Are They Avoidantly Attached or Just Not That Into You?
Knowing whether it’s self-preservation or if they’re just not interested.
“Pain in this life is not avoidable. But the pain we create avoiding pain is avoidable.” — R.D. Laing.
The excitement of a new relationship always has us psyched. We’re sleeping less, we’ve got more energy on reserve and our S.O. is constantly running through our mind.
The novelty of a new relationship can feel like the antidote for just about any ailment we have:
Feeling run down? Nothing beats a massage and a dip in the hot tub with our S.O.
Don’t want to cook tonight? There’s nothing better than takeout and bingeing our favorite video game together.
Stressed about our job? There’s nobody better to bounce ideas off of.
Feeling a little down? Our partner can always cheer us up with the perfect YouTube video.
So, when we get caught up in those bells and whistles of a new conquest, we’re probably not looking that far down the road at their bad habits or in over-analyzing their every look, comment or behavior.
We get addicted to living for the moment, to that dopamine hit that rushes through our body when we’re with our partner.
Yet, this is when we should be fine-tuning our intuition, being more aligned with gut instincts, and becoming more attuned to the red flags and warning signs.
Dissecting The Dynamics
At first, it’s easy to confuse the newness of a healthy relationship that’s just starting out, from a toxic one that hasn’t yet shown itself. The fact is, even bad relationships start out exciting and fun, or I doubt many of us would stick around if it started and ended with a shitshow.
There are many parallels between a healthy relationship and an Avoidant one in the early stages. Those rushes of dopamine and oxytocin affect every relationship.
It’s how they evolve that separates healthy, from unhealthy.
For example, once the newness wears off in a healthy relationship, the intense high from the honeymoon phase is supposed to be replaced with stability and emotional intimacy.
While there may not be the intensity of another dopamine hit, it’s replaced with a deeper understanding and a stronger emotional connection between partners. Ultimately, there’s less excitement, but with a bigger emotional payout, as goes the trade-off.
With Avoidantly attached relationships, we get stuck on the rush. We’re not invested in the relationship as much as we are in being numb and looking for the next dopamine hit.
Where a healthy relationship comfortably hits a plateau with intimacy and emotional growth, those who are Avoidantly attached are uncomfortable with the plateau. A leveling off in a relationship can trigger indifference, insecurities, boredom, engulfment or a fear of abandonment.
So, the inevitable crash starts unless a rush is found elsewhere such as with devaluation, porn/kink, arguments or stepping outside the relationship.
After all, negative attention is still attention, and still offers excitement.
When it’s based on an Avoidant attachment style, the goals are avoidance of intimacy, emotional avoidance, and avoidance of vulnerability, although it usually plays out behind the scenes and on an unconscious level.
Another similarity is that both healthy and Avoidant relationships will see relationship challenges. As a couple starts adjusting to a healthy new relationship, there are bound to be differences of opinion or the beginning of separating themselves as independent from the inter-dependence of the couple.
This is both healthy and expected — each partner needs their own time to retain their individuality so they can remain present and emotionally available for each other. This also requires compromise, communication and trust.
When it’s Avoidant, the flipside starts with enmeshment and codependence where each partner needs the other to complete them in maintaining a sense of identity.
However, because a lack of self-identity is common in Avoidant relationships, each partner takes on the other’s “identity”, or mirroring the other person’s sense of humor, way of talking, habits, hobbies, etc., which can cause enmeshment, and for an Avoidantly attached partner, engulfment.
Mirroring is what typically identifies part of idealization, where you’re believing you hit the lottery in finding someone who’s so perfect for you. Um, yeah…Because each partner is acting like a mirror reflection to the other, it’s like looking in a mirror at your self. And, essentially you are.
If there’s an Avoidant attachment style involved, here is where you may start noticing the push-pull dynamic becoming more obvious.
Unlike healthy relationships where there’s authentic independence, Avoidant relationships see a fierce pseudo-independence that causes the push-away, while codependency drives the pull. Because Avoidantly attached partners are commonly drawn to Anxiously attached partners, the result can be a perfect storm.
Avoidant, Or Not That Into You?
If your caregivers were dismissive of your needs growing up, this sets the foundation for developing an Avoidant attachment style in adulthood — where pushing away, fierce pseudo-independence and emotional unavailability are common.
So, when you see these kind of red flags in a relationship, are they simply Avoidantly attached, or just not that into you?
It’s a trick question.
The fact is, if we’re Avoidantly attached in our relationships, theoretically we can’t be invested in anyone until we learn to be comfortable being emotionally present for ourselves.
Avoidant always wins — the cycle inevitably plays out the same way, give or take a few nuances. For example, in their last relationship, they may have put their partner first because the payout in making their partner happy offered them more excitement or a pump to their Ego, whereas this relationship they may be putting themselves first.
Subtle nuances aside, what starts out as intense, addictive and full-throttle, always wanes to plateaus that trigger indifference, then the push-pull simply becomes pushing away; self-preservation.
While this may sound depressing at best, it’s not.
First, if you’re recognizing you or your partner may be Avoidantly attached, it’s not a relationship death sentence, per se.
The first thing that should be honestly assessed are your feelings and investment in the relationship, aside from your attachment style. Since we can’t force anyone but ourselves into self-improvement, let’s start there.
If you’re unable to sort through the differences between being Avoidantly attached, or just not that into your partner, there’s your starting point.
Chances are, we probably know if we’re not that into our partner. We may mumble things under our breath about their annoying habits, we may like our time alone more than time with them, or we may not feel motivated to even want the relationship.
When its based on an Avoidant attachment style, the same annoying habits may get under our skin, and we still value our time alone, but we may experience a nagging voice in our head — our inner critic — that seeks to sabotage us or tries to get us sabotaging things ourselves. We become more conflicted between our thoughts and feelings.
When we’re just not that into someone, that inner critic that sabotages our chance at happiness, is more like an inner voice of reason that’s trying to get us to pay closer attention to our habits and emotions.
Once we’ve sifted through whether we’re invested for the right reasons, we can increase our odds of having a satisfying relationship.
Can we “change” an Avoidant attachment style to a secure one?
The cards we’re dealt in childhood stick with us. But, we have the power to change how we engage in relationships, which can positively affect the outcome.
For example, we can focus on increasing our awareness. With awareness, we’re able to start seeing bits and pieces of the Big Picture, and doing our best to make light of it by taking a closer look at things like our habits, the types of partners we choose and how our relationships typically play out.
Recognizing emotional engulfment is important for an Avoidantly attached partner. Typically, triggers only happen during times of emotional stress. And, emotional stress is usually felt much more acutely in intimate relationships.
Ironically, many with an Avoidant attachment style can do well in juggling job-related stress, which seems to add validity to emotions being a trigger in intimate relationships, because the emotional element is missing at work.
I’m not suggesting to treat your relationship like your job, but start making comparisons in how you manage job related stress without feeling engulfed, so you can try out similar techniques if feeling engulfed in your relationship.
By recognizing and becoming more aware of how our attachment style influences our feelings, habits and choices, we can begin doing the groundwork for changing how we engage in our relationships.
Bowlby, J., 1982. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Bowlby, J. (1978). Attachment theory and its therapeutic implications. Adolescent Psychiatry, 6, 5–33.
Fraley, C. (2018). Adult attachment theory and research. Retrieved http://labs.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm