Q: When I read your columns on attachment theory [3/2/2019 4/07/2019 4/18/2019,] I realized that your description of the avoidant attachment style fits my boyfriend exactly. I completely love him, but I do have to put up with his “time outs”, and his need for “space”, and the fact that he’ll sometimes take days to respond to a text. He’s also real guarded about telling me any information about himself, as if he’s afraid that it will give me ammunition to use against him. I know he loves me as much as I love him, but he needs to hold at me at arm’s length in so many ways. I’m a fairly “secure” type, so I think I can handle it, but I’m wondering what I can do to help him not be so cautious about being close with me.
A: The “attachment system” in our brains is our internal working model of what we can expect in our relationships with others. There are three primary attachment “styles”: secure, avoidant, and anxious. People with an avoidant attachment style typically they grew up with parents who were invasive and controlling, and who were emotionally unavailable or unresponsive to them most of the time. As a result, avoiders develop a compulsively self-reliant orientation to life. In reality, they want intimate relationships just as much as everyone else, but they self-protectively suppress their attachment needs because they see great danger in getting too close to others. They fear rejection, abandonment and betrayal; or, when their original caregivers repeatedly violated their boundaries, they fear that they’ll be engulfed, smothered, and robbed of their freedom.
I think that what anyone in your situation needs to do first is to think honestly about whether or not they really can handle the challenges of being in a relationship with an avoidant type. If your partner’s need for distance triggers intense fears of rejection or abandonment in you, then you may have to accept that the difficulties are too daunting, and that it may be wiser to look for a partner with whom you can feel more secure. On the other hand, about 25 percent of the population have avoidant styles, and a great many are able to be in relationships that work for both partners, so there’s no need to see the situation as inherently unworkable.
Since you love your boyfriend and have already come to the conclusion that you’re up for the challenges of being in a relationship with him, the main thing to remember is that the same qualities of respect, honesty and kindness are just as important here as they are in any relationship. You may have to put special emphasis on patience. When he withdraws, don’t turn that into a fight. Don’t argue with him about his need for space; instead, remind yourself that it doesn’t mean he’s not interested, just that his wiring is different from yours. He wants to be loved, respected and understood just as much as you do. The basic motive for his distancing behavior isn’t lack of love, but fear – fear that he may not even be aware that he feels. Don’t do anything that will make him more fearful: don’t push or pressure him. Don’t make demands or lash out in anger.
Many avoidant types tend to get lost in their heads and overthink things, so when you’re with him, focus on doing activities together, such as hiking or going to sports events. Sharing experiences together will make it more likely that you’ll both be in the present, and that in turn may help him to be able to relax and to be available to connect with you.
The good news is that our attachment styles aren’t unchangeable. When avoidant types get into relationships with secure types, over time they can begin to realize that they’re safe in the relationship and that intimacy will not cause them the same pain they experienced as children. When that happens, their attachment systems can begin to rewire themselves and they can move in a more secure direction.