Attachment styles are 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
Of course the most “healthy” relationships are those with secure partners- those who are comfortable being close, expressing what they need, and also being independent outside the relationship.
The most common pairing of romantic couples, however, is when one partner is anxious and the other is avoidant. An example of this dynamic is Kelly and Ryan from the American version of The Office. You can sense the ways that Kelly anxiously looks for reassurance and comfort from Ryan, though she does not express it directly. Likewise, his discomfort with being needed cannot be missed.
Why Do Anxious and Avoidant Attract?
It is almost inevitable that people with anxious and avoidant attachment styles find each other. This post is going to break down why these attachment styles attract and what to do if you find yourself in this pattern of relationship.
Avoidant Partners Initially Make Anxious Partners Feel Wanted
People with anxious attachment styles tend to have a deep emotional need to be wanted, seen, and important to someone.
When avoidantly attached people pursue anxiously attached people at the beginning of the relationship, they can fulfill this need, making the anxiously attached partner feel special and unique in the eyes of the other.
People who are anxiously attached have often not experienced healthy, secure relationships in their lives. Those that offer consistent stability and assurance. As such, they don’t really know what to look for in a partner.
They may mistake the initial pursuit as love and care that will carry the relationship, only to realize that the sustainable support they need is a different need that the avoidant partner feels unequipped in providing.
Anxious Partners Make Avoidant Partners Feel More Alive
For avoidant partners, emotions can be so overwhelming that they actually haven’t felt a lot of their own experiences. These are people who don’t lean into closeness with others. Thos who numb out their emotions with substances, and avoid expressing their thoughts and feelings.
When an avoidant partner links up with an anxious partner, the anxious partner might feel and express so much that the avoidant partner actually starts to feel, vicariously through them. It helps them to get a taste, albeit from a distance, of their own emotions and experiences. Which of course, is the central thread of feeling alive.
Avoidant Partners can Provide Pseudo-Stability
Anxious partners often feel so many emotions so frequently and have not learned how to organize, manage, or process them.
When an anxious partner sees an avoidant parter expressing composure on the outside, they may read that expression as stability, which can feel balancing. It can feel like a relief from their own typical overwhelm.
Anxious Partners Make Avoidant Partners Feel Worthy
Avoidant people often have a sense of not being enough, not being able to get it right, and not being able to fix or be useful.
When anxious partners offer their emotions and inner thoughts to avoidant partners, avoidant partners may read this as them having done something right, to be worthy of this openness.
The Reasons they Attracted to Each Other Become the Places their Problems Form
Eventually, avoidant partners become overwhelmed with the emotions and needs of anxious partners. Which deteriorates their sense of “getting it right.”
Likewise, the stability that anxious partners may perceive at the beginning becomes seen as emotionally closed, slowly start to leave them feeling emotionally alone.
They Both Push Secure Partners Away
So we understand how anxious and avoidant attachment styles can attract at the onset. But what keeps either of these attachment styles from bonding with a securely attached person first?
Anxious partners tend to have an unworthy view of their self as deserving of love. When security comes along, it may feel foreign (or “boring”) to them and they reject it. They instead choose the person who can’t show up the way they need them to, but feels more familiar to dynamics they have experienced in their life.
An avoidant person used to avoidant relationships might be used to this feeling of others needing them and not knowing what to do about it. They aren’t comfortable, but they assume this is how relationships work. And they coast as long as they can, because deep down, they know they do not want to be alone.
Secure partners have experienced functional close relationships. As a result, they are uncomfortable with anxious, insecure, and overbearing partners, as well as numb and unengaged ones.
Can Anxious and Avoidant Relationships Work?
The needs and tendencies of anxious and avoidant people create a pursuer distancer dynamic, where couples get stuck in negative patterns of communicating and neither get their needs met.
Attachment systems are deeply engrained, and they are unconscious. Most people do not have conscious awareness of the reasons they avoid or cling to others. So the good news is, while these dynamics can be painful, they are fixable and can provide couples an opportunity to heal the way they show up in relationships.
Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.Carl Jung
How to Make an Anxious Avoidant Relationship Work
Know Your Own Attachment Style
he first step in making any change is to create awareness around the current state. When you feel yourself getting upset with your partner, pause and consider:
- What just happened? What triggered me?
- What am I feeling in my body? What sensations come up right before I react?
- What thoughts are going through my mind about them?
- What thoughts are going through my mind about myself?
- How am I feeling?
Approach this exercise with compassionate self reflection. Judging yourself for your thoughts won’t get you anywhere.
Your responses to the prompts above will start cueing your into your own attachment style. As you learn your attachment style (try our free attachment style quiz here), you can make sense of why certain moments are upsetting to you and about what you need in those situations.
Name Your Communication Cycle
In relationships that have a lot of love and connection but feel like they aren’t working, you are likely bumping up against one another’s attachment styles.
Once you have a sense of your own style, work with your partner to understand theirs. Consider their communication tendencies, where they get overwhelmed, and how they react.
Understanding each of your attachment styles will allow you to put together the pieces into a cohesive narrative about the ways you trigger each other and how you get stuck in the same conversations, also known as your negative cycle.
This free negative cycle guide will more intentionally walk you and your partner through your current pattern and give you tips on creating a new one.
The goal of learning about attachment styles is to create a new environment, one of security where both partners reasonably:
- Feel seen and heard
- Send clear signals about what they need
- Have their needs met
- Meet the needs of the other
Attachment styles are complex. And our own patterns can be difficult to see when we are so close to them.
A neutral, trained systems therapist will guide you and your partner to see the patterns that come up when you get triggered. And will be able to help you see the dynamics you can’t see yourself.
A therapist will also guide you to process your emotions, share with each other, and create a new, secure environment that will sustain and support both partners over time. They will guide you in how to develop a secure attachment style, love and connection, individually and together.
Relationships are the mirrors that help us all to see our own opportunities for growth- it’s how relationships work. Whether you are anxious or avoidant, if you can both hold the perspective that the relationship is offering both of you a ground for healing and moving into emotional connection, the work will take you far.