Ending the Anxious-Avoidant Dance, Part 2: A Built-In Path to Healing

A couple looking at each other lovingly in white blankets in bed touches palms. smiling at each otherEditor’s note: This article is the second in a two-part series. See Part 1: Opposing Attachment Styles.

The conflict is both a fight for and a protection against intimacy.

If we can hold others only as much as we have held ourselves, then we will tend to connect with others who have a comparable capacity for internal discomfort—those at a similar distance from secure attachment. Clinging and avoiding represent methods of maintaining a comfortable distance from intimacy. While we may hate a partner’s method, we also depend on it. We are drawn to it.

The Never-Ending Conflict

The abandoned side says: “If they would just stay and assure me, I would be calm in a minute.”

The oppressed side says: “If they would just calm down and stop attacking, I would be able to stay present with them.”

As conflict approaches, we switch states.

Dependence and conflict are the primary ingredients required for attachment reenactment. After a certain level of intimacy is reached in the relationship—once we begin relying emotionally on a partner—the relationship begins to take on a new shape. This new shape looks very much like our relationship with one or more primary attachment figures. The anxious side feels an urgent, physically activating preparation for abandonment in the moment, and the avoidant side feels oppressed, trapped, unable to move, unable to choose their own life—both yearning and resigned.

Extremes polarize. If either side relaxes, comes closer to the middle, the other does as well. Either person has an opportunity to end this dance. And in the middle of biological survival reactions, that awareness disappears. Without access to present-moment resources, living in child states, we react not to our partners but to our parents, to the embodied memories of our caregivers.

The Self-Perpetuating Loop

Sometimes it feels like a role in which we’re trapped. Each character plays out a set of cued reactions so rehearsed and precise they may as well have been written in a script.

The avoidant side is well-aware of self but less practiced at communicating internal events (thoughts, sensations, emotions) to other. The anxious side is better at communicating but less aware of internal events, less able to meet them and talk about them objectively without becoming caught up in the physical activation of the emotions.

Conflicts in this relational pattern tend be more drawn out and feel less productive. One side becomes the pursuer, amplifying to draw positive attention, the other the distancer, disengaging to avoid negative attention—together playing out an endlessly retraumatizing dance.

In therapy, the gift is this: coming to a place where either the breakup or continuation feels healthy for both, where each side believes at a physical level they are okay, that the story makes sense, that closure has been found and each person knows how to move forward in gentle compassion for both self and other.

The avoidant side demands less fight, says they cannot remain present in conflict, uses abandonment as a tool, a weapon (“the silent treatment”)—the only thing their partner can hear. The anxious side says they feel like they’re walking on eggshells, unable to expect their partner to remain present with emotional expressions (anger, volume). Each side feels unseen, invalidated, unacceptable (often perceived as a confirmation of the same feelings experienced in childhood).

Fighting styles stay true to attachment styles and survival strategies.

Those on the anxious side tend to amplify, land fully in emotion, demand support, and may be more likely to fight physically, even “small” physical contacts like pinching or blocking a path of escape. Over time, these “small” assaults can escalate.

Those on the avoidant side may be more likely to diminish, freeze, land as far as possible from the emotion, even dissociate. They may remain rigid, stoic, and resentful, wishing their partner might “get it” and end the attack, release the freeze. (“Can’t they see I’m trapped and helpless?”) They tend to fight in ways that are less visible—ways which often feel manipulative, invalidating, and “crazy”-making to the more-direct anxious side. They may placate, deflect, and even gaslight their partners in order to find freedom and self, to regulate their bodies once again as they get away from seemingly endless and fruitless conflict.

Grieving the Fantasy of the Perfect Union

Both sides in this dance carry fantasy and fear, wanting their partner to meet them in a selfless way—to meet their emotions with perfect attunement and empathy and to help them calm their body.

The wished-for scenario is available only in the domain of one-sided attachment (i.e., parent-child relationship). While a version of it can happen in therapy, it is not romantic, nor committed long-term outside of the therapy room. Healthy romantic relationship requires internal connection and acceptance so partners are no longer expected or wished to act as parents—to fulfill a long-unmet need.

Romantic relationships present an inherently bidirectional dependence. In an adult romantic relationship, each side shares control, and each is responsible for their own growth, for communicating their needs, for making choices about the relationship, for finding purpose and support outside of the relationship as well as within it. If either partner stops growing on their own, the relationship stagnates. If either side becomes overly dependent on the other, resentment may build and the relationship may become burdened and tumultuous.

Healing Approaches

In relationship, some of the healing can take place in the way we meet our partners:

  • For the avoidant side: Be aware of your partner’s anxious assumptions. Know their need for response … and respond. This is the common commerce of relationship: bid and respond. Ask for attention and receive attention. While it sounds simple, it is far from easy. Without it, the relationship cannot survive over time. Focus on consistent connection, because this is where their wounding happened. And this may trigger you.
  • For the anxious side: Be aware of your partner’s avoidant perceptions and strategies. They are as valid as your panic. Tatkin suggests: “If your partner needs time to switch to people mode, ask lovingly for that switch within the next 10 minutes or hour, and put yourself in a place where they can come to you versus you approaching them (which feels like threat and gets equated with control).” In other words, focus on their sense of agency and freedom, acknowledging their wholeness and their right to choose their own life (even when those choices seem insignificant in the grand scheme), because this is where their wounding happened. If you can show them that you respect their valid, separate needs, and that you are not burdened or harmed by them, they may feel honored at a core level, and they may feel safe to love you.

Individually, much of the healing comes down to awareness and ownership, learning to be and stay with each internal emotion, to meet it with a gentle compassion, with the same warm eyes you would use to meet a child or a loved pet. In those moments where you look back through the generations of your family and see these relational/emotional patterns playing out, stay with that. Feel it in your body. Honor the real and present experience of a racer who has been passed a generational baton and has nowhere to run.

  • If you are on the anxious side, be aware your experience has taught you to focus more outwardly while sometimes ignoring what is happening internally. This is what creates loneliness and panic. If you can be both with and separate from the internal sadness, you may no longer feel alone. (This takes practice and sometimes the support of a therapist. Even a yoga or mindfulness practice can help.) Remain curious about your internal experience as well as your partner’s. Scan your body before beginning a conversation. Practice holding attention on yourself and your partner simultaneously. If you feel no resources outside of your relationship, focus on developing new hobbies, new social connections—anything to alleviate the belief this relationship is “everything.” Notice how easy it is for you to take the blame your partner deflects toward you. Question that.
  • If you are on the avoidant side, be aware your experience has taught you to keep things to yourself and to give up when resources feel too stretched. Practice doing the opposite. Move physically when feeling stuck, and share about your day—even the parts you assume will bore or burden your partner. And, sometimes, ask for help. Experiment. See what happens when you allow yourself to lean into your partner, remaining vulnerable at every level. Know panic lies beneath dissociation. Find safe space (gardening, nature, your partner, a pet, whatever your favorite resource might be) to feel and process that panic.

Break Up or Continue On?

This relationship can work, if both sides:

  • Take ownership for their own attachment needs and strategies.
  • Take responsibility for the ongoing work of both self-growth and relationship growth.
  • Remain willing to experiment repeatedly with ways to meet both self and other.
  • Find ways to access an internal home base and witness internal pain.

And, in the end, rather than staying in the relationship out of fear; because a partner completes a missing skill set; by default to maintain status quo and conserve energy; because the intimacy in approaching the moment of breaking up is too high; or because the pain of rejecting your partner (sometimes pain in you that you project onto them) feels unbearable (sometimes forcing dissociation at the thought of breakup), understand this relationship does not have to work. By the time each partner has processed childhood pains and come to see this dance for what it is, the end of this pattern may really feel okay. In fact, if either person has changed, they may lose that intoxicating draw to this pattern. It will just no longer feel attractive, “passionate,” or necessary.

Once we grieve what was missing—once we stop fighting against the reality of it and the seemingly unbearable emotion of it—we are no longer attracted to the same cycle. Some people find the attachment trauma was in fact the only thing they had in common, that they needed to come together to heal each other, that they feel at peace with the idea of parting ways and sending love. Some view it as a lesson they needed to learn or a new version of self that they had to “hurt into.”

From a natural-growth perspective, the parts of us that seek out this pattern do so for a reason. If we have been unable to “be with” our pain—if we have inherited or developed “adult” identities that abandon or attack the parts of self that hurt—then the continual reenactment of relational patterns forces us back into opportunities to meet the pain, to meet the child in us, to finally witness it with different eyes, and to understand what that difference really means. It’s as if the child in us is saying, “This! Right here! This feeling right here—the emotions, the sensations in your body, the instinct to panic or disappear: THIS IS WHAT I FELT! For years! This was real. This happened. Nobody noticed. See me. Be with me. Meet me the way I’ve wanted to be met.”

In therapy, the gift is this: coming to a place where either the breakup or continuation feels healthy for both, where each side believes at a physical level they are okay, that the story makes sense, that closure has been found and each person knows how to move forward in gentle compassion for both self and other. If you’re not sure how to get there, contact a licensed therapist for guidance.

References:

  1. Caldwell, J. G., & Shaver, P. R. (2014). Promoting attachment-related mindfulness and compassion: A wait-list-controlled study of women who were mistreated during childhood. Mindfulness, 6(3), 624-636. doi:10.1007/s12671-014-0298-y
  2. Dekel, S., & Farber, B.A. (2012). Models of Intimacy of Securely and Avoidantly Attached Young Adults. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 200(2): 156 doi:10.1097/NMD.0b013e3182439702
  3. Simpson, et al. (2009). Attachment working models twist memories of relationship events. Psychological Science; doi:10.1177/0956797609357175
  4. Tatkin, S. (2009). Addiction to “alone time”: avoidant attachment, narcissism, and a one‐person psychology within a two‐person psychological system. The Therapist, 57(January‐February). Retrieved from http://stantatkin.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Addiction-to-Alone-Time.pdf
  5. Tatkin, S. (2009). The plight of the avoidantly attached partner in couples therapy. New Therapist 62, 10-16. Retrieved from http://stantatkin.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/I-want-you-in-the-house.pdf
  6. Tatkin, S. (2011). Allergic to hope: Angry resistant attachment and a one-person psychology within a two-person psychological system. Psychotherapy in Australia, 18(1), 66-73. Retrieved from http://stantatkin.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Allergic-to-Hope_Tatkin.pdf

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jeremy McAllister, MA, LPC, therapist in Portland, Oregon

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 2 comments
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  • Dane

    May 20th, 2017 at 5:45 AM

    I think that the avoidance comes so naturally to me now just because I have been hurt before so many times that I have in the end put up these walls of defense and it feels better to be alone than to get hurt. Which I know isn’t really the truth but I have known pain and I only want to let my guard down the next time when I know that this isn’t going to be someone to chew me up and spit me out. But I guess it can be hard in the beginning to know who that person will be.

  • Penny

    May 22nd, 2017 at 9:43 AM

    Yep I always seem to attract those who have the same exact emotions and reactions as I do, and usually that is not the greatest kind of balance that you would wish to have in a relationship.

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