Most of us know our attachment styles by now — if you’re someone with avoidant attachment, there’s a good chance you’re aware of it by now. However, self-awareness is always only the first step, as avoidants know well — you know why you feel the urge to pull away or isolate, but that doesn’t mean the impulse goes away.
So once you have that knowledge, what do you do with it? How do know when you genuinely need space or if a partner really isn’t compatible with you, and when your attachment issues are erroneously trying to keep you safe? Figuring that out is a long and constant process on the journey to forming a secure attachment style, but here are some questions I suggest you ask yourself to help discern whether the issue is with your relationship or with your attachment style.
What’s the story you’re telling yourself?
When our thoughts are racing — or percolating in the backs of our minds all day while we go about our business — we may not necessarily notice their exact content and tone, but just absorb their overall feeling. An exercise to help you get some clarity on what’s going on for you personally and how to relate to it: set a timer for five minutes and free write, either by hand or in a digital document, about what you’re feeling and thinking when it comes to this situation with your partner. (Freewriting, here, means writing nonstop as much as possible: no pausing, editing, or changing what you wrote.) If you want to keep going after five minutes, feel free!
After five minutes is up, read your thoughts back to yourself. Is there anything you notice about the overall trend of your thoughts? Is it one that’s absolute, extreme, or melodramatic? Does it have words like “always” or “never” in it? Is it one in which you, your partner, or both of you are making a sweeping decision or believing a generalization? For instance, if your partner has invited you to a weekend trip with their friends during a very busy season at your job, you may be thinking intellectually “I’m too busy and overwhelmed to go on this trip,” but the deeper story you’re telling yourself in the less conscious parts of your brain might be something closer to “My partner always wants all of my time outside work, and never understands that I need time to recharge. It’ll be a huge fight if I say I can’t go — I can’t deal with this, it’s too much pressure.”
What assumptions are you making?
In the above example, the story this person is telling themselves about their partner’s perceived demands on them isn’t categorically wrong or bad. We all have narratives about how relationships we tend to organize our lives around, and they’re deeply related to our attachment systems. What is harmful is when we allow those narratives to go unquestioned, and crystallize into our take on a current situation in the form of an assumption.
The person who feels too busy to go on the weekend trip might allow this assumption to form unchecked. This can also build into an avalanche of related assumptions – “My partner wants me to spend time with her anytime I’m not at work” could turn into “she’s going to resent me if I say I can’t come” or “her friends will think I don’t care about her because I’m not there.” The core fear of an avoidantly attached person — contrary to popular belief — is the fear of letting someone else down or failing them. It’s easy for these assumptions to snowball right into this fear, and for the avoidant person to start deciding “I can’t possibly live up to this person’s expectations in the relationship, they want more than I’m available for, and I’m going to let them down — I should just call it quits.”
To avoid falling down this avoidant rabbit hole, pay attention to where assumptions are being made, and backtrack through your thought process as much as possible to see where you’ve tried to fill in information that you don’t actually have. Do you actually know that your partner will resent you? It’s entirely possible that they’ll actually be thrilled to have one on one time with their friends, and didn’t want to hurt your feelings by not inviting you — or that her friends will be delighted to spend a relaxing weekend without having to make conversation with a new person. If you remove your assumptions from the situation and see that the problem lessens or disappears, it’s a likely sign that your avoidant attachment may be seeing problems where there aren’t any.
What would happen if you decided to wait and see?
One of the harmful ways avoidant attachment can manifest itself in relationships is the strong internal urge to take action — usually the specific action of pulling away or cutting someone off. This is “protest behavior,” which isn’t unique to avoidant attachment. Anxiously attached protest behavior might look like calling ten times in a row if you’re worried you’re being ignored or picking a fight to feel important to your partner and like the focus of attention. Protest behavior for avoidants looks like backing away from the relationship, either permanently or temporarily (and can be triggered by anxious protest behavior, and vice versa!).
While protest behavior is common in general, the way that avoidants use it particularly can be hard to walk back — the impulse is often to break up, even if it’s intended to be for the good of the other partner, and that can be irreversible. For that reason, one of the most effective strategies in discerning and addressing avoidant triggers is, frustratingly, simply to wait. The strong, sudden feeling that you and your partner will never work out and you should just break up now could be based in your wise mind and bear out over time as true; or it could be a momentary impulse because something has triggered your attachment issues. If it’s the latter, the feeling will fade as you move through the trigger and regulate. Try asking yourself when you’re feeling super activated and want to pull away “can I wait and see on this? For how long?” Could you make a bargain with yourself for a future time that you’ll reassess this issue? Could you wait, in this example, until after the weekend trip is over, and see if you still feel as strongly about the issue?