Q&A: Can a Person with an Avoidant Attachment Style Change?

I have been in a serious exclusive relationship for 1-1/2 years with a 41 year old man, single, never been married.  I’m 40, divorced with two kids.  He was very attentive, supportive, and once he met my kids, completely fell into the future step dad role.  I just found out he’s kept a woman on the side, just for sex from a couple months before he met me.

He said he’s still processing why he did this.  He says he feels lost and can’t believe how he’s lost me and the kids, and that is something he’ll regret the rest of his life.

The woman he was using for sex, he never took out of the house.  I met his family and friends within 3 weeks of knowing him, we spent holidays with them, etc.  His parents divorced when he was a teen and his mother was very controlling and is to this day.  The woman he was cheating with has zero self esteem but is similar in style to his mother, VERY needy and berated him with text messages and phone calls when he wasn’t around.

I believe he demonstrated classic love avoidance cycle with this woman.  I originally thought maybe he thought I was too needy but having read more, my needs were very normal and I like my space too, so it wasn’t me he was reacting against… it was his mother and this other woman.

He’s starting therapy, says he still loves me with his whole heart.  Can a person like this actually resolve these kind of deep issues and be a faithful committed partner?  I’m not waiting on him, I’ve dumped him, but I do love him very deeply and want him to find happiness.  I am also seeing a therapist myself as this was completely a shock.

Thank you for any thoughts you can share.

Dear M,

We are sorry to hear that your ex kept a women on the side for sex while you were in a serious relationship with him. Breaking up with him was definitely the right thing to do! You are very brave for having acted the way you did

You are right that there are many signs that your ex has an avoidant attachment style. He is 41 and has never been married. He has had a troubled childhood. He cannot stay faithful in a relationship. These kinds of traits are all strong indicators of an avoidant attachment style.

Without therapy, these issues are not going to resolve, and with a person with an avoidant attachment style, the best thing you can hope for is a casual relationship (regardless of what the person might say to convince you that things will change).

Therapy is one of the only ways to turn around an avoidant attachment style. Whether your ex can change will depend on whether he is going to stick with the therapy for a long time. Therapy doesn’t work overnight. Several years of intensive therapy may be needed to detach his emotions from his negative memories.

That said, we have seen cases in which people have changed after a couple of years of intensive therapy. The most effective therapy combines talk therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Talk therapy is the best way to resolve unresolved abandonment issues and pain from emotional abuse. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can change behavioral patterns and destructive ways of thinking.

You are probably best off moving on at this point rather than waiting for him to change. If he really did come back completely changed, you could reconsider the situation.

Good luck!


Dr. Brit and Catherine

If you had one chance to ask Dr. Brit or Catherine any question about love or relationships, what would your single most important question be? You can submit your question here.

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