Healing the Anxious-Avoidant Relationship Dynamic: Part 2

One of the first blog posts I wrote about attachment in relationships has turned out to be my most read post to date, and for good reason: the anxious-avoidant relationship dynamic can be REALLY HARD. I totally get it. If you have experienced it before, you know exactly what I’m talking about. All it takes is a snag in an interaction to trigger the negative cycle and before you know it, one person is pulling away and “going out for a while” and the other person is crying and angry and wondering how they ended up in a partnership with someone who doesn’t talk about feelings—ever.

Lots of people want to know about this dynamic because it’s so prevalent (and frustrating). And truthfully, until we do our healing work and create more security in families and relationships, the dynamic will continue. This relational pattern is one that is observable and can be inadvertently passed on to future generations. In my experience, part of the reason this dynamic is so tricky is for several reasons:

  • We have been using the same language and telling the same narrative over and over again in relationships. You can’t come to a different ending if you tell the same story.

  • We don’t have other ways of coping that feel effective.

  • The patterns are so deeply ingrained that it can feel like we don’t have a choice in how we interact when we are triggered.

Part of being in relationship is recognizing that the patterns we bring to our partnership have little to do with each other in the moment; they were developed long ago. Our current interactions are triggering our old ways of relating—the ways that we developed to protect our hearts and our egos. We are still responsible for our patterns even though we didn’t choose them. We must be accountable for identifying what is happening and actively engaging to shift the behaviors to increase connection and create healthier relationships. Committing to these shifts is part of growing together.

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In this dynamic, one of you has a lot more experience in a certain type of relating and/or coping than the other does. You have managed your emotional triggers in very different ways. If you were an avid hiker and had completed extremely difficult trails in the past, would you expect that your partner could meet you at your level of skill on their first try? How about their 5th or 6th try? It takes time. If they are out there trying to hike with you and they’re going slowly, I would say that’s an accomplishment. When you have been feeling disconnected for a long time, you might approach this dynamic with a true sense of urgency, understandably (much more if you have the anxious attachment adaptation). It’s important to adjust your expectations to recognize that when you are working with lifelong patterns, there will be a transition time to get to a place where your needs feel adequately met and you experience a sense of connection again (another reminder to stay connected to the pulse of your relationship so this dynamic doesn’t sneak up on you!).

One of the critical things to remember about this dynamic is that we are building new mental and emotional pathways as we heal together. When we didn’t experience emotional language or interactions where we were responded to with warmth, eye contact, and calm; when we learned to become acutely aware of the emotional needs of a caregiver in order to get our needs met; when we didn’t learn how to regulate our emotions in the presence of another (or without the presence of another), we must learn how to do so as capable, supported adults. It takes energy. It takes dedication. It is often uncomfortable. Engaging differently goes against our deeply ingrained patterns. In short, it feels really weird. But it works (and it’s worth it).

So what is the story you have been telling yourself about your relationship? About your role, and your partner’s role? About how they impact you? What is your impact on them? What can you be accountable for? If you’re expecting your partner to be accountable, it’s important that you model that and do the same. Ask yourself how your communication has been around the challenges in your relationship. If you are letting the resentment build before you explode, sweeping difficult moments under the rug so as not to disrupt the “calm” in your relationship, or numbing to avoid the pain of disconnection, you have some room to improve how you are engaging in your partnership.

Another question to ask yourself (I’m full of them, I know!) is what you need from your partner to move forward in a new way. Often people will have an idea of what they need (for example, a common theme is feeling seen and being validated emotionally by their partner), but are not able to articulate what that looks like or how it feels—and it’s different for every person—and also depends on their attachment style. Therefore, even a partner who is working hard to create shifts might have a difficult time figuring out how to be successful because they don’t know what they are working towards. In all relationships, but ESPECIALLY with this pattern, it’s extremely difficult to “get it right” when we don’t know what “it” is or we haven’t ever done “it” before (this is where therapy can be helpful). What feeling are you looking for? When you picture your relationship feeling healed, supported, and connected, what feelings are present that are not present right now? Are you communicating your needs clearly? I encourage you to ask your partner if they feel clear about what you need.

Lastly, doing your own work to uncover your patterns, identify your emotional triggers, and practice regulating your emotions is invaluable in relationships. You can read, you can go to therapy, or you can take a course to support your healing (and for those of you with the avoidant adaptation or in a committed partnership with someone with that style, stay tuned! I have something super special coming up for you in 2019!). We do not need to be resigned to these patterns. We have an opportunity to shift these dynamics and advocate for our healing.

I’m here to support you along the way. If you need anything at all, please reach out!

Warmly,

Elizabeth