The Challenges of Anxious-Avoidant Relationships
There are so many ways to be unhappy in love, but one kind which modern psychology has given particular attention to are relationships, very high in number, in which one of the parties is defined as avoidant in their attachment patterns – and the other as anxious.
Attachment Theory is the term given to a set of ideas about how we love and the role of childhood therein originally developed by the English psychologist John Bowlby in the 50s and 60s. It divides up humanity into three categories according to our varying capacity to behave with confidence and trust in relationships.
Firstly, there are those who are securely attached, who had reliable and good childhood experiences and now expect to be positively treated by those they love, fortunate types who are capable of empathy and generosity – and communicate with honesty and directness about their needs. Around 50% of the population is assumed to be securely attached.
This leaves two fascinating deviations from health, caused by some form of early parental letdown and trauma: the first kind of attachment pattern is known as Avoidant, the second as Anxious. What makes things even more complicated and very combustible is that Avoidant and Anxious people are frequently drawn to forming couples (it’s part of their pathology) where their varied emotional quirks contribute to an especially fraught combination.
An Anxiously attached person in a relationship will have the characteristic feeling of not being properly appreciated and loved. They would – they tell themselves – like so much more closeness, tenderness, touch and sex – and are convinced that such a union could be possible. The person they are with, however, seems to them humiliatingly and hurtfully detached. They never seem to want them with as much intensity as they offer them. They are hugely saddened by their coldness and distance and gradually fall into moods of self-loathing and rejection, feeling unappreciated and misunderstood, as well as vengeful and resentful. For a long time, they might keep quiet about their frustrations until eventually desperation erupts. Even if it is a very inappropriate moment (perhaps they and their partner are exhausted and it’s past midnight), they won’t be able not to insist on addressing the issues right now. Predictably, these sort of fights go very wrong. The anxious lover loses their calm, they exaggerate and drive their points home with such viciousness that they leave their partner convinced that they are mad and mean.
A securely attached partner might know how to soothe the situation, but an avoidant one certainly doesn’t. Tragically, this avoidant party triggers every insecurity known to their anxious lover. Under pressure to be warmer and more connected, the avoidant partner instinctively withdraws and feels overwhelmed and hounded. They go cold – and disconnect from the situation only further ramping up the partner’s anxiety. Underneath their silence, the avoidant one resents feeling, as they put it, ‘controlled’; they have the impression of being got at, unfairly persecuted and disturbed by the other’s ‘neediness’. They may quietly fantasise about going off to have sex with someone else completely, preferably a total stranger or of going into the other room and reading a book, but probably not one about psychology.
It helps immensely to know that this is not your relationship only, it’s a type and there are – quite literally – millions of them unfolding on the planet at any point. Even better, the causes of the distress, which feel so personal and so insulting, are in fact general phenomena, well studied and mapped by sober researchers in lab coats.
The solution, as ever, is simply knowledge. There is an immense difference between acting out on one’s avoidant or anxious impulses – and, as would be preferable, understanding that one has them, grasping where they came from and explaining to ourselves and others why they make us do what we do. We cannot – most of us – be wholly healthy in love, but we can be something almost as beneficial: we can grow into people committed to explaining our unhealthy, trauma-driven behaviour in good time, before we have become overly furious and hurt others too much – and apologising for our antics after they have run their course. There are few things more romantic, in the true sense, than a couple who have learnt to tell one another with wit and composure that they have been triggered in an avoidant or an anxious direction, but are doing everything they can to get on top of things – and hope to be normal again in a little while.
Couples Therapy at The School of Life
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Therapy isn’t for the select or distressed few; we believe that therapy is for everybody.
To help dispel the slight taboo which sometimes surrounds it, we have created a welcoming home for psychotherapy for when you feel stuck in a rut, anxious about your relationships or simply unsure about what’s going on in your life. Our therapists are based at our London HQ in Bloomsbury, but we also offer online sessions, via video conference for those unable to come to London.