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.

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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…

  • S.B

    S.B

    September 19th, 2018 at 2:14 AM

    Hi there. sorry for an essay, but I really would like some help, if possible., and i’m finding it impossible to find solutions! I’m definitely on the anxious side of the scale and dealing with an avoidant person – we aren’t even in a relationship but might as well be. we used to date, and inevitably when things got too emotional for him he broke up with me, but our dynamics and relationship still continues after break up. weirdly i think this person has made me more anxious because of his avoidant and ambivalent behaviours. he definately falls under ‘fearful avoidant’ – is always contacting me to ask for support an reassurance but is also keeping me at arm’s length. he will also find any excuse to take out his anger onto me when things get too emotional for him; i think anger is the only emotion he knows how to express. it’s no surprise that he had abuse growing up. after over 2 years, I’ve had enough, and instead of being supportive and dropping everything to comfort him, I’m starting to put down boundaries. I’m working super hard to change my own innate reactions of anxiety and fear of being left. but He hasn’t reacted well to this at all! but I haven’t been cruel, or mean, just firmly saying ‘i will not speak to you until you meet me in person / talk to me politely.” basically offering support but only if he is able to step up and meet me half way. in response, he blocked me and told me he will talk to me when he is ready. I get the impression he is hoping for me to be upset, but I’m going to give him the space he is asking for. Was this a bad idea to be firm and give him choices? have i pushed it too far for him and just encouraged a narrative in which I’ve abandoned him? He’s a difficult one, because he both wants intimacy but also will do anything to avoid it, or just have it as long as it’s on his terms. I just have no idea how to help someone like this- but i’m pretty aware now that what i have been doing (comforting him when he wants it) is obviously not going to work as long as he continues to push me away- it seems to me this way he will never be satisfied with intimacy and it will be draining for me. how can i actually begin to help him at the core of his trust issues? why hasn’t consistency worked for him? I’m aware that i’m out of my depth and he clearly needs a therapist but obviously he refuses to do that. it’s very tough and frustrating for me to see someone i care for so much destroy himself. any help would be appreciated, if you have the time..thank you. xxxx

  • Struggling

    Struggling

    September 20th, 2018 at 2:10 PM

    Hi All,

    First, I wanted to respond to S.B. I am the guy you are talking about. Perhaps I could give you a glimpse into what your boyfriend is dealing with. I’d also like to address this comment to Jeremy. Hoping you might be able to provide some insight.

    I have a wonderful partner. She’s supportive, sometimes to her own detriment, loving in the most breathtaking way, and the epitome of a ride-or-die partner. Why, then, was I unable to give myself to her completely? It was very clear, initially from my own assessments and then by reading about attachment styles, that we were in an anxious-avoidant relationship. She was the anxious one and I was the avoidant. We tussled with this for a very long time, often breaking up and then getting back together again when we realised that the space didn’t fix anything. But I’ve only recently started considering that the rekindling of the romance is purely to do with our sensing the slipping away of normalcy. I don’t particularly like this idea because I want there to be some divine connection between us that makes it impossible for us to be separated. This divine connection, however, must be fostered and is not inherently present in some mystical way. Perhaps this is just my experience of it. I know that I must work religiously on my mind and my behaviours but I often become afraid that there will be no way for me to eliminate the avoidant behaviours that give rise to our situation. When I am feeling at the mercy of my avoidant behaviours, I lose my connection to my partner. She is there next to me but I do not feel her presence. When I hug her, my body does not feel hers against me. When I kiss her, it feels without meaning (I’ve even become aware of my eye movements behind my closed eyes). The sense of connection is terminated in these avoidant states and they serve to solidify fears surrounding this very thing, which only serves to perpetuate the cycle. The worst is that our sex life has begun to really feel the effects. I have lost sensation during intimacy on many occasions, my mind fixates on the most arbitrary notions (though never on other women), and these just make me feel like perhaps we’re not compatible. But I dislike this idea too because each of the manifestations of my avoidant behaviour are layered in such a way that they have become composite. I look at our relationship and immediately think that each of the ‘signs’ that we are not meant to be together should be agreed with and implemented, if purely for the sake of self-preservation. I struggle to find the will power to believe that I can break through my avoidant behaviours and become more secure for her. But I would only be interested in becoming more secure for her. These layers of avoidant behaviours have sufficiently masked my initial attraction to her and any subsequent attraction that could develop, which makes it even harder to find a reason to stay other than my love for her. It might seem strange that I speak of love when I’ve just identified features of my behaviour that don’t align with the idea but I cannot stress enough how much I love her. This is why this thing is so frustrating! To love someone but to feel uncertain about it is entirely unnatural. To want to commit fully to one person and being able to, emphatically, on one day and then to feel absolutely no attraction the next is frightening. It makes me feel like something is wrong with me.

    Is it possible to overcome this burden? Do the feelings ever stop fluctuating? Will I ever become settled and stop acting avoidant? What do I have to do to make this happen?

  • 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.

  • Daniela

    Daniela

    August 25th, 2018 at 1:36 PM

    I have read articles about (avoidant) attachment styles, but… OMG… your article – especially the first part – describes the behaviors of the two parts so well, I had so many aha moments, and I had to comment! Thank you for writing and sharing this, Jeremy!
    I’ve been in a relationship/marriage with a dismissive-avoidant man, while I’m the anxiously attached partner, for almost a decade now….
    I would love to send this article to my soon-to-be-ex-husband, but I know by now that he is not/has not been willing to take a look at himself and his behaviors, so I have given up on that. From the start of our relationship I have said to him “You don’t let me in!” (making room for me in his life, emotionally and otherwise) without really “knowing” what this was about, it was just the feeling I had.
    I had been in an 18 year relationship/marriage before him, and I had been much closer with my first husband, but figured it was because we had met while we were younger, had a more similar background, etc. It was a pretty good relationship with a secure attachment, both of us feeling ‘safe’. We’re actually still friends. However, we kind of went in different directions. I knew I needed to become more independent and grow (and he even said to me a little while ago that I have grown), thus the separation in 2008.
    Fast forward to today, I’ve been through a pretty rough decade: financial issues, health issues, infertility, two miscarriages, depression, therapy, job loss, visa loss, unemployment, passing of my mother, being suicidal, just to name the ‘highlights’. Throughout all of this not much emotional support from my current husband (at least in my mind). The depression lead to anger issues over feeling not being heard. We went to a few couples therapy sessions and made the mistake to see my therapist, which made me feel betrayed when she and him ‘ganged up’ on me and made me go to anger management. I went for a few sessions, but then stopped because I understood that my behavior had been wrong. I have not had any issues since. However, me refusing to continue to go made my husband think that I’m not taking it seriously enough…
    My therapist had mentioned to me that I might have borderline personality disorder features, and then went behind my back to recommend a book about it to my husband. When I found out I was shocked, but believed that I actually have it, along with may other issues I thought were wrong with me and that I tried to ‘fix’.
    Today I do not believe that anymore. I also do not believe that I really had anger issues. Well, I had, but they were based on being ignored by my partner, getting depressed and ultimately angry. What I’m trying to say is that I have had issues, but I have worked on them.
    I have also always tried to understand and figure out why our relationship doesn’t work and why my husband is how he is. Having read your article, and knowing his family, it makes a lot of sense because I know emotions are not being talked about there. I’m not sure about too many other aspects of his childhood – because – just like the typical avoidant person he is – he’s never talked much about anything and has always been pretty secretive.
    On my side, honestly, I’m not sure where my anxious attachment style comes from. My parents did not abandon me. Could it be because my mother was a very anxious person and my parents’ relationship wasn’t very good, but they stayed together?
    I know that I have made mistakes in this relationship, many mistakes. One of them being that, when my husband did open up, I didn’t recognize it, or tried to hurt him when he was vulnerable, just like he had hurt me so many times before and I wanted him to feel some of that pain that I have felt. Not a pretty feature, I know.
    But I think he always felt he and his behaviors are ok the way they are, and always looked at me like I’m the one with the issues and who needs to be ‘fixed’. Ultimately I think we did a lot of damage to each other….
    What boggles my mind is that, even though rationally I understand that we are not a good match (not only because of the attachment differences, also because of goals in life, lifestyle, etc. – all so correctly described in the first part of your article!), and why he eventually told me he wants a divorce because he was fed up with me ‘complaining’, wanting to ‘start fights’ (in his words), and accusing him of having no feelings, no empathy (he told me about the divorce three months after my mother died), and called him a ‘monster’ (another not-proud moment), I still cannot let go of him emotionally.
    I so would like to have a partner to share my life with, and a healthy relationship. But as soon as I think about that, or maybe see another man I am a bit attracted to, automatically my next thought goes to my ex and wanting to tell him: “See, we could have been so good together.” Sometimes I want to hug him and somehow infuse that love into him that he so desperately refuses
    Why is that? Am I that insecure? Do I still love him? Or is this like an addiction, wanting to keep this electrifying toxicity that you describe?
    I could go on… but, I guess what I want to say is: I want to work through this, I want to be able to let go (even though deep down there is still hope that he will change, work on himself and come back… but that is probably that addiction speaking again) and ultimately find happiness with a healthy partner in a good relationship! I would like to work with a therapist like you! Do you happen to be able to recommend anyone in the Southern California area? Thank you so much for your work and for reading this!

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    August 27th, 2018 at 8:27 AM

    Hi, Daniela. Thanks for your comment. If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, http://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area. If you’re looking for a counselor that practices a specific type of therapy, or who deals with specific concerns, you can make an advanced search by clicking here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/advanced-search.html

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  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    September 5th, 2018 at 6:00 PM

    Daniela, you’ve come through quite a journey.
    It’s not uncommon for those on opposite ends of the attachment spectrum to pathologize one another. And the ‘fixing’ can be just one more reminder that many times we, as imperfect humans, just do not know how to meet one another.
    Many people want to know where their attachment strategies began. Sometimes there’s an easy and obvious stories. Other times, it’s not quite as clear. There’s actually a lot of literature on the ‘transmission gap’, attempting to explain the inconsistent transmission of attachment styles between generations — as in, a parent with anxious attachment is likely to have a child with anxious or avoidant attachment. Same for a parent with avoidant attachment… A generally accepted current theory: Anxious comes from inconsistent connection. Avoidant from consistent disconnection. What is fairly clear is that parents with extreme attachment styles often have children with extreme attachment styles.
    Yes, it does often feel like an addiction — like a trail of unnecessary and automatic reactions that just play themselves out over and over.
    Letting go of him means coming back to you, and that’s the relationship that really matters most. That’s the relationship in which you live day in and day out. When that one feels loving, supportive, dependable – when you feel capable of regulating your own nervous system and remaining present for yourself, no matter who else is around – that’s when relationships on the outside begin to make more sense and have less power over you. Best wishes…

  • Daniela

    Daniela

    September 10th, 2018 at 1:24 PM

    Hello Jeremy, Thank you so much for your detailed reply, I really appreciate it! I will look into the information you shared, and will continue to work on the relationship with myself :)

  • Vanessa

    Vanessa

    September 20th, 2018 at 1:22 AM

    Hi, I’m an avoidant and am married to a an anxious. It’s been a difficult relationship with all of his outbursts but just recently I’ve been studying our attachment styles and it’s all making sense. Most of what I’ve been reading has been addressed to those on the anxious side, are there any books you would recommend for people like myself who are working on being less avoidant and are trying to make healthier attachments?
    Thanks in advance.

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    September 24th, 2018 at 2:39 PM

    Hi Vanessa. I’ve been noticing that disparity myself. And I’m often on the lookout for more books from this perspective. So far, Stan Tatkin has presented the most unbiased perspectives on the topic. His work is available in books, articles, and videos online. Best wishes…

  • SB

    SB

    September 22nd, 2018 at 2:27 PM

    Thank you for responding ‘struggling’, i think this was helpful just in giving a personal point of view for your emotional process. I also think it’s great of you to recognise your behaviours and try your best to change them. although i do not have problems disassociating with emotions it’s still very hard to change my patterns and i feel i have so much work to be done. I’m no expert, but i imagine that finding a safe space where you can consciously try to access emotions you are distancing yourself from might be helpful! as in, away from your partner and someplace else where you can feel less pressure and figure out your emotions in your own time. reading your comment and other peoples on this article has been helpful for me to realise where i am not helping my avoidant friend and where my behaviours have been anxiously attached to him and why we are always drawn to each other.. even if it isn’t healthy. I realise now how giving him the choice to either meet me and talk about everything or nothing was maybe too harsh, and just forcing intimacy and control onto him. But in a way i think ultimately it has done good. to update we talked briefly and he tells me he’s going away from me to learn how to not be angry anymore. whatever his reasons for cutting contact, although i feel pretty heartbroken right now i feel and hope it’s for the best for us right now. I hope that cutting contact with me will break the cycle he has in coming back for more intimacy when he really needs to look for that in himself. and I hope for me, it will mean learning better to cope with this feeling of ‘abandonment’. although i’m pretty worried that he really won’t ever come back, i also feel like i shouldn’t give in to those fears and learn from them instead; and be okay with the idea that he may or may not return. it’s out of my control ! I think both anxious and avoidant people have a big thing about control, and just approach it differently. thank you again for these artcles, they are genuinely really helpful and i will read them anytime i feel bad.

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    September 24th, 2018 at 3:04 PM

    Hi SB. Unfortunately, both extremes of attachment tend to stay in this dance longer than necessary, and a lot of our growth comes in the process of stepping into and out of relationship with a mindful, observant presence, as each mode has something different to teach us, and the transition from one to the other can be full of useful information. I think you’re on to something with the idea of control at both extremes, as neither side felt control in relationship with attachment figures. Thank you for your representation of anxious attachment.
    In your first post, you were asking if you’ve pushed too far or asked for too much. This is such a common predicament – stuck with decreased boundaries for fear of being left alone. While difficult, it sounds like you’ve been challenging and changing yourself, verbalizing your needs, and at least sometimes (which is the best any of us can do) sitting with the lonely part of you. Best wishes…

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    September 28th, 2018 at 7:25 PM

    Struggling, thank you for your response to SB and for representing the confusion and ambivalence in avoidant attachment, in the yearning for ‘divine connection’ that seems forever unreachable, and in the dissociative moments where you have little access to emotion for your partner. These moments of feeling emotionally dead can actually serve as signals that we have not had sufficient time/space to process internally, and as many of us on the avoidant side tend to people please, avoid conflict, and caretake, we often put aside our own needs, even to the point of dissociating from them and from everything. Powerlessness in relationships (sometimes perceived as fear of conflict or fear of hurting others) keeps us from speaking our needs, from setting boundaries, from basic connections that feel empathically (or through projection) like disconnections – such as asking for space when we feel numb. Many on the avoidant end will avoid asking or setting boundaries and then resent partners for not picking up on needs. It sounds like, in your case, you simply dissociate, perhaps even from the resentment — or it becomes framed as ‘signs’ or evidence that the relationship is not meant to be versus an emotional connection to your own hurt and anger. (Feel free to correct any of these assumptions I’m making.) Best wishes…

  • Struggling

    Struggling

    September 30th, 2018 at 1:30 PM

    Thank you so much for your response Jeremy. Everything that you said was so spot on. I wish I had found this website when my avoidant behaviour first started showing itself. I have gone through such heartache because of it. Even worse is the heartache that I have put the woman I love through. And even as I find these amazing sources of information about my condition, which makes it something objective and gives it a history beyond my experience of it, I am still left wondering if it is something I will ever be rid of. I know what love is meant to feel like and it is nothing like what it has felt like over the last 5 years. How does anyone build a future on a foundation that is wobbly, even in the absence of a stimulus? Never once in the relationship did my partner give me any legitimate reason to feel like I needed to get away from her but the fear was there. She couldn’t even predict when it would present itself and neither could I. I would just begin to feel a slight discomfort in my chest, which I began to recognise as the beginnings of an anxiety attack, and then it would build over a few hours. Eventually, I would be in the throes of an anxiety attack whilst fighting to keep it suppressed so that she didn’t pick up on it. This inner conflict was enough to make me feel doomed. Enough of this (often there would be no respite – weeks of unending anxiety) and I would get to the point where I needed to get away. I needed to protect myself from the constant guilt and anxiety. So I would end the relationship and never be able to give her a reason that she could understand because I couldn’t bring myself to admit to the thoughts I was having (that there might be someone better out there for me, that I might want to be intimate with other people, etc.). These thoughts, however, became a narrative that repeated itself the deeper into my anxiety I sunk. In those rare moments where I was free of anxiety and I was completely able to be with her and to lavish in our connection, the thoughts of being with someone else were the furthest thing from my mind. Sitting with this strange contradiction eventually led me to believe that there was an intense imbalance, perhaps hormonally, that allowed for very real feelings of love and acceptance at one moment to be transmogrified into intense fear and self-preservation the next. The last thing I want is to be with someone else but that doesn’t mean anything when my anxiety peaks through and my mind returns to the fear narrative of incompatibility.

    Anyway. One last question. Is it possible for an avoidant to become a secure? I swear I wasn’t always avoidant. I yearn for love! I yearn for connection! I yearn to share my body with a woman I love and care for. These things don’t mix well with avoidant personality, so why am I avoidant? Once again, is it possible to become a secure? Thanks!

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    October 15th, 2018 at 10:45 AM

    Struggling, the answer is yes — with a caveat that it may take time and may require some discomfort along the way. Growth happens outside of our comfort zone, so that is a good place to head, with patience and balance. The first step and the catalyst for growth has already happened. You already have awareness of your own patterns in relationship. A lot of the shifting actually depends on the way your partner (or anyone) responds when you do take risks and remain present and verbal in moments of distress. Trauma heals when we experience an unexpected response – one that counters all the responses that activated our nervous system so many years ago. In that way, we really do rely on others for healing, and it’s incredibly vulnerable. We have this instilled idea of relationship. We live in worlds of judgment and rejection, so we do our best to hide. When we risk stepping into another world, we need someone to meet us in ways we were not met. Once that happens, things actually shift fairly quickly. It does require risk on your side and awareness on her side. An attachment focused couples counselor can provide accurate reflections and tangible guidance in the nuances of communication in moments of distress. Best wishes…

  • Trying

    Trying

    October 10th, 2018 at 10:47 AM

    These 2 articles are so simple, and yet so thorough….my mind was kind of blown. It explains the Anxious/Avoidant situation in a way that both me and my husband can really connect with…using words and phrases that we have often used ourselves. So thank you for writing this!
    On another note, I am really curious how to go about handling abuse with an avoidant. I am trying super hard to understand the avoidant side (mostly to stay secure and present, and not let the anxious side of me take over). And although reading more about the Anxious mindset (especially during conflict) helps me…I feel like nothing really talks about how to cope with the abuse. How much of the abusive tendencies with avoidants are optional (meaning they can be turned off at will) vs how many of them are automatic? Is it not possible for someone to be anxious and not abusive?
    One of my biggest struggles is that it doesn’t feel like I’m allowed to be secure. Not only are small and very random things “triggering” his avoidance….(yes, a deactiviating strategy)….but he uses my past vulnerability and secure actions against me until I become Anxious. The more secure I am, the longer the avoidance and abuse last. It’s not until I finally break and go into full Anxious mode…crying, begging, and losing all dignity, followed by him vomiting all my faults, that he finally decides to start calming down, and then we agree to a solution….and he never actually tries the solution because “I trigger him” with some other random action/statement. He knows he is avoidant and has read these 2 articles. We are supposed to be working on becoming secure together. I’m fine working with him, and being patient, and understanding some of the responses are not directed at me, and he needs to work through a lot. I do see positive changes from time to time. I can handle the avoidance to some degree….but I can’t handle the abuse…it’s too much. Is it unrealistic to ask that this part stop? And if so…how would one go about asking for the abuse to stop??

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    October 22nd, 2018 at 3:01 PM

    Hi Trying. Thank you for reading and for the kind words. Sometimes the most direct and effective way of handling reactions of a partner triggered into avoidant strategies is to reflect those strategies, give permission to take time and be out of the spotlight, and just let them know you care while at the same time saying this is not okay. For example: “I see you’re triggered. I’m feeling [blamed, gaslighted, whatever], and it feels like a deflection. I was not intending to attack you, and I see why you might feel attacked. [And if you did attack, adding an apology here…] I’m going to let you have some space to process. Can we have a do-over in a few minutes?” That being said, mindful communication in any relationship is incredibly difficult, time-consuming, and inefficient. Nobody does it perfectly, and it just takes a lot of practice and willingness on both sides as well as self-soothing abilities on both sides. And you may be right about not being allowed to be secure. Opposite styles do tend to train one another to increase their attachment strategies. We use the strategies because they work – temporarily. So they get reinforced and naturally increase over time. It’s not too much to ask for abuse to stop. The challenge is that any boundary requires follow-through, dependence often negates boundaries, and independence requires long-term life changes and rearranging social patterns and internal processes. The hard and most important work on the anxious side is learning to meet internal panic without outsourcing the process to others. Secondary to that is learning to reflect when partners are using disengagement strategies, to meet those moments with patient calmness and firm boundaries that you trust yourself to follow through on. Best wishes to you…

  • Sad

    Sad

    November 12th, 2018 at 1:14 PM

    In September my ex broke up with me after being together for 10 months. We knew each other a little over a year. I never thought about attachment styles but I now believe he is avoidant and I am def. anxious when triggered.
    Not to get into too much detail, I accused/or questioned him via text of our relationship being a convenience when he couldn’t see me on the holiday because he had his daughter. Until then we had seen each other regularly and he was always in communication. Never disappeared on me. Always did what I asked, but wasn’t much of a planner. I was just having a tough month as I had a minor surgery and was feeling insecure. He does have a young daughter that he has partial custody of, and I know she comes first.
    Anyway, after I blew up on him, he didn’t even want to entertain my fight. The next day I saw him (I volunteer where he works) he said that we fought too much and he is selfish and things would probably only get worse as he gets older, then it would be harder to break up . He said hes not good at relationships and shouldn’t be in one. I tried to argue this but he didn’t want to talk. I don’t feel that way at all, and never imagined my comment would make him break up with me. I was in in shock and very upset. I texted him a few days later. He responded then and the next few times, but each time I panicked and begged for him to give us another chance. This happened a few times. And he would then ignore me when I would add in about the relationship. I know in my heart he was happy with me, and I was happy with him. Though we both clearly have some communication issues. I decided to do no contact for a month, which I wish I would have done from the start instead of going after him more. And I texted him a week and half ago something lite. Now he is not answering.
    It’s only after reading a bunch of stuff online that I realize he might have avoidant tendencies. He comes from a childhood where his mom was a drug addict and he went through 2 foster families throughout his childhood.
    I’m just not 100 percent if this is the case or does he just not want a relationship with me? Where do you differentiate avoidance, scared, emotionally unavailable, or just not into you anymore. Im really confused. And of course anxious. I wanted to reach out to him one more time in way that explains my actions and what I have learned about myself. I know I hold things in and then it comes out so cruel and he chose to shut me out. And I know I cant blame myself for everything, and people say don’t make excused for him. But I just really want another chance. He is a really good guy who always tried to do the right thing by me. All these relationship guys tell you to do no contact, blah blah. Make him miss you to realize what he’s lost. I’m not trying to play games. I am 47 and he is 41. But I don’t want to scare him away more either. But there’s a fine line between fighting for someone and being pathetic. Not sure what to do.

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