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Episode 230: Adventures in Dating an Avoidant

After my first few dates with Gym Crush, I thought I would be writing a very different story today. 

Over the course of the past few years and hundreds of dates, I've walked away from a lot of people because I know in my gut what it's supposed to feel like when you meet your person, and very few people have even come close. 

My friends often questioned me, assuming I was being overly picky, perfectionistic, or stuck on a fairytale. 

And then Gym Crush happened. 

I had seen him almost every day at Equinox for months, never thinking anything of it. Until one day I looked up and he was... checking me out? I glanced his direction a few more times, and every time, his eyes were on me. 

Over the course of a couple weeks, we continued to glance each other's way, getting braver with our smiles, saying hi, waving, chatting, and eventually exchanging numbers. The chemistry was undeniable. 

On our first date we left the gym together to go find food, but being Martin Luther King Day, our first few options were closed. We huddled against the January wind and wandered into Bowen House, a dark, cozy bar with candlelight and killer cocktails. 

It felt like we had known each other for ages. We talked effortlessly, shared stories, he made me laugh, I made him laugh (a strong indicator of my own comfort with someone is if my humor comes out), we shared a love of not just fitness but holistic health, he scooted his chair closer to mine so our knees touched. 

When he drove me back to my car I expected to give the awkward over-the-console hug goodbye. But instead he jumped out of the car, strode up to me and wrapped me up in the biggest bear hug as if he'd done it a million times. He kissed me and the world went dark and quiet. He kissed me the way I have always wanted to be kissed, passionate but tender, intense but gentle. I started to turn to my car and he grabbed me and pulled me in again with a smile. 

I got in my car and (after making sure he was safely in his car away from earshot), squealed. 

This was the feeling I had been waiting for for 32 years. 

So color me shocked as I sit here, almost 3 months later, at my favorite coffee shop, with a superfood shake at my side, telling you that it's over. 

I could write a book on what happened over the next two and a half months, and I definitely dive into more details in the podcast, but here's the pattern that matters for the purposes of this episode:

We would have the most spectacular dates filled with all the chemistry, connection, fun, and ease of that first night - dinners out, darts at the Adolphus hotel, drinks at Catbird, pool and Mario Cart at Barcadia, guitar hero at his place, hot tubbing, dancing, rock climbing, cooking, even talks about getting tattoos together (it didn't happen, but that's a story for the podcast), and staying in snuggled up together sharing more and more about ourselves. 

Yet the closer we got, the more he pulled away until finally... we broke. 

Enter: attachment theory. AKA what saved me from wasting a year+ with someone who couldn't love me the way I want or deserve to be loved. 

What is attachment theory?

Your attachment style is the pattern of behaviors you exhibit in response to relationships and bonds and it's determined partially by genetics, and largely by childhood experiences. There are 3 core attachment styles to speak of: anxious, avoidant, and secure. 

Traits of a securely attached person (according to 

  • Hold a positive working model of self and others
  • Are comfortable with both intimacy and autonomy
  • Display openness when it comes to expressing emotions
  • Are comfortably depending on others for help while being comfortable with others being dependent on them
  • Can objectively assess people and assign a positive value to relationships despite experiencing negative attachment-related events
  • Can balance giving and receiving in a relationship 
  • Experience less relationship fear or doubt and can focus on being present with their partner 
  • Are able to communicate effectively 
  • Are upfront about what they're looking for in a partner
  • Respect their partners needs and boundaries

Traits of an anxiously attached person (according to 

  • Seek repeated reassurance
  • View their self worth and safety as flowing from the relationship rather than from within themselves
  • Worry that they care more about the relationship than their partner does
  • In search for reassurance they may bombard their partner with texts, become nervous or upset if their partner seems distant, or repeatedly solicit compliments
  • Crave closeness but can have difficulty trusting it 
  • Holds the belief 'I am not OK by myself'
  • Find it hard to relax even when things are going well in the relationship 
  • Can sabotage their relationship with jealousy, being possessive, testing their partner's love, complaining or nitpicking, or becoming argumentative when their partner wants solo time
  • Aim to be perfect for their partners due to fear of abandonment 
  • Struggle with feeling unlovable, powerless, alone, and undesirable
  • Over-invest in the relationship by seeing to quickly deepen the relationships, idealizing their partner, or fixating on the relationship so it becomes their main focus of time and attention

Traits of an avoidant attached person:

  • Avoid emotional closeness
  • Feels their partner is being clingy when they just want to get emotionally closer
  • Don't want you to depend on them or to depend on you
  • Focus on tiny imperfections in their partner until it gets in the way of romantic feelings
  • Keep secrets for no good reason
  • Have an idea in their head of the ultimate romantic partner that no actual human can live up to and when people don't live up to it they discard them as soon as possible
  • Fears when someone gets too close they'll get smothered or controlled
  • Withdraw and cope with difficult situations alone
  • Withdraw or tune out from unpleasant conversations
  • Strong sense of independence
  • Feelings of high self esteem while having negative views of others
  • Overly focused on their own needs and comforts
  • Once someone is too close they turn to deactivating strategies to squelch intimacy like withdrawing without communicating what's going on, being ambiguous about the state of the relationship, etc.) 

Needless to say, Gym Crush fell squarely in the avoidant category. And while this experience was a devastating blow to the part of me that thought I had finally found my person, I learned more in the last 3 months than I have in the last 3 years and can happily say I have fully stepped into being the person want to be in relationship.

And I know in my gut that this was it, this was the last big lesson, the last big pattern break that will propel me into the relationship of my dreams. 

Hopefully these lessons will help you in your quest for love too (both from others and from yourself). 

Lessons from dating an avoidant partner:

1. Your body is speaking to you constantly. Listen to it. 

If you follow me on Instagram you know when I go on a truly great date, my sleep is garbage that night. Like we're talking I'm luck if I get 3 hours of sleep. This didn't just happen after my first date with Gym Crush, it happened after our first conversation. 

But instead of fucking up my sleep for a night or two, my sleep was off virtually the entire time we dated. I am not a morning person and yet I was regularly waking up anywhere between 5 and 7 am (my norm would be 8:30-9). 

Throughout the day I would notice my hands were shaking as if I had horribly low blood sugar, even if I had just eaten. 

And when I met Gym Crush I hadn't watched tv in months. My evenings were filled with reading, journaling, meditating, ankle rehab, baths, and the like. A few weeks into dating, I was back to watching tv to fall asleep. 

Most probably wouldn't think anything of this, but I knew exactly what was going on. I was dissociating. I was trying to distract and disconnect from the anxiety Gym Crush was causing in my body. 

All of this was showing how dysregulated my nervous system was, but I ignored it hoping once we were in a full blown committed relationship that it would go away. Maybe it would have, but the truth is if someone is throwing your body into such a state of dysfunction and discomfort, it isn't a good sign. 

2. Repeating a pattern unconsciously is just reinforcing the pattern. Repeating a pattern consciously is unraveling it. 

I have a history of dating avoidants and up until recently it's been a very unconscious pattern. I find men who I have to convince to love me the way I want to be loved, I find men who I have to chase, who I have to earn by being perfect because it reinforces the subconscious belief that I'm not enough as I am. 

This was the first time I watched it happening as if I was sitting on the outside watching the movie of my life. 

I knew the pieces that were unhealthy. I knew I wasn't being treated with nearly enough care or intentionality. And through the whole thing I stayed curious. I sat with the constant triggers, self-regulated through the anxiety, journaled about why I was accepting less than I know I'm worth. 

I also showed up differently. I stood up for myself and communicated my boundaries and needs and even though he ended up not being able to meet them, it was a complete pattern break not to just be swept along, accepting whatever breadcrumbs he was willing to give. 

And instead of wasting a year on this guy because we had an amazing time together, i

Sometimes it isn't about not repeating a pattern, it's about getting out exiting it sooner. 

3. Know when to mirror and when to model behavior. 

Early on when Gym Crush and I started dating, I implemented the practice of mirroring which is basically where you reflect back a person's behavior to them. In other words, if they aren't texting often, you don't text often. If they lean in and get vulnerable, you lean in and get vulnerable. 

When used out of alignment, this can quickly turn into game play. In my opinion it's all about the intent behind it. Are you using it as a way to manipulate their behavior and get them to chase you? Game play. Or are you using it as a way to protect your energy and pace yourself to ensure you aren't over-investing before someone has shown they're willing to invest in you? Mirroring.

Now here's where it gets tricky, if both people constantly mirror each other, the relationship gets stuck. Because no one is taking the risk of putting themself out there and moving the relationship forward. That's when you model and show the behavior you want and then sit back and see if they then model that behavior back to you. 

Here's how it went down:

He was a terrible texter, not just in frequency but in content. So I played with sending funny memes, voice notes, and even calling him to show him how I wanted the conversation to go.

While he often complimented my looks, I prefer compliments that show someone is noticing little things about me as a person. So I dolled out those types of compliments to him.

He wasn't the best at planning dates ahead of time, so whenever it was up to me to set a date I did it a number of days in advance with a clear plan. 

Mind you, this was sprinkled in after a lot of mirroring (we're not about chasing men over here) and some of it worked and some of it didn't. 

The point is you have to find a balance between being willing to be vulnerable and put yourself out there first, without giving more than is merited given the current dynamic. 

4. When people tell you who they are, listen. 

There were so many little comments or stories that frankly, I did take note of early on that were warning signs of what was to come. 

In the past I would have glossed over them completely. This time I paid close attention. I didn't bail immediately because I wanted to give it enough breathing room to observe who he really was and I didn't want to jump the gun on ending things. 

But when I saw the warnings matching up with our trajectory, I knew it wasn't going to end in happy ever after. 

I remember he told me how in relationships past things would be going well and then all of a sudden he just wouldn't feel it anymore. 

He told me that his girlfriends would complain about how much hockey he played (practically nightly from 9-11) and that he didn't make enough time for them. 

He told me that the thought of moving in with someone stressed him out because it takes away the choice of spending time with someone. 

Looking at it all laid out it seems like it should have been blatantly obvious from the get go. But this was sprinkled in with contradictory comments like, "I'm looking for something great, something that lasts" and "I'm over my commitment issues" - so while it took some time to tease out what was accurate, the signs were there from day one (as they usually are).

5. If you're unsure in the beginning, decide on an amount of time you're willing to waste on them. 

I was crazy about this man from the jump (I know as I lay out various flaws it probably seems baffling, but the way I felt when I was with him was unlike anything I've experienced).

But I also was very uncomfortable with the level of mixed signals that were going on, so I remember telling my friend within the first couple weeks that while I didn't want to pull my perfectionistic crap of dumping the guy as soon as I saw a single flaw, I also didn't want to waste months or even years on someone who wasn't 'it' (something I've been guilty of on more than one occasion).

So I made the choice: I was willing to waste 3 months on him. If we got to 3 months and I was still experiencing those mixed signals, if the relationship wasn't moving forward, if I wasn't feeling more confident in us, I would cut my losses. We made it two and a half. 

And while that doesn't seem like a lot of time, I learned a ton about both dating and myself which is why we're splitting this up into a 2-part episode. Click here to get notified when the next one drops!  


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