes, avoidants can recover from most shut downs resulting from an argument or fight, BUT it depends on an avoidant’s overall satisfaction with the relationship, the reason or topic that generated the argument/conflict and shutdown, the strength or depth of the shut down and if an avoidant has other options they might want to pursue instead.
If you need help with recovering from an avoidant shut down after an argument or fight, I’m happy to discuss the details of your situation and advice what to do.