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.
For people new to attachment theory and attachment styles, the pulling away from connection is called “deactivation”, “deactivate”, “deactivating” or “deactivated”. It describe 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’s deactivation. 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, individuals with an anxious attachment see deactivation because of their constant worries about an ex’s availability and their doubts about their value to their ex.
How 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. When we feel worried, anxious, afraid, hurt, upset, or overwhelmed, our attachment system serves to reduce the psychological distress so we can survive the experience.
When a secure person is worried, hurt, upset, or overwhelmed or perceives a connection or relationship is under threat, their attachment system is activated to seek healthy and safe ways from within themselves and 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 – hyperactivated system
When anxious preoccupied person is worried, hurt, upset, or overwhelmed or perceive a connection or relationship is under threat, their attachment system is activated to seek ways to protect and restore the connection or relationship. But unlike securely attached who have healthy and secure internal working models, anxious attachment have an insecure attachment internal working model which needs external validation, reassurance or support to feel safe again. When they can’t get the validation, reassurance or support to feel safe again because the other person is unavailable or unresponsive, an anxious attachment system gets hyperactivated.
Once hyperactivated, 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.
A simple way to describe “hyperactivation” is the attachment system is working overtime. This is where the text-bombing, obsessing, chasing, apologizing, begging, sending gifts, and all the needy and clingy behaviours come from.
Avoidant attachment – deactivated system
When an 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 avoidant attachment system deactivates or disconnects to protect the avoidant.
When deactivated, an 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 the 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.
Hyperactivating (all lights on) and deactivating (all lights out)
Think of hyperactivation as running around the house turning on all the lights, lighting all the candles, flashlights, and possibly running the generator as well at the same time. The other people living the house will see it as crazy and even dangerous and run out of the house.
Deactivation on the other hand is turning off one light at a time until the whole house is dark or flipping off the main breaker to turn off power to the entire house, and calmly sitting in the dark. The other people living the house will freak out and demand the lights be turned back on or see it as insensitive and selfish and want out of the house.
Fearful avoidant hyperactivating and deactivating system
A fearful avoidant as you may have read in my articles and watched in my videos is an anxious-avoidant. Meaning when you’re dealing with a fearful avoidant, you’re likely going to see both hyperactivation and deactivation. Most of the time with a fearful avoidant, you’ll experience both hyperactivation and deactivation but not as intensely as an anxious preoccupied (all anxious) hyperactivation or dismissive avoidant (all avoidant) deactivation. This both anxious and avoidant behaviours is what feels like hot (hyperactivated) and cold (deactivated).
If a fearful avoidant leans more anxious, then you’ll see a lot more hyperactivated behaviour. i.e. reaching out frequently, directly or indirectly through social media, playing games to attract your attention, etc.
You respond to a fearful avoidant’s hyperactivated 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.
If a fearful avoidant leans more avoidant, then you’ll see a lot more deactivating. When they are avoidant, they want space and don’t want you close or trying to reach them frequently. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
Avoidant Ex Pulls Away Every Time You Get Close (What to Do)
How Do I Give My Avoidant Ex Space? (And How Much Space)
How Much Space To Give A Fearful Avoidant
How Much Space To Give A Dismissive Avoidant
Attract Back An Avoidant Ex: 7 – An Avoidant Isn’t Texting Back
Do Avoidants Want A Healthy Relationship? (Ideal Vs. Realty)