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 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.
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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.
- 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 feel safer and more secure:
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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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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.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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