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.

  • 11 comments
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  • Dane

    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.

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    May 28th, 2018 at 1:22 PM

    Hi Dane. From my experience, I would agree that avoidance acts as a protection against being hurt again – even as a protective layer over anxious attachment. “It feels better to be alone than to get hurt.” That really says it all.
    It can be very hard to find a person outside of our normal (often subconscious) pattern. And just your use of language suggests you do hold some hope of doing so. Best wishes to you…

  • Penny

    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.

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    May 28th, 2018 at 1:15 PM

    Hi Penny. I would agree with you. When two on the anxious end pair up, it can become enmeshed and emotional. When two on the avoidant end pair up, it can feel safe and eventually a bit dull, like two roommates passing one another throughout the day. While I don’t know what it is, I’m suspecting some part of you seeks that kind of relationship for a good reason.

  • Gale

    Gale

    October 23rd, 2017 at 8:14 PM

    My partner and I are in our mid-twenties and stuck in an anxious-avoidant trap, we have been going to couples counseling and it is helping bring us to the middle but sometimes it’s still really challenging when we find ourselves triggered. As the anxious one in the relationship, the physical manifestation of emotion, fear, and rejection I feel is so real it can make me feel sick to my stomach in the moment and lethargic and afraid for days. Even as it gets better, sometimes it’s hard not to feel rejected by my partner and see things from his perspective and validate him — to meet him where he needs to be met. He seems triggered and unhappy more often than me in our relationship, and I ask myself whether I should be the one to end our relationship and just set him free. I love my partner, I think he is a brilliant, kind, smart man, our devotion to eachother is surprising considering how hard our relationship has been at times, I sincerely hope we can heal from our previous hurts and embrace love in all the forms it comes in.

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    May 28th, 2018 at 1:12 PM

    Hi Gale. I just want to take a moment to validate how tough those trigger moments really are. They are real. They take over. It feels so automatic, and you may feel completely powerless when it happens. And it’s so hard to be there for one another when we are stuck in the middle of our own reactions, especially when it seems like there is no witness present to validate and honor our experience.
    I’m also hearing the question of whether or not to set him free. Unfortunately, many on the avoidant side will find ending the relationship unbearable, not for their sake but for fear of hurting someone or fear of ‘endless’ or ‘fruitless’ conflict. Change is definitely possible. Whatever form that change takes, it begins with speaking up — either him or you. What would happen if he read what you wrote here?

  • Olivia

    Olivia

    May 26th, 2018 at 9:06 AM

    This article is a masterpiece of both psychological explication and writing skill and it help me tremendously. Thank you.

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    May 28th, 2018 at 1:01 PM

    Thank you, Olivia, for the kind words. I’m glad it helped. Best wishes…

  • RCR

    RCR

    July 5th, 2018 at 6:22 AM

    Thanks for the extremely well written article that captures the nuanced dance.
    I am an anxious-preoccupied and find myself, again, in a relationship with an avoidant. I thought I was different because avoidant is more capable of providing compared to my marriage. However, after comfort has set in after a year together, the dance has become more intense between us.
    I’ve been in therapy for a decade and have gone from full denial blaming everything else to, I believe, a better understanding of myself. Yet I still ended up in the dance.
    In particular, I find it hard to see the inner child as other. I know the reasons, I can intellectualize it, I’ve done mindfulness for a while and yoga, but I cannot crack that access much less develop the internal witness.
    Until today.
    I’ve read this article before when starting this current relationship but for some reason, after multiple conflicts, reading it today hit me. I cried and cried cause I felt it but that’s as far as I’ve gotten.
    My partner is amazing in many ways and not a match at all in others, which confuses me as far as identifying whether it’s fantasy. She is also an Adult Child of Alcoholic Parents with Domestic Violence who can be described by nearly every point in the Other Laundry List.
    i have lots of patience and understanding, most likely to keep close and avoid the anxiety of perceived abandonment, until my partner’s avoidant, distance from intimacy, or tough skin kicks in and my cycle starts up again.
    Like I said, she comes back after those moments and we have grown from our conflicts but she is completely against therapy so I don’t know how far it can get and if I should go along for the ride.
    I’m struggling to see if I have enough to live with in this relationship that I won’t be caught back in a cycle of preocuppied abandonment and drive both of us crazy. Separating the preoccupation with realistic explanations is hard.
    There is an article on ACOA’s that suggests accepting them for who they are. I see that when I empathize because I do love her sincerely but struggle with not receiving my needs though it’s hard to distinguish current and old, inner-child needs. I feel I’m noticing I’m in a bad pattern instead, trying to change her through manipulation, etc. to provide closeness and intimacy. This is hard. I wish there were more suggestions on how to engage your inner child, which I hope helps sort through this situation for me.

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    July 18th, 2018 at 1:26 PM

    RCR, thank you for your comment. You’ve brought up an important point: Distancing from emotion is harder on the anxious side. Also, attempts to move the avoidant side feel so much harder, because avoidance and stuckness so often go hand-in-hand. It’s frozen. There’s inertia.
    You have so much awareness already. You know part of your patience is actually fear. And I would imagine that at some level she knows she has the upper hand because of that. Therefore, she has no reason to change, to attend therapy, to rock the boat or break up the status-quo on which so many avoidantly-organized people depend. There is this fine balance between accepting partners as-is and asking for change when needed. So there’s the acceptance/support balance and the self/other balance. You, too, are important. If she is unwilling to attend therapy, how do you feel about going yourself?

  • RCR

    RCR

    July 27th, 2018 at 3:56 PM

    Thanks Jeremy for breaking it down so directly. Agreed, there is a balanced required but it continues to be hard to envision what asking for change when needed is without going overboard into pre-occupation. Any insight there for those of us who are so pre-occuppied and unaware of our needs or unable to assert them even when we do see them.
    I have been and continue in therapy for the last decade. While sometimes it seems like a very long time, it has helped me through each phase of my self-awareness, from complete denial to working through marriage, ultimately ending it peacefully, then moving on to other relationships. This last relationship I am referring to is hard because so much was available in the relationship but the stressful moments turned into full anxious-avoidant trap. I even caught myself creating ‘discussions’ on issues that really didn’t need it. In a sense, her unwillingness to dive into emotions forced me to deal with my insistence. Yet, in the end, I still need some emotion/affection to my and trying to break through the wall of avoidance led to our decision to not continue the battle.
    I struggle to not want to fix, to provide advice, to calm her inner conflict (she said it was amazing how she could feel so at ease and calm with me) even after the relationship was over.
    But instead, I’ve focused on how to identify avoidant traits and assert myself in order to force a more balanced outcome. Yet emotionally, I’m terrified to think of doing that. Conflict avoidance kept me in a roommate-like marriage and I am prone to stay that way if I don’t learn to be more assertive.
    Thank you! I hope this helps others too.

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