rollercoaster relationship

Last week we covered the dynamics of the roller-coaster relationship and why it can be so addictive. Attachment research suggests that if we are paired with a secure partner we are less likely to experience this roller-coaster dynamic. But what happens if we are not paired with a secure partner? If we have invested in a long-term committed relationship and don’t want to walk away? We can get stuck in a pattern psychological research calls the anxious avoidant trap.

The main reason that I became a psychotherapist, relationship coach and started this blog is because I have a strong desire and passion to see people’s relationships and marriages flourish! Are there times when people need to end relationships? Yes! There certainly are, but if both partners are on board and willing to try, relationships can grow and thrive. Not every anxious avoidant relationship fits this mold; there are exceptions to every rule. However, without an understanding of each other’s needs and effective communication, this pairing can easily get stuck in this pattern.

So what happens if we find ourselves in the anxious-avoidant trap? Its called a trap because it is an unhealthy pattern of interaction between an anxious and an avoidant partner that is very difficult to break out of. The closer the anxious partner tries to get, the more distant the avoidant partner acts. Once that happens, the activated person seeks more reassurance from their partner and is met yet again with more deactivation. It is a cycle of exacerbating each other’s insecurities.

One of the first steps in escaping the trap is to understand the various thoughts, feelings and actions that are at play and that perpetuate the situation. Amir Levine and Rachel Heller do a great job at identifying these thoughts, feelings and actions in the book attached, and I have organized them side-by-side in the charts below for easy comparison. Please note that those are the negative patterns that perpetuate the cycle.

Thoughts

Anxious

Avoidant

Mind reading: That’s it, I know s/he is leaving me. All or nothing thinking: I knew s/he wasn’t the right one for me, this proves it!
I’ll ever find anyone else, Overgeneralizing: I knew I wasn’t made to be in a close relationship.
All or nothing thinking: I’ve ruined everything, there’s nothing I can do to mend the situation. S/he’s taking over my life, I can’t take it!
S/he can’t treat me this way! I’ll show him/her! Now I have to do everything his/her way; the price is too high.
I knew something would go wrong; nothing ever works our right for me. I need to get out of here, I feel suffocated.
I have to talk to or see him/her right now. If s/he was “the one”, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen.
S/he’d better come crawling back to beg for my forgiveness, otherwise s/he can forget about me forever. When I was with _________ this wouldn’t have happened.
Maybe if I look drop-dead gorgeous or act seductive, things will work out. Malicious intent: S/he’s really out to annoy me, it’s so obvious…
S/he is so amazing, why would s/he want to be with me anyway? S/he just wants to tie me down, this isn’t true love.
Remembering all of the good things your partner ever did and said after calming down from a fight. Fantasize about having sex with other people.
Recalling only the bad things your partner has ever done when you are fighting. I’ll be better off on my own.
Ugh, s/he’s so needy! Its pathetic.

 

Emotions

Anxious

Avoidant

SadAngry

Fearful

Resentful

Frustrated

Depressed

Hopeless

Despairing

Jealous

Hostile

Vengeful

Guilty

Self loathingRestless

Uneasy

Humiliated

Hate filled

Uncertain

Agitated

Rejected

Unloved

Lonely

Misunderstood

Unappreciated

WithdrawnFrustrated

Angry

Pressured

Unappreciated

Misunderstood

Resentful

Hostile

Aloof

Empty

DeceivedTense

Hate-filled

Self-righteous

Contemptuous

Despairing

Scornful

Restless

Distrustful

 

Actions

Anxious

Avoidant

  • Act out attempt to reestablish contact at any cost
  • Pick a fight
  • Wait for them to make the first reconciliation move
  • Threaten to leave
  • Act hostile—roll your eyes, looks disdainful
  • Try to make him/her feel jealous
  • Act busy
  • Act busy or unapproachable
  • Withdraw—stop talking to your partner or turn away from him/her physically
  • Act manipulative
  • Act out
  • Get up and leave
  • Belittle your partner
  • Act hostile, looks disdainful
  • Make critical remarks
  • Withdraw mentality or physically
  • Minimize physical contact
  • Keep emotional sharing to a minimum
  • Stop listening to your partner. Ignore him/her.

 

Possible Attachment Principles at Play

Anxious

Avoidant

  • Protest behaviour
  • Activating strategies (any thought, feeling or behaviour that will result in an increased desire to reconnect)
  • Putting your partner on a pedestal
  • Feeling small and inferior in comparison to your partner
  • Seeing/remembering on the best in your partner after a fight (while forgetting his/her negative side)
  • Mistaking an activated attachment system for love
  • Living on a relationship roller-coaster, addicted to the highs and lows
  • Deactivating strategies
  • Mistaking self reliance for independence
  • Inflating your own importance and self esteem while putting your partner down
  • Seeing only the negative in your partner and ignoring the positive
  • Assuming malicious intent in your partners actions
  • Disregarding you partners emotional cues
  • Yearning for the one that got away
  • Fantasizing about “the one”
  • Repressing loving feelings and emotions

When you take time to go through the thoughts, feelings and actions of each partner, you begin to see how they are operating from opposite places. These thoughts and feelings tend to trigger the other person, which just leads to a cyclical pattern in the relationship.

How can we break free?

Ask yourself what would a secure person do?

If we read back over the secure attachment article or picture a secure individual in our lives, how would they act or deal with the situation? What would they do differently? Amir Levine and Rachel Heller suggest that they would be available, not interfere, act encouragingly, communicate effectively, not play games, view themselves as responsible for their partners well being, allow themselves to be vulnerable, maintain focus on the problem at hand, avoid generalizations during conflict and put out fires quickly. These are all things that we can consciously learn to do to avoid entering into, or prolonging these attachment system flare-ups.

Understand what makes you tick in relationships.

Know what thoughts, feelings and actions you are prone to experience. When you do this you are better about to control your reactions and communicate effectively in your relationship. Also learn what makes your partner tick, it will help you to be less defensive and have a different perspective on their interactions.

Start to reframe your past relationship experiences.

We all have “working models” which are our belief systems around various topics. In this situation, working models about romantic relationships are the beliefs that we have about relationships based on our own experiences and the experiences of others around us. Let’s begin to change these working models by applying what we have now leaned to the memories of previous relationships. I know it is a bizarre concept to think that we can reshape our memories since we often view them as snap shots or pictures. But in fact, our memories are alive and fluid snippets that are highly biased to our perspective. Understanding ourselves now can better help us understand our previous experiences and change the way we view those situations. It all sounds so deep and nerdy of me I know, but trust me it works! The book Attached has some great work sheets including a relationship inventory– I highly suggest getting the book and working through it together!

Well that is a lot of information for one day, but I hope that it helps to bring you understanding and gives you hope that with some conscious effort you relationship can be turned around for the better!

As always I welcome your thoughts and feedback, and would love for you to stay up to date by subscribing to the blog.

Until next time, wishing you all love and connection!

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References

Levine, A. & Heller, R. (2010). Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—And Keep—Love. Penguin Group, NY: New York.