Editor’s note: This article is the first in a two-part series. See Part 2: A Built-In Path to Healing.
Few of us might consider pain a gift.
To be clear: Relational trauma/abuse is not earned, not to be pursued, and is not being repainted here in a woo-woo, positive light. Pain becomes a gift in retrospect, in the intentional building of a story over time that allows us a sense of redemption from an old story of blame or grief. In the present, pain alerts us to problems and can potentially orient us toward solutions. Repeated pain—the exact same sensation felt over and over—can become a revelation, and in this way can bring a sense of control, a chance to step away from an excruciating pattern.
Do a Google search for “toxic relationship” or “anxious-avoidant trap” and this is what comes up: one particular relational pattern that couples therapists see so often it can feel cliché—a pattern deceptively invisible when you’re in the midst of it. Beneath the standard problems—finances, mess in the home, use of time, how to discipline the kids—lies this incredibly common pattern.
A good portion of us are living in worlds our partners cannot see—worlds driven by either abandonment or oppression. We are either fighting to move toward others—asking them to relieve the feeling of abandonment and regulate our bodies—or we are struggling to balance self and other, unsure how to unite without losing self, aware that when alone we can feel both lonely and physically regulated. The most avoidant among us, while perhaps giving up on the possibility (or dissociating from it most of the time), still desire connection outside of self.
When these two opposing extremes meet, it can feel electrifying. The child in one sees the other and says at some unconscious level, “There is a consistent person. Now I will be cared for. Now I can relax.” The child in the other says, “There is another child, like me, someone who will not control me. Now I will be safe.”
Over time, though, once a certain level of intimacy and dependence has been attained, the one wanting to feel cared for begins to feel abandoned, and the one wanting to avoid oppression realizes they have re-created their childhood. They have found yet another person who cannot meet their needs, another person who is not really attuned and is instead distracted by their own panic, continuing the belief of the oppressed: “I am alone. I have to be self-sufficient. I cannot count on my partner.” So, they’ll pull away and say with resentment, “Take care of yourself. I have to.” And the dance begins.
The following profiles of “opposing” attachment styles represent extremes. Life is rarely as cut-and-dried or black-and-white as any article. We all carry different traumas in different biological vessels, and we internalize the worldviews of multiple attachment figures (including parents or caregivers; family, friends, or relatives; partners; and therapists) throughout life.
The Abandoned: Mobilized and Fighting to Reconnect
- Attachment style: Anxious/preoccupied.
- Mission: Draw attention. Repair connection. Find consistent security.
- Memory formation after conflict: Gathering positive evidence about the relationship to use as defense against abandonment.
Those who perceive themselves as abandoned may be more likely to ruminate on relationship issues above all else. They may be more likely to reach out, to draw (or demand) attention, even to create drama in order to elicit a wished-for response from others—a response that, when given, has nowhere to land. They may seek assurance while at the same time appearing unable to hear the reassurance given.
Self-abandoned in moments of intense emotion, many are unable to fully take in present-moment interactions. This sets up a kind of short-circuit that, especially in moments of panic-driven attack, perpetuates a loop of conflict and helplessness for all parties involved.
Outside of conflict, those landing on the anxious side bring needed energy into the relationship. They are generally better at talking (or at least more willing), and they use that role to bring more social movement into any relationship, in many ways keeping their partner from getting stuck in isolation (though their avoidant partner may fight them on this). They are also quite willing to do whatever it takes to preserve the relationship. They may hold any blame for relationship problems—blame and judgment their avoidant partner deflects because it feels too threatening to hold. The oppressed partner deflects while the abandoned partner willingly catches.
In the abandoned-oppressed relationship, the anxious (abandoned) role serves as the inhale: energy up, excitement and play, confrontation.
Those on the anxious side often see themselves as pursuing love “the way love is supposed to be”: never abandoning one another, sharing everything, never alone.
- Main goal: Elicit positive attention and preserve external relationship.
- Stuck place: Easily gives up self to hold on to other. Rumination without witness equals self-abandonment.
- Triggers: Partner’s disengagement, partner’s focus on somebody else, partner’s lack of energy/initiative, incongruities in communication (partner says “I love you” with a blank face), or general lack of partner communication.
- Experience: Unable to self-soothe, experiencing internal abandonment, projecting that onto the world so it feels like it is happening everywhere.
The Oppressed: Immobilized and Waiting for Safety (Alone), Permission (Relationship)
- Attachment style: Avoidant/dismissive.
- Mission: Hide and conserve. Remain small and avoid punishment. Present as low-demand/low-need. Wait (with resignation and resentment) for freedom.
- Memory formation after conflict: Gathering negative evidence about the relationship to use as deflection when trapped.
If one were to install a hidden camera in the home of an oppressed-abandoned couple, they might see a dramatic difference in behavior when the oppressed partner is alone. Many people do not realize the lengths to which someone on the avoidant (oppressed) side of attachment will go to maintain invisibility. They may just close the curtains more often, walk softer, use a quieter voice, smile to elicit safety, or remain blank-faced to avoid engagement. They may simply communicate less or keep more aspects of life secret. Many will make dinner after a partner or roommate goes to bed. To avoid arguments and “legitimize” their lack of response or conversation, some may not pay phone bills. Some may exaggerate their work schedule rather than simply asking for alone time. They may apply for lesser jobs that avoid the spotlight or become “driven” in work, living in constant effort to prove themselves and avoid judgment. They may say “I love you” when in reality they are dissociated from any emotion, because they are quite familiar with dissociation as a way of life, and for them it is easier to placate others than to face conflict and “waste time.”
When things get too close and comfortable, the anxious side stops chasing, questions, or may sabotage. At least there is control in when the “inevitable” abandonment happens. Conversely, when things get too distant, the avoidant has been known to switch tactics, even take over the pursuer role. A tolerable level of intimacy/distance is maintained between the strategies of both extremes.
To be fair, sometimes the initial rush of unseen movement is simply getting the to-do list done as quickly as possible (in the absence of an audience) in order to return to a more subdued state and possible self-regulation.
Time is often precious on this end of attachment—partially because the person lives a half-life, hibernating in the presence of others. If the abandoned side fears abandonment, the oppressed side accepts it as truth, believes they are alone, without enough support or resources to survive, and resentful of those asking to share their already insufficient resources. From the outside perspective, self-sufficiency is chosen. As the avoidant, there is no perceived choice. It is a natural reaction to a world in which need was not allowed or may have been outright punished.
There is an often marked conservation of resources on this side of attachment—a planned and monitored rationing of time, space, finances, etc. This is self-sufficient, unsupported life, and its accompanying sense of scarcity and fatalism—a frozen mix of giving up and hanging on, not taking chances, not committing to anything long-term, even hoarding what little is held. At the outer extremes, those on the avoidant side are generally well-practiced at self-denial and rationing, often resentful of a partner who seems more frivolous—a partner who lives a bit more carefree, as if there is support out there in the world, as if there is not constant judgment and anger reflected in the world.
Most often raised in a home where emotions were not reflected, those on the oppressed side remain attuned to lack of attunement from others—sometimes subconsciously wishing their partner would notice when something is wrong so it need not be spoken. Asking for help feels too vulnerable, even if the wish for help feels intense and lifelong. Behind all the blaming, deflecting, and lack of disclosure lies an intense fear of oppression and rejection—a belief communication with a partner is like giving that partner a weapon. Asking someone on the avoidant side how they are feeling can easily be perceived as entrapment.
Those who lean on avoidant strategies are generally good listeners—sometimes willingly, sometimes with resentment—accustomed to putting aside their own needs to present for others. They tend to be naturally respectful of space and boundaries, and partners often lean on them for grounding. They can be quite attuned to their partner’s needs, fulfilling them without the partner asking or noticing—modeling for their partner the kind of attunement they would like, and then blaming their partner for not noticing.
When not in conflict, the oppressed (avoidant) role serves as the exhale for the relationship: energy down, calming, resignation/acceptance (“let it rest”), renew, repair, recover, conserve (which includes ongoing calculations of available time and energy and explains the draw to the energy possessed by those more anxious).
Those on the avoidant side see themselves as pursuing relationship in a realistic way, believing everyone is alone, safe dependence does not exist, and everyone should take care of their own needs and emotions to avoid burdening others.
- Main goal: Avoid negative attention and preserve internal agency.
- Stuck place: Detachment from parts that hurt means little resolution or integration and limited change in relationships (both internal and external). Suppression of emotion can be framed as self-oppression (judgment, control, neglect of emotion).
- Triggers: Any threat to limited resources—time, money, space. Also triggered by animal-level physical signals—angry or disapproving faces, voices, volume—as these threaten safety and autonomy.
- Experience: Feeling internal contempt, projecting that onto the world so it feels like it is happening everywhere. Anger and contempt from the world also mean rejection/abandonment. While felt for moments, the abandonment is often suppressed by dissociation and/or internal judgment/contempt, with messages like “buck up and be tough.”
The Dynamics of the Dance
The dance is a draining, familiar one for all involved.
The oppressed side sees in an anxious other the exact energy it suppresses in self: the helpless, anxious child. While initially drawn to that energy with a sense of kinship, avoidant strategies automatically attempt to suppress/oppress that energy in the anxious partner as well.
Initially drawn to the security and seemingly consistent attention of their avoidant partner, the anxious side eventually realizes they are losing the intense love they felt in the beginning when their partner was so easily enamored. This triggers more panic, more fight for attention. To the avoidant side, already on guard for signs of oppression, the aggression in that panic feels like control. Disdain builds toward the abandoned, increasing the anxious panic and the avoidant withdrawal.
If either side felt safe in intimacy, this dance would not last. When things get too close and comfortable, the anxious side stops chasing, questions, or may sabotage. At least there is control in when the “inevitable” abandonment happens. Conversely, when things get too distant, the avoidant has been known to switch tactics, even take over the pursuer role. A tolerable level of intimacy/distance is maintained between the strategies of both extremes.
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