The challenges of anxious-avoidant relationships

Relationship attachment styles

Anxious-avoidant relationships (B+C) have one partner with an anxious attachment style (B) ­and the other with an avoidant style (C). This is the most commonly seen relationship in a couples therapist’s practice.

Other less seen combinations involve people with secure attachment (A+ A/BC/D) which is more seldom because they naturally bring harmony into relationships or break the relationship quickly after being exposed to too much toxic behavior. Last of all, the rarest personality is the dismissive-fearful type (D).

Roots of strong attraction in these relationships

We tend to pair with people who resonate with our pre-existing patterns regarding relationships. Imagine your brain and the large neural network that it formed through your childhood experiences: unconsciously, this neural network is like an antenna that picks up on various similarities between past interactions and current ones. It lights up when we meet a person that in some way resembles our parents and leads to feelings of attraction. If someone didn’t receive enough attention and care as a child and consequently develops an anxious attachment style, this neural network is prone to recognize avoidant persons. It’s totally subliminal and that person can experience this as love at first sight! Sometimes it takes some time for this to happen and attraction to eventually develop.

Yet, in the famous words of Carl Jung:

“Until you make the unconscious conscious,it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

What happens in anxious-avoidant relationships?

Avoidants are at first attracted by attention, warmth and empathy that they didn’t receive while growing up. Anxious individuals are willing to give up their own needs to please and accommodate the avoidant. What happens next is a series of minor conflicts over differences in opinions which occur in all relationships. The anxious partner becomes very worried about being too little or too much. They tend to take things very personally. This is all frightening to an avoidant person and they withdraw in order to protect themselves. The best intimacy they had in their lives was the one with themselves – they feel safe there and retreat in it. Then, the anxious partner often starts to play games in their relationship to get attention. They may act out, try to make their partner jealous, or withdraw and stop answering texts or calls. This protest behavior – aka emotional manipulation – serves to verify that the avoidant still wants to be with them. It’s often over the top and not acceptable to most people.

This feels ‘familiar’ to the avoidant person, again, like their caregivers who only valued them as a tool for emotional gratification and whose love was overwhelmingly conditional. This love no longer feels unconditional; it feels smothering and manipulative. When their partner expresses their need (often in a manner of a demand) all they hear is“you are not enough”. This feeling is very unpleasant but all too familiar. Their neural network formed in childhood often recognizes this unconsciously quite quickly and this accounts for a quite large part of the attraction. The network ‘sensed’ that this sweet person is overly dependent on emotional co-regulation. The actual pattern usually develops later in the relationship after the honeymoon phase is over.

The push/pull dynamic is incredibly addictive

This effect even works on a biochemical level: when pleasurable moments are few and far in between and merged with coldness, the reward circuits associated with a toxic relationship actually become strengthened. When good times are predictable, the reward circuits become accustomed to it and our brain actually releases less dopamine over time when with a consistently good partner. Dopamine actually flows much more readily when the rewards are intermittent. In many cases, rejection and chaos create an addiction that is far more long-lasting than the predictable quality of secure love. The sporadic acts of kindness cause people to mistrust their own gut instincts about the severity of the problem.

The tendency to open up a relationship is common

Quite often I see people who display the above-mentioned dynamic and want to open their relationship or already have other partners. This at first seems like a good way to satisfy everybody’s needs but they soon face complications. Jealousy and controlling behavior quickly arise. Ethical non-monogamous relationships work best when there’s strong commitment to work on things together, even if someone identifies as a solo-poly person.

Getting help in therapy

Regardless of the relationship style, we need to take a look together at the push/pull dynamic. I was particularly drawn to The Developmental Model because it puts an equal emphasis on emotional self-regulation and co-regulation. It also gives an idea of what the stages of the relationship are and what the relational development looks like. I familiarize people with tools designed specifically to help them collaborate on getting out of a toxic dynamic together and replacing it with much healthier communication. The success rate is quite high if people are on the same page such that they both need and want to make a serious effort.

The majority will always be into monogamy, co-habitation and intertwining finances. The Developmental Model is great for resolving issues with all that but is also poly-friendly. It’s more interested in what works for particular people than in prescribing the relationship escalator – a rigid, linear, and scripted approach to relationship behaviours. Instead, the focus is on developing skills that are universal in all good relationships. Here are just a few of such skills that have been proven to help:

  • Expressing needs in a non-triggering and vulnerable way
  • Demonstrating genuine curiosity about a partner’s experience and internal logic
  • Learning to not take things personally
  • Increasing the capacity for empathy

In particular empathy with clear boundaries, that is, distinguishing between expressing empathy and accepting demands, can be the key to transforming anxious-avoidant relationships.

Establishing the groundwork for what is called emotional safety is something we do together in sessions until it becomes your autopilot. There are moments however when it may become clear that people in a relationship are too triggering or incompatible for each other. Therapy assists people in this situation to make an informed decision to end the relationship – a conscious uncoupling – and to move on.

My next post will examine how I use the Developmental Model during couples therapy sessions.

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