In my article on how to communicate and talk about problems with an avoidant, I explained how different attachment styles carry mental scripts or blueprints of how a conversation about a relationship problem will play out based on experiences from childhood or past close romantic relationships.
We start a conversation, introduce a problem, express our feelings, communicate what is bothering us or what we want to change as if the conversation has already happened. Our past experiences have taught us what to expect every time we approach a conversation about how we feel about something or what is bothering us. If we expect there to be yelling, insults, banging doors or walking way and/or distancing, that’s exactly what will happen. Even when we want more positive experiences and even try to be calm and confident, in the heat of the moment, under stress and overcome with emotion, we create situations that confirm the mental scripts we carry with us.
One of the mental scripts many people with an anxious attachment (and even avoidants themselves) develop after learning about attachment theory and attachment styles is that avoidants can’t communicate.
Can avoidants communicate?
The answer is yes. Avoidants can communicate very well and can talk about a variety of subjects eloquently. Many avoidants are extroverted, chatty and bubbly and enjoy social interactions. Dismissive avoidant are particularly known for being assertive, outspoken, vocal about issues they care about and can be conformational. Fearful avoidants can also be confrontational but they’re much warmer, sensitive, excitement-seeking, and less assertive or outspoken.
But when it comes to communicating in close relationships, some avoidants struggle with emotional conversations especially if you’re constantly talking feelings.
Mikulincer and Florian in their study of emotional supportive interactions found that people with an anxious attachment style are not affected by emotional conversations and in fact place greater value on emotional communication than other forms of communication.
Emotional or affective communication is directed towards emotions (e.g. Do you love me? Do you miss me? Are you mad at me? etc) and asks for empathic behaviours (e.g. Can you see how much you hurt me? Do you even care? etc).
While this is an anxious attachment’s default form of communication, it’s not the kind of communication avoidants feel comfortable with. In my article mentioned above, I explain in detail how emotional communication affects a fearful avoidants and a dismissive avoidant and confirms the mental scripts they have about communicating, talking or opening up in general.
Mikulincer and Florian’s research found that avoidants place greater value on instrumental communication than on emotional or affective communication.
Instrumental communication is the exchange of information on the functional aspects or day-to- day needs of the relationship, e.g. “I’ll get some food on my way home”, “Is there any mail for me?”, “I can pick up the rest of my stuff on Friday” , “The realtor will be calling you about selling the house.” etc.
The goal is to pass on information as clearly, accurately and effectively as possible and “get things done” without the need for “sharing” feelings with one another. Sometimes this means bringing a conversation to an end (e.g. “I’m done with this conversation!”).
Needless to say, people with an anxious attachment are not happy or satisfied with instrumental communication and in Mikulincer and Florian’s research showed increased negative emotions after an instrumental conversation. This is because instrumental conversations do not provide the validation of one’s feelings that people with an anxious attachment need to feel heard and valued. They feel an avoidant ex is so cold because there is “no emotion” in their texts.
Stress-inducing emotional conversations vs. emotionless low effort conversations
Avoidant exes complain to me all the time, “I don’t want to hurt her feelings, so I just say nothing”, “He’s hard to talk to. He just gets angry and yells” or “I stopped responding because everything is twisted to make me look like a bad person”.
Exes with an anxious attachment also complain about their avoidant ex’s “low effort” conversations. I can’t count how many times a client with an anxious attachment said to me, “He responds when I ask about his day or work, but he avoids any question about how he’s feeling” or “We talk every other day, but she never asks any questions about how I’m feeling or even doing.”
What is happening is two different attachment styles are trying to communicate and neither is really hearing the other. The person with an anxious attachment is trying to have an emotional conversation that validates their feelings but getting no emotional feedback. For example an anxious attachment asks, “Do you even care?” and an avoidant responds “I always do everything you ask me to do.” (meaning: I get things done but it’s never (good) enough for you).
Most avoidant exes never stop to think for a while that may be the reason an anxious attached ex keeps talking about the relationship, the break-up or about “us” is because they really, really want an avoidant to know how they feel and to know how an avoidant feels.
And on the other hand, an avoidant is trying to have a ‘need to know’ only conversation says, “I think I’ll stay in tonight and finish this project” and an anxious attachment responding emotionally says, “I feel that this is something we should talk about” or “I feel like you’re pushing me away” (meaning: I’m hurt that you need space from me.).
Anxiously attached people so often take things so personally and get “emotional” over things they shouldn’t be getting all worked up about. I see this a lot with my clients and spend most of the time helping them see things from a secure attachment perspective. Even when setting and communicating boundaries, many anxiously attached exes use emotional communication and most of the time they’re not taken seriously by dismissive avoidants who think most relationship problems aren’t real or are blown out of proportion by emotional reactions. And when they communicate boundaries to a fearful avoidant, instead of the boundaries creating structure for interacting with their fearful avoidant ex, the ’emotional” boundaries scare away a fearful avoidant from all forms of communication.
What an avoidant ex wants vs. what an anxiously attached ex feels is a “good conversation”
Sometimes what an avoidant ex or anxiously attached ex wants is what they call a “normal conversation”. The problem is, a “normal conversation” or “good conversation” can mean one thing to an avoidant and another thing to an anxiously attached. For an anxiously attached ex, a normal or good conversation is one in which communication is mostly about how the other feels about various things especially those related to the relationship, break-up or getting back together. For an avoidant ex, a normal or good conversation is one in which communication is mostly focused on day-to-day happenings and no or less talk about feelings.
Neither emotional commutation or instrumental communication is bad or wrong, but when all conversations are about “feelings”, the relationship feels like everyday venting, problems are magnified, and negative emotions and general negativity becomes the mood of the relationship. Very often resentment on both sides grows hindering progress towards actually dealing with the problems in the relationship and finding positive solutions.
On the other hand, when all conversation are only about day-to- day needs of existence, things like sharing, reassurance, empathy, appreciation and discussing problems in the relationship which are vital for a relationship to function and be healthy happen less often. For most exes with an anxious attachment, there is no point in reaching out, trying to have conversations or even being together if conversations are just about day-to-day functioning.
Both avoidants and anxious attachment need to learn to ”communicate”
Both instrumental conversations (need to know) and emotional conversations (need to feel known) are necessarily for a relationship to be healthy let alone function.
Emotional communication is extremely important because this is where connection and sharing happens. Without emotional communication there is no connection. What you have is often weak emotional bonding and lack of intimacy.
Emotional communication enables both of you to open up and be vulnerable with each and express your needs, wants, and concerns. It also allows for both of you to express love and admiration for one another and improve the quality of your relationship.
Instrumental communication is equally as important because this is where relationship day-to-day life happens. Instrumental communication helps create structure and boundaries for interacting in the relationship and enables both of you get things that achieve short and long-term goals. It allows you to objectively express and talk about your differences without getting caught up in your feelings and emotions, and focus on your strengths as a team and make your relationship stronger.
Since I’ve already written an article on how people with an anxious attachment can improve on their communication and create a safe environment in which a fearful avoidant ex or dismissive avoidant ex can want to talk about the problems in the relationship, I’m going here to address both fearful avoidant exes or dismissive avoidant exes reading this. Feel free to forward this to your fearful avoidant ex or dismissive avoidant ex because they need to read this.
Fearful avoidant exes: It’s okay not to have a solution to every problem
If you are a fearful avoidant reading this, you’re most likely avoiding conversations about the problems in your relationship because your fearful avoidant attachment mental script is telling you that you have no options to manage the situation and there’s probably no solution. You’ve tried and really wanted the relationship to work but you simply can’t see how your problems can be solved. Your anxious attachment ex wants you to communicate, open up and talk about how you feel but what’s the point of having conversations about relationship problems if nothing gets resolved, and how can you trust someone who keeps letting you down?
You know from past experiences that having these conversations is just going to end up creating more problems and get you rejected again because you’re not good at these type of conversations. It’s less stressful and safer to distance and feel judged, criticized, disliked, or rejected at a distance than risk being reprimanded, punished and/or rejected for trying to do something you know you’re not good at.
I’m not going to tell you that your thoughts, feelings and fears aren’t valid because they are valid. What I can tell you is that you can change your experience by opening yourself to seeing the good (in addition to the bad) in the situation and believe that there is more than one solution to a problem and that it’s okay not to have a solution to every problem.
My advice to you is that it’s okay not to have a solution to every problem. You don’t have to be “perfect” or “know everything” (nobody really does, not even securely attached). Sometimes just showing up is have the battle won. Learn something from people who have a secure attachment style and try to see these difficult to have conversations as opportunities to better yourself and improve your relationship.
Dismissive avoidant exes: Problems don’t solve themselves people solve problems
If you’re a dismissive avoidant reading this, you’re definitely avoiding all and any conversation about the relationship, about the break-up and especially about your ex’s feelings. You know from experience that right now your anxious or fearful avoidant ex is acting calm, but once you open yourself to emotional conversations, there will be emotional outbursts, you’ll be called names, accused of things you have no idea what they’re talking about and you’ll end up emotionally stressed and emotionally burned out because that’s what happens every time.
It’s true that some people just can’t control their emotions, but avoiding these conversation is not the solution if you want the relationship to work. You probably still have feelings for your ex otherwise you’d have walked away and never looked back. So if you’re reading this, there must be a part of you that wants things to work between the two of you.
Of course, it’d be great if your anxiously attached ex used instrumental communication and instead of talking about their feelings and emotions provided solutions, but anxious attachment and fearful avoidants need to be seen, listened to, heard, understood, and acknowledged first before you can talk about solutions. Dismissing their concerns, feelings, needs before you even hear them out or understand how they feel makes someone with an anxious or fearful attachment feel trivialized, rejected and all alone.
The “Don’t bring me problems—bring me solutions” mantra may work in an office or work setting where other people’s feelings and emotions are not important in getting the job done, but in a close relationship setting, “solutions, not problems” prevents the resolution of the problem because you can’t have a solution when you don’t truly understand the problem, let alone acknowledge that there’s a problem.
Always think about the person with whom you are communicating
Anxious attachment and avoidants can learn to communicate with one another if you:
1) Are willing to understand where the other person is coming from, appreciate how they’re most comfortable communicating and meet them where they’re at rather than trying to change them to who you think they should be, what you believe they should say and how you want them to act. This is a form of unacceptance and rejection.
2) Learn to use some emotional communication here and some instrumental communication there depending on the situation and context. If you’re an avoidant, you can put your anxiously attached ex’s need to talk about feelings (theirs and yours) above your own, which will likely make them feel heard, valued, reassured and less anxious. If you’re anxiously attached, you can put you avoidant ex’s need not to talk about feelings above your own need to talk about feelings, which will make an avoidant less likely to be emotionally overwhelmed, non responsive, or want distance.
That was a good conversation!
A good conversation is one which ends with an anxiously attached ex feeling heard, valued and reassured and an avoidant ex feels less stressed and respected. This is possible when you’re present with each other in a positive way and not thinking the other person doesn’t care, is out to hurt you or has something fundamentally wrong with them because they’re not communicating the way you want them to.