Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) a Dismissive Partner

Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) a Dismissive Partner

My previous book on finding a good partner by understanding attachment types (Bad Boyfriends: Using Attachment Theory to Avoid Mr. (or Ms.) Wrong and Make You a Better Partner) brought lots of readers to JebKinnison.com, where the most asked-about topic was dealing with avoidant lovers and spouses. There are many readers in troubled marriages now who are looking for help, as well as people already invested in a relationship short of marriage who’d like help deciding if they should stick with it.

The reason why there is so much interest is the large number of people in relationships with Avoidants who struggle with their lack of responsiveness and inability to tolerate real intimacy. Relationships between an Avoidant and a partner of another attachment type are the largest group of unhappy relationships, and people who love their partners and who may have started families and had children with an Avoidant will work very hard to try to make their relationships work better, out of love for their partner and children as well as their own happiness. And it’s also true that the Avoidants in these relationships are more than likely unhappy with the situation as well—retreating into their shells and feeling harassed for being asked to respond with positive feeling when they have little to give.

The other reason why so many people are looking for help on this topic is that it is an almost impossible problem. Couples counsellors rarely have the time or knowledge to work with an Avoidant and will often advise the spouse to give up on a Dismissive, especially, whose lack of responsiveness looks like cruelty or contempt (and sometimes it is!) Yet there is some hope—though it may take years and require educating the Avoidant on the patterns of good couples communication, if both partners want to change their patterns toward more secure and satisfying models, it can be done.

How can you tell if your partner is avoidant? Does your partner:

• Seem not to care how you feel?
• Frequently fail to respond to direct questions or text messages?
• Accuse you of being too needy or codependent?
• Talk of some past lover as ideal and compare you to them?
• Act coldly toward your children and the needy?
• Remind you that he or she would be fine without you?
• Withhold sex or affection as punishment?

If that sounds familiar, then your partner is likely avoidant. At about 25% of the population, Avoidants have shorter, more troubled relationships, and tend to divorce more frequently and divorce again if remarried.

What can be done? Individual therapy for the motivated Avoidant can move their default attachment style toward security, and to the extent that problems have been made worse by an overly clingy and demanding anxious-preoccupied partner, therapy can help there, as well. Insecure partners who read and absorb the lessons of these books will have a head start on noticing and restraining themselves when they are slipping into an unsatisfying communications pattern, and an intellectual understanding of the bad patterns is a step toward unlearning them.

Not all difficult Avoidants can be reformed; that depends on both partners, the depth of their problems, and their motivation and ability to change over time. But many troubled marriages and relationships can be greatly improved, and the people in them can learn to be happier, with even modest improvements in understanding how they can best communicate support for each other.

If you have not read the previous book or are less familiar with attachment types, a beefed-up section on attachment theory and attachment types from Bad Boyfriends is included. Regular readers of JebKinnison.com will find edited versions of some relevant material previously posted there.

Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) a Dismissive Partner. Available from Amazon on Kindle for $3.99 (or local currency equivalent), and also in a sumptuous trade paperback.


  1. I just happened across this site and it content and author are spot on! Having been on both sides of the Avoidant game, I see how it keeps me from that which I crave the most, intimacy. I don’t just mean intimacy with a partner but it begins with intimacy with myself. Meeting my own needs first, before getting into a relationship and keeping those expectations in check.

    What I want to say here is, I am 5 weeks into a break up with a Dismissive Avoidant who saw no need to change because the problem was that Im “too needy”. I think I was in love with her but am starting to question even that despite how much I “miss her”. What I see is that her negative view of me (and others), classic of the Dismissive, fit right it in to my negative sense of self, classic of the Preoccupied. Its taken me 3 years to come to the conclusion that a) this dynamic is not improving and b) Its not personal. I got caught in a sh*t storm of trying to get her to love me (see me in a positive light) and I would have waited until the ice caps melt.

    I finally went to a good couples therapist who had mercy on me and suggested we separate as our relationship goals were incompatible. Hail Mary, Im freed!!! But, of course I am going through a period of withdrawal (as Ive don’t before having ended this relationship 4X prior).

    I feel, especially after reading the content on this blog that what I am looking for is a secure partner. And, I need to take this time to help myself become more of secure partner so that I don’t run. Regardless, its been an incredible journey so far of self awareness, realization and actualization.

  2. Hi Jeb. I came across your website by chance while looking for answers online about how my seemingly lovely (though not straightforward) relationship had suddenly and very distressingly imploded. I subsequently bought your book and found it fascinating. I’d never heard of attachment theory or attachment types before. So much has now become clear. Although I’m still very upset I feel happier that I at least understand a bit more.

    My point in commenting here though is to say that quite a lot of what you say about dismissive avoidants seems to be made with men in mind. There are obviously general characteristics applicable to both sexes but some of what you say about dismissive avoidant men (especially in the later chapters, about sex) doesn’t fit with dismissive avoidant women at all. I’d be interested if you had any more to say about dismissive avoidant women specifically, and also about how one person (eg my ex-girlfriend, I think) can be both dismissively and fearfully avoidant.


    1. It’s analogous to heart attack profiles in men vs women; women’s heart attacks are less studied and often less easily detected. The dismissive-avoidant male has characteristics that fit well with the stereotype for men generally — self-contained, independent, able to carry on without help. Woemn who are dismissive don’t get the societal reinforcement and so may not so clearly demonstrate these traits; in fact, pressure of custom and stereotyped women’s roles may cause them to act for a time as if they had the feelings of nurturance and caring expected of women. An analogy would be to aggression — a male stereotypically can be aggressive without many negative consequences, while a woman who is aggressive gets sniped at, and often converts obvious aggression to passive-aggression and undermining social tactics. But after you’ve been in a relationship for awhile, the sex roles tend to drop away and it becomes clear to you both what actual regard your partner has for your feelings and success.

      And on the mix with fearful-avoidant, it is a spectrum. There are very clear cases at both ends, but someone whose self-regard wavers between complete independence and feeling needy of a partner will demonstrate mixed symptoms, with the normal variations in circumstances and individual personalities further obscuring the underlying templates. So while it doesn’t help much in your case, the attachment type issues will be less obvious and her reactions a bit less predictable in the absence of more knowledge about her specific experiences and pattern of dealing with loved ones.

      1. Thanks for your reply, Jeb. My ex has definite self-contained and independent traits. She could also be occasionally cold, unresponsive/uncommunicative or adversarial. But (unlike dismissive men perhaps) she wasn’t in a relationship for sex or practical needs. It never felt mercenary or self-centred. I think her fearful side was stronger and she genuinely wanted a relationship and intimacy, but was simultaneously scared and stressed by it. It also seems that her feelings for me were more lightly held than I realised. Looking back, I think she felt her interior and exterior were at odds. So when I could no longer suppress my upset about her periodic distancing and challenged her, she quickly withdrew and dumped me. I guess this sounds quite familiar!

  3. I wish to add here a follow up to my initial post as I have read just about everything I can find (thats not clinical) on Attachment. What Im confused about is although I test as Preoccupied, I have very much been anxious avoidant in the past and even in the previously described relationship with a woman who clearly fell into the Dismissive category, I was avoidant in the first half of the relationship as well as in prior relationships. I think that with someone who is more anxious than me, I can display more Avoidant traits. I want to say that I have more compassion now, 3 months into the breakup than I did before. Her Dismissive, sabotaging behavior triggered all my insecurities and it took a while for this to run through my system and reading the material, including your book on Attachment, I see how her behavior had noting to do with whether I was “good enough” and more about her own unconscious insecurities. This awareness has helped me understand wth happened between us. It explains how someone who was so crazy about me when I was more avoidant, became more avoidant when I started showing more signs of being secure. The her avoidance tactics triggered Preoccupied traits in me. My point is although all this information helps a great deal, I dont know if Im Secure, Preoccupied or Avoidant! Please share if you have any thoughts on this.

    1. There’s your underlying tendency, attachment type, then there are temporary displays of other attachment styles caused by reacting to others — as, for example, a relationship with a preoccupied, clingy sort creating a reaction of dismissiveness, or the reverse. Almost anyone can display any style under stress. If you take one of the attachment type tests while thinking of the stressful relationship, you’ll get the temporary type. If you consciously think of more satisfying and secure relationships, you’ll test as more secure.

  4. Hi, I’m just starting to learn about the Attachment styles and I found your articles really helpful. When I read the styles I immediately identified my partner falling in the Dismissive category whereas myself falling mostly in the Preoccupied category. We’ve been 2,5 years together but the last year has been on and off. Whenever I distance myself he comes back expressing his feelings however when we’re back together again and we reach a point that we are really close he reacts by saying I’m too needy and distances himself. Like he suddenly doesn’t even care.

    Even though I really have a good time with him, great laughs, I care and have feelings for this person the situation started to be getting too difficult for me to bare. I bought your book from amazon and i’m still waiting for it to arrive.

    Are there any “right” ways that you can handle a relationship with dismissive-avoidant person? How is better to react when he is in his avoidant phase?


    1. Maria –

      This is a typical relationship of the dismissive and preoccupied pairing. The book will give you a lot more insight, but the basic principle to remember (oversimplifying a bit) is that the attachment type is a kind of thermostat of intimacy; you want to be close and constantly exchange messages of support, he wants to remain distant and rarely exchange messages. When he is feeling too close to you, he will try to distance himself by not answering, and if you keep asking for a response, that wil make him more uncomfortable so he will distance further. You will keep trying because you don’t feel close enough, and that will frustrate you more.

      If you want to stay with him despite this problem, YOU can try to be less needy of his response, and when he doesn’t respond, stop trying. You might get him to read the book as well, and when he is more conscious of his intimacy-avoidance, he may be able to modify that so that he responds more supportively even when his instinct is to distance and ignore your request. This is not an easy thing and most dismissives will resist working on themselves, seeing your efforts as just another intrusion they don’t want.

      Good luck and let us know how things have gone in a few months!

  5. So true… For me it was a conflict with no other option but to surrender and walk away. Its been a painful process, always wanting, wishing and hoping. But I see now that that was fantasy. The reality is that she was the way she was, was never going to see it and I was never going to be able to change it or to react any differently towards it (her dismissive behavior). Its sad, but I have my whole life ahead of me and Im glad its mostly behind me now. I do attribute Jebs writings for helping with the awareness and the understand that it was not my fault, not personal and not my problem. It is my problem if i continue to select avoidants. But Im hopeful that with my experience and awareness I wont be duped so easily next time.

    1. It is sad, but you can’t change your partner unless they see the problem and want to change. Rather than sink more of your energy into a relationship that won’t change, recognizing that you have changed because you understand this and moving on to a new phase is the wise course. Best of luck, and be happy…

  6. Thank you for writing this book. I read it after reading Attached last year, because I somehow managed to find myself in a relationship with a Dismissive Avoidant even after educating myself on the type.
    I tell all my single (or unhappily attached) friends to read these books and save themselves time on dead-end relationships.

    I do have a question regarding the Avoidants, though. When I recently broke up with my newer Avoidant boyfriend because he told me he felt no strong feelings for me and wouldn’t be developing stronger feelings (he indicated that he loved me in nonverbal ways) just shy of our one-year anniversary, he initially didn’t understand why a lack of feelings for me would lead me to want to exit the “perfectly good” relationship but then quickly accepted the breakup with a cool and business-like response. However, when I pushed back on how he couldn’t have developed stronger feelings or why he indicated that he liked me more if he really didn’t- he suddenly broke down sobbing. He sobbed and kept saying that he really, really hope he could develop deeper/stronger feelings for me and that he really wanted to- but he just never did. I was not expecting this kind of show of emotion from such a textbook Avoidant. Is this because some of the repressed emotions broke through? Was it just “for show” to get pity or because he felt guilty for leading me on? It’s as if he is oblivious to his own displays of emotions.

    I know that it’s probably a lost cause and that I should look for someone who is capable of returning my love, but I can’t help but find his behavior completely mystifying.

    1. It’s not unknown for a dismissive to break down and display emotions when cornered. Anger is not unusual, or despair as you saw. But they’re negative emotions — self-pity because he wants to have a good relationship with you but can’t feel the feelings he knows you need him to feel. This doesn’t mean he’s ever going to feel the same sense of importance about you as he feels about himself — that’s what’s blocked for an avoidant.

      His question about why you would break up with him when you had a “perfectly good” relationship is interesting — when “good” is defined as superficially adequate. And it’s true that some people are happy with a partner who is “acceptable.” But when terrible things happen, the “acceptable” partner will bail. Under stress the partner without deep emotional commitment will abandon the relationship. If you can do better and a partner who truly cares for you is what you want, you shouldn’t spend any more time on this guy.

      1. Thank you for those insights! I had also heard from mutual friends that he was “pretty devastated” because of the breakup and it all baffled me- if I wasn’t that into someone, I just don’t think I would be sobbing and telling friends that I was devastated. Prior to the breakup, mutual friends told me they had never seen him this happy or be so “into” anyone. In fact, I was his first girlfriend and longest relationship in ten years (he’s 35…red flag, I know). It made me want to shake him and insist “you’re in denial- obviously you do care more than you realize.”
        When we were breaking up, he had added that he was “content” with our relationship- despite not really seeing a long term future with me. He told me that I’m too focused on outcomes & goals (probably marriage) and he’s perfectly content enjoying the experience or journey. It seems he would have stayed with me indefinitely, as long as I never got fed up.

        It is so fascinating to me that there are so many people who wouldn’t be classified as sociopaths- but nonetheless, they don’t seem to feel anything or have empathy. It seems incredibly sad that so many people will never recognize their issues or overcome them.

        Thank you again, your writing on this issue has helped so many of us make more sense of otherwise senseless heartbreak.

  7. I have read so much about avoidant dismissive Personality bc I am besotted with a 50 y/o man who is .
    He displays all the traits . I can tell he has developed this bc he was raised by very strict and cold parents and was sent to a boarding school from the age of 11 yo until 18 yo. It makes me so sad, I can feel his sense of abondament and I totally understand how he came to develop a typical Avoidant dismissive personality.
    He is the “confident, successful, charming, workaholic, good looking ,amazing lover ,type ”
    so I am enchanted with him but I am also sad knowing what I am in for .
    I am in the other hand the secure type so I don’t corner him or pressure him in anyway and I totally give him space but I have to gather all my patience and strength to wait for him to come to me . I do wait for him bc he is such an amazing man and I just want him so much. I don’t want to stress him or pressure him.
    I occasionally feel anxious bc I cant change or force him , but knowing the reasons gives me serenity as I know is nothing I have done is all about his ADP type. Knowledge is power.

    My biggest questions are whether this type of personality ever feel love for a woman or whether they want to fall in love or want to open their hearts to a woman ? Do they actually yern this feeling ? Or it is Just non existent in their mind and souls ? Do they have their own way to show love or it is not in their programming to do so ? Finally do they suffer bc of this type of personality? Is there pain and unhappiness in their hearts for not beign able to find the joy of deep meaningful connection to a woman ?
    I am going to order your book as soon as I can to further informe myself .

    Your response is much appreciated

    1. Your eyes are wide-open going in, and you say you are secure, so you may be abel to make it work for you, especially if you can get him to understand that his lack of conscious feeling for you is a problem. Now it’s not a good idea to generalize about people base donly on attachment type, but in general dismissives do want to be attached and do miss their loved ones when they are gone, but those feelings are submerged by the defense mechanism they used to survive loss and pain earlier in life. So they rarely show affection and think of messages of affection towards them as demands for response. There’s a lot more about this in the book, which I am sure you will find helpful. Being aware, and especially communicating with him about the problem, may allow you both to accommodate each other’s needs better despite his discomfort with closeness.

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