How to love a fearful-avoidant partner
April 1, 2015 7:08 AM   Subscribe

I've seen these questions about how to change a fearful-avoidant attachment style, but I can't find any information on how to help a partner who is fearful-avoidant feel loved and secure.

The most obvious answer is "be consistent, give the other person time to feel secure, don't leave", but how do you get around the unequal dynamic created by essentially committing to a relationship when the other person can't commit themselves? What do you do when a person periodically begs you not to leave, but leaves and comes back repeatedly? Is there any way at all to give them the love they need while making clear you're not doing it because you don't believe you can do "better", but because you actually love them and you know they're not having these problems to hurt you? How do you tell them their behavior is hurting you without it feeling to them like a confirmation of every awful thing they already believe about themselves?

Is there literature on these issues I'm not finding? (The vast majority of stuff I've seen about trying to love avoidant partners deals with dismissive-avoidant, which is of very limited help because the self-concept and behavioral patterns are so different.) If you are someone who either has or has had a fearful-avoidant attachment style, what are things that people have done that have helped you? Are there ways that people have been able to be sensitive to your needs without communicating a lack of self-respect? If you have managed to have a successful relationship with a fearful-avoidant partner, how have you done it? Any tips, resources, personal stories, etc. would be greatly appreciated.

Throwaway: fearfulavoidantmefi at gmail dot com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
What do you do when a person periodically begs you not to leave, but leaves and comes back repeatedly?

Well first: "I want to be with you. If you want to be with me I need you to do so. If you keep leaving, I won't take you back." That's not about soothing their avoiding, sure; it's about your own mental health and not putting up with horseshit.

Second, more or less verbatim something that happened:

Him: "I love you."
Me: "I love you too but--"
"Where am I right now?"
"On the sofa?"
"I'm here. With you. I could be anywhere else."
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:19 AM on April 1, 2015 [13 favorites]

What do you do when a person periodically begs you not to leave, but leaves and comes back repeatedly?

End the relationship, as that person is not in a good space to be in a committed relationship.

I know there is some pressure to accept and help with issues that have names, but just because this is a named thing (but, are we sure it is correctly labelled here, and not better termed a personality disorder?) does not mean it is an acceptable thing to put up with in an intimate relationship.

He is behaving poorly. It does not matter what the reasons behind it are. He is apparently not able to have a healthy relationship with you. You cannot "fix" it with "the love they need." You can't "get around" the unequal dynamic because it...exists. You are offering a stable commitment and he is offering games and emotionally abusive nonsense.

Tell him his behaviour is hurting you and let the chips fall where they may. He may seek help and actively start working towards fixing this. He may not, in which case, you can let him leave you so you are free to find yourself a healthy, functional partnership.
posted by kmennie at 8:49 AM on April 1, 2015 [26 favorites]

What do you do when a person periodically begs you not to leave, but leaves and comes back repeatedly?

Set boundaries over what behavior you will not accept, and make it clear that you are not the only - or primary! - person who needs to work on this issue. Their need for security and reassurance - that's coming from inside the house, so to speak, and you can't fix it.
posted by rtha at 9:01 AM on April 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

You're really asking about how to do therapy on your partner, and the answer is, "You can't." Sure, there are some things you can help your partner change, and I know that there is a strain of thinking that tries to argue that therapists are just "paid friends," but the whole point of a therapist in a situation like this is that they are getting paid to deal with the shit that it is not appropriate to ask a partner to deal face. The kind of behavior you're talking about is really untenable in a stable relationship. I don't see any way you could just wait it out.
posted by OmieWise at 9:56 AM on April 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

So first, making a verbal commitment not to leave before a certain period can help. Like, start small if it's a new relationship: "I am committing to giving this relationship three months." And then genuinely do it, for those three months do not even entertain the thought of breakup. And then maybe say "I am committing to giving this relationship another six months." You're basically letting them know that they are safe for that period of time, while still allowing yourself the freedom not to be trapped into an incredibly long commitment - and also not making indefinite commitments that the other person knows you can't really possibly mean.
posted by corb at 10:05 AM on April 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

hey, I was diagnosed with disorganized attachment (yep, *that* one) but after 2.5 years with my partner I'm more secure-ish. I am guessing disorganized attachment is similar to fearful-avoidant, since closeness brought me extreme C-PTSD flashbacks, but pulling away also triggered me. It was kind of a nightmare. I made a lot of hurtful mistakes in my dating life as a result.

Honestly at the end of the day, it was my choice to stay, to face my fears, to be mindful of my feelings and my triggers, to learn to trust and so on. Although in my case with my fiance I did not leave and return repeatedly. (I had done that in other relationships though.) I told myself I only get one time to leave, with no takebacks, so if I left I would be for a good reason, and it would be for good. That was my limit that I set for myself.

My fiance's temperament was very helpful though. He is very sensitive to my feelings, sometimes he knows what I'm feeling before I do, he's validating, knows what to say when I'm upset, he doesn't judge how I feel, and so on. He trusts me and gives me space, but also likes a lot of closeness. He is very stable and never gave mixed messages. I've learned over time that I can share my feelings with him, that it feels good, and I'm accepted as I am.

Early on in our relationship (first 4 months) I was doing a lot of push-pull, hot-cold behavior and one day he told me, with tears in his throat, that he wasn't sure he could live like this, he was in such pain and confusion with me. He wasn't angry. He didn't tell me to change. He didn't give me ultimatums. He didn't even say he was thinking of leaving. He just expressed his pain in the most sincere and vulnerable way I've ever seen. He explained very clearly how I had just shown a lot of closeness and then in the blink of an eye just iced him out. By that point I had done enough therapy to own my own shit. It shocked me so much to see that I was causing him this much pain. That I was so selfishly involved in my own emotional machinations that I didn't even consider how it felt for him. I doubled down on my efforts to own up and mindfully feel all my terror and take the risk to just trust. I can tell you this is one of the hardest things I've ever done. And it took a while. A few times I flubbed up, like when my fiance was opening up and sharing himself and I shut him down out of my fear of vulnerability. He again showed his hurt (which triggered me of course but I used all my therapy tools to ride it out) and I apologized and made amends. Eventually I kind of rose up to meet him.

These days we look back on those early months and laugh. Remember when? It seems so different now.

So. His love for me was 100% consistent. And he reacted like a normal person - held his boundaries when appropriate, and showed his hurt when appropriate. But never in a way that made me think our relationship was on the line. It made me woman up.

That's all I could suggest to you. The rest is your partner's decision. You can be the most perfect person but if they are not ready to face their deepest fears, they are not ready, and you'll just have to accept them as-is and not try to change them. So they'll either settle down, or they won't, and you'll live with that unequal push-pull thing until they do finally settle down, if at all.

You could tell them "knock it off with the leaving/going already, you don't have to leave, if you need space now or you're afraid or triggered just tell me, that's cool, you can get mental headspace without it being over between us" and so on. Like, don't act like their going/leaving doesn't have an impact on you, but the impact is not "I'm dumping you" it's more like "could you not? thanks"

In the end, I must stress, you cannot control or change this person. I did 4+ years of therapy before I met my now fiance, and it was all by choice, by my own determination to grow.
posted by serenity soonish at 10:06 AM on April 1, 2015 [20 favorites]

Focus on what your needs are rather than his issues. State your needs. Accept that he may or may not be able to meet your needs. If you are unhappy leave. You can't fix his issues, and it will make you unhappy if you try. It's set up so that it sometimes seems that maybe you can fix someone else's problems if you try hard enough and then when you succeed you and they will be really happy and their happiness will feel extra special because it owes to you. That's not how it is though. Tolerate his problems to the extent that it works for you and if it's not working jump ship.
posted by mermily at 10:07 AM on April 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm fearful-avoidant. I don't demand my partner be there for me constantly and then leave whenever I want. I don't demand proof of my partner's love so much that it is stifling and overbearing. If my partner tells me that something I'm doing is causing him suffering, I don't hold him responsible for any snow-balling anxieties I may have in response. In short: I don't force my partner to be responsible for my anxieties.

It is one thing to want to feel loved and protected and safe; it's another thing to recognize that, due to one's own flawed mental infrastructure, one struggles to feel such a way even when it is totally appropriate to do so; and it is a-whole-nother thing to recognize one struggles in such a way then take that to mean someone else, rather than oneself, has to manage it.

If you are someone who either has or has had a fearful-avoidant attachment style, what are things that people have done that have helped you?

The absolutely most important thing that someone did for me was this: they were my therapist for three years. That's what I needed, therapy. That's what is required here, your partner recognizing that there is something problematic in his ways of interacting with loved ones and seeking help in addressing that. There is nothing my partner could have done--you can't be a therapist and a romantic partner at the same time, and there is nothing a romantic partner can do that, on its own, will ever be enough to silence the raging mental beasts of abandonment and fear. If someone's mind is broken so they cannot interpret loving interaction as safe, then there's no amount of loving interaction you can give them that will make them feel safe. The problem has to do with their insides, not the loving interactions you're providing.

In therapy, I learned a lot of things that helped me open up to my romantic partner. I learned healthy and meaningful ways to express my anxieties, to present myself and my needs to my partner. I also learned how to interact with my partner's needs and how to cope with situations of doubt and uncertainty. That was my work to do, not my partner's. I came home from therapy with certain tools (tools like requests I could make, etc). My partner couldn't have given me those tools because, again, he's not my therapist. All he could do, in light of his own boundaries and needs, is listen to my requests, express whatever concerns with them he had, and work with me to meet them to the extent that he could.

This is my way of saying: your goal is noble, and I admire you for being so loving and compassionate. But, there are some problems that compassionate love cannot solve. This is one of them. Your partner needs to do what they need to do to help themselves. But it is wrong for them to believe that there is something you can do to make them feel loved and safe--again, the problem is coming from inside their mind, not from outside. And it is wrong for you to believe that there is something you can do that can compensate for or make up for their emotional struggles. If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, tired, frustrated--if you have a growing sense that, in light of your partner's needs, your needs are not being met, please pay attention to that feeling. That feeling is important. It is telling you about what your needs are, in light of your partner's problems. It is something you can use to recognize what your boundaries are, what you are willing to put up with, and what you aren't. Those feelings that are welling up are an indication that the problem, here, is how you are being treated. And that's something that matters and deserves your attention, independent of whatever is going on with your partner's attachment style.

I am worthy of love; I am worthy of love, despite my emotional issues. But no one is worthy of trampling over someone else. No one's emotional issues make their emotions more important than their romantic partner's. No one, in a relationship, should feel like their relationship is one-sided, focused solely on the other's needs and not their own. And no one in need of therapy has ever been made better by their partner bending over backwards, ignoring their own needs, allowing themselves to be trampled. The best thing you can do for yourself, for your relationship, and for your partner is to make sure that you are being taken care of in this relationship, that your boundaries are being maintained, that your needs are getting just as much attention and care as theirs.
posted by meese at 10:07 AM on April 1, 2015 [15 favorites]

So first, making a verbal commitment not to leave before a certain period can help.

Speaking as someone who is terrified of losing a relationship when I am in one, this will absolutely not help. All it does is kick the insecurity can down the road for X period of time. Yeah, okay, the next sixty days are going to be good.. and then I am going to spend the time leading up to your deadline freaking the fuck out because maybe you'll leave and there's totally evidence that you'll leave because there was that time when I made dinner and you said "it's nice" and who says nice it was great and obviously you don't love me anymore.

Set your boundaries, maintain your boundaries, and both show and tell your partner how much you love them. Beyond that there is nothing you can do.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:25 AM on April 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

My partner helped me a lot with this. He told me that he would not leave unilaterally, that it would always be a discussion. I would always know that it was coming, and we would come to a consensus if it needed to end.

I don't know if you're willing to make that commitment, but that made all the difference to me.
posted by 3491again at 5:52 PM on April 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

The book Hold Me Tight could be useful. Despite the cheesy title, it is based on emotion-focused couples therapy, which is founded on attachment theory.
posted by Frenchy67 at 7:40 AM on April 2, 2015

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