Their phone rings and they don’t answer. Desperately, you call them once more.
Again, no answer. Now you’re alone in the darkness of your thoughts as anxiety knocks. It’s been days since I’ve heard from them, you think to yourself.
Then, a myriad of unthinkable possibilities invades your mind, eroding whatever is left of your peace as you assume the worst-case scenario:
They are angry with you, cut you out of their life, or do not love you anymore. They’ve abandoned you, this time, with no closure…Wait, maybe they’re hurt or ill…No, wait. Maybe it was that stupid or insensitive thing I said last week that I felt the need to apologize for over and over again. Gosh, I must have been so annoying!… This isn’t like them. What on earth is going on?…
All of these questions as your stomach churns in a knot. As far as you’re concerned, you’ve already lost them. Still, you cannot seem to help yourself. The terror builds up inside you to disproportionate heights. You try to reach them yet again.
This is an example of an activated state that is most commonly felt if you have an anxious-preoccupied attachment style. This becomes especially pronounced when in a relationship with someone who leans more avoidant. But, believe it or not, the push-pull of this challenging dynamic has the potential to inspire individual growth for both people involved.
Your attachment style develops within the first few years of your life as a reflection of the quality of the bond between yourself and your primary caregiver. If your experience with your first attachment figure was warm, loving, and consistent—meaning they were sufficiently attuned to both your physical and emotional needs—you are more likely to be securely attached, especially if these positive bonding experiences were repetitive over a long period of time.
However, if you had insensitive, intrusive, neglectful, abusive, or inconsistent parenting, you go on to form an insecure, anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment style. These patterns of bonding affect all kinds of relationships throughout the course of your lifespan, especially your most intimate ones. When you struggle to maintain romantic relationships, insecure attachment is usually at the root of the problem.
Because you and your partner come together with a unique set of subconscious programming from early childhood, your patterns can create friction within the relationship. While you, as an anxious-preoccupied person, crave a higher level of emotional intimacy, your avoidant partner usually feels easily suffocated and may begin to withdraw, longing for space and feeling a sense of stifled independence.
As an anxious-preoccupied partner, your inner working model of relationships is:
Any partner I have never seems to want closeness as much as I do. I am always at risk of being abandoned by the people or person I love most. There must be something wrong with me. I must cling harder to my partner in order to get my needs for love and connection met. I am alone, rejected, unworthy, and unheard. I have to work harder to earn people’s love and validation.
Your avoidant partner, on the other hand, often feels as though you are trying to entrap them and generally dismiss their need for greater connection. Yet, despite the seeming incompatibilities, anxious and avoidant partners are often drawn to one another like moths to a flame.
If you have an anxious attachment style, you are especially perceptive and hypervigilant to changes in other people’s moods, tone, habits, attitudes, and facial expressions. According to Attached, by Amir Levine, M.D, a study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Blaise Pascal University in Clermont-Ferrand France discovered that people with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style demonstrated what is known as a “spidey sense” for changes in emotional cues from others and could accurately pick up on these changes more quickly than people with other attachment styles.
So, when in a relationship, if you sense your partner pulling away, your nervous system is more likely to activate at the actual threat or potential for loss of connection. When your anxiety kicks in and becomes almost unmanageable, you may employ what are known as “protest behaviors” in a covert attempt to draw your partner closer to you and thus quell your fears. While these “protest behaviors” may come across to others as manipulative, your motives behind them are not malicious, however maladaptive they are. You are trying to gain the reassurance you’re craving. You want your partner to reassure you that you’re loved and that they aren’t losing interest in or abandoning you.
Unfortunately, however, because avoidant partners tend to be more conflict-averse and withdraw during power struggles, these attempts often backfire, causing your fears to spiral out of all control. The behavior cycles then ensue. Instead of withdrawing with them, you attempt to knock even harder and run the risk of pushing them away even further.
Yet, in spite of the chaos of an unhealed anxious-avoidant dynamic, both you and your partner have the potential to be a catalyst for one another’s personal growth.
Provided that you and your partner are both willing to look within and actively work on yourselves and the relationship, you could benefit from each other in the following ways:
1. You can teach your avoidant partner to lean into the relationship:
Because you, as the anxious partner, require a deeper level of emotional intimacy and reassurance from your avoidant partner, being in a relationship with you requires a more satisfactory level of communication, by default. Provided that your avoidant partner is willing to do the work to sustain the connection, this could be a catalyst for deepening their willingness and ability to more thoroughly connect with you.
2. The avoidant could inspire you to become more self-sufficient:
Because your avoidant partner tends to prioritize their work, hobbies, and perhaps more casual connections over and above you, you have the space to connect more deeply with yourself—something that can be more of a challenge if you are anxious-preoccupied. This creates the potential to develop a deeper sense of autonomy.
3. You draw each other’s awareness to your deepest childhood wounds and triggers:
While this may seem like a negative thing, the anxious-avoidant dynamic has an untapped potential to shake both individuals out of their unconsciousness and force them, by default, to become more innately self-aware. Because they trigger one another so deeply, they both bring each other’s unacknowledged wounds and maladaptive behaviors to the surface. This offers the potential to heal.
4. Together, with time, you could both achieve a satisfactory level of interdependence:
Interdependence, as opposed to codependence or counter-dependence, involves a healthy balance of autonomy and closeness. When you both lean into each other and take one another’s personal needs into account while working on your own inner narratives, you have the potential to achieve a more secure connection.
No relationship is flawless. We all act from deeply unconscious places within us from time to time. We all carry baggage, faulty patterns, and beliefs programmed into us, left over from our earliest years. However, with time, willingness, and effort, you and your partner can indeed morph your relationship into something healthy and sustainable in the long run.
So, rest assured, dear reader: love doesn’t have to be a roller coaster. With enough desire and motivation on both parts, you can inspire each other toward unlimited personal growth.