Practical Tips: My Partner is Avoidant
Differences in attachment styles (secure, avoidant, anxious, disorganized) are a common reason couples find themselves struggling in their relationship. These differences can be quite painful and difficult to work with. There are strategies, though, for working through these differences if you and your partner are motivated and willing to do some internal work and to start the growth process of moving from a child-like psychology into an adult psychology.
A client recently asked me for ideas on how to be in relationship with someone who has an avoidant attachment style, how to cope with feeling hurt and lonely, and how to communicate difficult feelings. Here is my response:
I'm a big fan of this approach over the long-term: 1) Accept your partner exactly as they are, including their attachment style; 2) Take 100% responsibility for your feelings of hurt and loneliness, and care for these feelings, by allowing yourself to feel them and soothing yourself when those feelings come up; 3) Identify your needs and make specific requests, for example, "I'm feeling lonely. I'd love to spend 10 minutes sitting next to you quietly on the couch. Do you have time for this today?" or "I'm feeling lonely. I'd really like a hug. Do you have time for that today?" 4) Over time, see what your partner does and how they respond to these requests, and decide whether or not you can live with it.
In terms of coping with an avoidant attachment style: 1) don't take it personally; 2) see above; 3) bring it to couples therapy for discussion/strategizing; 4) study your own attachment style and how it is influencing your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, behaviors, impulses.
In terms of resources, "Attached" by Levine and Heller includes some good information on attachment styles, although I think it has an unfortunate bias against people with avoidant attachment styles.
In terms of words and phrases, you can communicate your thoughts and feelings perfectly and still feel hurt and alone. When it comes to communicating thoughts and feelings, I think the words and phrases are important, but they are less important than your own internal process. Your internal process involves: 1) getting clear with yourself on what your thoughts and feelings are; 2) getting clear with yourself what the needs are underlying those thoughts and feelings; 3) getting clear with yourself what your role is in those thoughts and feelings and needs, and what your partner's role is in those thoughts and feelings and needs. All of this happens through time and self-reflection. Once you are clear on these things within yourself, I think the words and phrases tend to come more naturally. Simple is good: "I feel [x]. I'd like [x] from you. Is that possible?"
Loneliness is its own special monster that I think all of us are grappling with, just with more or less awareness. I wonder about coming to terms with it, questioning its validity when it overtakes you, and making sure you don't give your partner too much responsibility for solving your feelings of loneliness.
About the Author
Diana Calvo is a Denver couples therapist. She provides professional support to couples in all stages of relationship and has experience working with the many difficult issues couples are faced with. Diana offers premarital counseling, couples therapy, discernment counseling, and divorce counseling services to Boulder, CO and Denver, CO. All gender identities, sexual orientations, and relationship styles are welcome.