Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) a Dismissive Partner
by Jeb Kinnison
My previous book on finding a good partner by understanding attachment types (Bad Boyfriends: Using Attachment Theory to Avoid Mr. (or Ms.) Wrong and Make You a Better Partner) brought lots of readers to the JebKinnison web site, where the most asked-about topic was dealing with avoidant lovers and spouses. There are many readers in troubled marriages now who are looking for help, as well as people already invested in a relationship short of marriage who’d like help deciding if they should stick with it.
The reason why there is so much interest is the large number of people in relationships with Avoidants who struggle with their lack of responsiveness and inability to tolerate real intimacy. Relationships between an Avoidant and a partner of another attachment type are the largest group of unhappy relationships, and people who love their partners and who may have started families and had children with an Avoidant will work very hard to try to make their relationships work better, out of love for their partner and children as well as their own happiness. And it’s also true that the Avoidants in these relationships are more than likely unhappy with the situation as well–retreating into their shells and feeling harassed for being asked to respond with positive feeling when they have little to give.
The other reason why so many people are looking for help on this topic is that it is an almost impossible problem. Couples counsellors rarely have the time or knowledge to work with an Avoidant and will often advise the spouse to give up on a Dismissive, especially, whose lack of responsiveness looks like cruelty or contempt (and sometimes it is!) Yet there is some hope–though it may take years and require educating the Avoidant on the patterns of good couples communication, if both partners want to change their patterns toward more secure and satisfying models, it can be done.
How can you tell if your partner is avoidant? Does your partner:
*Seem not to care how you feel?
*Frequently fail to respond to direct questions or text messages?
*Accuse you of being too needy or codependent?
*Talk of some past lover as ideal and compare you to them?
*Act coldly toward your children and the needy?
*Remind you that he or she would be fine without you?
*Withhold sex or affection as punishment?
If that sounds familiar, then your partner is likely avoidant. At about 25% of the population, Avoidants have shorter, more troubled relationships, and tend to divorce more frequently and divorce again if remarried.
What can be done? Individual therapy for the motivated Avoidant can move their default attachment style toward security, and to the extent that problems have been made worse by an overly clingy and demanding anxious-preoccupied partner, therapy can help there, as well. Insecure partners who read and absorb the lessons of these books will have a head start on noticing and restraining themselves when they are slipping into an unsatisfying communications pattern, and an intellectual understanding of the bad patterns is a step toward unlearning them.
Not all difficult Avoidants can be reformed; that depends on both partners, the depth of their problems, and their motivation and ability to change over time. But many troubled marriages and relationships can be greatly improved, and the people in them can learn to be happier, with even modest improvements in understanding how they can best communicate support for each other.
For those reading who have not read Bad Boyfriends or are less familiar with attachment types, a beefed-up section on attachment theory and attachment types from Bad Boyfriends is included. Regular readers of the Jeb Kinnison site will find edited versions of some relevant material previously posted there.