Getting your ex’s attachment style right plays a very important role in getting them back. But when you are new to attachment styles, it can be had to tell the difference between a fearful avoidant and a dismissive avoidant ex. This seemingly “small mistake” can however significantly affect your chances of getting back an avoidant.
Different attachment styles have fundamental differences in how they perceive their experiences, view themselves, views others, and think, feel and act and how to get them back. In this article I discuss one very clear difference between a fearful avoidant and a dismissive avoidant and why knowing this major difference can help you better understand your ex and successfully attract them back. But first, it’s necessary for me to explain that not all emotional bonds are attachments, and what looks like “avoidant” behaviour can sometimes just be that someone isn’t interested, doesn’t care or has moved on.
Attached or not attached: Not all attraction, emotional or romantic bonds are attachments
When you first learn of attachment styles, it’s easy to assume that every interaction is attachment-related. This is simply not true. According to two of the most prominent and respected researchers on adult attachment Mario Mikulincer and Phillip Shaver, an adult romantic bond can develop based on familiarity, shared interest and activities, or be exploratory, or sexual but not necessarily be attachment-oriented.
You find yourself having expectations from the interaction and treating the attraction or connection like an attachment-related relationship when it’s not. What you end up with is often based on how you feel about their behaviours rather than what you know for a fact about someone’s attachment style. It doesn’t help that attachment anxiety exaggerates the other person’s degree of avoidance. When you want connection, closeness, validation or reassurance so badly and want so much of it, any behaviour that doesn’t provide the connection, closeness, validation or reassurance you crave feels like dismissive avoidant attachment.
This is really important because many romantic relationships start because of feelings of mutual attraction and the process of being intimate and engaging in persistent texting or physical contact. I’ve worked with many clients who thought “their ex” was an avoidant because they’d been communicating with this person for a while and the person says all the right words and the emotional connection is out of this world, but they always have an excuse for why they can’t text too often, talk on the phone, video chat or meet. When asked for more “the ex” would disappear, then randomly reach out again days, weeks or months later just like an avoidant would do. But “the ex” turned out to be just not into them, married and emotionally cheating or just looking for sex, a pick-up artist honing their skill, a “Nigerian prince” or a regular catfish.
In most cases, when these non-attachment-oriented bonds are threatened or broken, the other person may be distressed, but usually not to the same extent or for as long as in the case of a broken attachment bond. The lack of distress or someone’s ease moving on from a non-attachment-oriented bond doesn’t make them an avoidant.
What defines an adult attachment-related relationship?
Someone’s attachment style is relevant only if and when there’s an attachment.
An adult attachment describes a sense of security, a comforting feeling of connection that develops gradually and a bonding experience in which two people try to meet each other’s attachment needs (caregiving). An attachment bond or relationship is considered secure when the goals for safe, available, responsive and consistent “caregiving” are satisfactorily realized, and insecure when they’re not.
The way we go about seeking safe, available, responsive and consistent “caregiving” and how we react to attachment-related threats is based on our mental representations of attachment figures in our past. These mental representations (Internal Working Models) direct and organize our intentional behaviour to achieve the conditions that make us feel secure.
When our behaviours are coordinated in a smooth way both in the way we go about getting our attachment needs met and how we deal with attachment-related threats, it is considered an “organized” attachment because our behaviours are stable and consistent over time. When behaviours are uncoordinated, complex, fluctuate or are awkward it is considered a “disorganized” attachment.
Organized attachment styles (secure, anxious and dismissive avoidant attachment)
Research on adult attachment shows that people with secure attachment, anxious attachment and dismissive avoidant attachment styles have organized systems of behaviours and strategies.
Secure – A secure attachment is organized around feeling loved and valued, easy to get close to others, trust in partner availability and responsiveness, comfort with closeness and interdependence, and the use of secure base strategies to regulate emotions and cope with threats and stressors.
Anxious – Anxious attachment is organized around having a strong desire for closeness and protection, intense worries about partner availability and one’s own value to the partner, intense fear others don’t really love you or want to stay with you (fear of abandonment) and the use of proximity-seeking and reassurance-seeking (and doing whatever is necessary) strategies to deal with insecurity and distress.
Dismissive – Dismissive avoidant attachment is organized around down playing the importance of attachment relationships, discomfort with others getting too close, difficulty trusting others completely, difficult allowing oneself to depend on others, preference for emotional distance and self-reliance, and the use of distancing defensive strategies to cope with threats and stressors.
Disorganized attachment (fearful avoidant attachment)
Fearful – Fearful avoidant attachment on the other hand suffers from a breakdown of organized attachment strategies. They are called a disorganized attachment because of the inconsistent and hard to predict behaviours that stem from intense fear, often as a result of neglect or childhood trauma where the only source of safety also became a source of fear. They want to approach and take comfort in being close to someone but push away or run away from them creating an “approach and avoid” dynamic.
However, Karlen Lyons-Ruth and colleagues (2013) observed that “52% of disorganized infants continue to approach the caregiver, seek comfort, and cease their distress without clear anxious or avoidant behaviour”. I don’t know if this applies to adult fearful avoidants as well, but I thought it was an interesting addition to the fearful avoidant attachment puzzle. It may even explain why some people think they have an anxious attachment style because they approach attachment figures, seek comfort, and when reassured cease their distress without pulling away. But while they appear to be anxiously attached, they don’t do the whole “preoccupied” (over texting, needy and clingy) thing.
How to tell if your ex is a dismissive avoidant (organized avoidant attachment)
While both fearful avoidants and dismissive avoidants are avoidants – independent, have a fear of getting close, frequently distance from relationship partners, avoid or minimize intimacy, suppress feelings and emotions, rarely express needs and have difficulty asking for comfort and support, or providing it and all the other avoidant behaviours and traits – dismissive avoidants have an organized strategy for meeting their attachment needs successfully dealing with attachment-related threats.
A dismissive avoidant’s easily identifiable traits are high avoidance, low anxiety and a positive model of self. They’re “laid back”, self-assured, self-controlled and seem to know exactly what they want and what to do to get what they want. They can be extroverted or introverted but indifferent to other’s feelings and experience, hesitant to give or receive compliments or feedback (positive or negative) and become unresponsive for days, weeks or months when slighted or inconvenienced in some way.
Dismissive avoidants generally don’t attach too quickly and take several months to years to get attached and years to move in with a romantic relationship partner. You can even be in a relationship with a dismissive avoidant for months but never get invited inside their space. From day one, they “take charge” of what you can and can’t do with their space and time, and don’t veer very far from “how things should be”. For example a dismissive avoidant says they are not ready/don’t want a relationship, or wants a friends with benefits situation, that’s how it’s going to be. They’re not going to send conflicting and mixed messages or step over their own boundaries and veer from what they say they want.
From the beginning, middle, end of the relationship and even post break-up, the relationship has no noticeable highs and lows mainly due to a dismissive avoidant’s “no drama” attitude, distancing most of the time and just not much “passion”. Because of this, their relationships often don’t last very long. The general feeling most people in a relationship with a dismissive avoidant have is “I THINK they love me. I THINK they care about me. But I FEEL like I’m in a relationship all by myself”. The attraction often doesn’t feel mutual and the effort to make the relationship work definitely doesn’t feel mutual even when a dismissive avoidant says they’re all in.
Some dismissive avoidants can adapt in greater or lesser degrees to different relationship dynamics or circumstances provided that things don’t deviate too much from their high level of independence, less demand of their time and space, the relationship being less volatile (less/no stress) and a partner who is consistently reliable and trustworthy.
How to tell if your ex is a fearful avoidant (disorganized avoidant attachment)
Fearful avoidants don’t have an organized attachment strategy and therefore come across as inconsistent, conflicted and unpredictable in the beginning, middle, end of the relationship, throughout the relationship and even after the break-up.
A fearful avoidant’s easily identifiable traits are high avoidance, high anxiety and a negative model of self. They’re persistently negative, view themselves as unworthy or incapable of love or relationships, show signs of worry and nervousness, likely suffer from social anxiety, depression, struggle with work-related stress, and/or have a substance abuse problem/or addiction. Most fearful avoidants also suffer from complex post traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD) resulting from emotional, physical or sexual trauma in their past.
While fearful avoidants tend to have a series of unstable, chaotic, volatile and abusive relationships in general, fearful avoidants are available, responsive, affectionate, caring, and attentive (at first), but if they feel rejected, or feel that the relationship is one-sided, or feel constantly criticized or made to feel “not good enough”, they become distant, cold and unresponsive. Depending on if they lean anxious or avoidant, a fearful avoidant can come on too strong (love bombing), attach very quickly, talk about the “future” within the first few dates and move in together in less than 3 months. If they lean avoidant, things may move a little slower, but fluctuate between getting too close and distancing.
Unlike dismissive avoidants, fearful avoidants either have no boundaries (because of people-pleasing tendencies) which makes many of their behaviours seem conflicting and mixed messages, or they have many boundaries but step over their own boundaries which is also confusing. One day they say they’re drawing a boundary on no sexual intimacy or don’t want a relationship and the next, they’re grabbing you and kissing you passionately. They say they want space, want a break or want to break up, the very next day they send you texts saying they miss you, are still attracted to you or love you. It’s a complete brain-scratch, and emotional roller coaster.
The everyday impact of their disorganized attachment on a relationship varies from fearful avoidant to fearful avoidant – some exhibiting disorganized attachment behaviours occasionally and others too frequently but the general feeling you have in a relationship with a fearful avoidant is “I KNOW they love me. I KNOW they care about me. But Who am I in a relationship with?” Sometimes they’re loving, caring and seemingly secure, other times they’re anxious, needy and clingy, and also cold and distant.
“Who is showing up today/this week?” is the same feeling you have when you’re trying to get back with a fearful avoidant ex, and it’s confusing and confounding because you don’t know what to expect, how to respond/behave or what to do. But it is also confusing to a fearful avoidant who wants to get close but is conflicted, confused, worried, and unsure if it’s what the really want, if they deserve love or closeness, if they can do relationships or even if they want to be in a relationship. They’ve learned that rejection, disappointment, and hurt in relationships are inevitable, and tend to behave in ways that set a self-fulfilling cycle in motion.
One of the biggest mistakes many people trying to get back with a fearful avoidant ex make is to focus on their need for independence and giving them space. While independence and space is important to a fearful avoidant, what’s even more important to a fearful avoidant is being accepted, feeling that they’re enough, knowing that they can trust you to always have their back and be there for them, and consistency (to organize their disorganized attachment).
It’s very important to get your ex’s attachment style right
Without question, there are many other differences between dismissive avoidants and fearful avoidants, and I discuss many of these differences in my articles. The point I wanted to make in this article is if you’re trying to figure out if your ex is a fearful avoidant or dismissive avoidant, don’t just look at their behaviours during and after the break-up because many fearful avoidants lean avoidant after the break-up and tend to act like dismissive avoidants. Look at their behaviours from the start of the relationship, during the relationship, at the break-up and after the break-up.
If your avoidant ex’s behaviours have been consistently distant (organized avoidant attachment), your ex is likely a dismissive avoidant, but if their behaviours have fluctuated between getting close and distancing and are inconsistent, confusing and conflicting (disorganized avoidant attachment), your ex is likely a fearful avoidant.
It’s very important to get your ex’s attachment style right because it could be the difference between you getting them back and not getting them back. I’ve worked with some clients who thought their ex was a fearful avoidant but during the coaching session they realized that their ex is actually a dismissive avoidant. They projected many feelings to their dismissive avoidant ex and were doing everything wrong to get their dismissive avoidant ex back. Realizing that their ex is a dismissive avoidant and not a fearful avoidant allowed them to see what triggers which behaviours and how to sidestep those triggers, how to make their dismissive avoidant ex feel safe, how to create attraction etc.
I’ve also worked with many, many clients who were convinced that their ex was a dismissive avoidant because after the break-up, their ex is leaning very avoidant, but during the coaching session they realized that their ex is not a dismissive avoidant but a fearful avoidant or a fearful avoidant who leans dismissive. Suddenly many “confusing” things that didn’t make sense about their “dismissive avoidant ex” makes so much sense. They start making progress because they approach a fearful avoidant in a way that meets their need for connection and need for space.
All that said, you have to work on the issues in the relationship for the relationship to work. Many people new to attachment styles make the mistake of focusing on attachment styles as the cause of the break-up, and in my experience they never get their ex back. Attachment styles only explains the dynamic of the relationship but is not the only reason for a break-up. Even two securely attached people can break-up which means that it’s not all about your attachment styles.