Ending the Anxious-Avoidant Dance, Part 1: Opposing Attachment Styles

Young couple in conflict face off on fuchsia sofa. Room is done in bright colors. 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.

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.

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  • Dr mark bushnell

    Dr mark bushnell

    May 19th, 2017 at 3:45 PM

    Great summary

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    December 12th, 2017 at 10:11 AM

    Thank you for the supportive comments. :)

  • Sonny

    Sonny

    May 21st, 2018 at 12:41 PM

    I am the Anxious in love with the Avoidant. How can I do my part to help this relationship grow?

  • Raphaelle

    Raphaelle

    June 18th, 2019 at 8:00 AM

    Do you know of any resources that delve into how to heal this dynamic? Whether together or individually?

  • Jane

    Jane

    July 20th, 2019 at 12:19 PM

    Since leaving a 30 year relationship abruptly 3 1/2 years ago, I’ve read everything I can trying to make sense of my behavior. I’ve been reading about attachment theory for even longer but this is so compassionate, so right on that I was actually able to present this to my deeply dismissive avoidant husband and have some peace, deep sadness for me – not him, but clarity for both. He still won’t take any responsibility but he accepts why I can’t do us anymore. Most helpful thing, came at just the right time. Sent to sons as I hope they can benefit from understanding their childhoods. Want so for the seriously dysfunctional family patterns on both sides to stop or at least weaken their hold on this generation. Much gratitude!

  • carmen

    carmen

    May 20th, 2017 at 5:46 AM

    Luckily this is one issue that we have never had!

  • Andrea Bell, LCSW

    Andrea Bell, LCSW

    June 8th, 2017 at 12:52 PM

    Holy cow! You NAILED it!
    And you’ve made it so comprehensible. This information really does need to be available outside of dry academic texts. I’ll be recommending this article to many of my clients. Thank you!

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    December 12th, 2017 at 10:12 AM

    Thank you, Andrea. It’s nice to hear support from another writer I admire.

  • Gina

    Gina

    December 5th, 2017 at 11:37 AM

    Perfect summary and answered my life long question: “Why do I always end up with men that never wanted to commit and eventually grow distant and pull away?” Every single guy (but one) was an Avoider. The ONLY one that was Secure and loving, I grew to get bored with him and left him. He’s now happily married and secure while I’m miserable due to another failed attempt at finding love lol. Now it makes perfect sense as to why my last relationship of 12 years lacked intimacy and a solid commitment of marriage. The more I pushed, the more he grew distant. Interestingly enough, I was the one to leave and he became the chaser!

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    December 12th, 2017 at 10:16 AM

    Thank you, Gina. You’ve just highlighted the frustrations of the natural draw we feel to our attachment opposites. It sounds like you’ve been learning a lot along your path. Congratulations on finding the strength to support yourself and make hard choices.

  • Cyrus

    Cyrus

    February 27th, 2018 at 10:25 AM

    Thanks so much for the article Jeremy. This is almost a direct account of my relationship with my partner. I was wondering if you have any recommendations on reading material my partner and I can peruse, that can help us come up with ways to cope with our attachment styles.

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    February 27th, 2018 at 11:27 AM

    Hi Cyrus. Thanks for reading. And, yes, there is a lot of information out there on attachment. There are many online quizzes available to assess your style. The book “Attached”, by Amir Levine, provides a good general summary. In my opinion, it’s a bit biased against avoidant attachment. Stan Tatkin does a good job at remaining fair to both extremes and providing easy analogies to follow. He has many books available as well as videos online. Best wishes…

  • Beth

    Beth

    March 13th, 2018 at 2:41 AM

    Thanks for the article – it’s very clear and well written. I have completed 12 step work in 3 programs, and 6 years of therapy focusing on intimacy, yet I am still engaged in this avoidant/anxious dynamic. I have made some strides (regarding being more transparent, asking for what I need, bringing up difficult conversations), and yet I feel very hopeless about making core behavioral changes. I have been looking into Susan Anderson’s Abandonment Therapy, but wondered if you have any suggestions for those of us who, despite long term consistent education and efforts, struggle to become more secure. Where do you go, what can you do, when step work and therapy and reading don’t seem to be enough?

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    March 27th, 2018 at 5:00 PM

    Hi Beth. Thank you for your patience.
    It sounds like you’ve done a lot of work, and it can be so frustrating when the same pattern keeps playing out over and over. I would not feel comfortable making blanket statements for anyone that struggles, because our own blocks/defenses/nourishment barriers can be pretty unique. With that said, regulation and presence are some basic required precursors for change. When living in our avoidant modes, we often dissociate, so we are not present with a wide variety of experience. When living in anxious modes, the panic often shoots us into fight/flight, brain regions go offline, and it becomes nearly impossible to take in the nourishment we so desperately seek. Mindfulness is one tool that goes a long ways toward keeping that personal presence with self so that our bodies regulate and we can recognize and hold onto the good that is happening – messages from others that would otherwise be forgotten in the midst of panic states. Partners can help with the regulation as long as they are not already in fight/flight, which so often happens in partners with opposing attachment styles.
    All that said, sometimes the changes do come gradually — the strides you mentioned — until one day we have a moment of recognition that we are holding our own state of calm presence in the moment, that rather than becoming our emotion we are staying WITH our emotion as a compassionate witness.

  • Annie

    Annie

    March 24th, 2018 at 11:54 AM

    Thank you for this article. As a young adult in my ’20’s, I exhibited a lot of anxious behavior in my dating life. After consistently being disappointed in those relationships, I became much more avoidant. Now in my late 40’s, I have fairly consistently been the avoidant one in my relationships (or attempts at relationship), but I recently started dating someone who is way more avoidant than I am, and I’m experiencing the anxious side of things once again. I recognize both anxious and avoidant styles in myself and find it interesting that it changes depending on the partner.

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    March 27th, 2018 at 1:04 PM

    Hi Annie. Thank you for the reminder about the changes possible and the idea that our experience of attachment is often a relative one — one that changes depending on the person we are with — or even situational, changing with the present triggers. You might like my other article on ‘Attachment as a Defense’. It also touches on just one of many frameworks to explain a common transition from anxious in early life to avoidant in later life. Thank you for your feedback. It sounds like you’ve been growing and changing, even mastering these concepts of attachment. :) Even the flexibility to switch between anxious and avoidant strategies could be framed as an aspect of secure attachment.

  • Britt

    Britt

    April 16th, 2018 at 8:40 AM

    Annie, exactly this. I was definitely in anxious mode, but in my 30s, with a strongly avoidant person, I bounce back and forth. Now that I know this, I’ll be working on myself, and… I’m hoping he’ll want to, but not counting on it.

  • annon.

    annon.

    April 16th, 2018 at 1:02 PM

    An eye opening article. You have answered a ton of unknowns for me and I am very grateful!

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    April 16th, 2018 at 4:38 PM

    Thank you. I’m glad it helped in some way, and I appreciate your feedback.

  • Miriam

    Miriam

    May 10th, 2018 at 10:25 AM

    Hi Jeremy,
    Thanks for the great article. I’ve recently split with my avoidant partner in the past 6 weeks. I’m having so much trouble getting past it and this past week we spent time together and it looks like we may take another go at it. I was in denial that he was an avoidant attacher initially, but now that I know, I want to try again. I’m an anxious attacher and I’m looking for some advice on how to manage my anxious triggers when he withdraws and how to communicate with him and give him the space he needs so we can try and make it work. Any suggestions? Thanks!!

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    May 10th, 2018 at 12:42 PM

    Hi Miriam. First, a lot of this is physical and automatic, and change requires time and practice, so as much as possible, let each other off the hook for automated reactions. It’s okay to ask for do-overs. Know that his challenge lies in the transition to together time while yours lies in the transition to alone time. And know that much of this is going to come up only in moments of conflict when bodies are tracking and reacting to one another. It’s important to really get to know his attachment as well as yours. Understanding goes a long ways and makes the whole dynamic less personal, less hurtful. And as we all grow most rapidly outside of our comfort zones, practice being with yourself, alone, every day, even with eyes closed to give full attention internally. Continue researching attachment. When you’re recognizing conflict in him or any incongruency (like he is saying he’s fine while his body says he’s not), verbally reflect that to him versus holding it in your own body. While it’s easier to take the blame and it provides a sense of control, and you may feel so focused on preservation of relationship, remember your own value and devote energy to holding yourself in compassion even while he is moving through all of his own automatic reactions. Let his stuff be his. Keep support outside of the relationship. Stay connected with friends and family as much as possible. Just a few ideas… Also, therapy can provide some rich direct feedback (from a safe third party, hopefully providing a calm body in the room) around patterns showing up in the present moment and experiments/experience in stepping out of those patterns. Best wishes…

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    May 22nd, 2018 at 12:43 PM

    Sonny, your message got lost up at the top of the thread. This is for you:
    Some very generic suggestions, because much of it comes out in therapy in the nuances of communication and physical/emotional space between the two of you…
    It is important to understand attachment – your own style and your partner’s – triggers each way, reactions each way. Get to know the shared dance so you know where you can step in and make changes in your own responses.
    On both sides, it is vital to keep outside relationships of your own.
    On the anxious side, it can be very tempting to put partners on pedestals and to take the blame without question. Question. Reflect when you notice their defenses. Name what is happening in the moment.
    Remain honest and open while sticking to boundaries.
    Know that they will not change unless they see a need to do so, and dissociation/compartmentalization tends to hide that need so well. That part is just beyond your control. And sometimes leaving them is the only catalyst that motivates them or allows them the space they need to calm and reconnect with discomfort.
    Some basics that help shift, often subconsciously: get them out of their automated routine. Take a road trip. Hike in nature. Find a way for their body to calm in your presence. Let them initiate contact. Notice your own urgency and how their body shuts down when you feel it. Find ways to meet that urgency in you and to take in the good, at a physical level, in the present moment — which may remain a challenge that requires ongoing practice. Best wishes to you.

  • Barnyard

    Barnyard

    May 29th, 2018 at 12:03 AM

    I am in love with an avoidant person and am anxiously attached in this relationship. We were both married when we had a love affair that lasted a number of years. The decision to end the physical part of that affair was his decision as his partner had commenced her own series of affairs and their home was imploding! We just didn’t end the emotional relationship and this continued in various forms until now. It’s like we’ve lived in a parallel universe this whole time & we have both neglected our respective partners the entire time. He’s recently moved out of their home & lives alone, having the kids regularly. HIs partner continues to go through her own issues, including alcohol abuse; neglect of the children; bad-mouthing him & spending vast amounts of their combined wealth. It’s nasty. Since leaving the physical relationship, where I was secure, I have had my anxious attachment side activated by his avoidant attachment. It’s very much a dance these days between us. I don’t however reveal too much of my anxious side, but he is quite attuned to me and can pick up some subtle hints from me. It’s painful & strange that we have gotten to a stage, where our regular contact and meetings (all non-physical) have started to feel a bit weird. His avoidant behaviour is activated more often too, even with the relief of living apart from her and having a much more balanced home life. I recognise that it’s still a way off being together (if that is what we are going to do in the future), so I want to tell him what he means to me & ‘let him go’ while we both move on & out (fully) of our own relationships; get used to the new normal (without the dependance on each other to “be there”) and to not have to deal with his avoidant tendencies which (whilst not personal) hurt like hell! I know separation & what he is going through is a private time & full of pain and generally I am the one whom he would reach out to for support, but he’s not. Instead, I feel like he might see me as “the enemy” (nicely) right now and a possible threat to his new path. It’s like he wants to trial his independence without me, but rather than tell me outright, (because he isn’t sure if he wants to fully let me go) he spends time cancelling plans & leaving locations early in case I drop in (he’s only done this occasionally). I found that his avoidant side is activated (when things aren’t working out for him & his kids due to the ex-partners behaviour, etc) AND if I speak the truth in relation to what might have caused his breakup/talk about ‘us’/ or anything that he can’t control or speak directly about. He goes into hiding. I take this as pure rejection, it makes me feel instantly anxious & almost “unsafe”-but I know that he does care about me. He just isn’t going to show me directly when in this mode. It’s like its just too overwhelming for him when it’s all happening at once. It sends me into self doubt mode & makes me reminisce about the early years where I was a greater priority; very loved & very secure. I miss him very much. What do I do? As mentioned above, my plan is to speak the truth (about how I feel about him); acknowledge the situation is the same, but different for us and that I must let him go & let our “parallel universe” go-maybe forever, but at least for as long as needed so that we both can independently flourish and maybe meet again someday in our secure selves? I just feel so vulnerable doing this when he is in avoidant mode (like he might make me feel foolish for doing so-“what do you mean, “us”…etc)…….I honestly don’t want to lose him from my life, but I can’t remain in the dance…He will acknowledge that I am special in his behaviour one day and regularly reaches out to me; but then, he’s gone….Its’ confusing & hurtful and sometimes (more recently only) makes me feel like there never was an “us”…?

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    June 3rd, 2018 at 11:38 AM

    Barnyard, you have a lot of awareness here. You know this is automatic and it’s not personal. You’re taking ownership for your side in the dance. And it sounds like you’re actually pretty attuned to his needs and picking up on his perception of enemy invasion when he is beginning to experience freedom (which always a big drive on the avoidant side). And you’re even recognizing and remembering his precise triggers around stressful times and commitment ‘demands’ (perceived). You know he pulls away for his own valid reasons, and you know it brings you back to childhood when he does so.

    It also sounds like you’ve already found your own solution, and there’s some fear in following through. The challenge lies in his reaction, which tends to dismiss/invalidate your side. Of course you feel confused and hurt. Anybody would. Your response just makes sense.
    Since you do already have an ‘out’ from this dance, it helps to find and connect with all of your resources, internal and external. Whatever brings you joy, helps you feel safe and connected, reminds you of the person you are at the core of your being… Begin gathering those resources, and consider giving yourself a deadline – some date when you know this is going to happen. Tell someone you trust about that deadline so they can remind you that you made this promise to you. Best wishes to you…

  • Biscuits

    Biscuits

    June 27th, 2018 at 3:42 AM

    Hi there, great article
    I have avoidant tenancies and my ex partner had anxious/love addict type ones (something I have only been able to label and fully recognise since the split, where I mourned her loss and researched why I has pull away from a potentially good, loving relationship).

    I have been making strides to re-wire my thoughts, to be more trusting to the people in my life, and not be such a frightened kitten all the time. This process has involved therapy, self help, books, reflection on my past and things I have/haven’t done, as well as a lot of tears. It’s been a very emotional journey for me so far, and I am only a part of the way along. Being self aware and determined to solve my issues with the help of other people was the biggest most important first step I have taken in my life, and I genuinely don’t believe I am beyond help. I know I can be a better person in my relationships from here on in.

    I’m not self loathing. I’m not afraid of love and want it and feel I deserve it just like anyone elsw. I am just unable to get too close at intense moments in a relationship when a partner asks me to make the next step (i.e. Her giving me a key to her house, meeting her family, etc). These are moments where I tend to withdraw to avoid getting too close in case I am hurt. These issues relate back to childhood, a bad marriage and a rollercoaster relationship that although had much love and joy, also had its fair share of down moments that were distressing for all.

    Since outr split I have become more self aware and have been willing to confront my avoidance /intimacy issues and to change my thought patterns to allow myself to be open and loved, and likewise so I can gain another’s trust fully so I can give my love to her in a more open and honest way.

    My question is, after time, when I have healed better, when I do feel more trusting, when I am able to fully recognise my behaviours and act on them positively with my partners needs taking a more prominent role in my decision making… Once I have all this and feel more assured again, is it worth me trying to reconnect with my ex and explain how I am and how I want to change for both her and myself? I would dearly love to try again with her. I know she loved me, and she knows I loved her. When things were good, they were brilliant. If I can show her, and prove to her with my actions that I am genuinely making an effort and doing it from a place of love, do you think it’s worth me asking for her back (slowly) in time? I imagine the kinder thing is to leave her alone and let her heal in her own way from our relationship and for her to find love elsewhere without so much history, but I now feel we could have been good if only we had a chance to know why we acted the way we did in our rollercoaster relationship. Thanks!

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    July 18th, 2018 at 1:14 PM

    Biscuits,
    It sounds like you’ve been doing a lot of hard work and noticing growth over time. It makes a lot of sense that moments of commitment feel triggering for you. On one hand, we feel so easily trapped that we fear getting stuck in something with strictly defined structure, something we may not be able to escape. Framed another way, we’re often so focused on the experience of others that we fear their eventual judgment and rejection once we get too close, once they see who we really are underneath. We don’t want to disappoint anyone, get trapped in conflict, or face judgment/rejection.
    It sounds like part of you asking either for permission or for reassurance. While permission is an inside job, I do think it’s entirely possible for you to find the relationship that you seek. Recognizing your own patterns, as it seems you do, is a huge step in making that happen. Best wishes…

  • Michelle

    Michelle

    July 28th, 2018 at 12:13 AM

    This was a really good read, and i’m so glad i was able to put a name to what it was i was feeling. I believe i’m the avoidant co-dependent, i use the word co-dependent because i learned when you enable the behaviour of your partner instead of setting boundaries, you’re just as co-dependent as they are because you’re still obsessed with fixing them and neglecting your own wishes just so they’re at ease. I believe my partner is the anxious co-dependent, along with not giving me space and allowing both of us to have autonomy, he also has serious trust issues and questions everything I say or do, as if theres a hidden motive or infidelity going on. That along with his neediness has caused me to shut down (sexually and other ways) and also give me major anxiety because i believe my freedom is being threatened. We are going to try counseling, separately or maybe together, i’m not sure which would be best. But, here’s to trying one more time. If this fails at least i know i’ll be able to walk away hopefully without guilt or the need to fix anyone.

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    August 15th, 2018 at 11:57 AM

    Hi Michelle,
    Thank you for using the term co-dependent. That will give others a search term for their own research. And the term itself is so relevant, because this dance is fueled by dependence on both sides – whether it’s dependence on the other person’s grounding or their social skills and their pursuit/initiation skills. Yes, it just makes sense that you’ve shut down in so many ways when you no longer feel safe and genuinely seen. In many ways, we so often feel forced to remain on guard around partners, unable to fully relax, living as if we must gather evidence and defend ourselves (just like childhood). And, yes, the guilt can feel debilitating for many on the avoidant side, perpetuating the one-foot-out-the-door phenomena — “If only my anxious partner would say they’re okay and give permission to leave…” — which is not an anxious strategy. (If that permission did happen, the avoidant urge to leave may disappear.) I wish you freedom from your guilt.

  • Britt

    Britt

    August 15th, 2018 at 2:39 PM

    I just want to say thank you for this. My counselor had said something about attachment disorders and I was trying to talk to my boyfriend about it, and he… was resisting thinking it applied to us. But since we read this – both parts – he’s been a completely different person. We’re both working hard to fight against our instincts as anxious and avoidant, communicating when we feel our defenses kicking in – he’s actually better at it than I am – and as a result, we’re closer than we’ve ever been. Your explanation using the terms, “the abandoned” and “the oppressed,” really hit home for us. Anyway… thanks again.

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    August 17th, 2018 at 11:38 AM

    Thank you, Britt, for taking the time to share your appreciation. I’m glad this seems to be helping your relationship. It sounds like both of you have been doing your research, and the fact that you’re both putting effort in says a lot about how much this relationship means to the both of you. Best wishes…

  • Mindy

    Mindy

    October 5th, 2018 at 6:51 AM

    After being in this dance in my relationships, I know that I have an anxious attachment style , from my intense childhood. And I see that I attract an avoidant attachment style person and vice versa. I desperately want a good relationship, and my husband is avoidant (of course) and ferociously defends that his leaving for days, even weeks is valid because of my anxious style provoking him. I know and understand my anxiousness and am actively working on it, looking for how to stay calm in conflict, how to trust. I talk with a counselor weekly and it seems to help for some time. But at some point, my husband will be triggered by something big or small and out the door he goes, which sets my fear of abandonment on fire. It will be days before he will even consider talking or coming home and says it’s totally my fault that he had to stay away and he has no issues. I accept blame , whether “guilty” or not, just to save the relationship. I speak of marriage counseling together or anything proactive together to make this a team effort for us both to heal and he denies needing help at all. His childhood was worse than mine, and I honestly see how he avoids and shuts off. What is the best way for him to see that half of this is him too ? Any whiff of him being an avoidant or that running off for days is not helping and he will not hear of it, from a minister, from a marriage counselor, from anyone . I beg him to see that we both have issues while I worry about when he will leave next. We both have had previous marriages with these issues appearing of course and I want this marriage to work. I am willing to give him space in any form but not by leaving our home for days unannounced. What is the best way to remedy or compromise to lovingly get him to not bolt ? Should we plan a day for him to be away as a preventive time out for us both ? I really don’t like him spending nights away but want him to feel safe enough to at least stay. At this moment, he has been away a week, we have just fought over his leaving again, and it’s once again my fault only. What is the best first step for us since I am the only one seeking help ? My daughter says my getting more self help will make him stop but can that work long term ? We both want a quiet, peaceful life and are both so frustrated !

  • J*

    J*

    December 18th, 2018 at 12:11 PM

    I don’t think there is anything you can do to make him “see” anything is his fault. The more you try to get him to see he shares blame, the more he will blame you. Quite honestly (and this sucks) you will have to become ok with him exactly as he is. You will have to stop trying to contact him when he leaves. You will have to come to look forward to his time away, and celebrate it as time with friends or time to do exactly what you want without worrying about him. If we truly learn to love others unconditionally (which is hard when we really don’t LIKE how they are (avoidant) then one would think their avoidant activation would eventually turn OFF. I don’t think it always turns ‘off’ though, and I suspect that many avoidants are so avoidant that in the absence of you triggering him he will just invent things to become triggered by, so he can get away. You will have to be ok with that. You will have to not take the isolation personally. It’s very hard. Stan Tatkin has several great books that more gently describe how to deal with avoidants, other than just leaving them (which is what many therapists advise you to do.) It feels alot like being a doormat, and I’m not sure it’s a safe place for anyone, especially an anxious person. You would have to be ok with all the things that come with an avoidant. (hiding things, not sharing things, having many ‘thirds’ (which are just excuses to create space away from you), not putting you first, not putting the relationship first, stonewalling, refusing to communicate, blaming, deflecting, etc.) Unless you have an avoidant who actively wants to heal with youl, I just can’t see how it’s worth it. That’s not a relationship. It’s torture and unsafe for our mental health. My opinion after having escaped an anxious/avoidant trap, where I arrived secure but left very much insecure.

  • Marie

    Marie

    November 27th, 2018 at 2:06 PM

    Thanks for this article.
    I’m an odd mix: since I’m a touch autistic and an artist, I value my space and time alone. (I need time to create- right?)

    But I’m Janus-faced, a Jekyl and Hyde. I have an anxious attachment style in relationships. Yet I’m Buddhist and often present as being very calm and centered underneath. It feels like an odd mix of character traits and romance has been a struggle.

    I was seeing someone – a brief affair- which sadly ended, but brought my issues to my attention in a way I could no longer ignore, I am keeping out of his way for now as I’m aware that further contact is likely to just cement his worst fears about me – I want a stronger handle on this issue. At our last meeting, I admitted to having a problem and said I was dealing with it. We had a nice time out together, it affirmed my attraction to him.

    In some ways it is reassuring to know that these opposing styles of courtship is what also drew us to one another: I have the extroverted energy he does not. I hope dearly that he gets in touch with me soon. At present I wonder if it is OK to contact him first in a number of weeks- or if I should allow him to come forth first. Does this question even matter? Or is this another manifestation of my anxious attachment? Would it encroach on his space? (I suspect nobody but I or one who knows him well could answer.)

    I always felt we had a lot to learn from one another. We pick our partners in order to grow and challenge our deepest fears. I hope he is as up for the challenge as I am. In my life, I have dwarfed many fears.

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    May 9th, 2019 at 9:56 AM

    Hi Marie,
    Side note: I’m appreciating your use of language.
    The whole approach/avoid process is a tricky one. If we take no risks in approach then we rarely find our needs met. If we become the chaser, then we set up a long-term pattern that becomes difficult to escape. You do have a lot of self-awareness and skills at self-soothing and distancing — though these may perhaps go offline when in attachment relationship, when landing in childhood neural networks that remain isolated from later-formed networks and all the newer resources. Simple perspective: it is always okay to contact first. Just remain aware about this becoming the pattern that he both depends on and despises.

  • Rachel J.

    Rachel J.

    May 5th, 2019 at 12:35 AM

    Wow, this is our exact dynamic that I am struggling with my husband of 2 years. What a relief to hear and so eloquently written. Awareness is a big success, but this “do-er” wants more….where do we go from awareness, mindfulness, therapy to serenity and safely? Thank you for this.

  • J

    J

    May 7th, 2019 at 9:12 AM

    Sue Johnson has a book called “Hold Me Tight” and I highly highly recommend it. You’ll likely be reading it alone though….Knowing that they love you and are damaged and acting out childhood wounds because THEY are afraid of being abandoned helps alot, but it still doesn’t bring them inside the boundary of where most of us are comfortable. Try to find a specialist trained in EFT. And more importantly, try to figure out why you think this on/off love is good enough for you. You can’t make them heal their attachment wounds, but you can heal yours. Heal yours as best you can and hope it brings them to the table. Stan Tatkins stresses that the anxious must absolutely under any circumstances never threaten to leave. Threatening the relationship because of how they avoid is usually what makes them avoid even more. Commit to healing your own attachment disorder, commit to not threatening the relationship no matter what, and perhaps that will get them to the therapy table with a good EFT therapist. Massive patience required while they continue to avoid you and give you NOTHING while you work hard. It’s very unfair and goes against what society repeatedly tells us about not being a doormat. At some point if they can’t participate you must be healed enough of your own wounds to actually exit….because why do any of us want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with us, no matter the reason?

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    May 9th, 2019 at 10:02 AM

    Hi Rachel,
    You are right. We can have all the awareness and still find no change in our lives. Felt change requires somatic experience. This also applies to the idea of memory reconsolidation. Changing the belief set in any state means first accessing that state, then providing a novel experience for that state. This could be framed as providing a missing experience. It could be something we always wanted to happen, or it could just be something different and unexpected, something to break the trance, the automaticity, the blind compulsions of any given state. We need something new, and we need to feel it in our bodies, to take it in through our senses in the present moment. This is how we internalize anything. We learn to meet ourselves in the ways that others have met us or ways we’ve seen others met. Once we have an external reference, we bring it inside and repeat it. This is where having a therapist (that knows how to sit with and meet all of our emotions and attachment needs) can be life-changing. In a sense, the therapist provides what parents could not provide.

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    June 26th, 2019 at 5:58 PM

    Raphaelle, it is important that both sides understand the dynamic and their part in the dance. There is no quick fix. The research itself can take months (books, videos, podcasts, friends, family). Learning to articulate your side in ways a partner can hear – that can also take months and years. This all moves much more rapidly with the help of a therapist that specializes in attachment. Beginning sessions can feel disheartening as each side recognizes how entangled their strategies remain and how the ‘familiar stuck place’ becomes the end result regardless of approach. And then shifts start to happen. Best wishes…

  • Elandra

    Elandra

    July 23rd, 2019 at 8:52 AM

    Wow, just wow. You have just explained my first long term relationship that I revisited some 20 years later in the hope we would be better ‘second time around’. Well, the intense love cycle began with the same passion and intensity we always had in our tumultuous 20’s only to fall into the same pattern of him being withholding and, in my perception, quite selfish. Things go great for a while, then he slips back into making no effort and spending half his time with his buddies yet telling me he never got over me and never repartnered. Continues to live in a share house with his friend, won’t make any long term commitment and seemingly wants the best of both worlds without any sacrifice or commitment. I’m so sick of being the emotional one who shares thoughts and feelings willingly, I’m so sick of his withholding. Withholding information, withholding his commitment … this article has just nailed us. I suppose it’s helped me know we need to be done. It’s taken me from aged 19 to 47, with over ten years in total together, with 7 breakups and a 17 year gap to finally learn about anxious-avoidant relationships and realise I just need to get out and never find an avoidant man ever again. I’m now going to focus on addressing and healing childhood wounds from the loudest, most domineering parent (father) and understanding what I project and how to stop attracting narcissistic, avoidant men. Thanks for this posting, it is really terrific xx

  • Julia

    Julia

    September 4th, 2019 at 4:53 AM

    I’ve been aware of my avoidant attachment style since reading the Attached book…and I’ve just read your comments about it being slightly biased against avoidants (in your opinion). Thank you. Thank you for acknowledging how i perceived the book too. I have been feeling both stuck and guilty about even being avoidant…and often read/perceived in articles and books that the avoidant one was most to blame. I have not even been in a relationship in a while out of fear of causing anyone else any further harm…and this has both hurt me and others. It’s like I’m just recreating the dance inside. I would like to know if you have any suggestions as to how to trust and learn to depend (not be dependant) in others to build this muscle up more…how do I trust that showing up more for myself in relationships is the way forward. And have I understood this correctly?! Thank you

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