“Life is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base.” — Dr. John Bowlby
Have you ever run hot and cold in a relationship?
I’m not talking about gradually falling out of love with your partner where it starts out as white hot, fizzles to lukewarm and then goes cold and clammy.
The fact is, all healthy relationships will have peaks and valleys as measured by things like changes in interests or values, or where goals or priorities shift and affect relationship satisfaction from time to time.
It’s how these challenges are handled that’s key.
Challenges should be overcome by each partner making minor personal and relationship adjustments and embracing growth together.
These are also the same type of relationship challenges that can close that chapter in the couple’s lives if partners decide to stop fighting for the relationship and instead wind up fighting the relationship.
And, while relationship endings suck, if partners are emotionally healthy, then they’re using the ending to conquer their own personal growth, taking the lessons learned from the relationship with them for self-awareness and taking time off from dating for personal development.
No harm, no foul.
However, certain attachment styles differ on an organic level such as an insecure attachment, which include both Anxious and Avoidant styles. Insecure attachments not only affect intimate relationships, they also impact how a person engages in all of their relationships.
For example, an Anxious attachment — is marked by one (or both) partners seeking constant approval and reassurance from the other partner. There’s an overarching fear that their partner is either cheating, planning to cheat, or going to leave them. Many who battle an Anxious attachment bend over backwards to try and please their partner often by neglecting their own needs in the process.
A person who struggles with an Anxious attachment style may demand to see their partner’s phone, or may question or look for holes in a family member’s story. They are often on heightened-alert and struggle with trust issues that are carried with them.
Many who battle insecure attachments also struggle with being alone, and often confuse “being” alone with “feeling” lonely. The same insecurities that trigger a fear of abandonment are the same ones that can have them abandoning one relationship for another in an effort to avoid being abandoned.
Intimate relationships with insecurely attached partners are often filled with passion and toxic peaks and valleys where solutions aren’t found, often because partners may not be able to pinpoint the issues at hand. Or, they’re used to having dramatic and unstable relationships as “normal” — and even comfortable — so a solution may not want to be found.
These relationships are often riddled with the push-pull cycle, where each partner should take a time-out in order to best understand themselves, their part in the cycle and where and how it started (*hint: childhood).
Yet, the same reasons that call for a relationship breather, are the same ones keeping the push-pull dynamic in full effect.
Adding another layer to these unstable relationship dynamics, is that Anxiously-attached partners and Avoidantly-attached partners are usually drawn to each other like two moths to the flame.
These are the two attachment styles synonymous with the push-pull.
If we think about it, this makes perfect sense.
Each type of insecure attachment style seeks out (chases), and simultaneously pushes away (runs) from the qualities the other has. This works two ways: they want to approach the other for belonging and at the same time they reproach the other because that person is seen as a threat to their sense of autonomy.
…two sides to the same coin.
For example, those who are Anxiously-attached may want to be “fixed” or “saved” in the relationship where their partner’s needs come before their own in an effort to make them feel whole or complete, while many Avoidantly-attached partners like doing the “fixing” or “saving” to shy away from their own growth.
Partners who are Anxiously-attached often have a fear of being left behind or abandoned that can be triggered by an Avoidantly-attached partner who often has a fear of engulfment, or a feeling of losing themselves in the relationship. The Anxiously-attached partner may ‘chase’ the Avoidantly-attached partner to be reassured they’re loved, or wanted, which in turn can cause the Avoidantly-attached partner to ‘run’ from emotional overwhelm.
Those with an Anxious attachment can misconstrue their partner’s autonomy or need for personal space as being abandoned by their partner, whereas those with an Avoidant attachment can misconstrue their partner’s belongingness, emotional availability and ease of intimacy as suffocating, and something to avoid at all costs.
Anxiously-attached partners commonly report feeling fear, anxiety or impending doom whereas an Avoidantly-attached partner is often seen as shallow, aloof and emotionally isolated.
On the flip-side, Avoidantly-attached partners often report feeling numb, bored or indifferent where the excitement, spontaneity and passion of an Anxiously-attached partner makes them feel alive or gives them a sense of purpose.
Both attachment styles seek out what the other attachment style has, that they themselves may lack. And each attachment style is also emotionally triggered by the very things they are attracted to in the other person.
Anxious Attachment In Intimate Relationships
While this attachment style promises excitement and passion, it is also ruled by insecurity and fears. Not so ironically, many of the fears of an Anxiously-attached partner become a self-fulfilling prophecy if they’re involved with an Avoidantly-attached partner — and vice versa.
For example, many Avoidantly-attached partners choose shallow(er) relationships, keep their partner at arms-distance and shut down when emotions or intimacy are on the line. They may try to keep things impersonal while focusing on less emotion and more casualness. Many also have histories of infidelity or overlapping relationships which fall in line with one of the biggest fears of the Anxiously-attached person.
Because an Avoidantly-attached partner can have emotional armor in place much of the time, they may disconnect from one relationship and abandon one for another much more easily than an Anxiously-attached partner can.
The Anxiously-attached partner may find themselves being cheated on and triggering their fears. Understandably, if a relationship boundary or norm has been violated (especially when trust in on the line) it rocks the relationship to the core, where it hangs in the balance and often can’t be fixed.
Suffice to say, an Anxiously-attached partner is not wrong for feeling betrayed if infidelity occurred — but, they do need to check their own habits and patterns of potentially getting involved with partners who are emotionally unavailable or with relationships that trigger their unresolved core wounds.
But, back it up a few steps to examine how an Avoidantly-attached person handles relationship stress. If they emotionally shut down or become distant or indifferent, this is seen as unhealthy because communication and intimacy are tossed out. So, most partners would question or challenge emotional avoidance in a relationship, or they may try harder to get the Avoidantly-attached person to open up — triggering their fears of engulfment.
The root of all insecurely attached persons is a fear of abandonment stemming from early life trauma. How each type of attachment style deals with these fears are based on the attachment style, itself.
Overcoming The Pattern
Overcoming the pattern doesn’t require a complete overhaul on how you or your partner approach the relationship. It simply means making sound changes in your mindset, being aware of when and how cycles play out and making adjustments accordingly.
By understanding and meeting your partner’s needs, your needs should be met in the process.
One of the most important things to recognize and acknowledge within your relationship is the likelihood of attachment wounds, stemming from childhood. These show up in various unhealthy behaviors and feelings in a relationship and are often the core wounds which form insecure attachment styles.
These may include:
· Feeling unheard or disconnected from your partner
· Feeling alone or abandoned during times of emotional challenge or life transitions (new job, job loss, illness, death in family, etc.)
· Feeling unsafe or unable to count on your partner for safety needs or emotional support
· Chronic feelings of emptiness or unhappiness where nothing seems ‘good enough’
· Emotional or physical cheating (engulfment can trigger shutdown or relationship abandonment)
For those battling an Anxious attachment style, it’s important to recognize where your emotional triggers are (what is said or done and how you feel about it) that may emotionally trigger a fear of abandonment. For those battling an Avoidant attachment style, it’s important to recognize when your feelings bubble up and engulfment is emotionally triggered — what is happening, or what is being said in the moment.
Because insecure attachment styles may struggle with emotional intimacy and being able to be emotionally present and vulnerable with your partner, this boils down to: A) Finding a way to express your emotional fears and needs ahead of time so that you and your partner have a blueprint for how to respond; or B) Unfortunately, if you and your partner aren’t able to find a way to express your vulnerabilities and needs, your relationship won’t be happy or functional.
For example, because those with an Avoidant attachment style are often fiercely independent (emotionally stoic, pushes others away, values time alone), one of their needs may be to have quality time alone (i.e. at the gym, a home office space, etc) in order to be able to feel more emotionally present for their partner when they are together. However, the ‘fierce independence’ needs to be balanced with emotional availability because independence is often used to escape and avoid intimacy.
On the flip-side, an Anxiously attached partner may need to know they’re thought of or valued during times when their partner is away, so things like a simple “I love you” text can go a long way in reassuring an anxious partner.
Or, because Anxiously-attached partners can tend to emotionally over-share whereas Avoidantly-attached partners tend to emotionally under-share, having simple tasks in place can help build emotional balance and intimacy within the relationship. For example, ask how each other’s day was, or have one intimate emotion to target each day and discuss, reflect upon, etc.
It’s no coincidence that these two types of attachment styles often find themselves in relationships together. And, it’s no surprise that they trigger each other’s core wounds and fears. This can actually be seen as a good thing. If each partner is willing to be emotionally present and vulnerable with each other, there is the potential for huge emotional growth, self-awareness and healing.
However, NO support can prevent two partners who don’t see eye-to-eye, are unwilling to make needed adjustments, or don’t want to improve the quality and emotional intimacy of their relationship. And, NO support will stop a partner who actively has ulterior motives, hidden agendas or chooses to step outside the relationship.
The bottom-line is that both partners need to be fully present, fully on board, and fully willing to examine their own needs, and the needs of their partner.
Bowlby, J., 1982. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Bowlby, J. (1978). Attachment theory and its therapeutic implications. Adolescent Psychiatry, 6, 5–33.
Fraley, C. (2018). Adult attachment theory and research. Retrieved from http://labs.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm
Johnson, S. M., Makinen, J. A., & Millikin, J. W. (2007). Attachment injuries in couple relationships: A new perspective on impasses in couples therapy. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 27(2), 145–155.
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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