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.

  • 20 comments
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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?

  • 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.

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