You may have been hearing about attachment styles across the internet, in conversations with friends, or even from your therapist. And if you know your own attachment style as well as your partner’s, you might be wondering- can anxious and avoidant relationships work?
Attachment theory describes attachment styles as the strategies different people use to connect to people they care about and the needs they have in close relationships.
Early experiences in relationships with other people, starting with the dynamics someone observes in their family of origin in early childhood, teach people what they have to do to get close to people when they need them.
The ways that people try to get close to others when they are under stress and the underlying needs they express are categorized into 4 different types of attachment styles:
- Secure– send clear signals when they need their partner, and reasonably know their partner will be there when needed
- Insecure- Avoidant attachment style- have a hard time relying on others and may be uncomfortable getting too close with partners
- Insecure- Anxious attachment style- fear they won’t be able to reach their partner if they need them, and tend to need a lot of reassurance
- Insecure- Disorganized– send mixed messages about whether they want closeness or space and have a hard time trusting they won’t get hurt
You may be surprised to learn that it’s super common for people with anxious and avoidant attachment styles to attract.
This may lead you to wonder if anxious avoidant relationships can ever really work in a long-term, sustainable way. This post is dedicated to demystifying just that. So if you find yourself in one of these relationships, you’re going to want to keep reading!
Can anxious and avoidant relationships work?
Not only is the anxious avoidant pattern common, but it is a dynamic that is workable in a relationship. More specifically, it is possible to move from an anxious avoidant relationship to a secure attachment. However, the success of a couple requires that both partners are willing to put in the work that will be required to understand each other.
In anxious avoidant relationship, the heightening tendencies of the anxiously attached person become a trigger for the avoidant partner. And the suppressing tendencies of the avoidant person become a trigger for the anxious partner.
Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean. What you see on the outside is a push pull dynamic.
Let’s say we have an anxious (Jill) and avoidant (Jack) couple:
- Jill is very emotionally in-tune with Jack. And she feels like she can pick up on when he is feeling upset. She notices Jack has been quiet one evening. She thinks to herself that he is upset with her, and decides to approach him to ask him what’s wrong.
- Jack tells Jill that nothing is wrong. When she asks him this, he figures that he’s not doing something right or behaving how she wants him to. He feels frustrated with himself.
- The more Jack says nothing is wrong, the more stressed Jill becomes, thinking he is upset with her. And trying to relieve her stress by approaching him to work through the problem.
- The more Jill asks Jack what’s wrong, the more he feels suffocated. He shuts down and gets quiet, thinking that he is not supposed to show his emotions or it will upset Jill.
- This circle can go on and on and on.
A dynamic like this could reveal that both partners are operating under insecure attachment frameworks. They are unable to verbalize clearly what they need from their partner. And equally unable to soothe themselves in an effective way.
It is possible to work through this dynamic and adjust into more healthy and satisfying patterns for both partners, if they are both willing to dig in and do the necessary work.
Anxious and Avoidant Relationship Tips
Figure out your cycle
The early stages of the work are learning where you are stuck:
Knowing where you are is the first step in moving toward a new result. If you know that the way you and your partner communicate isn’t working, commit to slowing down, zooming out, and noticing the pattern that keeps happening.
This step is really hard to do when you are half of the equation. We’ve put together a free guide to help you and your partner piece out the relevant parts of your communication. And help you figure out where it is you are getting stuck.
This guide will help you hone in on the important parts and keep you from getting caught up in the details.
Own your triggers
Attachment styles are born way before we meet our adult romantic partners.
Sometimes, the things that trigger you have to do with your partner. Sometimes, your triggers are getting activated because of the attachment system, which may not have to do with your partner.
Anxious people may be triggered by feeling abandoned. Avoidant people may be triggered by feeling rejected.
When you feel yourself getting really worked up, ask yourself:
- Does the intensity of my reaction match the intensity of the scenario in front of me?
If not, you have likely identified one of your triggers. For now, just notice those moments and see if you can identify any themes.
Learn to self-soothe
The ability to pause in a moment of distress and make yourself feel safe is an essential ingredient in a functional relationship.
This does not mean that you and your partner do not have to work through the issues that are coming up. Rather, it means that you both have a responsibility to soothe your reactions. So that you can show up to work through your problems in an effective, mindful way.
Research shows that the effects of emotions last about 60-90 seconds in the body. This means that when you feel emotions longer than that, it is actually the thoughts and story you tell yourself that is reactivating the emotions and creating a feedback loop.
Instead, figure out what activities offer you release in processing tough emotions, and apply those when you feel disoriented. Try breathing, jogging, singing, yelling, or even doing some jumping jacks.
Ask clearly for what you need
Another ingredient in a healthy relationship, and an antidote to an anxious avoidant cycle, is to figure out what you need and to ask for that clearly.
Sometimes when we get worked up, we create stories about our partner (you never help me, I’m always left alone) that don’t actually send a clear signal to them about what you do need.
Instead, be honest with yourself and your partner. In the example with Jack and Jill above, instead of criticizing Jack’s quiet demeanor, Jill could have said, “I need to know we are connected and things between us are okay. I am worried about you and want to support you.” Instead of brushing off Jill’s concerns, Jack could say, “I am not sure what I am feeling today, but it’s not you. I need some time to sort through my thoughts.
Be responsive to your partner
You are going to create a new dynamic by sending and responding to clear signals. When your partner shares their vulnerable emotions and their honest needs with you, do what you can to be there for them.
Show them that they can rely on you, you will be responsive to them. And that you are there to hold their emotions together.
Attend couples counseling
The anxious avoidant dynamic is not impossible to break, but it is not simple.
The patterns that we express in relationships are deeply engrained, revealing our programming from childhood. Modifying that programming takes intentional awareness, time, and repeated practice over time.
Think about if you are an athlete, and you learned the technique of how to swing a baseball wrong as a kid. Now as an adult, you want to learn to swing it correctly so that you are more successful in your game. You may actually envy people who never learned to play baseball at all. Because you know the impact of creating a habit. And how difficult it can be to interrupt the natural tendencies you’ve formed.
Couples counseling or therapy is designed to help you learn your dynamic and practice a new one over and over again, until you have formed a new dynamic. This dynamic will also be the basis in how to develop secure attachment. Which is the greatest asset you’ll walk away from therapy with.
If you are located in Florida, we offer Marriage Counseling in Naples, FL– virtual services- reach out to inquire about availability.
Anxious and avoidant partners can become secure partners if both are willing to put in the work.