One of the main issues that brings couples to couples therapy is issues with their communication. Communication is one of the most beautiful tools we get to use, but it's also one of the most challenging if we don't know what healthy communication looks like. What many don't know is that our attachment styles affect the way we communicate to our partner.
If your partner has avoidant attachment style, communicating with them may feel like you're coming up against a brick wall. But it's important to remember that their avoidant communication style once served a purpose; it protected them. It offered them a sense of safety when chaos was all around them.
Thanks to the work of The Attachment Project, we're going to learn about communicating with your avoidant partner and how to create a stable, safe connection when there seems to be constant breakdown in communication.
Communication Style of Avoidant Attachment
People with avoidant attachment style prefer to keep people at arm's length. They have difficulty building emotional closeness with someone, which makes the majority of their relationships feel pretty surface level. When they feel threatened in any way (like during an argument, misunderstanding, or disagreement), they use what's called "deactivating coping strategies", which basically means they shut down. They suppress their real emotions so that they don't have to feel uncomfortable feelings, like anxiety, pain, or sadness. When they shut down, they may appear like they're being cold and callous to their partner, but remember, this is subconscious for someone with avoidant attachment. They do care, but they were taught from an early age that in order to protect themselves, they had to shut down.
When someone with avoidant attachment is in a threatening situation, they may:
Stop physical contact
Refuse to talk about the issue
Put their guard up (i.e. become defensive)
Start thinking in black and white ("So it's all my fault, right?")
Communicating with someone who has avoidant attachment can be challenging when they're triggered, but it's possible to adapt your communication style to meet their attachment needs. Let's talk about that, next!
Tips for Avoidant Attachment Communication
Use Gentle Communication - research has proven that when we gently talk to our partner, even in the midst of their distress, we actually help them self-regulate. Ways to use gentle communication could be by downplaying how serious the issue is (this is different from invalidating your partner. When we downplay the situation, we remind them that what they're experiencing is nothing they can't get through, and that we're right there with them), validating your partner's emotions, talking about their positive traits to them, and showing positive feelings.
Don't Guilt Trip Your Partner - when we guilt trip someone, we're trying to get them to change by using a triggering feeling, guilt, to get them to that change point. This is not an effective way to communicate with a partner of any attachment style, but specifically a person with avoidant attachment. When we guilt trip, it can look like sulking, pouting, crying, or even saying to our partner, "if you love me, you'll change." People with avoidant attachment respond to guilt trips with resistance and may experience less motivation to change.
First, self-regulate. Then, communicate - It's hard for us to have an effective conversation with our avoidant partner if we're dysregulated. Our dysregulation can trigger our avoidant partner even more. The first step is to regulate ourselves. Identifying your own emotional reactions to your own triggers is important so as to not trigger your partner's avoidant attachment style.
Assume the Best - if your partner starts to shut down, your first thoughts may go to, "they don't care about me", they're pushing me away", or "they close out everyone they love." In these moments, it can be difficult to remember that our partner is not intentionally doing this to us; they're resorting to these behaviors because it was programed in them in order to survive in childhood. If you're able to remind yourself that your partner's intentions are good, it can help you approach the conversation with empathy and compassion.
Make Them Feel Safe - safety is everything for insecure attachment styles. Someone with an avoidant attachment style felt as though they couldn't depend on others at a young age, causing them to feel like their problems don't matter. To create a culture of safety in your relationship, listening to them when they open up goes a long, long way. Another way to make an avoidant attacher feel safe is by creating boundaries. Boundaries are healthy and necessary in every relationship, and they help make relationships feel predictable. Potential boundaries in relationships with avoidant attachers could be created around physical affection, taking ownership of your own feelings and emotions, waiting to communicate until you're both calm, and talking about issues when they come up.
Avoid Criticizing Your Partner - In order to effectively communicate, we have to leave criticism behind. Criticizing someone with avoidant attachment activates their avoidant attachment traits, causing them to withdraw or disengage from the conversation. Leave "You" statements behind, and only use "I" statements. For example, instead of saying, "You never clean up after yourself", you could say, "I feel annoyed when our house is a mess."
Give Your Partner Space, If Necessary - we've all been there: sometimes, we just need a time out from our person. That's completely okay. Partners who have avoidant attachment may need some time alone during or right after a conversation in which they feel threatened, but this need can also be a source of shame for them. When in a disagreement, ask if your partner needs some space. This validates their feelings and lets them know you're taking how they might be feeling into consideration.
Instrumental Support > Emotional Support - people with avoidant attachment thrive off of receiving instrumental support over emotional support because it's a type of support that doesn't make them feel like they're being dependent on their partner. Instrumental support means offering tangible assistance, like problem-solving, using resources, or offering your help with something. In the real world, this could look like offering to cook dinner if you know your avoidant attached partner had a bad day, or providing financial support.
Our attachment styles affect every aspect of our lives, especially our relationships with others. Even though avoidant attachers have a difficult time communicating in relationships, it's still possible to create a sense of safety and security within the relationship when they feel threatened. And remember, if they shut down, don't take it personally. When they were a child, they had to shut down in order to survive.
We hope this was helpful for you to learn how to create healthy communication and a safe relationship with avoidant partners.
The Attachment Project. (2022). How to communicate with an avoidant partner. https://www.attachmentproject.com/blog/communicate-with-avoidant-partner/
At Root Counseling, we know how attachment styles affect relationships, and we're passionate about helping couples of all attachment styles create a culture of safety within their relationships. If you're interested in scheduling an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.