Attachment Part 2 – The anxious -avoidant relationship cycle

Let’s talk about attachment and romantic relationships today!

As covered in the first part of the series “Attachment Part 1: the attachment styles”, patterns of attachment can be long-lasting and cyclical in nature. That is, they tend to be self-fulfilling. It is not uncommon for individuals to find themselves in repeated cycles of similar relationships, where they seem to find themselves with partners who exhibit similar behaviors, and individuals find themselves feeling the same dissatisfaction over and over again.

Two of the insecure attachment styles we looked as previously were Anxious and Avoidant styles. To recap, anxious attachment involves high anxiety about relationships and a fear of relationships ending, whereas avoidant style involves refraining from emotional interdependence. Typically, these attachment styles form in response to early-life experiences such as unmet caregiving needs and/or trauma. Notably, both these styles are driven by much anxiety, as individuals who fall into either category tend to fear and experience unfulfilling relationships and unmet needs.

An interesting phenomenon that occurs more commonly than we may expect is that anxiously and avoidantly attached individuals tend to attract each other. This, however, can bring with it several complications and challenges. This is primarily because each style’s needs seem opposite: the anxious-attached partner needs a very close and intimate relationship to feel safe, whereas the avoidant-attached partner feels safer with more emotional space between them. Sometimes, these partners tend to be drawn to each other as attachment re-enactment occurs. That is, they tend to reignite the feelings they had with their primary caregivers – the anxious-attached constantly expects and prepares for abandonment, whereas the avoidant-attached feels oppressed and unsafe.

As a consequence of these differences, a cyclical pattern ensures. Typically, the anxious partner is highly sensitive to signs of possible withdrawal or abandonment from the avoidant partner, and this anxiety triggers a desperation to preserve the relationship. However, this is expressed through unhelpful communication patterns, such as heightened reactionary responses, accusations, and an insistence to address and resolve problems right away. The aim is to close the emotional gap as soon as possible. For an avoidant partner, this can feel like overwhelming, and triggers their own attachment reactions. Unlike a secure-attached partner who may be able to soothe the anxious partner, the avoidant partner sees the situation as a threat and cope the only way they know how – to withdraw and create further distance. They may feel suffocated and shut down. This in turn reinforced and re-triggers the anxious partner’s very same insecurities.

As is evident, this cycle is often unproductive. Each partner relies on their survival styles based on their own beliefs and ideas of relationships. However, it leaves both partners feeling dissatisfied, invalidated, and unaccepted. Most of all, it creates further sense of being unsafe with one another.

Where to from here? Are you in an anxious-avoidant cycle?

Firstly, it’s important to note that neither style is “right” or “wrong”. It is just a matter of understanding that each partner’s needs within a relationship to feel safe and loved looks different. The most important thing to recognize is that a relationship involves interdependent and equally-responsible adults. Therefore, it is up to both to engage in their own choices and communicate their own needs.

Become aware of your own attachment style and how this shows up. Creating awareness of your own triggers and reactions can lead to better chances of catching them before they present in unhelpful ways. It is also key to have open and honest conversations with your partner about these aspects and share your needs as well as learn and empathize with their needs. This may mean that at times you may feel challenged, and you may have to sit with anxiety without relying on the usual mechanisms to cope with it – this is part of doing the hard work that growth takes!

Exploration both individually and together can help find the balance that may be missing in a currently polarizing pattern. Remember that compassion, empathy, and validation for one another can go a long way in building a secure and fulfilling relationship.