By Chris Seiter

Published on December 22nd, 2023

I think it goes without saying that avoidants are often known for creating distance both in and out of relationships.

Why is this?

Well, the short answer is that every dismissive avoidant has a core wound that revolves around independence. When they are in a relationship with someone and feel as if their independence is being intruded upon that’s when the gulf of distance is created.

But honestly this discussion is so much more nuanced than you can imagine because it’s not just about understanding why they create distance. It’s also about understanding HOW they do it.

You see, avoidant’s have all these deactivation strategies.

  1. Saying or thinking: “I’m not ready to commit” but staying together for years
  2. Picking out small imperfections in their partner
  3. The phantom ex
  4. Purposefully flirting with others
  5. Never saying “I love you” BUT knowing what to say to keep you on the hook.
  6. Pulling away when things are going well
  7. Partnering with someone with an impossible future
  8. Avoiding physical closeness

And today I’m going to dive deep into both the why and the how!

Let’s begin!

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Why Avoidants Create Distance

One of the common themes you’ll see me talk about a lot is independence.

Seeing as how the dismissive avoidant has a core wound that revolves around “losing their independence” this gives us a potential explanation for why avoidants create distance in a relationships (and after them.)

Watch this video,

In it I talk a lot about this idea of avoidant triggers. Basically anything that threatens an avoidants idea of independence will cause them to enact certain deactivation strategies to keep their partners at an arms length (we’ll talk more about that later)

But basically everything with avoidants boils down to this insatiable need for independence. In their book Attached, Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S.F. Heller, M.A. say something quite fascinating about this subject.

Avoidants mistake self reliance for independence

Avoidants typically see independence as the ability to function entirely on their own, equating it with not needing others for any emotional support.

This perspective leads them to overemphasize self-reliance, often to the point of avoiding emotional intimacy and deep connections. They mistakenly believe that relying on someone else in any capacity signifies weakness or a loss of freedom.

However, true independence in relationships is about balancing self-reliance with interdependence—being capable of managing on one’s own while also engaging in mutually supportive and emotionally connected relationships.

Avoidants’ skewed perception of independence often results in a reluctance to embrace vulnerability and interdependence, which are crucial for the health and depth of any close relationship.

So, what the heck do they do instead?

Well, they engage in all kinds of wild deactivation strategies.

The 8 Avoidant Deactivating Strategies

So, what the heck are deactivation strategies?

Simply put: a deactivation strategy is a type of action or behavior from an avoidant that is designed to keep you at an arms length. This way they can maintain their independence and don’t have the threat of commitment hanging over their head.

In all, I believe there are eight common deactivation strategies

  1. Saying or thinking: “I’m not ready to commit” but staying together for years
  2. Picking out small imperfections in their partner
  3. The phantom ex
  4. Purposefully flirting with others
  5. Never saying “I love you” BUT knowing what to say to keep you on the hook.
  6. Pulling away when things are going well
  7. Partnering with someone with an impossible future
  8. Avoiding physical closeness

Let’s start from the top!

What Are Your Chances of Getting Your Ex Boyfriend Back?

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“I’m Not Ready To Commit” But Staying Together For Years

This contradictory stance—remaining in a long-term relationship while simultaneously declaring a lack of readiness for commitment—serves multiple purposes.

  • Primarily, it allows the avoidant partner to maintain a necessary emotional distance, keeping the intimacy within their comfort zone and avoiding the vulnerabilities that come with deeper commitment.
  • This statement acts as a constant reminder of the relationship’s limits, managing both their own and their partner’s expectations.
  • It also provides an escape route, a reassurance that they can leave if they feel too constrained.

This approach stems from a deep-seated fear of losing autonomy and identity in the relationship. By avoiding full commitment, the avoidant partner protects themselves against perceived emotional risks, ensuring they retain a sense of control and independence within the relationship dynamic.

Picking Out Small Imperfections In Their Partner

Alright, let’s start with one of the most common avoidant deactivation strategies: picking out small imperfections in their partner.

This is vividly illustrated in my ‘death wheel’ concept, which describes the cycle that dismissive avoidants often find themselves in.

If you’re not familiar with it, the death wheel is a concept I frequently discuss, especially in the context of dismissive avoidance. It represents an endless loop where individuals go from one relationship to another, experiencing failure and starting over again.

The death wheel comprises eight main stages.

  • It begins with Stage One, where they desire someone’s love.
  • In Stage Two, they find someone, marking the end of their troubles and the start of the honeymoon period.
  • Stage Three is where worrying signs begin to emerge, and this particular deactivation strategy comes into play.

The avoidant starts focusing on specific aspects of their partner they dislike, which could range from the way their partner talks, eats, or dresses. However, more commonly, I’ve found it relates to the partner’s other insecure attachment style.

Typically, avoidant individuals often pair up with anxious individuals. As the avoidant begins to withdraw, the anxious partner may start to panic and push for closeness. This reaction can be counterproductive with a dismissive avoidant. Once they sense their partner’s need for reassurance, they interpret it as a red flag. Consequently, they raise their defenses and begin the deactivation process by focusing on their partner’s imperfections.

It’s important to remember that every deactivation strategy is designed to maintain a certain distance.

Most dismissive avoidants might not even be aware that they’re doing this. It has become such an ingrained behavior due to repetition in various relationships that it’s almost second nature.

Similar to how reading or talking is automatic for us because we do it daily, deactivation has become a natural response for avoidants in relationships. They’ve deactivated so frequently that it has become their norm.

The Phantom Ex

This is the ultimate deactivation strategy. In fact, I was writing about this very thing in an article yesterday and I think I summed it up pretty thoroughly.

Let’s pull one from Free to Attach to help explain this phenomenon,

Avoidants are free to long for an ex once that person is unavailable out of the relationship, and typically out of contact so they are untouched by actual engagement and their deactivation systems aren’t triggered.

At some point during stages seven and eight of my famous death wheel,

Avoidants can get this nostalgic reverie which ultimately leads them to painting you as the “phantom ex.”

Check this out, On page 124 of Attached it says,

One of the consequences of devaluing your romantic relationship is that you often wake up long after a relationship has gone stale, often forgetting all the negative things that annoyed you. You wonder what went wrong? And reminisce lovingly about your long lost partner. This is called the phantom ex phenomenon.

It is the ultimate deactivation strategy for an avoidant.

They will frequently persuade themselves that they are pining for a past love or that the ideal partner is just moments away from entering their lives. This belief in the existence of a “perfect partner” fosters the concept of a “phantom ex” — an idealized, nonexistent figure who perpetually outshines real, present partners. This relentless pursuit of an unattainable ideal often hinders their ability to appreciate and commit to the genuine connections they currently have.

But something about this is bugging me.
No one ever talks about if there’s just one phantom ex or multiple. Once again, I researched. And once again, Nada.

Here’s what I think,

It seems like it’s possible for an avoidant to have multiple phantom exes at different stages of an avoidants life.

  • A high school sweetheart
  • The first person they slept with
  • The first person they lived with

Each new stage of life has the potential to create a new phantom ex. But as I understand the phantom ex phenomenon, it doesn’t always have to be someone that they dated. It could just be ideal. The FOMO on this type of person.

What Are Your Chances of Getting Your Ex Boyfriend Back?

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But I’m getting off track. Basically during stages seven and eight they start considering getting back with you having painted you as a phantom ex.

And if that happens, well the whole avoidant death wheel starts over again from stage one.

Purposefully Flirting With Others

When an avoidant person flirts with others, it can be understood as a way to maintain a sense of independence and control in their relationships.

Here are a few reasons why an avoidant might flirt with others:

  • Fear of Intimacy: Avoidants often have a deep-seated fear of getting too close to others. Flirting with someone outside their primary relationship can be a way to ensure that they don’t become too emotionally dependent on their partner.
  • Desire for Autonomy: Individuals with avoidant attachment cherish their independence and autonomy. Flirting with others might be a way to reaffirm their independence and remind themselves (and their partners) that they are not fully committed or tied down.
  • Self-Esteem Issues: Sometimes, avoidants might use flirting as a way to boost their self-esteem. Receiving attention from others can be a temporary way to feel validated and attractive, especially if they struggle with self-worth.
  • Avoiding Real Connection: By focusing their attention on someone else, even superficially, avoidants can avoid the deeper emotional work required in their primary relationship. It’s a distraction technique to keep from dealing with underlying issues.
  • Creating a Safety Buffer: For avoidants, having an ‘out’ or an alternative can feel like a safety net. Flirting with others keeps this backdoor open, reducing the fear of being too vulnerable with their partner.
  • Testing the Relationship: Sometimes, this behavior can be a way to test the strength or commitment of their partner. It’s a risky and unhealthy method to gauge how much their partner cares or how they would react under threat.

Never Saying “I Love You” But Knowing What To Say To Keep You On The Hook

There’s a memorable skit from ‘How I Met Your Mother’ that perfectly illustrates this.

The episode revolves around the main character, Ted Mosby, trying to win over a girl he’s obsessed with. She consistently uses him for favors like foot rubs and housework, always knowing the right words to keep him hopeful and attached. Phrases like ‘I can’t get into a relationship now’ or ‘I can’t get into a relationship right now’ are pivotal.

The key component here is the word ‘now,’ which implies a possibility of change in the future.

I’ve found that dismissive avoidants behave similarly. They may be in a relationship with you but refuse to say any words of affirmation that imply a commitment, like ‘I love you.’ However, they adeptly use other phrases to keep you hopeful and engaged.

Another example that comes to mind is from the ‘Bachelor’ franchise.

I’ve seen countless seasons where contestants on ‘The Bachelor’ or ‘The Bachelorette’ confess their love, but the leads often hesitate to reciprocate immediately. They’re aware of their many options and are cautious about declaring love to one contestant when they might end up choosing another.

They avoid commitment-level words to prevent future complications, especially since the chosen contestant might later see the show and feel betrayed.

In essence, this is what an avoidant does. They refrain from expressing clear commitment but are skilled enough to know what to say to maintain your interest and keep you hopeful.

This is the ‘right now’ concept in action — offering just enough hope to keep you on the hook without fully committing.

Pulling Away When Things Are Going So Well

Initially, this website was created to help people with their breakups, but it has since evolved to cover broader topics like attachment styles and dating strategies.

However, we still frequently encounter individuals struggling with breakups.

Our community has developed various protocols and strategies to address these issues, but a common scenario we see involves clients thinking things are going well, only for their dismissive avoidant ex to suddenly withdraw.

I looked into a real example from our community for illustration.

This person mentioned that their ERP (Ex Recovery Program) ex and they had been back together for almost six months, but she feels him pulling away. She knows the right move is to also pull away and seeks advice on how to do so.

This is a typical pattern with dismissive avoidants: when things seem to be going well, they feel threatened about losing their independence and start to withdraw.

What Are Your Chances of Getting Your Ex Boyfriend Back?

Take the quiz

The woman in the example, previously driven by anxious energy, is now wisely seeking guidance on giving space. By doing so, she allows the avoidant partner to realize that being in a relationship doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing independence.

For avoidants, having space is akin to their love language. However, this dynamic presents a challenge for those with an anxious attachment style. The anxious partner often needs reassurance, which conflicts with the avoidant’s desire for independence.

The core fear of an avoidant is losing their independence (‘Go away’), while the anxious individual fears abandonment (‘Come here’). This creates a complex dynamic where one person is constantly trying to maintain distance, and the other is continually seeking closeness.

Partnering With Someone Who Has An Impossible Future

The next deactivation strategy involves partnering with someone who has an impossible future.

This is quite straightforward.

Dismissive avoidants often enter relationships doomed from the start.

A common example I see is long-distance relationships. They engage in these relationships, meeting their partner only a few times every few months, which satisfies their need for connection while allowing them to maintain their independence.

Typically, they have no intention of closing the distance or making the relationship more serious.

Another unfortunate pattern is avoidants entering relationships with married individuals. This choice almost guarantees the relationship’s failure and keeps emotional intimacy at a distance.

The critical question here is, why do avoidants choose partners with an impossible future?

It always seems to boil down to their core fear of losing independence. They consistently select relationships they believe are doomed. This pattern is also evident in on-again, off-again relationships, where avoidants re-enter a relationship fully aware that it will likely fail again.

They anticipate that their partner’s anxious behaviors will eventually trigger a breakup, allowing them to fulfill their emotional and physical needs temporarily without long-term commitment.

Avoiding Physical Closeness

The eighth and final deactivation strategy is avoiding physical closeness,

  • Manifested in avoidants not sharing the same bed
  • Avoiding intimacy
  • Not engaging in simple acts like holding hands.

This is perhaps the most overt physical expression of avoidance, where they physically distance themselves in every way possible. My experience with this strategy is rare. Although it was mentioned in the book ‘Attached,’ it’s not a common issue I encounter in my coaching practice.

Often, avoidants do engage in intimacy and may share the same bed, but not on a long-term basis.

Their approach can seem almost narcissistic, though I am not suggesting that all avoidants are narcissistic. Like narcissists, who view others more as sources of supply than as individuals, avoidants meet their needs but keep others at arm’s length to avoid the threat of commitment.

Once their needs are satisfied, they might stop sharing the same bed, withdraw from intimacy, and avoid physical gestures like holding hands or walking together. These are their ways of deactivating once they feel they have gotten everything they need from the relationship.

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2 thoughts on “How Do Avoidants Create Distance?”

  1. Chris Reid

    February 13, 2024 at 7:44 am

    Your info on the DA has helped me no end,I was in a platonic relationship with a woman who would never even allow a peck on the lips ,never spoke emotionally then after 10 years said we had only ever been friends,she had a history of seeing a married man for 23 years but I suspect it was a once a week rarely physical thing.She adds up perfectly to your description of the DA.Thank you so much

    1. Coach Shaunna

      February 13, 2024 at 10:01 pm

      Glad it helped Chris!