You may have noticed that your fearful avoidant or dismissive avoidant ex has a period of time when they don’t want to talk or don’t respond to text messages and you feel that they’re pulling away, and you’re losing them for good. Sometimes it’s a slow and steady fading away and other times it’s like they suddenly disappear off the face of the earth. Sometimes they pull away from you but keep connection with their other relationships, and something them cut themselves off from everyone in their life.
For people new to attachment theory and attachment styles, the pulling away from connection is called “deactivation”, “deactivate”, “deactivating” or “deactivated”. It describes when an avoidant disconnects from the attachment or connection by emotionally shutting down or creating distance with someone over an extended period of time.
The key here is ‘extended” period of time. The reason I point this out is that an anxious attachment’s unhealthy craving for closeness and intense worries about partner availability exaggerates an avoidant deactivating. Individuals with an anxious attachment in general want more contact, more engagement and more closeness than even a securely attached person is comfortable with. So even when an avoidant ex is responding and engaging appropriately for two people who are not in a relationship, exes with an anxious attachment see an avoidant as deactivating because of their constant worries about an ex’s availability and their doubts about their value to their ex.
How the activation and deactivation of the attachment system works
Our attachment system is a set of mental and emotional patterns which determine how we react or respond to threat to an attachment, a connection, or relationship. Think of the attachment system as a heating and cooling system.
Someone securely attached is able to self-regulate in a healthy way so their temperature is always warm/right. When they’re worried, hurt, upset, or overwhelmed or perceives a connection or relationship is under threat, a securely attached person is able to maintain the temperature at warm by either seeking healthy and safe ways from within themselves (self-soothing) or from a partner to protect and restore the connection or relationship. They communicate exactly what they’re experiencing so there is no confusion as to what is going on. They don’t just do what makes them feel safe, they also make sure the other person feels safe and the relationship is protected.
Anxious attachment system (activating)
Someone with an anxious attachment is has faulty system that keeps the temperature always on high. When the attachment system is activated the temperature is turned even higher. This is where the text-bombing, obsessing, chasing, apologizing, begging, sending gifts, and all the needy and clingy behaviours come from. The temperature is so high that the other person in the house (relationship) feels that they only have two options, get out or be burned to ashes.
Once activated, people who have an anxious attachment don’t care if their behaviour hurts the connection or relationship or makes the other person unsafe, they just want to stop feeling anxious and emotionally dysregulated; and the only thing that will do that is a response that is validating, reassuring or supportive.
When an activated person is soothed (offered reassurance, care and support), it lowers their temperature down to where it’s still high but tolerable.
Dismissive avoidant attachment system (deactivating)
Someone with a dismissive avoidant attachment has faulty system that keeps the temperature always on low.
When a dismissive avoidant is worried, hurt, upset, or overwhelmed or believes a connection or relationship is under threat, instead of the attachment system activating and seeking ways to protect and restore the connection or relationship, the dismissive avoidant attachment system deactivates or disconnects to protect the avoidant. A deactivated system means the temperature is completely turned off; and the house is freezing cold; the other person in the house (relationship) feels that they only have two options, get out or freeze to death.
When deactivated, an a dismissive avoidant wants distance and space. This is to avoid depending on others and to rely on themselves to self-regulate and feel safe again. A deactivation is therefore not a tantrum or a way of punishing someone; a deactivation is a necessary function of the attachment system which allows an avoidant space to internally self-soothe, feel safe and be able to reconnect again.
Most of the time, it’s not something an avoidant is fully in control of. All they know and feel is that they need to disconnect from the attachment to think independently, process or regulate their emotions or ground themselves, and/or figure out if they want to connect again or make the shutdown or distance permanent. They want to be separate and alone because it is what makes them feel safe. It doesn’t mean that they stopped loving or caring for you, it means that in order for them to be able to continue loving or caring for you, they need to feel safe first.
When a deactivated person is given time and space to self-soothe it helps them raise the temperature back up to where it’s still cold but tolerable.
Fearful attachment system (activating and deactivating)
Someone with a fearful avoidant attachment has a disorganized attachment style that randomly turns the temperature high (anxious) and turns it to cold (avoidant), the back up to high and then to cold sometimes erratically.
When you’re dealing with a fearful avoidant, you’re likely going to see both activating and deactivating behaviours. Most of the time with a fearful avoidant, you’ll experience both activation and deactivation but not as intensely as an anxious preoccupied (all anxious) activation or dismissive avoidant (all avoidant) deactivation. This both anxious and avoidant behaviours is what feels like hot (activated) and cold (deactivated).
If a fearful avoidant leans more anxious, then you’ll see a lot more activated behaviour – reaching out frequently, directly or indirectly through social media, playing games to attract your attention, etc. If a fearful avoidant leans more avoidant, then you’ll see a lot more deactivating – they want space and don’t want you close or trying to reach them frequently.
So anytime you’re dealing with an avoidant whose behaviour is so confusing – sometimes loving, kind and really wants connection and closeness sometimes wants space, is distant and wants to be alone, you’re not dealing with a dismissive avoidant. A dismissive avoidant attachment is organized and consistently cold and distant from beginning a relationship to post break-up. Fearful avoidants keeps contracting themselves, words don’t match action, they seem unsure of what they want or how they feel etc., because their attachment system is disorganized.
The key to dealing with a fearful avoidant is recognizing then they’re activating or deactivating. You respond to a fearful avoidant’s activated state with being available, responsive, supportive, validating and reassuring. For example, you reach out more, engage more and show them that you care and not going anywhere. You respond to a fearful avoidant’s deactivated state by giving them the space they need.
An avoidant not responding does not automatically mean they deactivated
Avoidants often indicate when they are deactivating or have deactivated by either asking for space or stop responding and engaging for an extended period of time especially after “intense connection”. Again, the keyword is “extended” period of time.
An avoidant not responding to a couple of texts does not automatically mean they deactivated. Sometimes exes just don’t want to talk, respond, or engage on social media. It may feel hurtful, but it doesn’t make it unhealthy. You are not in a relationship, your ex does not owe you the same courtesy that people in a relationship expect of each other.
It’s important that you understand the difference between someone just not responding immediately, not responding to a couple of texts or being short and polite, and an avoidant deactivating.
Avoidants in general have unhealthy low emotional bandwidth while anxious attachment have unhealthy emotional bandwidth that even securely attached find uncomfortable. Which means that from time to time especially after “intense connection”, they the need to step away from connection to self-regulate. “Intense connection” is how they perceive it and not necessarily how it is.
Not understanding the difference can create more problems than it solves. One of the problems it creates is more distance, and sometimes even triggering an avoidant to deactivate. For example, an avoidant may not respond because they’re busy and it’s nothing personal, or they may respond with short and polite replies because they’re not interested in the topic or subject of the conversation, or they may not respond at all because they have nothing to say (which is common with avoidants). But if you automatically assume an avoidant deactivated and you need to “give them space”, an avoidant may see you giving them space they don’t need or haven’t asked for as you pulling away or distancing.
If your ex is a fearful avoidant, this will trigger their fear of rejection and abandonment. They’ll wonder why you felt they needed space. What did they do wrong? Are you upset? Do you want to break-up? Do you want no contact?
A dismissive avoidant ex on the other hand may see it as you being upset and angry and acting passive aggressive. They may even want to reconnect faster but because they anticipate being grilled about needing space, or talking about their feelings, or being accused of being selfish and generally “a bad person”, they’ll stay deactivated longer or make the deactivation permanent.
If an avoidant stops responding, wait 1- 3 days and try to engage them again. If they’re still unresponsive after you reach out 3 or more times, then it’s likely that your avoidant ex deactivated.
How long does an avoidant ex stay deactivated?
Every avoidant is different, but deactivation generally lasts anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Most fearful avoidants will reach out or begin responding again after 2 – 5 days because they want connection and feel happier in relationships. You may even reach out and they’ll tell you that they wanted to reach out and/or give some “fearful avoidant” reason why they didn’t. It’s that wanting something and fearing it at the same time disorganized attachment thing.
Dismissive avoidants do not often reach out first after deactivation because of the low priority they place on being in a relationship, but begin responding 5-7 days of deactivation.
But sometimes a deactivation can take a few months if the deactivation is deep. The more upset or hurt an avoidant is, the longer they’ll deactivate or take to respond. A deactivation may also take longer if there are other factors outside of the relationship causing distress (depression, work stress, unemployment, health issues, family emergency, financial issues, an exam, loss or death etc.)
An avoidant may also deactivate longer if you act needy, upset and angry when they need space away from you to feel safe again.
An avoidant deactivation after a break-up
An avoidant can also begin deactivating then end the relationship and an avoidant can even deactivate after a break-up. Some avoidants reach out after a deactivation following a break-up but sometimes avoidants deactivate and move on.
Deactivating after a break-up is especially common with fearful avoidants who lean anxious. Just after a break-up they show all signs that they do not want to lose connection – they ask to stay in contact, be friends and even chase you etc. At this stage they’re more anxious than avoidant but then their avoidant side takes over and they deactivate.
Fearful avoidants may also deactivate after a break-up if they wanted to stay in contact and you go no contact. They’ll feel rejected and abandoned and deactivate.
What to do when an avoidant deactivates
Since fearful avoidants usually reach out after deactivating for 2 – 5 days, wait up to 3 days to see if they’ll reach out before reaching out. If your fearful avoidant ex doesn’t reach out, send a check-in text. A dismissive avoidant ex is unlikely to reach out, check-in after 5 days.
In the article below, I discuss the best way to give an avoidant space when they deactivate but also make it safe for them to want to reconnect faster.