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Relating is hard.
It’s hard because we unconsciously project our childhood wounding onto our partners and we have a subconscious desire to heal these wounds through them. In a way, we are trying to attain the closure we never received growing up.
If one of your caregivers, for example, was emotionally unavailable or avoidant, it’s probable that your partners follow this pattern. Your inner child is wanting to get your partner to give them the affection and attention they never received growing up.
There is this desire to heal the wound by getting their fundamental needs met. And when your partner does not show up in this way, you suffer. You return to a regressed childlike state and the same pain you experienced as a child will surface now in your adult relationship in the form of triggers and trauma responses. You will feel the fear, the rejection, the abandonment, and these emotions will take over and dominate your behaviors (often leading to a relationship breakdown).
When this happens, you might resort to certain “deactivating strategies” to get your needs met. If you have anxious attachment tendencies, you might demand attention or validation, you might call or text your partner until you get a response. You might cry and over-explain, as a way to get them to see your pain and remedy it with their closeness and affection. Essentially, the anxiously attached individual will try to self-regulate through connection.
Now, if you have avoidant attachment tendencies, your deactivating strategy will be to take space, shut down, or withdraw. This “retreat” gives you a false sense of freedom and control, as you have a limiting belief that “love is a loss of freedom.” So, when your anxiously attached partner demands closeness, this sends you into a flight or freeze response where you withdraw to “safety.” As you can imagine, this will heavily trigger your partner who needs the opposite to calm down: connection, closeness, and validation.
This is such a common dynamic (the dance between the anxious and the avoidant), and I wish I was aware of it when I first started navigating relationships, as it would have saved me years of suffering and heartbreak.
What is key here to remember is that both people, regardless of attachment style, are afraid of rejection and abandonment; they just try to avoid it in different and conflicting ways.
The anxiously attached individual comes closer, whereas the avoidant withdraws. The closer the anxious person comes the more the avoidant flees, causing this vicious cycle of pain and suffering for both parties.
The avoidant feels suffocated and the anxious partner feels abandoned. Both experience a loss of self and have dysregulated nervous systems that perpetuate this toxic dynamic.
So, what to do?
Realize that you are, in fact, replaying old childhood dynamics. Realize that your partner is not your mother or father and they will not be able to heal your wounds. Understand why your partner is behaving the way they are and extend love and compassion. See their inner child acting out. These dynamics are old, we are essentially replaying the hurt and pain from the past, but our minds do not know the difference.
Here is where we should connect with our inner child and remind ourselves that we are safe. That no one is going to abandon us. That the intense feelings that are arising are old emotions that belong to the past. Also, it is good to remember that your partners’ behaviors are not an indication that they don’t care, but just a reenactment of old coping strategies that they are resorting to so they can feel safe.
Instead of seeing your partner as an enemy, see this relationship as your invitation to start healing these childhood wounds. This is a process I guide my clients through and regardless if it is for anxious or avoidant attachment, the process is quite similar, as the wounds are actually similar too.
Fundamentally, with both styles, there is a deeper belief of “I have to be a certain way to be loved,” “I have to perform for love,” and “I have to self-sacrifice for love.”
All these beliefs are rooted in a lack of self-worth and a fear of rejection or abandonment.
So, what is needed to heal anxious or avoidant attachment?
Unlearning that “self-sacrifice is needed for love” by fully reclaiming the Self.
How do we do that?
>> Deep trauma and inner child healing (any modality which does not include trauma work, will not get you concrete results)
>> Limiting belief work and subconscious reprogramming
>> Learning how to regulate the nervous system
>> Learning how to set healthy boundaries
>> Cultivating self-love, self-compassion, and self-worth
>> Embarking on a journey of self-discovery—knowing who you are and having the courage to express your truth with vulnerability and authenticity
>> Cultivating self-trust first (and then, from that place, being able to trust others and the world)
>> And finally, a very important piece that is often dismissed: having community, support, and connection during our healing journey
Expanding on the last point, we do not have to embark on this journey alone! Through supportive and loving relationships, be that with a friend, partner, family member, or therapist, we will get evidence that healthy relationships do, in fact, exist. We will get mirrored back that we are not broken and we will be guided back to see our truth and worthiness.
Sometimes, someone has to teach us how to love ourselves because no one else ever has.
PS. Especially for the readers of Elephant Journal, I have created a free shamanic inner child healing meditation. You can access it here.
I’m curious to know how this article landed for you. Let me know in the comments if you have any insights or questions and I will personally respond.