It was autumn,
I remember, we went for a walk one day.
Your white wolf, out front, leading the way,
Through the ancient village streets of cobble, stone, and ivy.
Turning leaves falling all around us,
November’s chill in my nostrils.
You were comparing me to your ex,
“She is younger than you but you look so good and she looks so tired now.”
I said nothing as we walked arm in arm,
Loving the way our bodies fit together,
Even through the padding of our winter coats.
But I thought, as we walked out of the village, into the woods and kissed,
Is that what time with you does?
Now it’s spring,
And I am walking alone,
Alone and forward,
Alone and forward,
Leaving our sad love behind.
When I broke free from the relationship with the man who inspired the poem, my body, heart, and mind were in crisis. The emotional roller-coaster of the push-pull dynamic had sent my system haywire as oxytocin, dopamine, and cortisol created exhaustion, fear, migraines, obsessive thought patterns about him, and cravings for his attention.
It is the most intense and unfathomable situation to be in when you know that someone’s behaviour is hurting you, disrespecting you, neglecting you, abandoning you, and yet you want him and crave him with every fibre of your being.
Not every avoidantly attached person is a male, although the majority apparently are, and not every anxiously attached person is a female, although again the majority are, so for the ease of this piece, I will use masculine pronouns for the avoidant partner and feminine pronouns for the anxious partner. Please adjust as necessary.
For those living with an insecure or anxious attachment style, the allure of the emotionally unavailable partner, the one with the avoidant insecure attachment style, isn’t his aloofness; it’s not that he appears a challenge (that all comes later). In my experience, the allure of the avoidant insecure partner is his overwhelming availability—in the beginning.
You see, in the beginning, he is totally available, gregarious, seductive, imposing, and complimenting. There are constant texts, social media shows of affection, and emails. There are beautiful words, amazing dates, film-worthy first kisses, and romantic gestures galore.
When he comes along and appears anything but avoidant and seduces us with love bombing availability, we think we’ve hit the love jackpot. We love the way it feels; no anxiety at all. We actually don’t have time because he is all over us every moment of the day. This is it, we think—this is love.
He thinks he’s hit the jackpot too. He can be open and honest with you, He’ll remark about this like it’s never happened before. He thinks you’re so cool and happy and sexy. Not at all crazy and insecure like the last one; he just had to get away from that relationship. This is it, he thinks, this is love.
But that wasn’t my first relationship with an emotionally unavailable man living with an avoidant attachment style, and there are some things I’ve learned along the way that have helped me to have a healthier relationship with myself and life around me, as well as recognise and disengage from the romantic partner who is avoidantly attached.
Here are my 3 biggest insights:
Insight number 1: Coming on strong is a huge red flag.
What you miss is that this beautiful smorgasbord of the romantic whirlwind is, in fact, a huge red flag. He doesn’t know you, you don’t know him, and yet you are declaring all kinds of love and commitment.
It’s not love—it’s an oxytocin-drenched fantasy. He is imposing and crossing boundaries. You are allowing the imposition, not only believing the premature declarations of love but also enthusiastically returning them. Realistically, those declarations, as amazing as they feel, can’t be real because neither party actually knows the other one yet. It’s not personal. It’s not real, and staying in the reality is important. If you find yourself being swept off your feet, walk away because it won’t last long and there is heartache ahead.
The heartache begins when it starts to get personal. Instead of starting out slowly and growing and deepening as you get to know each other, the avoidant/anxious dance starts out big and fast and then descends into painful chaos as intimacy begins to show itself. This is because both parties are insecure, afraid to be truly seen or to love.
The unavailable partner—the avoidant partner—is often made out to be the villain in this scenario because of their crazy-making behaviour that ultimately ends in them walking away, apparently unscathed, from the anxious person, who is by that time in crisis. But they are far from unscathed.
Quintessentially, he believes he’s unlovable. Worse, he loathes himself deep down. In the beginning, when it is an impersonal fantasy projection, it is enjoyable. When it begins to be personal, real, when he senses he is being truly seen, when he feels the pressure of you having normal, natural emotional needs to be met, he feels panic.
He feels panic and he pulls away. He feels instant relief in pulling away, which reinforces his behaviour. Pulling away equals relief. So for him, it must be the right course of action. Unsettled, his mind searches for the reason why he is doing this and his gaze falls on you; he begins to devalue you in his mind’s eye, believing that it must your fault he is behaving this way.
The reaction that this sets off in the insecure/anxious partner is akin to having a rug pulled from under you when you least expect it; cortisol courses through the system mixing with the oxytocin to create an oxytoxic blend. The result is stomach-churning anxiety, further feeding your fears of being unlovable and being abandoned, and in your panic, you run after him to seek relief.
This then leads to more panic in him, so he pulls away even further, leading to more panic in you, who then actively peruses him. And you are now entangled in the push-pull of a toxic anxious/avoidant relationship.
The anxious partner’s mind searches for the reason this is happening and often settles, with the greatest of empathy, on the avoidant partner’s previous experiences and/or childhood traumas. You think (and I speak from experience here) that if you can help to heal his wounds, all will be well again. Your partner becomes the focus of your life to the detriment of all other things, including your own health and well-being.
Insight number 2: You cannot change him.
You cannot change him. You cannot change him. You cannot change him, and everything you are doing just cements his position. Way back in his childhood, his particular defence mechanisms to his emotional needs being consistently unmet developed in shutting down emotionally. KaChunk. It’s like an iron door going down because to him intimacy is not safe. Emotions are not safe.
More often than not he will have little to no awareness that this is happening. In adulthood, these defence mechanisms result in cutting off from what he actually wants. He shuts down automatically in the face of intimacy and believes it must your fault. He will often have such enormous trust issues that he won’t be able to seek help through therapy or any other avenues. The literature is bleakly clear that the chances for change are slim to non-existent.
They are lone wolves who have been taking care of themselves for a long time, repeating the patterns. His behaviour is deeply embedded in his psyche. Don’t hate him, by all means, have empathy for him, but know, unequivocally, you cannot change him and you have to walk away.
Insight number 3: Bring the focus back to yourself.
You cannot change him, but you can change your own behaviour. You can recognise that your desire to change him is part of your defence mechanism.
If you, like me, are living with an anxious insecure attachment style, then way back in your childhood you developed coping mechanisms in response to your emotional needs be inconsistently met. As a result, you try to meet your emotional needs by staying in close proximity to the person who hurts you. Your hypervigilance and obsession with your avoidant partner and his behaviour is not love (although you may of course love him), it is part of your defence mechanism. Your desire to run after the person who hurt you is your coping strategy.
It is a tragic dynamic—shutting down and devaluing is the avoidant’s coping strategy, triggered by intimacy, because for him intimacy is not safe. In response to the pain caused, the anxious partner pursues the avoidant person to try to get desperate relief by being in close proximity to him.
If you find yourself in this situation, bring the focus back to yourself. He can’t help you; he is unavailable—unavailable to you, unavailable to himself, unavailable to love. Start to see his behaviour as an extension of how you are treating yourself. Every moment you are staying engaged is a moment of self-abandonment.
In a healthy relationship you get to love yourself, you love him, and he loves you. In this situation they do not love you, they are hurting you, and you can choose to either love them or yourself—please choose yourself.
I won’t lie to you—it will hurt, it will be hard—you’re going to need a lot of support, but in walking away, you break the pattern of your insecure anxious attachment style and begin on a journey to change the only life you have any power over—your own.
You have the opportunity to feel your feelings and get to know yourself. Find a therapist, a support group, practice mediation, read the books listed below, and learn about love—tender, forgiving, accepting, intimate, safe, secure love.
Learn to love yourself first and the rest will come.
Recommended reading list to get you started:
Attached (2010) by Dr. Amir Levin & Rachel Heller, Pan Mcmillan
The Betrayal Bond: breaking free from exploitive relationships (1997) by Patrick J. Carnes, Health communications inc.
How to Love Yourself (and sometimes other people) spiritual advise for modern relationships (2015) by Lodro Rinzler & Meggan Watterson, Hay House
Inner Bonding: becoming a loving adult to your inner child. (1992) by Margaret Paul, Harper Collins
Radical Acceptance: Awakening the love that heals fear and shame within us (2003) by Tara Brach, Random House