The Anxious-Avoidant Trap in Dating

March 10, 2016

I’m pleased to publish a guest post today from one of my coaching clients. She’s been through some difficult situations but has worked hard on her own stuff and she has a lot to offer. I feel certain she will find her soulmate with aggressive filtering and continued self-development. Many thanks to her for writing this to benefit other HUSsies. 

anxious women with avoidant menThe Anxious-Avoidant Trap: An Anecdotal Case Study

“I miss my space and my separateness. I don’t want you involved with or even just aware of everything in my life, all the time. I feel as though my control over my life and privacy has been seriously threatened by this relationship. I thought I was more ready for this kind of commitment right now than I turned out to be.”

Those words were the smoking gun to me that the guy who ended our relationship late last year had an Avoidant attachment style (for a primer on Attachment Theory, if you’re unfamiliar, click here). I hadn’t believed it during the relationship, but I guess if I were paying closer attention instead of giving in to wishful thinking, I could have seen it.

I have an Anxious attachment style. That meant that the two of us did a distancing-coming closer dance known as “the Anxious-Avoidant trap.” I wanted more closeness, he wanted more space. Instances of closeness led to either withdrawal or just “going through the motions” on his part, while generating a desire for more closeness on my part.

Not only that, but every time he distanced himself, and every time I wanted the things that usually define couples (going to social events together, spending a few nights a week together, sex, meeting family, etc.) but he didn’t want them, I blamed myself for wanting them in the first place, figuring that it was just me being needy. I initiated pretty much everything (which I now look back on as a mistake). My views of the relationship remained rosy the entire way through because I discounted every red flag as being my fault or just some small thing I was worrying unnecessarily about. So, subtracting all of the negative things as “stuff I shouldn’t worry or overreact about” left only positive examples and memories.

What I share below are excerpts from the book Attached on the theory of what dating an Avoidant when you are Anxious looks like, applied to my own past case. My hope is that these examples will prove instructive to other Anxious attachers (or even Secure ones) about what this dynamic looks like in practice.

1. The Avoidant sends mixed signals.

This is probably why I stayed in this relationship as long as I did. For every moment in which my ex did something that demonstrated distancing behavior or which just plain hurt me, he also did something extremely cute and nice. As someone who has struggled to maintain relationships, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find another one in which a guy even did any cute and nice things. So, if one moment, he was saying, “I feel very connected to you, you mean so much to me” but the next moment saying, “I don’t want to make any promises about the relationship,” I latched onto the nice one, because that’s the one I wanted to believe.

One minute, he’d say, “You’re so beautiful,” but then the same evening say he’d rather just hang out and watch a TV show with me than have sex (and that day being the only day we were going to see each other the whole week). One minute, he’d say, “I think this could be a serious LTR,” but then he’d get cold feet as long-term commitment questions actually started cropping up.

He’s a lawyer who works a lot and would say, “I always want to make time to see you, even though my job is really demanding” but then let it be on me to initiate most of the hanging-out and suggested it would be impossible to see each other more than once or twice a week (twice was our absolute maximum).

He’d agree to be exclusive and even say “I feel really good about us,” but then later when I’d express how happy I was that were exclusive, he’d say, “Yeah, I mean, none of the other girls I was seeing were that interesting at the time anyways, so I figured, ‘Sure, why not, this isn’t a big ask of me’.”

2. The Avoidant devalues you.

Sometimes, he’d make jokes that were just a little more offensive to me than they were funny, but these instances were so small that I often let them go. I tried going vegan around this time in my life, and we went to a restaurant at one point where I’d asked the waiter to hold the sour cream, but they accidentally put sour cream in it anyways. I wound up just eating it because it was one instance. The next time we went out to dinner and I wanted to pick a place with vegan options, he said, “Whatever, you’re not even really a vegan! You ate sour cream last week. You can just do it again.”

He’d also quiz me or judge me sometimes for things I might like doing, like where I had been eating over the last month (“I’d never gothere, that’s so unhealthy!”) or where I might want us to go on a night out (“I really hope you don’t want to go to that bar, it’s so touristy and cliche”).

3. The Avoidant uses distancing strategies, emotional and/or physical.

We had sex about once a week, and he often found excuses not to, when I wanted to do it a little more often than that. Instead, he’d say, “I’m out of condoms’ (but not suggest buying more), or “I have too much work to do and don’t have time.” I was frustrated, but I apologized every single one of these times for thinking that sex could be more important than other things that were clearly important to him.

He also insisted most of the time that we not sleep in the same bed, because it was uncomfortable to him. I could understand this, but I talked to all of my friends in serious relationships now, and they all said that even if they felt weird about getting used to a new person in the bed at first, they all made an effort because they all cared enough about their SO to want to do it. But the small sliver of the time we did share a bed was wonderful, so I let this override that other 80% in my mind.

4. The Avoidant emphasizes boundaries in the relationship.

These were often just implied instead of stated, but they were there nonetheless. One of his hobbies was collecting vintage comic books, and I thought he was kind of adorably nerdy about how much loved them. I wanted to see if I could share that hobby with him, so I asked if I could read some of them sometime, and he said, “No! I only even touch mine with gloves and I don’t think I could allow another person to touch them, too.”

We had no mixed or mutual friends. He introduced me to his friends early on, but after that introduction, I never saw them again and he hardly ever talked about them. One of his friends (whom I had met) invited the both of us as a couple to his Halloween party, and my ex had even talked about us going, but then when push came to shove, he just wound up deciding to go by himself. We went that whole weekend without seeing each other. I let this go because I figured he just needed space and that was normal, and I didn’t want to rock the boat by pushing too many issues.

My friends in serious relationships would tell me sometimes, “Oh yeah, my boyfriend and I got a group of each of our sets of friends together and went out for brunch,” or “Yeah, my boyfriend really took an interest in suggesting we invite my friends to things so he could get to know the important people in my life better,” to which my flabbergasted response was always, “That’s something that boyfriends do? I’ve never had a boyfriend do that, including my current one.”

5. The Avoidant has an unrealistically romantic view of what a relationship should be.

I got sucked into believing he wasn’t Avoidant because he talked so much about wanting love and wanting a relationship. He idealized romance. But I’m not sure he really knew what an actual relationship entails, and our first fight was our last fight (I wanted to work through it, he didn’t). During our breakup, he said, “I bet I wouldn’t feel trapped or obligated with the right girl. If I was really in love enough, I’d want to let her in.”

Even before we broke up, we’d sometimes watch TV shows involving relationships, and any time a character had a disagreement of any kind (even solvable ones, like one partner in a live-together situation being annoyed that the other partner leaves too many clothes on the floor), his reaction was, “Well clearly, they’re not right for each other! I’m shocked they keep trying to make it work and haven’t already broken up. How are they still together, a few months later?”

6. The Avoidant has difficulty talking about what’s going on between you.

Out of all the things, though, that really truly ended our relationship, the biggest one is that everything he said during the breakup about independence and feeling trapped and privacy was the first time I’d heard any of it from him.

At all other times, he did things that suggested distance, but never once came out and said, “Hey, I think this is just too much closeness for me, could we do some things to ensure I get the space I need?” In fact, he went out of his way to do even more affectionate things to convince himself and me that it was going well rather than confront his feelings.

I had even asked him at times when it seemed like he was a bit distant, “Is everything okay? Is something about us making you uncomfortable, or is there anything we need to address?” and he said, “Everything is okay, it’s just that I’m swamped at work,” or “I’m just not feeling very talkative,” etc.

So those are my takeaways. I think I stayed in this as long as I did because each adorable thing he did was enough to cancel out each red flag along the way to me, so the impression I had was intentionally much rosier than reality. I’d like to try and not make that mistake again, and I hope other people here don’t, as well.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Note from Susan: 
Do you have a story or point of view that you think might be helpful to other readers? I welcome guest posts! Shoot me an email via the Contact page and we can discuss.