The propensity to make strong emotional bonds to particular individuals is a basic component of human nature. ~John Bowlby
If you have ever questioned why you run from relationships or dip out on intimacy, you’re not alone.
Or, if you’ve ever wondered why you attract this type of partner like a magnet, you’re not alone.
We can spend a lifetime trying to pick apart why the wrong partner chased us — only to leave us alone, frustrated, cheated on and abandoned. Or, we can ruminate day and night on why we start feeling trapped and looking for an escape route in our own relationships even when things are going pretty well.
But, we won’t be any closer to figuring things out.
Obsessing on the ‘why’s’ and the ‘wtf’s’ that get stuck on repeat won’t get us off the merry-go-round any faster.
Hitting the eject button to avoid having to deal with the merry-go-round is just easier.
At least in the moment.
The eject button is what we press when feeling engulfed, or when we start feeling trapped. It usually begins with a fight or flight feeling. There’s a pinch of anxiety in our stomach — like the roller coaster that plummets you down the first big hill and fills your stomach with butterflies. Then, the feeling moves up to our chest where it starts closing in like a vice, making it tougher to breathe and the dizzying feeling begins.
We’ve probably called this feeling everything from “it’s nothing”, to “nerves” to “anxiety”.
By the time we’ve slapped a label on it, the feeling has already moved up to our conscious mind and is now on repeat in our thoughts.
Enter, the merry-go-round.
The end result is always the same…
This fight ir flight experience is over within a few minutes after being emotionally ‘triggered’ —even sooner if we’ve hit the eject button at the onset.
You don’t need formal training to figure out this dynamic. All you really need is to take a few steps back to notice the push-away-pattern — anytime there’s an emotionally charged situation that calls for vulnerability, boom…push away and put the running shoes on.
Pushing away quickly moves from a pattern to a habit in no time.
Nine times out of ten, pushing away has to do with intimate relationships. After all, the more intimate the relationship, the more we’re at risk of having those emotionally vulnerable moments that require us to feel, instead of feeling numb.
As for the other one time out of ten, who knows?
Maybe it’s triggered when you’re around your mother during the holidays and all you want to do is grab your car keys and get the hell out of the house because too much family togetherness is suffocating — or triggers memories of how she treated you as a kid.
Or, maybe that one time out of ten was when your friend had a tough time dealing with their own breakup and turned to you, which left you feeling awkward and emotionally shutting down because the only way you’ve managed to deal with relationships is to end them.
It doesn’t start this way, though.
This is where it ends.
The cycle starts out much different.
Unlike their anxiously attached counterparts who often question and doubt the fidelity and love of their partner early and consistently throughout the relationship, avoidantly attached partners are usually comfortable around others. They tend to blend into new environments easily and enjoy the excitement of new, and casual relationships.
For avoidants, the thrill of the chase is the exciting part; emotional intimacy, not so much.
But, it goes much deeper than this. Some research suggests that avoidantly attached people struggle with emotions and are both out of touch with their own emotions and the emotions of others.
So, if you’re the partner of someone who’s avoidantly attached, you’re probably on a roller coaster as much as they are. Things may start out exciting and fun and vibrant. Then, as the relationship progresses, they may back off and become more avoidant, or indifferent. They may spend more time at the office, at the gym, out with friends, or more time anywhere you’re not.
Because of this, a partner may label an avoidantly attached person as dismissive, calloused, egotistical, heartless, manipulative, unfaithful or untrustworthy.
That’ quite a list.
Yet, it’s not exhaustive.
Other research has found correlations with avoidantly attached men as having a significantly higher number of past relationships than securely attached men. Avoidantly attached partners (both men and women) experience significantly higher incidences of relationship dissatisfaction, interpersonal problems, relationship arguments, a lack of trust and a higher number of breakups.
This may be as a result of the idealization phase, where ‘perfection’ is expected (even if it’s on a subliminal or subconscious level) which can then lead to devaluation once the perfect bubble bursts and avoidance gets kicked into gear.
Where It Starts
John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth spearheaded research surrounding childhood attachment. Their results were impressive and are still referenced today in their theory of attachment, which has extended to adult attachment styles. What they found are that children can form insecure attachments to a primary caregiver (mom, dad, older sibling) when the caregiver is dismissive, abusive or neglectful, especially during the child’s formative years, which can then affect the child’s ability to form and maintain bonds with others.
By nature, humans seek attachment and love. We are hardwired for human connection. In childhood, if our earliest experiences were less-than satisfying, this can set the stage for an insecure attachment — either anxious, or avoidant. For those who develop an avoidant attachment, they may become overly independent, become cynical and distrusting of others as unpredictable or untrustworthy, or may commonly ‘shut down’ when pushed to be emotionally vulnerable.
Many avoid talking about emotions, may keep relationships superficial or focused on sex or casual encounters. They may abandon relationships when feeling emotionally vulnerable or ‘trapped’, or may avoid relationships altogether.
Why It Starts
Typically, a push-pull begins for the child in their earliest years if their needs go unmet, or are met inconsistently. Here is where a vulnerable, and impressionable child is pulling towards their caregiver in getting their needs met. According to Maslow (1943), we are motivated to have our most basic needs met with consistency which include food, shelter, safety, belonging, and esteem needs, before we can reach self-awareness or self-actualization.
If a child’s caregiver pushes them away, the child won’t feel safe or be able to consistently rely on their caregiver for love and support, leading to possibly developing an avoidant attachment style.
For example, parents whose kids become avoidant may be avoidant themselves. They may be preoccupied with their own needs and not concerned about their child’s needs, or they may scold or shame their child for crying or expressing their emotions, so they learn to avoid emotions.
Parents who raise their kid with an iron fist or are emotionally or physically negligent pose the greatest risk for their child to develop an insecure attachment, including an avoidant attachment style. They may use phrases like, “stiff upper lip” or “toughen up” if a child shows vulnerable emotions (tears, fear, etc). They may become angry or violent if a child’s needs take away from their own.
How It Affects Relationships
Because the push-pull usually starts early in their lives, both avoidantly attached and anxiously attached partners tend to be attracted to each other as familiar. They are two sides of the same coin, yet because each attachment style differs on polar extremes, it becomes damn near impossible for these partners to meet each other’s needs without intervention.
For example, with anxiously attached partners (the pull) they may seek out avoidantly attached partners (the push) because they come across as emotionally available, trustworthy, dependable or faithful. However, as an anxiously attached person may soon come to realize, what they need (loyalty, consistency, trust) an avoidant often won’t give.
On the flip-side, the very things the anxiously attached partner needs become the reason the avoidantly attached partner may abandon the relationship when they start feeling trapped, or engulfed because an anxiously attached partner may come across as too needy, suffocating or demanding.
Further complicating things, is that both insecure attachment styles often want to be in a committed, intimate and loyal relationship, yet they sabotage and run because relationships require intimacy, and emotional vulnerability.
Whether Change Can Happen
Whether this dynamic can be changed is going to depend on several things, including the person’s investment to change, them reaching a place of acceptance, their dedication to the process of change, and in getting comfortable with being emotionally uncomfortable.
All too often, I’ve seen people holding out false hope for someone to change when there is no foundation, no desire, and often, no relationship in which to change. I’ve seen people slapping labels on dysfunctional relationships as a ‘soulmate’ connection, or minimizing a toxic situation where one person has a history of overlapping relationships, abandoning a partner for another who was already there, and all while the person they abandoned is holding out hope.
As much as I want to believe in fairy-tale endings, I can’t.
What I do believe in, is hard work on the person’s end if they’re serious about wanting to learn a healthier alternative to what was learned for survival. For example, Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT), behavioral therapy, or a combination may improve things like satisfaction within the relationship and a person’s ability to emotionally cope when feeling engulfed or ‘trapped’. Thus, as partners learn new ways to increase their relationship satisfaction, attachment-related avoidance or anxiety can be decreased.
There has to be a line drawn between the two partners who recognize an unhealthy attachment within their relationship and are both equally invested in finding solutions, versus one partner who’s doing all the work while the other “partner” abandoned the relationship for someone else.
Distinctions need to be made between partners who don’t see a problem with their behavior and partners who aren’t perfect, but want to change.
Skills like teaching relationship intimacy goals, increasing understanding and communication and working on vulnerability and emotional transparency are important for positive change with long-term potential.
How Partners Can Help Each Other
Since no two relationships are the same, no two relationship issues will be the same. Each dynamic requires an honest investment between partners, and a commitment to want to strengthen their relationship.
Because attachment style is something that is learned early and usually sticks throughout life, changing how we approach relationships means getting comfortable recognizing our own emotions, and our partner’s emotions. Partners may benefit from taking baby steps, such as recognizing when a partner is ‘shutting down’ emotionally and having a plan in place on how to address it (when they’re ready).
While therapy can be very helpful for couples dealing with an avoidant or mixed anxious-avoidant attachment style, partners may have to reach an agreement on whether therapy or another option will be sought so a decision and a compromise can be in place.
I think the biggest thing partners can do for each other is to accept the other — insecure attachments, childhood conditioning, toxic habits, and all. By reaching a place of acceptance, you’re both able to level the playing field and focus on solutions to rebuild, if that is the goal.
Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (2015). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. NY: Taylor & Francis.
Benson, L. A., Sevier, M., & Christensen, A. (2013). The impact of behavioral couple therapy on attachment in distressed couples. The Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 4, 407–420.
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
Ináncsi, T., Láng, A., & Bereczkei, T. (2015). Machiavellianism and adult attachment in general interpersonal relationships and close relationships. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 11(1), 139–154.
Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Davis, K. E. (1994). Attachment style, gender, and relationship stability: a longitudinal analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 502–512.
Maslow, A. H. (1943. A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.
Spatz-Widom, C., Czaja, S. J., Kozakowski, S. S., & Chauhan, P. (2018). Does adult attachment style mediate the relationship between maltreatment and mental and physical health outcomes? Child Abuse & Neglect, 76, 533–545.
Umemura, T., Lacinová, L., Kotrčová, K., & Fraley, R. C. (2018). Similarities and differences regarding changes in attachment preferences and attachment styles in relation to romantic relationship length: longitudinal and concurrent analyses. Attachment & Human Development, 20(2), 135–159.
Previously published on “Hello, Love”, a Medium publication.
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