When Anxious Meets Avoidant

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Why are people with anxious attachment styles and avoidant attachment styles drawn to each other? Can anxious-avoidant relationships work, and most importantly, can they be healthy and satisfying?

As a longtime marriage counselor and couples therapist, I see this pairing all the time. These relationships usually look like one partner who wants more — more time together, more emotional intimacy, more commitment, more affection — and another partner who is not feeling that way at all. While the anxious partner wants to pull the avoidant partner close, the avoidant partner craves freedom and space. They have a lot of ambivalence about relationships in general and their partners in particular… and all of this makes the anxious partner feel incredibly anxious!

When you are stuck on either side of an anxious-avoidant relationship cycle, it’s very tempting to blame your partner and believe they’re the source of the problems in your relationship. But attachment patterns are old, deep stuff, not conscious choices we make from a place of rationality. By having greater understanding for yourself and for your partner, and using that understanding to manage your own attachment tendencies, you can create real change in yourself and in your relationship. 

This article is going to show you how. If you’re in an anxious-avoidant relationship, I hope it helps you understand its dynamics from a new perspective, and empowers you to move toward greater connection and security. If you’d prefer to listen, I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. You can find it  on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

What Are Attachment Styles?

You may be wondering, “Am I anxious or avoidant?” but there’s more to it than that. There are four basic relationship attachment styles, and no one perfectly embodies one style or another. You may lean anxious in some relationships (like when you’re paired with a more avoidant partner), while you feel pretty secure in other relationships.

Here are the four attachment styles:

  • Secure: People with a secure attachment style find it easy to trust other people to meet their emotional needs. They have a supply of healthy self-love inside of them that helps them feel like they’re fundamentally okay — not perfect, but as worthy of love and respect from others as anybody else. Securely attached people are comfortable with emotional closeness, but they also don’t feel a lot of anxiety when a partner needs space. They tend to settle down into committed, stable relationships relatively easily.
  • Anxious: People with an anxious attachment style aren’t so confident that they are fundamentally okay. They struggle with feelings of inadequacy, and worry that their partner isn’t really invested in them. They may experience trust issues, fears of abandonment, or an excessive amount of jealousy in relationships. Anxiously attached people tend to need a lot of connection and reassurance from partners, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but can be overwhelming for some people (especially those with an avoidant attachment style). 
  • Avoidant: Avoidantly attached people feel good about themselves, at least on a conscious level, but they’re not so sure about others. They’re always on the lookout for signs that a romantic partner is a closet control freak who wants to take away their freedom. They are not comfortable with a lot of emotional closeness in relationships — in fact, it may even elicit a visceral feeling of disgust that causes them to push away. Many people with an avoidant attachment style have a history of short-term relationships, and they often believe this is because they haven’t met the right person yet, not because of any kind of insecurity or commitment issue on their part. Learn more about how to heal an avoidant attachment style.
  • Disorganized: This attachment style is sometimes called “fearful-avoidant” or “anxious-avoidant.” It’s the rarest attachment style, and is associated with more severe forms of childhood neglect or abuse. People with disorganized attachment styles want to be loved on the one hand, but are afraid to let anyone in on the other. They often have turbulent relationships with a lot of conflict and frequent breakups. 

Check out our article and podcast episode on attachment styles in relationships for a more in-depth exploration of the different orientations, where they come from, and how they interact. And if you’re not sure where you fall along the attachment spectrum, take our attachment style quiz

Why Are Anxious Attachment Styles Attracted to Avoidant Attachment Styles?

Anxious and avoidant attachment styles often pair up, even though they create difficult patterns together. So why is that? It has to do with dynamics that began in early childhood.

Your attachment style was formed based on the quality of the attachments you had with your caregivers as a small child. People who experienced their parents as critical, unreliable, or just not fully “there” emotionally often develop an anxious attachment style. 

Anxiously attached people believe on a deep level that love is something they have to earn from others. If they’re good enough, attractive enough, interesting enough, or successful enough, then they will finally be worthy of love and respect, or so their subconscious programming tells them. Just as they worked hard to earn love, approval, and attention from caregivers who weren’t always emotionally available, adults with anxious attachment styles often look at the rejecting responses they get from romantic partners as reflections of their own value. You can imagine how this mindset raises the stakes of relationships and leads them to be on the lookout for signs of rejection or abandonment. 

When someone with an anxious attachment style meets someone with an avoidant attachment style, the early-relationship chemistry can be intense. The avoidant partner can seem incredibly appealing — they’re often successful in some way, since they tend to have a lot of time and energy on their hands that is not being poured into intimate relationships. They can be funny and charming and confident in dating, especially in the early stages of a relationship while the connection is still pretty shallow. And they tend to be a bit aloof, which can trigger the familiar urge in the anxious partner to work harder for their attention. 

The avoidant partner often feels excited about the anxious partner too, at least in the beginning. Avoidantly attached people are usually carrying around this narrative somewhere in their subconscious minds: Somewhere out there is a perfect partner who will actually be good enough for me. I just haven’t found them yet, but once I do, I will finally get my needs met and the way I feel in relationships will be totally different. 

Because the anxious partner tends to come into new relationships with guns ablazin’, putting a lot of effort into proving how awesome they are, the avoidant partner often feels impressed by them at first. Maybe this is the perfect person they’ve been waiting on for so long! But this excitement doesn’t last long. As the relationship grows closer, the avoidant partner starts to sense that the anxious partner is actually quite insecure and hungry for their validation. 

This insight, along with the normal devaluation they tend to feel as relationships grow more intimate, is actually comforting for the avoidant partner. They don’t like being vulnerable in relationships, and being with someone they consider a true equal would be a much more vulnerable feeling than being with someone who they judge as not quite good enough. Having the relationship entirely on their terms helps them maintain the upper hand, and a safe emotional distance. 

The Anxious Avoidant Relationship Cycle

As the excitement of early dating gives way to the reality of being in a relationship with an imperfect human being, the avoidantly attached partner will start to pull away. They get an icky feeling when they see how much their partner is starting to need them and rely on them, and their natural inclination is to seek space. They may develop negative narratives about their partner to explain the feelings they’re having in reaction to intimacy — narratives like, They’re needy, they’re suffocating. They’re like a bottomless pit that wants to swallow me whole. I thought they were so great, but they’re actually kind of irritating and I don’t want to be too close to them. 

Of course, the person with the avoidant attachment style isn’t fully aware of where all of this is coming from. They just know that their partner suddenly seems overwhelming and they want to get away… but not too far away. Once they’ve taken some space and re-regulated themselves, their fond feelings for their partner will start to resurface and they’ll feel the desire to reconnect. They likely won’t understand what just happened inside of them (they often have trouble feeling their own feelings), let alone how to communicate about it with their partner. 

Of course, this pulling away makes the anxious partner feel incredibly worried. They worry quite a bit about their relationships regardless of how their partner is acting, so when their partner pulls away, it confirms their worst fear — that they’re in danger of being abandoned. In response, the anxious partner will often escalate their bids for connection and reassurance. For example, they may send several texts in a row despite not getting any reply, or start an argument with the avoidant partner to get some confirmation that they actually care about them. 

And then the cycle continues. The more elevated and insistent the anxious partner becomes, the more overwhelmed and repelled the avoidant partner feels. The anxious partner doesn’t know how to communicate with someone who shuts them out. The avoidant partner doesn’t understand why the anxious partner is always so upset. The avoidant partner pushes farther away, causing the anxious partner to pursue them, causing more distancing from the avoidant partner, and on and on. 

This can devolve into an intense “pursue-withdraw” pattern that is a bad omen for the longevity of relationships. The way to prevent the cycle from taking root is for both partners to increase their awareness of how they’re feeling, how they’re showing up in their relationship, and how their own actions are eliciting the responses they’re getting from their partner. 

How to Fix an Anxious Attachment Style

There are a few things the anxious partner can do to create greater security in themselves and to avoid provoking avoidant reactions from their partner. 

First, recognize that, when you’re feeling anxious and you want reassurance, pursuing your avoidant partner will not have the desired effect. It will cause them to feel more uncomfortable and to push farther away — which will feed your anxiety and fuel the negative pursue-withdraw pattern you want to break. 

Instead of pursuing your partner, focus on soothing your own anxious feelings. 

How to Self-Soothe Anxious Attachment

We’re supposed to begin learning how to soothe ourselves when we’re small children, by internalizing the understanding, empathetic soothing of a safe, reliable caregiver. But by definition, people with anxious attachment styles didn’t have caregivers who could be this way, at least not consistently. 

If you experience a lot of anxiety in relationships, it can feel like your partner needs to respond to you in a certain way so that you can feel better. But the real work is not trying to change your partner (especially if they have avoidant tendencies), but giving yourself the emotional intelligence tools you need to self-soothe. 

Here are a few steps you can take to soothe anxious attachment and feel safer and more secure:

  1. Challenge Anxious Thought Patterns 

If you are anxiously attached and you feel your partner pulling away, it can flood you with a feeling of pure fear, as if something truly terrible is about to happen to you. Of course, you’re not in any mortal danger — your partner probably just wants some space, and even if the worst case scenario were to happen and they are in fact planning to leave you, you would be okay. You may be hurt and unhappy, and you may take some time to recover from heartbreak. But ultimately, you have the power to take care of yourself emotionally and to live a life that’s full of love and connection, regardless of what anyone else does. 

To face your fears and challenge your anxious thoughts, you can experiment with journaling about these thoughts and then asking yourself whether or not they’re actually true. You may also find it helpful to repeat a reassuring mantra to yourself, like “I am safe” or “I will be okay no matter what.

  1. Build Your Self-Esteem

If you’re able to connect with an effective therapist who can help you build your self-esteem and self-love, you’ll not only feel better, you’ll notice the dynamics of your relationships begin to shift.

Having healthy self-esteem is the core of empathy. It helps you feel strong and secure in yourself so you can connect with others in a way that respects where they’re coming from and what they need from you. As low self-esteem improves, it will feel easier for you to give your partner the space they need, which may (ironically) draw them closer. 

  1. Respect Your Own Needs

As you develop healthier self-esteem and your attachment patterns become more secure, you will probably start evaluating your relationship from a new perspective. Instead of working to earn love, you may start to question whether your partner can meet your valid needs for intimacy and connection. You may shift from trying to change your avoidant partner or help them resolve their “issues,” to focusing on your own boundaries and what you are (and aren’t) willing to tolerate in a relationship. 

There’s nothing wrong with needing a lot of time with your partner, or emotional closeness, or reassurance. These needs become a problem when we try to convince people who aren’t able or willing to meet them to do so. Rather than accepting our partner for who they are and what they can offer us (and having care and consideration for what they need in a relationship), we try to change them. 

Decide what a good life partner would look like for you, how much distance you’re willing to tolerate in a relationship, and then set healthy boundaries with yourself and with your partner. 

How to Heal Avoidant Attachment

There are a few things that avoidantly attached people can do to manage their attachment style in relationships and to become more secure. 

  1. Increase Your Self-Awareness

If you have an avoidant attachment style, you may not be fully aware of your own feelings and where they’re coming from. When you feel like pushing away from your partner for example, you might think that you’re reacting to some trait in them that you don’t like, when you’re actually having a reaction to a level of closeness and intimacy that makes you uncomfortable. 

The first step in learning how to tolerate difficult feelings and manage them effectively is to become aware of the feelings you’re having and why. This helps you understand yourself better and also be more emotionally available in your relationships.

  1. Understand Your Partner

If you suddenly push an anxious partner away, they will likely pursue you, which will only make you feel more stifled. Learning to expect this predictable reaction helps you make choices about when and how to take space from your relationship. It also helps you have empathy and understanding for your partner’s feelings. 

  1. Help Your Partner Feel Safe

If you need to disengage from your relationship for a time in order to re-regulate yourself, that’s okay. But first, you need to communicate with your partner about how you’re feeling and when you’re going to be back. When your anxious partner understands what’s happening and that they’re not going to be abandoned, that helps them give you the space you need. 

Getting Support for Insecure Attachment

Our attachment styles are deep parts of us that are largely operating outside the realm of our “thinking” minds. If you would like to work on becoming more securely attached, or on the attachment patterns within your relationship, I recommend doing so with a clinician who has an attachment lens. We have a team of talented clinicians who would be happy to meet with you, and I invite you to schedule a free consultation

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

P.S. — For more free articles and podcasts on attachment patterns, check out our “healthy relationships” collection of content. 

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When Anxious Meets Avoidant

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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Music in this episode is by Victoria Monet with their song “Experience.” You can support them and their work by visiting their website here: https://victoriamonet.co/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you are listening to the Love, Happiness and Success podcast. What happens when someone with an anxious attachment style and someone with an avoidant attachment style come together in a relationship? Can these pairings work and more importantly, can they be healthy?

That’s what we’re talking about on today’s show. We are listening to Victoria Monet with an iteration of her song “Experience,” which I think is a little bit perfect for today because if you listen to the song it’s all about, I’m hoping that you can change, basically is the punchline. I think that many people who are in a relationship with somebody who has a fundamentally different attachment style than they do, can often spend a lot of time and energy trying to get their partner to change, being more like them.

That can create a lot of friction, a lot of conflict, and a lot of disappointment in a relationship. That’s also a lot of opportunity for all of us to avoid engaging in that dynamic and instead taking a look at our own attachment styles and using that self-awareness, and our skills as we grow in our ability to manage ourselves, regulate our own anxiety, to really create the kind of relationship that we want, no matter what sort of attachment style our partner may have.

That’s what we’re gonna be diving into on today’s show. I really wanted to talk about this because as you may know, if you’ve listened to this show in the past, my background, I am a licensed psychologist. I’m a board certified coach, but I am also a licensed marriage and family therapist. That’s really how I identify professionally, is more of a relationship person. 

That’s a lot of what we do in my practice, Growing Self Counseling and Coaching, and it is not at all uncommon for couples to come in for things like marriage counseling, couples therapy, premarital counseling, and when you dive in into what’s going on deep levels. There’s skirmishes about who’s doing what and money and parenting and all of the normal things, but like when you really get into it on the deepest level many times really the core conflict is a desire for a different level of closeness and connection than it seems like their partner wants. A lot of conflict is really about that. Interestingly, when we can work on relationships at this very deep level and help people feel more connected in a comfortable way.

A lot of the anxiety, a lot of the pain that had been fueling conflict about the day-to-day stuff, it kind of just fades away. When people are feeling comfortably connected, there’s less to fight about, they’re more resilient, they’re better able to solve problems and whether or not the dishwasher is unloaded in a particular way at a particular time. It is much less like symbolically fraught in terms of what it means about the relationship.

You know, that “Do you care about me?” on the one side or “You’re trying to control me” on the other. When we can really work with people at the attachment level it’s just much less dramatic all the way around. I hope that this podcast today gives you some insight into yourself and your partner, and hopefully some actionable ideas to take with you.

I also wanted to do this show in particular because we’ve talked about attachment styles in relationships in the past. I refer you back to a couple of other podcasts I’ve done on the subject over the years. I think there was just attachment styles and relationships with one of them, which you can find if you wanna scroll back through the podcast feed or of course, you can come to my website growingself.com.

Go to the blog and podcast page and then find the love collection where if you tap on that, you’ll find all kinds of different content collections. Different aspects of relational work, and so communication that connects, there’s a lot about attachment also, I think growing together. That content collection has a lot of both articles and past podcasts around attachment styles and really the kind of growth work that we’re going to be talking about today, which is how both people in a relationship really need to work own self-awareness and their own ways of being in relationships in order to have a really satisfying partnership. 

You can find any articles or podcasts that I’ll be referring to over the course of our time together today there, and of course, it’s all free, all for you, so I hope you check it out. But I haven’t yet talked about the not uncommon situation where people with really differing attachment styles come together in a relationship and the kind of unique stress that can cause, particularly if one or both people aren’t really aware of their attachment patterns and the cycle that they’re creating together.

Specifically that would be somebody who trends towards an anxious attachment with somebody who tends towards a more avoidant attachment style. Again, in couples counseling and not uncommonly when I’m doing work with people who are going through a divorce or a bad breakup that often can be part of the story. Because these relationships, these opposite attachment style pairings are often characterized by one partner really wanting more connection, more intimacy, more time together, more commitment. Another partner who is not feeling that way, they want more space, more freedom and they feel kind of drained by anyone who wants more from them, needs them intensely.

They start pulling away from a relationship and that makes the anxious partner feel even more anxious. You can see where this goes. But the reason why this is also quite complex — and this is the part that’s very difficult to wrap your arms around — I think for many people, this is also true that whenever anybody has a pronounced attachment style on either side, either more anxious or more avoidant, it will always create a polarizing dynamic in the other person.

For example, if somebody who’s fairly anxiously attached is in a relationship with a very securely attached person, someone with the secure attachment style. The presence of their anxious behaviors, will pretty reliably push that more secure person to become more avoidant. It makes them pull away because the anxiety stuff is really intense.

It is also true that you can take a person with a very secure attachment style and put them in a relationship with somebody who is quite avoidant — withholding, rejecting, critical — and observe how anxious they will always become in response to that relational dynamic. The way we perceive our partners is different based on our attachment style.

If you tend to have a lot of anxiety in relationships, you will always want more from your partner and you will experience them as avoidant and withholding whether or not they actually, yet. Furthermore, an avoidant person will experience their cat as being unreasonably needy and demanding. Will look wistfully at other cats and imagine that those other cats are better than their cat.

It’s like it’s just kind of the way you’re built. Then to make things even more complex and difficult to get clarity around when two people are in a relationship where there is tension, when there is distress, when there is any kind of conflict. Most of the time, even to perfectly attached people. — not that there is such a thing — but people who don’t have attachment issues will polarize into this pursue-withdraw dynamic because of the conflict itself. That’s just like really normal and expected and not indicative that somebody has court issues around attachment stuff. It’s just what happens.

You need to be really aware of this push-pull thing and if you’re having this experience of feeling like your partner is either very needy and intense, or withholding and distant. It can be very tempting to kind of label them as being anxious or label them as being avoidant. Without really understanding how your own way of being could be creating the responses that you see in the other person.

There’s a lot here and it can honestly be complex and take some time to figure out what is really going on. Is it me? Is it us? Is it them? Is it just conflict? There’s definitely an assessment process, but also I think one that leads to a lot of self-awareness and hopefully compassion and empathy on both sides.

Especially, if you do discover that either an anxious attachment style or an avoidant attachment style or a little bit of both is part of the equation, that can be an even more dramatic kind of push pull dynamics in a relationship. If people come together and both of them are further out on each of the pointy ends of the bell curve, further away from a secure attachment style and trending towards one extreme or the other.

It can really lead to a quite explosive and really unstable relationship unless you figure out what’s going on and take action to resolve it. Because if you don’t, what will happen very predictably is that you’re gonna trigger the heck out of each other and it can be really unsustainable unless there’s a lot of self-awareness and work in taking ownership over the way you show up and quite consciously seeking to change the way that you relate to your partner so that it feels more comfortable for them. It’s based on compassion and understanding of how they feel on the inside and really what they need to have in order to feel emotionally safe in any relationship.

I also wanna say, I do think that anxious avoidant relationships can work and even that they can be healthy when both partners are aware of their patterns and actively working on it. But it isn’t easy. The reason why is that our attachment patterns are very old, very deep. They are driven by unconscious, non-verbal programming that was established oftentimes in our earliest years, and they’re oftentimes non-conscious. They are not thoughts. They just come to us as feelings that then we obey with our actions. And so overriding that programming can feel almost most wrong. It can feel like you are acting in a way that is opposite to your truth, to the way you feel, to how you perceive your needs to be.

That takes a lot of work to gain awareness and be able to say with confidence what of my feelings are healthy and helping me and working for me, versus, which automatic responses and feelings have I carried into adulthood for understandable reasons, but that are really not helping me. They are making my relationships harder and more volatile than they need to be, and that I need to do like a manual override on some of these.

I think also with any relationship with a partner, with a friend, with a parent, with a coworker, with an employer. It is so much easier for all of us to look outside of ourselves and place blame elsewhere, displace responsibility and hyperfixate on what other people are doing or not doing. That really is quite disempowering because when we do that, we miss the opportunity to reflect on how other people are responding to us and why that might be, why might that make sense.

That is not a comfortable conversation to have with yourself, but it’s very valuable because it can just be fundamentally important to our own growth. Furthermore, when we do our own growth work and get a lot of clarity around what is going on with us, how we react in certain situations. It also provides opportunity to get clear about what also feels like non-negotiable needs in relationships for us. What are our values? What are the kinds of relationships that we want to have? What does a healthy relationship mean to you? That also supports empowerment when you are able to make informed, non-reactive decisions about the kind of partner and what they bring to the table that is going to help you be your best self in any relationship.

For example, if through this work you discover for understandable reasons that you really do have a more anxious attachment style and it’s difficult for you to feel emotionally safe in relationships like you need a lot of validation, confirmation time together — people telling you nice things, spending time with you, responding to you in certain ways — it would really serve you well to try and find a partner who has a fundamentally secure attachment style because they will be able to feel comfortable giving you more of that than somebody who has a fundamentally avoidant attachment style.

You’re still going to have to keep your side of the street very clean because if you get into that anxious attachment style, sort of usual way of being that turns into really having expectations that may be unrealistic or in the worst cases needing to control your partner in order to feel okay about yourself. That will always damage a relationship and create the kind of dynamic that won’t feel good for you. People are going to move away from you in response to that.

On the other side, if you know through this exploration that you have a fundamentally avoidant way of being with other people where it’s difficult for you to get close to others, you dislike having a lot of emotional intensity in your relationships, you do not like people to depend on you, it makes you uncomfortable, it will probably be important for you to, again, very deliberately look for a partner who has a fundamentally secure attachment style and isn’t going to get all reactive when you need time and space. When you can’t handle a lot of intensity or togetherness, they’ll be able to tolerate that much better. You will also need to be very deliberately having empathy for your partner, being generous in the relationship, and maybe doing things that feel uncomfortable for you in order to meet the legitimate emotional needs of your partner. Or else anybody who is in a relationship with you is going to turn into an anxious mess.

As long as you’re aware of those things, but again, those are easier pairings. Now, If the topic of this podcast, when anxious and avoidant come together, both people on each side are going to be much more intentional, self-aware, regulating a lot of anxiety in order to manage their tendencies and also behaving in ways of being that are more on the other side of the line than than what you would probably prefer. I just wanted to say all of that out loud.

If you’re listening to this podcast and you are in a newer relationship, or if you are in a dating relationship, now would be the time to really take stock of yourself with a — I use the word dating coach with a lot of trepidation because I’m not talking about dating coaching and like, “Let’s talk about your profile and what you’re wearing on a first date.” What I think of about dating coaching, the kind of dating coaching that we do here at my practice Growing Self is that it’s a very experienced, knowledgeable therapist who focuses on relationships, kind of deep, therapeutic kinds of things but talking about that and helping people make changes on really substantial personal levels that then help them create healthy relationships going forward, like healthy, new relationships.

When I say dating coaching, that is what I mean. But to work on that sort of level around, “Who am I? Who do I need to be? What kind of partner do I need to have?” Maybe to back up from the active dating place until you’ve done some of that personal growth work, and then can go into new relationships with a lot more clarity around what you really need and also who you really need to be in relationships for them to be healthy.

But if you are in an established relationship with somebody that you love and want to be with and are fairly certain that each of you are on the opposite sides of that bell curve. The rest of this podcast is gonna be talking about some of the actionable things that you guys can each do and be real aware of in order to lessen the likelihood of creating a highly negative response in the other person because if you just sort of show up and do your usual thing, that is unfortunately going to be a predictable outcome, but it can be better. I’m going to tell you why and how.

Before we dive into that, let’s just do a super brief review around what attachment styles are, how they show up, where they come from, because knowing this will help you be able to recognize these tendencies in yourself and in your partner, and also have compassion for them.

Again, it can be quite easy and sometimes gratifying to label other people without really understanding why and how it makes sense. The punchline here is that all humans are built to bond. From the moment of our birth, we as infants come out with this very strong desire and need, like biologically based need to develop a strong, powerful attachment bond with at least one primary caregiver who is there for us who meets our needs, who helps regulate us emotionally, who is soothing, who is kind. The strength of that attachment bond — that like, survival of the species kind of stuff — it happens on that deep of a level, right? A mother or parent has to be fully devoted to meeting the needs of their child through love, right?

Doing the right thing for somebody else, making somebody’s needs, rights, feelings more important than their own for a little while in order to literally raise a healthy child. That’s a requirement and that attachment bond is what makes that happen. Children become very attached to their parents, parents become very attached to their children.

In a perfect world, this leads to a secure attachment style where an infant young child has experiences with caregivers that lead to a fundamental truth when it comes to understanding other humans of “I am worthy of love and respect, I can count on other people to meet my needs, I trust that other people are going to be available, are going to be safe, and responsive to me. I am fundamentally good, other people are fundamentally good.” And none of this is conscious.

This is just emotional wiring that when you are with other people, you feel safe and you also have a capacity to be safe to others. It feels safe to be close to other people, to care about other people, to help other people, and there is no such thing as a perfectly secure anybody. If you imagine a bell curve, there’s a kind of top of the bell curve and then equal distribution usually on both sides going out into the pointy end of a bell curve.

Most people are not exactly in the center of that bell curve, but the majority of people are a little bit to one side or the other of that secure attachment style. You can be fundamentally securely attached and perhaps have grown up in a home where maybe there was a little bit more emotional distance or you had sort of more strict authoritarian parents that were harder to get close to emotionally and still be just fine.

You can also grow up in a home where maybe your caregivers weren’t completely reliable or consistent, or they could be kind of mercurial. But fundamentally, responsive, caring, loving. So maybe you need a little bit more validation in some of your relationships, but you still fundamentally have a secure attachment style. It just feels more comfortable for you to have a lot of closeness, right?

There’s lots of ways that secure attachment can look is what I’m trying to say. When you have this attachment style, you feel okay being close to people and you also feel okay being, having some space in your relationships. You don’t need a ton of closeness in order to fundamentally feel okay about yourself or confident that you are loved. There’s like this interdependence.

If we go further down the pointy ends of the bell curve towards one side is a more anxious attachment style. This happens when children, young infants experience inconsistency in their relationships with their caregivers. Maybe they had to work real hard for love and approval, but it was sort of intermittently given. Maybe their parents were not just consistent in the way that they were relating to their child. Maybe they didn’t have as much time with their parents as they would’ve wanted or attention. 

Somebody with an anxious attachment style is going to struggle a little bit more with just fundamental feelings of self-worth, may feel preoccupied in relationships with their partners availability, may be worried about the possibility of abandonment, may have trust issues, and really wants their partner to be reassuring them that they are worthy of love. I’m paying attention to you. I’m texting you, I’m talking to you. I’m showing you actively that I love you and you’re okay. They’re seeking a lot of closeness in relationships and just feel stressed, they feel worried. If they’re with somebody who’s not real demonstrative and available, they can feel threatened.

Also, what tends to happen is that they try really hard to be worthy of love, to get attention. They often feel quite disappointed by people not loving them the way they want to be loved. What this can often turn into in relationships is anger, even controlling behaviors where I need you to do this for me. I want you to be closer. You are not taking care of me. I feel unloved by you. You hurt my feelings like a lot of this.

On the other side, people with fundamentally avoidant attachment style: that comes from oftentimes being in relationships early in life with caregivers who were not emotionally safe. It certainly could neglect situations or abusive situations, but also like a really authoritarian parenting style that was highly strict, kind of cold, not emotionally demonstrative.

Or on the other side you’ll also see people with avoidant attachment styles who had parents who were kind of emotionally consuming, like if they had hypervigilant controlling parents who were very intense or kind of seeking their emotional needs to be met through their children, or if the parents had a lot of anxiety. You’ll also see kind of avoidant tendencies in adults who grew up in those homes because it wasn’t really safe to be that close to people.

It doesn’t have to be abusive or angry. It can also just be very intense emotional parents. Also sometimes caregivers, and that can look actually two different ways. But if a child was in like a parentified kind of role in the family, it can create either avoidant or anxious attachment styles.

There’s another category while we’re on this subject is something called a disorganized or anxious avoidant attachment style, which is more rare and it is associated with more kind of severely problematic experiences in childhood. Either abuse or neglect or parents with more serious mental health issues or substance use disorders, and what happens is that when kids are attached to people that they are also kind of afraid of and it was all over the place. They really have a strong desire for closeness in relationships and can have some of that like physiological escalation and feel threatened and feel controlling in relationships as a way to manage their own anxiety and also, when relationships kind of get to a certain point, will show up as being quite avoidant and then pushing people away.

You have this real push-pull thing that happens. There are other, as I mentioned, podcasts and articles on this subject, on our website, growingself.com, that you’re welcome to look at if you wanna increase your knowledge. There are also a number of books, one of my favorites, does a really nice job of explaining the biology of attachment, but also the way that it can show up in relationships is a book called “Attached” — widely available, you can check that out. My caveat though, about that book is that in reading that book, you will emerge with a conclusion that attachment stuff is kind of binary. It’s all or nothing and you’ll start seeking to label people as either being attached securely or avoidantly or anxiously. 

What that book doesn’t really go into is the relationship between all of those different relational dynamics and how they impact relational systems. For example, somebody with an attachment style, persistently feeling like people aren’t emotionally available enough, whether or not they’re with a securely attached partner or an avoidantly attached partner, and how their way of being will then create dynamics in a relationship and vice versa. It’s a great book, but just when you read it, make sure that you don’t forget about that like systemic response because relationships are always systems. 

Another thing to think about also, if you’re kind of curious about your own attachment style is to consider the enduring-ness of it. When somebody is in a relationship, they will often, particularly for more middle of the bell curves, securely-ish, attached people can often show up in different ways depending on the relational dynamic.

If you’re thinking back over your relational history and thinking that in some relationships you’ve tended to be a little bit more anxious, and then others a little bit more avoidant, that’s actually a good indication that you may be somewhere in the middle of that spectrum versus, if you’re thinking over your relationship history and it feels like you can find examples of pretty much always having been a certain way no matter who you’re interacting with.

Is it a boss that you’re wanting more approval and you know, emotional intimacy from? Is it a friend that you are always feeling like your friends are sort of needy and demanding? Again, going into like the pet thing. I wasn’t actually kidding about that. The qualities that people project onto their pets and the things that they want from their pets are often fairly indicative of attachment styles.

If you’re super into reptiles, you may have avoidant tendencies. If you walk around with a fleet of five dogs who are all over you all the time, could be anxious. It’s like thinking about what your typical patterns are across the board, not just specific to one relationship that will give you clarity.

When it comes to anxious and avoidant people coming together in a relationship, you may be thinking by now like, why is this a good idea? Why would this even happen in the first place? It really does make sense when you look at how people kind of present, particularly in early stage relationships.

The first, even like years of a relationship, there’s a lot of magnetic pull between these two attachment styles. That again, makes a lot of sense, but that tends to create problems as relationships become more serious and long term down the road. When it comes to reasons why anxiously attached people can be quite mesmerized by folks with a more avoidant attachment style.

Anxious partners, anxious people have a long history going back into the earliest childhood of needing to work really hard to get affection, attention, confirmation with people who may struggle to give it. When they encounter somebody who is kind of remote, critical withholding, it feels familiar. It also triggers this old way of being that feels familiar to them around becoming more performative. Becoming so attractive that they are irresistible, becoming sort of over the top. “I can be who and what you want me to be” kind of responses.

The other piece of this is, I think it feeds into self-worth stuff that anxiously attached people often have, which is this, again, subconscious core belief, but that, I can make people love me. If I could just be better, then I would get the love that I need versus being able to see somebody and say, I don’t know that’s an emotionally healthy person, and I don’t know if that I’m ever gonna get my needs met there, which I think a more securely attached person would be able to experience. I think there’s something up with you. Somebody who has an anxious attachment style will generally blame themselves for how other people are in relationships and kind of work harder to fix.

Furthermore, on the other side of that equation, people with anxious attachment styles often want or feel excited about people who are charming, witty, energetic, kind of larger than life folks, and oftentimes people with avoidant attachment styles because they haven’t been able to get a lot of their core needs met through relationships, will find ways of getting that through other parts of their lives like so through career, physical fitness and health.

On the surface they seem super amazing and they’re often great like talkers. They tell funny stories, can often be very flattering and fun and charming, but so somebody with an anxious attachment style can look at that. Sort of an avoidantly organized person and think, “Wow, they’re so exciting.” All of their energy gets mobilized in trying to win the love and affection of that person. That’s often one of the reasons why that can happen. On the other side of that, you know why an avoidantly attached person might feel really attracted to somebody with an anxious attachment style.

This is sort of hard to say, but in my experience, this has often been true. There can be like this love bombing experience on both sides of this equation, and people with an anxious attachment orientation can oftentimes come on real, real strong at the beginning of a relationship, and oftentimes because they are working so hard to prove their lovability and worth also seem really amazing.

One of the core kinds of experiences of somebody with an avoidant attachment style is always thinking there is this perfect person for me out there somewhere. The people that I’ve actually met are always kind of disappointing when I get to know them really well. But this fantasy of this perfect person is very much part of the experience.

When they first meet someone who has an anxious attachment style, who comes in with sparkles and bells and whistles, glitter cannons, they’re like, “Oh. Maybe that is this perfect person that I’ve always been imagining.” The other thing too, I think, which is also terrible to say, but I want you to have all the information that in my experience of working with people who have avoidant attachment styles, they are tend to be very critical of others and they will quickly understand the vulnerability of somebody with a real anxious attachment style.

They will perceive the anxiously attached person as fairly easy to manipulate, particularly in the beginning stages of a relationship. They can say and do and be whatever you need them to be, it’s fine. But they will also fairly early on, be pretty clear that that person with the anxious attachment style is not their person.

They perceive them oftentimes as being weak, being needy, being demanding, being fundamentally, emotionally unsafe. But you know, probably fun to hang out with and working really hard to try to be a good partner, which feels nice for somebody with an avoidant attachment style because the power dynamic of that is very comfortable for them. In these pairings, the person with the avoidant attachment style will always have the upper hand position, and that in itself feels much more comfortable to them, much safer than any relationship in which they were not in the power position because vulnerability or dependence is, is really something that feels quite uncomfortable for them.

These are all reasons why these partnerships can happen and also persist, and so it’s just important to be aware of why. Other attachment pairings can certainly happen too; anxiously attached people can come together and feel extremely gratifying in the beginning because they’re both giving each other everything and trying to be hyperactively loving and giving and showing all of the love in the world.

The other thing though, that will happen in longer term relationships is that this often becomes quite explosive because they’re both craving this emotional enmeshment and validation and active love. Of course, because they are different people with different needs, they will not be able to be perfectly responsive or give each other love in the way they each need it.

That creates a lot of anger and reactivity on both sides. Actually, interestingly, I think a much more stable pairing can be two people who both have avoidant attachment styles coming together in a relationship because it will typically be much less triggering and much more comfortable for both of them to be in a relationship with somebody who’s a little bit less interested and being not just comfortable, but I think appreciative of having more space, less demands in a relationship. The other side of that is that those relationships can sometimes not feel very emotionally connected, but they’re less reactive, I guess I’ll say.

Okay, these are all good reasons why people can come together in the beginning and in the early stages of these, the relationships can seem quite intoxicating, but as relationships grow and start moving towards attachment. Again, remembering that the early stages of every relationship are characterized by romantic infatuation, and that it’s only over time moving into year two, year three, that some of the deeper kinds of attachment needs begin to emerge.

As it does, an avoidant partner, somebody who struggles with being dependent, being depended on vulnerability will generally start to perceive their partner’s emotional needs as being too much. They’re being controlled, they are being…honestly, they start to get very critical of their partners and can also just feel very uncomfortable on a physiological level with emotionally intense conversations, a lot of time together, they sort of feel suffocated. They feel irritated, they feel trapped. They start having negative thoughts about their partner and these thoughts all assist them in gaining emotional distance.

As that happens, it will always create lots of feelings of anxiety for an anxious partner and in the beginning trigger them to work very hard for reassurance. So they may start working harder in the relationship, but it also frequently turns into a lot of pursuing behavior, so getting more intense about how they’re expressing their distress, like yelling louder, getting more insistent about their needs being met. When the anxious partner pursues the avoidant partner, it really confirms the avoidant partner’s fears of engulfment.

It tends to just perpetuate the cycle and either one of these people can ultimately end the relationship when anxious people get so just angry and come to the conclusion that there’s something wrong with the avoidant partner ultimately, which is actually much healthier for them when they do that, say, you know what? I’m working way too hard here. Go find your perfect person will end that relationship, or certainly the avoidant person, just moving away, breaking things off.

The way to fix this dynamic is by, first of all, understanding what you are bringing to the table: your own attachment styles. That’s where the work really is, understanding what you tend towards, understanding why that is, understanding what it feels like inside of you when it is happening, and being able to understand the impact that this has on other people.

That is fundamentally where this work is. We cannot change our partners and if you’re in a relationship with somebody who has a strong leaning towards one side of the equation or the other. The success of the relationship will depend on their interest and ability in doing their own work so that they can be a better partner for you.

Your responsibility is doing your own work so that you can be a better partner for somebody else. So if you have an anxious attachment style, that means working with an excellent therapist who can help you understand what kinds of things trigger you, develop self-compassion — like, why does that make sense, maybe some old, psychodynamic or inner child work, even, can be extremely helpful.

Then develop self soothing skills that are based on your ability to love yourself, your ability to validate yourself, your ability to manage your own feelings of anxiety and insecurity and really recognizing that those are yours to manage no matter who you’re in a relationship with, and also doing some deep work around where those lines are, because it can be very confusing and unclear if you have an anxious attachment style to really get solid around what is your stuff versus what is actually a reasonable expectation to have of a partner in a relationship and what is not.

Mapping all of those things out can help you think your way through situations and be able to understand, “Oh, you know what? This is my old attachment stuff getting triggered, and this is not actually a dangerous situation. What I need to do now is calm myself down and think about how I wanna handle this in a constructive way with my partner, that is, aware of what they need in order to have a good experience in this relationship with me,” versus, “Is this actually something that anybody would feel not okay about? And if so, what do I do to manage my anxiety, first of all, but also how do I address this in a productive way, being mindful of what I need to do in order to create emotional safety from my partner.”

It’s a lot of work and specific things that somebody with an anxious attachment style can do to manage some of these. In addition to working with a therapist, very deliberately reminding yourself that pursuing or attempting to control your partner is not going to have the intended effect, it is going to make things worse. So act the opposite way of how you might be feeling.

Also be challenging the thought patterns that tell you you are unsafe. Doing some CBT work can be helpful. Repeating or reassuring mantra can be helpful. Also, journaling, slowing down and writing through or talking through the thoughts that you’re having, understanding how they’re making you feel, and being able to slow down enough so that you can recognize those old patterns and be able to change them with intention.

But again, additionally, getting clear about your own boundaries and needs and respecting those. What do you really need from your partner? How much distancing are you willing to accept and what we need to move towards the middle and compromise. We also can’t disown healthy parts of yourself to avoid being abandoned, right? If that is part of the fear, and then being able to manage this tendency inside of you, that is going to blame yourself and tell yourself that if you try harder, this could be better. Just having some reality based thinking about that.

On the other side of this too , very similar work, similar in some ways, but for an avoidant person is working with a therapist to understand, “Here’s what happens inside of me when I start getting critical and when I start pulling away, when I start feeling disappointed by people. What are realistic expectations to have in a relationship? Or when am I reacting out of avoidance stuff?” Because if you don’t understand that, you’re going to be having negative reactions to people doing normal things in a relationship that will impair your ability to maintain relationships. And I think also a lot of work around like this whole grass-is-greener thing could be really helpful for people.

Furthermore, understanding what happens inside of you, just physiologically around emotional closeness, physical closeness, and it’s the thing that’s hard is that the feelings are non-verbal, that you may feel very uncomfortable, even feelings of disgust and understanding just how old these are and able to then do like emotional intelligence, self-regulation work. That you’re able to feel calm and safe and relaxed enough in close contact with other people that you want to have an enduring relationship with.

An understanding that some emotional interdependence is really normal and that your work is figuring out how to manage your own feelings so that you can stay in the ring with other people. This is big old work, and also part of this work, I think for avoidant people is learning how to manage their anxiety in such a way, particularly if you know your partner has an anxious attachment style so that you can give them what they need: validation, contact with you, words of affirmation, going outta your way to show them love and care and understanding that you’re not always gonna feel like doing that. 

Some practical strategies for somebody with avoidant tendencies is to notice and maybe redirect yourself if you are having escape fantasies or wanting to zone out or pull away. Really checking in with yourself to see is that actually healthy or are you engaging in old patterns? Is it a reasonable expectation in this relationship for you to be moving towards your partner? How can you do that in ways that are meaningful to them?

And expecting that because of your way of being, it is going to create anxiety in your partner. Before you label them as being unreasonable or demanding, being able to think about what is it about the way that I am showing up that could be creating more of this inside of them, and is this a reflection of me really needing to be more emotionally available or feeling safer for them and taking ownership of that, because it’s very easy. It’s very easy to blame others. 

To be communicating with your partner maybe more than you think that you should. If you are starting to feel activated and like you need space, say that out loud in a non-confrontational way and say, “In order for me to kind of regroup and reset, I need a little bit of time. I’m going to go into the garage for the next three hours, or I need to take a me-day on Saturday morning, or whatever it is. Then I will be available to hang out with you for the rest of the day on Saturday.” Tell them that you need to step back, but also be telling them when you’re gonna step back in.

And furthermore, be keeping your partner in the loop as much as you can about how and when you feel triggered. That if you need space, what’s going on inside of you because this transparency will help them have compassion for you and understand that maybe you’re pulling away or needing space is really a manifestation of your attachment stuff rather than a reflection of your feelings towards them because that is the core fear that they’re holding.

If you can talk about you, it helps your partner feel much safer. And when you do feel regulated or when you are stepping back, use that time to get some clarity around what that was about. Is there something going on in the relationship that feels like a real relational issue that needs to be addressed and needs to be corrected in order for you to feel safer? Does this feel like a non-negotiable thing? Was it just an avoidant attachment style thing and whatever the outcome of that reflection is, then you can have a constructive conversation about that with your partner.

That can be an important part of this work too. Certainly journaling, talking to a therapist, you may be an internal processor, spending time alone, going on a walk, taking a shower. The more that you can do to be self-reflective and self-aware, the better this is. This is where true love comes in, everybody. You know, true love isn’t a feeling. It is a choice. True love is what we do when we are acting in the best interests of our partner and we do not do those things because we feel like doing them. We do those things because we know that they are the right thing to do, and they’re based on our values, they’re based on our self-awareness. Anytime that you have an anxious-avoidant pairing. You need to expect to be doing that, which is loving your partner in ways that are meaningful to them, and that may not feel natural or easy for you.

These are definitely more difficult relationships, but again, the opportunity for personal growth here is so profoundly, just huge because if these relationships are gonna work, it requires you to do a ton of work on yourself. I think be able to show love in the highest and best way that we all can, which is really getting clear of empathy for others, seeing them for who and what they are without criticism or a strong desire for them to be different. 

Understanding that there’s a reason why your partner is the way they are that makes perfect sense. We are all sort of wounded in our own ways, and that true emotional intimacy is being able to see and appreciate your partner for who they are, right? Not focusing on who we wish they were, and also able to have a lot of gratitude and appreciation for their strengths. Not in spite of what they’ve been through, but because of it. How do we then build on all of those positive aspects to build a really strong and mutually satisfying relationship for both people?

It does take more work. It is very valuable work and I sincerely hope that, you know, listening to this today has helped you gain some just insight and self-awareness, but also if there’s one big takeaway, it’s that this is a lot of work part. Just understand that if you’ve recognized any of yourself in these things — really important for you to connect with a great therapist individually who can help you both do this deep work and also ideally, a great marriage and family therapist who can help you both have constructive conversations about how you’re each kind of showing up in the relationship with lot of like skill building and instruction around what are the things that you each need to be doing differently day to day in order to help your partner feel more safe and comfortable with you.

There’s a lot here. But again, thank you so much for spending this time with me today. I hope it was valuable for you. Find more resource sources on my website@growingself.com and I’ll be back in touch with you next week with another episode of the podcast.

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