Avoidant partners tend to create distance and have trouble with communication in romantic relationships. This can make their partners feel frustrated, hurt, confused, or abandoned.
Relationships of any kind take work and compromise — and having an avoidant partner can bring a specific set of challenges.
People may show avoidance behaviors in a relationship for many reasons. They often date back to a person’s early relationship dynamics and attachment style.
Avoidant attachment may come from having strict, emotionally distant, neglectful, or dismissive caregivers. This can lead to the person having trouble with physical and emotional intimacy.
Though avoidant partners might not seem as emotionally available or connected as others, their emotions and need for connection are often the same as anyone else. With some understanding and support, it’s possible for avoidant partners to open up and create greater emotional intimacy.
We spoke with relationship experts to learn about ways you can increase your connection with an avoidant partner.
Change is possible, but it may not happen overnight.
Your partner has learned that being avoidant is necessary for their survival, says Dr. Heather Ambrose, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“It is important to give them time to learn how to express themselves in ways that have not been safe for them to do so before,” she says.
Your avoidant partner might have some different values and thought processes than you. Understanding their perspective can help you meet in the middle.
If possible, try to accept your partner as they are. When they feel safe to be themselves, you will find that your ability to communicate and the level of intimacy will increase, says Ambrose.
If your partner comes from a culture where they don’t share feelings, your partner may express feelings in other ways — and that’s OK. Ask how they would like you to convey your feelings to them, says Ambrose.
You may also find it helpful to learn each other’s love language, as they may place different amounts of value to you on the following types of connection:
- words of affirmation
- quality time
- physical touch
- acts of service or practical support
- receiving gifts
As children, avoidant partners likely had to learn how to be seen as less “needy” in order to keep caregivers around, says Dr. Krista Jordan, a national board certified psychologist who specializes in attachment in Austin, Texas.
As such, your partner may not put their needs out there, and they may get confused when you do, she says. “In their world, people are supposed to take care of themselves. They generally enjoy other people and like to date, but they don’t understand the idea of mutual dependency.”
With this knowledge, you can try to widen your support network and self-soothe at times.
It can be frustrating when you don’t feel validated or supported. With that said, try to avoid the temptation to control their behaviors to get your needs met, as it could backfire.
“Avoidant partners also have a tendency to be sensitive around feeling controlled by others because they are used to so much independence,” says Jordan.
Healthy boundaries are the cornerstone of any successful relationship.
Avoidant partners often require some alone time each day, which may be a source of shame. If you beat them to it and offer the time alone first, it can help them feel more accepted, says Jordan.
“For example, saying ‘hey, why don’t you spend some time in the park after dinner and I will go do my own thing for a bit’ can make them feel validated for their solitary leanings,” she says.
Avoidant partners may have spent much of their childhood alone, so they may get lost in their work, projects, or hobbies, says Jordan. “When you pop in and start conversing, it can take them a minute to recalibrate. You may see them startle or look annoyed.”
Jordan says you may find it helpful to:
- avoid calling their name from another room
- avoid interrupting them in the middle of a flow
- give them a transition period from being alone to being social
If possible, try to avoid pushing your partner into doing something they are not comfortable with, says Ambrose.
“If they don’t want to engage in social activities with others, do not try to force them to do so,” she says. “Offer them the choice to participate and provide them with an opportunity for escape if they find themselves becoming uncomfortable.”
Physical affection and sex may be different with an avoidant partner.
Some avoidant partners may be sensitive about physical touch. They may not enjoy long hugs or feel unsure about frequent contact, explains Jordan.
Let them know that you realize that they have different preferences, she says. “Then tell them that you want to find a compromise so that you can feel connected some of the time through touch, but also so they can feel comfortable in their own skin and not feel overwhelmed.”
An avoidant partner may have a typical sex drive while you’re dating, but they sometimes lose interest over time and prefer time alone, says Jordan. It can help to talk with your partner about your own preferences around sex so that you can understand one another better.
There may be times when your partner is not sexually, physically, or emotionally available. Try to take a deep breath and remember that this isn’t because of you.
“If you take their tendencies personally and accuse them of not caring about you, they will invariably feel shame and need to distance from you.”
Effective communication is the key to better relationships.
If possible, try to state how you feel without being accusatory. “When you take ownership of how you are feeling or what you are experiencing, it takes the blame away from your partner,” says Ambrose.
An example of an I statement would be “I felt hurt and unimportant when I didn’t receive a response,” compared with “you hurt me and made me feel unimportant when you didn’t respond.”
Try to talk about issues when you are not engaged in an argument. It’s much easier to address issues when both of you are calm, says Ambrose.
Compliment your partner when they do something you like, and try to avoid criticism, says Ambrose. “Complaints focus on specific behaviors, whereas criticism cuts to the core of who your partner is as an individual,” she explains.
Asking your partner to start doing something will have a more positive interaction than asking them to stop, says Ambrose. “If you want them to stop doing something, state what you would like them to be doing instead.”
For example, instead of criticizing them for indecision around restaurant choices, you might say, “I love when you pick out the restaurant we go to.”
Your avoidant partner may have a hard time with emotional conversations. When you talk about feelings, they may get overwhelmed, says Jordan.
You may find it helpful to wrap up, she says, if you notice:
“Ask to continue the conversation a bit later so that you can get your needs across,” explains Jordan. “Continuing to talk to an avoidant person after they have hit their limit is pointless and triggers their fear of being held captive and dominated.”
Avoidant partners often see issues as a win-or-lose situation. Try to remind them that compromise is possible, says Jordan. “That helps them know that there is room for their perspective in the interaction.”
For example, you might say “I would like to hold hands in public, but I realize we may need to compromise.”
When your partner chooses to express their feelings, validate them, says Ambrose. “You do not need to agree with how they feel, but you do need to accept that their feelings are okay and just as valid as yours.”
Your avoidant partner may not articulate their needs for fear of looking needy, says Jordan. “Probing a little bit and making sure that they are telling you what they really want can help them feel loved for who they are.”
For example, you might ask “Is this movie really OK with you? I want you to be happy and not feel like you gave in.”
If your partner has avoidant tendencies or avoidant personality disorder, you don’t have to do this alone.
Couples counseling can really be beneficial, says Ambrose. “Not only could it assist you and your partner with increasing intimacy and improving communication, but it can also help in understanding each other’s perspectives and experiences.”
You may find it helpful to use Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource to find a couple’s therapist.
It can often be helpful to explore relationship patterns experienced in your families of origin in order to change them in your current relationship, says Ambrose.
You may find it helpful to learn about your attachment style in the book, “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love” by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller.
Avoidant partners behave in ways that make them feel safe, often stemming from childhood. While these behaviors are hard-wired, change and compromise are possible with time, patience, and support.
You may find it helpful to work toward accepting your partner as they are, communicating your needs gently, working with a couple’s therapist, and learning about your own attachment style.