006 – How to Have an Argument with an Avoidant Partner

You Are Not Listening by {studiobeerhorst}-bbmarie via Flikr.com“Avoidant” partners often attempt to protect the relationship during conflict by pulling away. This is ironic given that Dr. John Gottman has identified stonewalling – emotional withdrawal from interaction – one of the four best predictors of divorce.

Obviously, reducing conflict is one way to avoid triggering this response, however, conflict in our dance with our closest relations is inevitable. So how exactly does one have a fair fight with an “avoidant” without destroying the relationship? Dr. Rebecca Jorgensen and I explore this subject in our latest podcast.

 

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Transcript

Welcome to Wefulness where we discuss the science of profound connection.  I’m Wefulness co-editor Gregory Blake.  Today we are talking with relationship expert Dr. Rebecca Jorgensen.

G:  Hi Becca.

R:  Hey Greg.

G:  I have a question that’s been in my mind for a while now.  With so much of the avoidants’ behavior being pulling away, I wonder how do you have a fair argument with someone who is avoidant?  If you can’t talk to them or that is sort of my impression so I need some clarification on it.  How do we actually have disagreements?  Cause disagreements happen in all relationships, so I’m curious.

R:  Okay, well that’s a great question, first off.  None of us really like to have arguments, but we know invariably that they’re going to happen when we are walking in close proximity to someone, we end up stepping on each other’s toes.  Or the analogy that Sue Johnson would use, we’re dancing with someone in a close relationship; we’ll end up tripping up on each other, stepping on each other’s toes.  At those times, that’s when we’re really talking about.  What happens then if the person that you are dancing with is avoidant?  And when you get tripped up, what they want to do is get off the dance floor.  That’s kind of the question, right?

G:  Yeah, totally.

R:  So, there are a couple of great ways to handle this.  And one of the things that avoidants do is emotionally shut down.  Sometimes physically go away, but generally what they do is emotionally shut down.  So, kind of the heart, the openness, the willingness to engage – that becomes very protected.  It’s a way of protecting the relationship really.  If we are going to get in conflict.  If that conflict then would lead to a rupture in the relationship, I’m not going to want to be in conflict.  And that’s kind of where the avoidant comes from.  So shut down the heart.  Go into protective mode, protect the relationship and protect that emotional disconnection from elevating, from getting bigger. And the discussion from getting more intense.  So it’s really around getting away from emotional intensity.  So one of the ways that you can have an argument is to one, not have it be personal, not to personalize it; to be logical, stay cool, calm and collected.  And not make it so that whatever it is you got tripped up about puts the relationship at risk.  That’s really what they are avoiding, is putting the relationship at risk.

G:    Is there a special way to say…someone’s husband is an avoidant, but is always leaving the toilet seat up.  What would be the appropriate way to deal with that?  Is there a special way to say that?

R:  Well, what would typically happen is someone would say, “Hey, you know, we’ve talked about this 10,000 times and here it is. You’re still leaving the toilet seat up.  What’s going on here?”  Right?  That’s the common approach that we would have that really starts disagreements.  So for one, the tone is critical. And there is some sort of, “What’s the matter with you.” Blame, in that tone, and it really leaves out kind of an opportunity of, “What are your thoughts?”  It’s not really an invitation to have a conversation.  It’s more like, “This is my way, and you’re doing it wrong, now shape up.”  And that is a formula for shutting down an avoidant or a conversation with them, with an avoidant.  So it’s really important to have that sense of the relationship isn’t at risk and that you value and respect where they are coming from.  And a lot of times there is some sense when someone comes from an avoidant stance of feeling unappreciated and maybe not really seen for all their good intention and what they are trying to accomplish.  That also is something that you can have in mind when you go to approach a conversation.  Is really having very good will towards the person that you are in love with.  To keep in that good will place even though there is a problem.

G:  Okay, so let’s say that I totally ignored the advice you gave me and I actually did say something that led my avoidant partner to actually shut down.  What do you do then?

R:  Well, what you do is you recognize first that…being aware is really an important thing.  And starting to look at, “Uh oh, I think I just got triggered and felt some sense of maybe I don’t matter here because my partner isn’t listening to me and I went after my partner with that.”  To kind of have that be part of the conversation.  Is, “You know, it seems like we get caught in this.  We get tripped up in this particular way on the dance floor.  And I feel like you’re not really supporting me and then I protest that.  Which would be kind of the particular pursuit withdraw pattern that we see very commonly in close relationships.  So you can have a conversation about that.  “You know, I think I did get tripped up.  And when I get tripped up I have a tendency to go, “Why weren’t you there?  Or why didn’t you listen?” And I can take accountability and responsibility and apologize to you for my part in that.  That you know, then I responded to you in a way that made you go even farther away from me.”  So really there are two issues.  There is the content issue that you are talking about, the toilet seat.  That’s one.  And the other one is really the process.  How do you engage with each other to maintain a loving, safe, accepting relationship with each other?  How do you maintain that?  And so the first one is to address the process.  You know, “Uh oh, I recognize what I did.  Somehow I got thrown out of connection with you and I lost sight of the way we treat each other being really important.  I let the toilet seat say to me, “Maybe I’m not important.”  And I came after you.”  So number one is to notice the process.  So when you are connected again then you can say, “You know, maybe this is kind of crazy, but to me the toilet seat represents that you are thinking about me.”  Right.  “So can we negotiate that some way?”  So once you take care of the process and you feel back and connected and warm with each other, then you can move on and solve the content problem.  You know you can try that, listeners can try that and see what happens if you can even engage in kind of a process conversation with each other.  It’s really a hard thing to do.  I know from experience that trying to approach your avoidant partner with process; it’s scary for both of you because you don’t know – it’s a new kind of way to have a conversation – when we enter into new kinds of conversations we’re unsure.   And when we are unsure we are more easily triggered.  So that’s a good thing to kind of remember, that when you are learning something new, it’s often difficult and it takes more than one try.  But you can get that with time.  So go home and try it.  Just kind of approaching from, “Geez, I’m sorry.  You know, you know me, I have a tendency to get kind of over dramatic at times, and I think I did it around the seat.  For some reason, there is something about it that hurts my feelings.  I’m sure you don’t mean to hurt my feelings.  Can we get back on the same track together?”

G:  That’s a good spot to leave it for today.  But I think we will extend the conversation at a later date, flip it around, and say, “How do we deal with an anxious partner?”  I’m assuming then things would be a little bit different.  Thank you very much; we’ll talk to you again.

R:  Thanks so much Greg. Bye.

Thank you for listening.  For more information about today’s topic, visit our website Wefulness.com.  We look forward to seeing you there.

5 thoughts on “006 – How to Have an Argument with an Avoidant Partner

  1. This post/podcast was extremely helpful to me. I am in a relationship with someone who seems to be extremely avoidant, with all the stereotypical behaviors. I would like to try to break through to him because I really believe he wants a close relationship but it is almost impossible and I have just about given up hope. There seems to be a great deal of information out there describing the behavior but not very much to help the person who is trying to relate to (and help) their avoidant partner. Do you have any suggestions…books/podcasts/videos…any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for some wonderful information.

  2. Hi K,

    Thank you so much for your kind words.

    I know Rebecca is formulating a response from a therapist’s perspective (I feel another podcast coming on 🙂 ) but I just wanted you to know that you are not alone. The question of “What does an avoidant need from me?” is one of the reasons I started reviewing the literature on adult attachment theory in the first place.

    Frankly, I have not found a “how to” book that completely satisfies my question yet, but if you have not already read “Hold Me Tight” by Sue Johnson, that would be a great place to start.

    In the mean time, I have two hard learned lessons I can pass along:

    1) As an “Anxious,” I now try to use my hyper-vigilance (I like to thinking of it as my superpower 😉 ) to be on the lookout for moments of reaching out from the avoidants in my life. The proof that “I matter” is often there if I look beyond the behaviors that initially feel like pulling away.

    2) It all boils down to how our actions make the avoidant feel. Even acts of kindness can trigger unexpected negative emotions in an avoidant (e.g. “I’m not worthy”). Because of that, there may be times when no action is better than explicit action. Our “How do I break through?” question then becomes more a challenge of “How do I wait patiently and still feel loved?”

    Best wishes on your quest. If you run across anything that truly resonates with you, please do let us know.

    Sincerely,

    Gregory

    • Thanks for the response, Gregory. I appreciate your lessons learned….you hit the nail right on the head “How do I wait patiently while still feeling loved”. I will read Hold Me Tight too…and would love to also hear any suggestions from Dr. Jorgensen. Thanks again. I love forward to your next podcast! 🙂 K

  3. What if you are both avoidants? I had no idea I was one until I finally got married 8 years ago at 43. I have my issues, of course, but he has a first marriage that blew up due to many things including alcoholism, and two kids to support that create many problems for me and an ex that still makes everyone’s life crazy. I didn’t really get he was an alcoholic until we were into the marriage a few years; and he actually admitted to it a few years ago. I don’t like discussing problems with him because he thinks they should get resolved in one sitting and I know it makes time. He is still drinking and has decided he wanted a divorce last fall. We are living together because, due to too many circumstances to list here, I need to find a job to support me full time. Is the alcoholism making it hard for me to connect with him and is it why I want to avoid the conversations? Do I on some level realize the relationship has never been a good one with the right kind of honesty and truthfulness? I feel as if I’m trying to dig deep and deal with issues and find my true self again! When I treat him with kindness, he seems to be suspicious of my intentions, reminding me that we are still getting a divorce. I am daily giving myself over to how God wants me to be, not me. Mw always gets me in trouble!

  4. This is a hugely helpful conversation, Thank you. A consideration of how to have an argument with an anxious person would also be great, I hope you get a chance to address this.

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