anxious-avoidant reltionship

Hello Everyone!

It’s been a while and I have missed connecting with you!

My little man and I are doing well. Now that he is six months old, we are getting into somewhat of a routine… somewhat.

While adjusting to the busy norms of parenthood, I have not forgotten about the blog: in fact, I brainstorm and daydream about different topics while I am up breastfeeding at 3 AM, and I am so excited to finally get some of those ideas on paper (or digital screens 😉 ).

While on maternity leave, and even prior to that, I received several emails that sound something like this:

Hey Erica,

I came across TLC and it is life changing. You. Are. Awesome. Through reading your blog I have learned that I am an anxious attachment style and my partner is an avoidant attachment style. We are stuck in the anxious-avoidant trap. What can we do to save our relationship?

Sincerely,

Your biggest fan.

In all seriousness, I love it when you send in questions and share that the blog has changed your understanding and relationships. I can’t always respond individually, but I’m hoping that this topic will address several of those questions.

If you are new to the site, let me quickly bring you up to speed. We all have an attachment style. Much like personality types, attachment styles are a part of us and have been shaped over time through our family and life experiences. No attachment style is RIGHT or WRONG or better then then another—they simply have DIFFERENT relational needs. When we understand our attachment style, we can better understand our actions and reactions in relationships. Taken a step further, if we can understand our partner’s attachment style, we can better understand the dynamic these attachment combinations make. Which brings us to the anxious-avoidant combination—the most challenging of attachment pairings.

As previously discussed, people with an anxious attachment style tend to “activate” or move toward when they feel that the security in their relationship is threatened, whereas people with an avoidant attachment style tend to “deactivate” or disengage when faced with relationship challenges. As you can imagine this can create a pursue-withdraw pattern. Herein lies the problem; the more an avoidant partner withdraws, the more it activates the anxious partner causing them to pursue. The opposite can also be true, the more an anxious partner pursues, the more overwhelming it can become for an avoidant partner causing them to withdraw.

Are these relationships doomed? Is there hope, can these relationships be helped? I see this pattern in my relationship, but what can I do about it? I have been asked many of these questions, and yes there is hope. There is always hope.

To answer these questions and fully explore this challenging dynamic I reached out to some colleagues and experts in the field: Melissa Kroonenberg, M.Sc. and Corinne Carter, M.Sc. Both of these incredible women are couple and family therapists, founders of New Roots Therapy and specialize in emotion-focused therapy (EFT), a type of therapy that gives special attention to attachment dynamics. Their tips for the anxious-avoidant relationship dynamic are as follows:

Practice Awareness

The first step towards change in any situation is the extent in which you are aware of the “problem”. In this case, awareness means understanding that you and your partner are in a pattern of behaviour that is unhelpful and destructive to the relationship. It also includes your awareness for the behaviours and underlying emotions driving the cycle. This is known as “deconstructing the cycle”. Once you are each aware that you are in a cycle, and you have awareness for what the cycle looks, it becomes easier to make choices that will invite change.

Don’t Take It Personally 

One of the most common hurdles for overcoming any unhelpful pattern of behaviour in a couple relationship is not taking your partners hurtful behaviour personally. Most unhelpful patterns in a loving relationship arise out of unmet attachment needs. This is not to say that our partner’s behaviour is not hurtful, but that their hurtful behaviour is stemming from an unexpressed and often unacknowledged need for security in the couple bond. In this way, it is important to remember that the cycle is the “problem” not the couple. Once couples can see that their partner’s behaviour is typically aimed at trying to establish connection and security, and not about being insignificant or a failure, it becomes easier to become more engaged in the healing process

Slow Down

Often when couples get caught up in their cycle, it can be quite overwhelming and visceral. Tempers flare, yelling ensues, and feelings are hurt. In a matter of seconds you can find yourself so caught up in your emotional experience, that it can be hard to see how the cycle is pushing you and your partner around. Even after couples come in to our office and spend time “deconstructing the cycle” and have a knowing for the behaviours, thoughts, and core feelings that drive the cycle, the actual visceral response that can take place when those attachment needs are activated, can make it extremely difficult to hold on to the tools that will help you at the moment when you need them the most.

To manage this, we often suggest allowing yourself to take a break or a “time out” when you feel things getting heated so that you have some space to slow down and process how the cycle is getting the better of you and your partner in that moment. This is often hard in the beginning because the impulse to want to keep your partner close and engaged is the very attachment need that usually sparks the cycle in the first place, so the direction to take space from your partner in that moment often feels counterintuitive, especially for the pursuing partner. What is often helpful here, is to distinguish between “taking a break” and “avoiding an argument”. We are not suggesting that couples stop talking to each other when things start to feel activated that would be “avoiding an argument”. What we are suggesting, is for couples to “take a break” from the context that is triggering an unhelpful emotional reaction so that they are better able to use the tools we are giving them in therapy. After each partner has taken a break, and feels better able to RESPOND to the situation instead of REACT to the cycle, couples should come back together and resolve their concerns. If you have to “take a break” 5 times over the course of one argument in order to stay in a place of RESPONDING instead of REACTING, that is okay too!

Own and Honour Your Experience

Once we learn that we are in a cycle, and we learn the behaviours, thoughts and core feelings that drive the cycle, we also come to understand our own role in how the cycle was created and maintained. Often partners struggle to feel justified in their actions even when it’s clear that those actions are hurtful to their partner or perpetuating the cycle. It is hard to learn that your behaviour or reactions to being hurt may have caused hurt to your partner, or be part of the trap you feel caught in. To own your feelings and actions in a relationship is difficult because it means we have to be vulnerable with our partners. This can be especially difficult if you have spent a lot of time with your partner in a state of psychological warfare, which is often what these patterns of behaviour can feel like. However, in order to move forward, you each need to take responsibility for your behaviour and emotional reactions. This is the only way toward rebuilding trust with your partner. Taking responsibility for your needs also creates space for you to identify and ask for what you need to feel secure in the relationship.

Be Responsive

As mentioned previously, it is hard to be responsible for our needs and actions in a relationship because it leaves us vulnerable to rejection from our partner. As such, it is important to remember to be responsive to our partners, especially when we can see them risking vulnerability. The more your partner sees you responding to their needs in a positive way, the more comfortable they will become asking for what they need and the more likely that they will be more responsive when you are putting yourself out there. This process is key for building and maintaining trust and securing the attachment bond.

Thank you Melissa and Corinne for sharing such insightful advice. Something stood out to me that I especially want to highlight: every tip requires both you and your partner being equally involved and committed to the relationship healing and growth. If one partner has given up, checked out, or is half way out the door, it is next to impossible to create a safe and secure attachment bond. Both partners are needed. Both need to invest the time and work involved. You cannot change your partner or their actions/reactions—you can only own and work on your part of the cycle. Then collectively you work towards creating a secure attachment.

If you find that you and your partner are stuck in this pattern, it is extremely helpful to sit down with a neutral party that can help you deconstruct and work through destructive patterns/cycles. I would recommend finding a therapist who specializes in emotion-focused therapy (EFT) as they have a solid understanding of attachment dynamics. If you are in Durham Region or the Greater Toronto Area I highly recommend New Roots Therapy. For international readers, you can find an EFT therapist here. If you would like to book an online consultation with me, please visit my services page.

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Wishing you love,

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