“It can be really nice at first, but then that chase-withdrawal cycle can take over and turn the relationship around.”
Have you ever dated someone where you felt like you were the only one trying hard in the relationship? Maybe you love the hunt or tend to be attracted only to those who are emotionally unavailable, which inevitably and unnecessarily causes you stress.
For more relationship advice, head to our Life section.
As someone who has usually always been the clingy person in a relationship, I know the struggle. But if you constantly crave more affection from a partner and experience heightened levels of anxiety when those needs aren’t met, you might have what’s called a ‘anxious attachment style‘.
What is Attachment Theory?
The anxious attachment style is an element of attachment theory, invented in the 1950s to 1960s by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. In a nutshell, the theory proposes that in adult relationships, our attachment styles are often influenced by our early childhood experiences, such as the affection we received from our primary caregivers (hey Freud, we see you).
Although there are many attachment styles, the main ones recognized are anxiety, avoidance, and security. couple counselor Natalie Claire King says she prefers to look at a couple’s “position” rather than their attachment style.
“It’s very similar to attachment styles – someone with an anxious attachment style will take a more insightful stance. While an avoidant attachment person would take a withdrawn position.
What is avoidant attachment?
Avoidant attachment, says Natalie, often stems from a time in childhood when a person’s primary caregiver or attachment figure was “quite dismissive and neglectful of their emotional needs, or was very intrusive and overbearing.”
But what’s interesting – and what I’ve found in my own experience with the anxious attachment style – is that anxious and avoidant people often end up having relationships together.
It usually starts with the anxious person casually pursuing the avoidant, while the avoidant isn’t necessarily looking for a relationship. Once a relationship develops, the pursuer’s anxiety increases once they realize that their emotional needs are not being met.
The anxiety-avoidance cycle
If you’re an anxiety-bound person, like me, you’re probably familiar with the anxiety-avoidance cycle. Have you ever asked for more attention, affection, or quality time with a partner, only to have them respond by pushing you further away? Maybe they’ll spend even less time with you than before and emotionally withdraw to show no sign of affection or desire to be in the relationship.
Natalie says that “someone who is anxiously tied down or in a chasing position [will] have a greater need for attention, closeness and affection, so they place a high value on talking things over, expressing their feelings and generally enjoy hearing words of affirmation or comfort from their partner. love “.
She explains that when the avoidant person then wants space, the anxious person may feel personally rejected. “Someone who is more withdrawn or avoidant can sometimes feel intimidated by closeness.”
This can go back to the aforementioned issues of how this type of person received affection in childhood. Natalie says that to cope with the fear of neglect or abandonment she experienced in her childhood, this person will try to “protect themselves” by “avoiding any form of rejection”.
“The best way [for them] to do that is not to approach anyone,” she says. Natalie goes on to explain that these attachment styles often result in relationships because they both have what the other would like more. She says an anxious person might be impressed by an avoidant person’s independence, or perhaps by their superficial “mystery” because they wish they could depend less on others themselves.
On the other hand, the avoidant person will be drawn to the anxious person because they provide endless amounts of love, intimacy, and warmth, something they may not have experienced growing up.
“Often when I meet couples, they explain that the things that initially attracted them [of the relationship] what really attracted them may end up being the things that hold them back,” Natalie tells me. “It can be really nice at first, but then that chase-withdrawal cycle can take over and turn the relationship around.”
She explains that the cycle can begin with the pursuer asking reassuring questions of their partner and criticizing them for their lack of affection. Instead of telling their partner clearly what they need in the relationship and how their actions make them feel, it results in “complaints, criticisms, and demands.”
“It doesn’t feel good to be criticized by your partner,” says Natalie. “So the person who is withdrawing will respond by seeking emotional distance and physical space when stress is introduced into the relationship. They enjoy independence and autonomy.
“Withdrawal can become silent and withdraw into itself. So it looks like they don’t really care, but inside they feel really stressed and anxious. They have a low tolerance for conflict and need their relationship to be harmonious.
“When the retiree starts to hear that they are not making their partner happy, these feelings of rejection or even shame arise because they fear their partner will leave them. And their best coping mechanism for dealing with these feelings is to turn inward and try to deal with this anxiety on their own.
This is when the anxious-avoidance cycle really kicks in – the anxious person will continue to push the avoidant for more affection, causing them to withdraw into themselves. The pursuer then becomes more anxious, fearing that his partner no longer loves him. But the more they push, the more their partner will back off. Simply put, it’s not a fun cycle (trust me, I know).
Can anxious-avoidant couples break the cycle?
There is hope for couples stuck in the cycle or resonating with these attachment styles. Natalie tells me the first important thing is to notice that there is a pattern going on.
“They have to look at it in a non-emotional way, which seems ridiculous because it’s so emotional,” she says. Essentially, you need to be able to determine which actions of your partner trigger certain feelings and which emotional needs you need to meet in the relationship.
The second step, says Natalie, is to recognize when the cycle is happening and see if you can break it and react differently to each other. “It’s not easy,” she told me. “When people are stuck like this and the pattern has been going on for a while, they often come for advice because it’s really hard to see what’s going on when you’re in the relationship bubble.”
Natalie explains to me the importance of trying to respond differently to your partner because “most of the time when caught in this cycle, people will react reactively. They will respond with anger, defensiveness or tears.”
“The way to react differently is to be vulnerable,” she says. “We need to talk to our partner about our fears and our feelings.” Natalie also explains the importance of digging into where these feelings come from. If they’re clearly coming from a childhood trauma or attachment, it’s worth explaining to your partner so they can better understand why you’re reacting in a certain way to their actions.
“The main thing I’m saying is that it can still work,” Natalie tells me. She says if you’re an anxious person, it’s good if you can find someone who’s really attached, but that can’t always be the case.
“If you’re with an avoidant person, give them a chance too,” she says. “If there’s an opening there to work together a bit and change, then it can definitely work. I saw it happen.
This article was originally published on March 15, 2022.
To learn more about anxious-avoidant relationships, try this.