By Mojdeh Mansoori, MFTI
“Attachment” is a word that you’ll often hear in therapy and in discussions of relationship dynamics. Our attachment style develops in early childhood¹ and can affect our adult relationships. This means that it’s important to know your attachment style and be guided by what that style “needs.” The three main attachment styles are avoidant, anxious, or secure. Those with an avoidant attachment style (we’ll call them “avoidants”) like to be independent and shy away from emotionally openness in their relationships. Those with an anxious attachment style (we’ll call them “anxious partners”) like to be emotionally intimate, but fear that their partner is not reciprocating their feelings. Those with secure attachment styles (we’ll call them “secures”) can also be intimate, but they also communicate effectively and easily. Once we know our attachment style (and our partner’s as well), this will help us navigate our relationships and avoid getting stuck in negative patterns.
The anxious/avoidant pairing
Avoidants bring problematic dynamics to a relationship. This is most likely to happen when they are paired with a secure or with an anxious partner. The anxious/avoidant relationship can be especially emotionally draining for the anxious partner. When an avoidant pulls away, the anxious partner is triggered. They feel insecure and try to get closer. This behavior makes the avoidant pull away even more. This attachment pattern can begin to feel like a trap.
Signs of an anxious attachment style
How will you know if you have an anxious attachment style? The following are six telltale signs:
- 1. You experience extreme highs and lows in the relationship;
- 2. You are preoccupied with whether your partner is there for you;
- 3. You tend to be dissatisfied with your partner;
- 4. You are often uncertain whether the relationship will last;
- 5. You frequently argue with your partner about intimacy;
- 6. Despite your concerns, you find it difficult to leave the relationship.
As the anxious partner tries to get closer and find resolution, the avoidant grows more distant. This usually leads the anxious partner to exhibit extreme behavior, in an attempt to pull the avoidant closer. After the argument has settled down, the anxious partner will feel regret and remember what they liked about their partner. On the other hand, the avoidant will pull away and focus on their partner’s negative traits. If you suspect that you may be an avoidant, becoming aware of this dynamic can be the first step in reducing conflict in your relationship.
How to help the anxious partner
If you’re an avoidant or a secure and you’re paired with an anxious partner, you can help them feel more like a secure. The following are six simple steps:
- 1. Be aware of your partner’s verbal and nonverbal communication;
- 2. Reassure your partner when they are feeling anxious. Let them know how much they mean to you. Let them know that you’re not going anywhere;
- 3. Practice showing affection toward your partner more frequently than you otherwise would (one extra embrace per day can go a long way);
- 4. Take part in a common activity. Working side-by-side can help bring the two of you closer;
- 5. Communicate clearly and consistently;
- 6. When in an emotionally-charged situation, resist the urge to flee. Stay in the moment, even if it feels uncomfortable at first.
How to connect with an avoidant
If you’re the secure or the anxious partner and you’re paired with an avoidant, don’t despair. The following are five ways to connect:
- 1. Be mindful of any anxious thoughts or feelings, including how it feels in your body;
- 2. Take a few deep, purposeful breaths to soothe your anxiety instead of acting out in a way that you might later regret;
- 3. Understand that the avoidant may need less intimacy than you do, and that it may have nothing to do with how they feel about you;
- 4. Allow space for the avoidant to have the alone time that they crave;
- 5. Instead of repeatedly pushing the avoidant to open up about their feelings, allow them some time. They’ll likely feel less pressured and grateful for this.
Achieving a secure attachment² in your relationship is possible. Learning about the various attachment styles can help you understand yourself and your loved ones. In couples therapy, you can identify your patterns and come to know your attachment style. You and your partner can learn communication skills that enable you to meet each other’s needs. You can overcome the difficult dynamics that had previously seemed like a trap. But it all starts with a simple belief that change is possible.