People in an avoidant attachment pattern tend to attribute their single status to external circumstances and not having met the right person. When in a relationship they will suffer from a lingering feeling that something is missing and something else is just around the corner, forgetting the sadness they felt alone. They can get into relationships easily, but a few months in a switch will flip and they begin feeing overwhelmed, smothered, their personal freedom encroached upon and start thinking about all the missed opportunities. Minor differences are perceived as a death knell for the relationship, and the closer someone tries to get the more they will pull away. This is because, while like all of us they are wired for connection, in need of stable attachment and may believe very much they want a relationship, the desire is different from the reality, where unconsciously the close presence of an attachment figure is inherently threatening. So they are not trusting by nature, and inwardly more comfortable in pursuit than in the stability of feeling loved in long-term relationships.
1. DATING BEHAVIOURS
Avoidants may not initiate things as they prefer not to be vulnerable. They prefer relationships in the early stages (“honeymoon period”), where they are at their best and most happy being open and sharing, while there is a measure of distance, partners are not leaning on them and no one's flaws are very visible. As soon as there is a necessity for extra closeness they start to panic, feel guilty and close off the closer they get, backing away when it moves to a level of intimacy that requires conflict resolution and vulnerability. So the longer they are in a situation which doesn't require closeness or strong emotions, the longer they may stay.
Avoidants do not usually fall for people quickly and their attraction is built up slowly over time, through trusting in the safety of repeated, emotionally non-threatening communication. Often charming and with good social skills, they use more touch, eye contact and validating behaviours early in the dating process. And with the use of technology, they can appear to be giving someone a lot of attention with constant messages etc, without actually offering too much time face to face. This initial stage will often only last as long as it takes for the avoidant to feel certain of the responding partner's affection. Avoidants will avoid going into anything too personal, and there is not much real conversation of values, wants, needs or what each partner is looking for.
Avoidants have less of a love language around physical touch, particularly in public, as they tend to operate in their head rather than their body, can find physical closeness overwhelming, and being socially hyper-aware get easily embarrassed. They were likely not often soothed by physical touch from caregivers, and may not have received much of it. So they may receive less oxytocin enjoyment from it that most - "your partner wants to snuggle up with you on the couch, but you start to feel annoyed and angry with their clingy and needy behaviour". When in a relationship, sex is a safer domain where they can connect to someone without having to confront uncomfortable emotions – and access their somatic (bodily) sensations which they are often disconnected from. But they sometimes avoid physical closeness, and may become more physically/sexually withdrawn over time and begin to view sex as another obligation (more common in women than men). Casual dating or no-strings sex can appeal, choosing relationships based on sexual chemistry instead of emotional intimacy. Avoidants are more likely to cheat, though on the flip side they are less likely to develop strong feelings for their affair partner (which is just as well). Subconsciously they may want to be caught, because they want and expect to be punished in line with their view of themselves as inherently 'bad', they want to be prompted to finally appreciate the value of their partner in the face of losing them, and/or because they are always ready to exit relationships but seek an 'out' without having to initiate the drama themselves. Overall avoidants have shorter, more troubled relationships, and tend to divorce more frequently and divorce again if remarried (though of course many avoidants defy this pattern).
Avoidant types can’t handle a partner getting too close emotionally, nor are they good at sticking to the commitment and responsibilities of a relationship. Often they like the idea of relationships but ultimately shy away from the work required to make them a long-term reality. They can want a relationship until they are faced with the realities of being in one. It’s not their fault – though they can try, the hard work of making a relationship work innately makes them feel claustrophobic. It can be easier to be around people who do not show too much interest or attachment to them, not asking too much of them. They may feel they 'like' someone only when not completely certain that person will stay. In this situation they also anticipate being less likely to feel guilty about any avoidant behaviours, plus while a person doesn't like them too much it comfortably confirms their own negative self-worth. But once that person becomes a reliable attachment figure their threat systems are activated and, guilty over these sensations but simultaneously buoyed by the ego boost of safety and support that reliable attachment has given them, they feel safe to exit. But then they never understand why the people they are attracted to never like them, while to those who like them - or once people like them, they aren’t attracted. However, they also fear wanting someone or belonging, as it makes them overly vulnerable.
“Where people do have some attachment or positive expectations about me, I persuade myself that I will eventually disappoint them. I usually decide to minimise contact to try and lower their expectations that I will treat them well.”
Avoidants are always prepared for a goodbye scenario because internally they assume it's the more natural resolution to every relationship. With low self-belief they easily fear not meeting a partner’s standards, and rather than - as a Secure would attempt - simply trying and believing it's possible to meet them, anticipate being blamed when things go wrong in a relationship, so feel shame and head that off by avoiding too much responsibility and checking out early. It may lead to them being described as having a fear of commitment (being 'players' or serial daters), though it's actually because they take commitment seriously. What is in fact behind apparent commitment fears is an aversion to vulnerability.
Avoidant attachment: not to be confused with a**holes. "Emotionally unavailable" people are mostly neutral and cold, but avoidants are capable of intimacy, until they subconsciously block themselves. And while the emotionally unavailable stay on an even keel, the avoidant goes through cycles of missing and then pushing the partner away. A**holes tend to be confident and not to care about their partners, but avoidants come in all shapes and sizes. They can be confident, but also shy and un-confident. They may care very deeply about their partner, while still being unable to provide on the intimacy level of the relationship without self-work.
2. THE PHANTOM EX & PERFECT PARTNER
An avoidant person often has a story of a perfect ex in a relationship that wasn’t fully realised, the 'one that got away’ to whom no one else can measure up. In reality the idealised relationship was often lacklustre and unlikely to be highly functional (for example, perhaps ending prematurely where there wasn't time to learn someone's flaws, or with a frequently unavailable/disinterested partner, their needs and feelings often unexpressed openly, feelings of desire stemming from the insecurity of not knowing how the other felt, less time spent alone together or little genuine intimacy - all things that would delay avoidant attachment defences kicking in. If avoidants are accurate in remembering feeling comfortable and desiring at the time, what they are probably recalling is actually feeling detached, but often they misremember that their avoidant triggers were kicking in). But with time and distance from that person they are free to pine for the long lost love from the safety of that person’s total unavailability, meaning their attachment desires can be activated, remembering only positive memories and convincing themselves that was the best partner they ever had, while minimising their ex’s imperfections or why the relationship failed. A fixation with a past partner affects budding new relationships, blocking them from getting close to someone else. Just the knowledge that this person is out there is enough to make any new partner seem insignificant by comparison, a subconscious distancing strategy. In doing so avoidants can convince themselves they are capable of true closeness and outsource the problem. In reality, were they to re-enter a relationship with this phantom ex and it were to be able to successfully reach the stage of a stable, mature relationship (unlikely), they would almost certainly start experiencing the same threat response to an attachment figure they do with everyone else.
They also spend a lot of time and energy looking for “The One.” They create a fixed idea in their mind of how their perfect partner should be. This means they often have a tough time creating the compromises necessary to adapt to the needs and personalities of real partners. For example, they can expect frustrations, disagreements and a need for space should not arise in the perfect relationship (though this is in fact because deep down they don't have confidence in how to fix those things when they arise, for themselves or others). And they tend not to prioritise seeking the qualities that make for lasting relationships because subconsciously they are also characteristics that create intimacy, stability and responsibility (healthy boundaries, steady commitment and availability, emotional directness and validating behaviours, open communication and voicing needs, conflict resolution skills etc), which ironically means they may look for relationships that actually make them unhappy in the long-term. Avoidants are very good at finding dealbreaking pet peeves with prospective partners (e.g. “Omigod, his laugh sounds like a sea lion”). This gives them a subconscious excuse to maintain emotional distance while they wait for The One and keep their space. As they do they will reject many relationships that might overall be satisfying and worthwhile because they do not meet their expectations of the ideal.
But once in stable relationships, they often complain about not feeling what they are supposed to feel. They dream of the perfect partner as a way of distancing from real prospects - they may even fantasise about being with other people as a distancing tactic, and believe when they meet the right person everything will fall into place, work effortlessly and they will be able to be really close and show love. But even when they do meet someone who checks their boxes, they still complain “by now I should feel in love,” “my feelings are not growing,” "I need to feel more in love"; - when they may in fact not know how to feel it as things are.
These two strategies are highly effective at keeping avoidants from being fully invested in the present, and less emotionally available or invested in their partner - because in the present it is always important, through no real fault of their own, to hold space from an inherently threatening attachment figure.
"Have you ever gone out with someone whom you think is amazing, but as you start to get closer, you become overwhelmed with the feeling that s/he isn’t actually so hot after all? This can even happen after you’ve gone out with someone for a considerable amount of time or very intensively, all the while believing that s/he could be the one, when all of a sudden you experience a chilling effect. You start to notice she has a weird way of eating, or that his nose blowing infuriates you. You end up discovering that after the initial exhilaration, you feel suffocated and need to take a step back. What you don’t realize is that this surge of negativity could in fact be a deactivating strategy, unconsciously triggering you to turn off your attachment needs. Not wanting to look inward—and believing that we all have the same capacity for intimacy—you conclude that you’re just not in love enough and so pull away. You partner is crushed and protests, but this only strengthens your conviction that s/he is not “the one.” Moving from one date to the next, you begin this vicious cycle over and over, believing all along that once you find “the one,” you’ll effortlessly connect on a totally different level.
This and the phantom ex are the two trickiest tools that you may be using to shortchange yourself in love. You convince yourself that you have a true longing for someone from your past or that the right person is just around the corner, so you can easily undermine yourself in love. Embracing the notion of the “perfect” partner is one of the most powerful tools an avoidant can use to keep someone else at bay. It allows you to believe that everything is fine with you and that the person you’re with now is the problem—he or she is just not good enough. In addition to creating distance between you and your partner, it can also confuse him/her; when your partner hears how you miss your ex, or how you long for the perfect soulmate, it leads him/her to believe that you’re craving true closeness and intimacy, when in fact you’re driving it away. "
- Attached by Levine & Heller
3. WHAT'S THEIR TYPE?
People in avoidant patterns can say they want a long-term relationship and really mean it, but because of deeper unresolved hurts it often doesn’t play out that way in real life. Once they're in one it eventually feels the opposite. Deep down they believe love has to be earned, so are attracted to qualities they perceive as challenging. Unconsciously they do not expect or perhaps even want to be treated well - it doesn't match up with their childhood attachment model and their sense of self, so they fear they'll disappoint. Consequently if a partner gives their love easily it may on the surface feel they are too boring, nice or smothering for them.
They may choose emotionally or physically unavailable partners, forming relationships with impossible futures or end dates, such as long distance, those who are already in a relationship, moving away or otherwise have little time for them. Impossible relationships are usually an unconscious choice so avoidants don't have to deal with encroachments on their personal space or get too involved. They miss their partners when away but quickly feel engulfed when they return. They may have never have moved in with a partner - or the relationship tanked when they did. They may marry and have a family, but without work on themselves keep a certain distance that can leave their spouse feeling bereft and lonely (though interestingly children may be spared many avoidant tendencies, as, like pets, they themselves do not pose a threat of leaving). Within a family some might then even come to believe they are sticking around primarily out of commitment to the children, because while their partner is reliably present some struggle to access their real loving feelings (suppressing how much they do truly love and depend on their partner). Avoidants might even be attracted to people like partners of their friends, or friends of their partners, precisely because of the unavailability (though forbidden crushes are common).
When we date, we seek wholeness for missing parts of ourselves at an unconscious level. This complementarity is a fundamental part of who we choose and what can bring balance to our partnerships (and, unconsciously, to our possible offspring). We all secretly yearn for someone who can bring out the dormant part of ourselves that we desperately want to express. So when they are looking to really connect, avoidants can be attracted to expressive partners or insightful ones, attracted to missing traits in themselves and unconsciously seeking out emotionally open people in the hope it will connect them to that aspect of themselves and bring out their self-understanding and expression of emotions. But without their own work they still find themselves largely unable to reciprocate. Similarly, when in the early dating stage an extrovert's tendency to fill the conversational space takes the pressure off the avoidant person feeling the need to disclose early on. The avoidant will feel more comfortable and attracted, and their partner feels reassured they are interested in them. However eventually the partner will realise the imbalance and invest more to try to rectify it and connect with the avoidant, which pushes them away. Whoever they choose, the precise things that attracted them they may later start to label as a source of irritation, because it triggers the parts of themselves they may not in fact yet be willing to take ownership of.
Pairings with insecure attachments
We love relationships that confirm our insecurities. If you pay close attention to the romantic relationships of your friends and family, you’ll see very clear patterns. You’ll notice that security stays in love with security, and insecurity stays in love with insecurity, even though those insecurities show up differently. Specific relationships evoke specific reactions. These reactions are then interpreted to confirm our internal beliefs about ourselves and others. In a relationship, people with bad attachment beliefs will reject and push away their partner who sees them positively to sabotage that view, until the point that this partner perceives them the way they see themselves. And when dating, people with negative self-views often choose partners who offer negative evaluations to confirm those self-views. The pathologies of these interactions then support their self-beliefs. People can also be attracted to those with a common level of woundedness for the reason we sense we will be understood. We all want to feel loved and understood. But without being able to love ourselves, we can abandon ourselves through repressing our own feelings, avoiding responsibility for them and pulling on others to provide us with attention or to feel useful, and turn to various controlling behaviours to fill the emptiness within that results from our own self-abandonment.
Avoidants are attracted to other insecure attachment patterns because they sense it will allow them more freedom to go at their own pace. In other words, they tend to feel comfortable and have mutual attraction with people who also don't believe they deserve their needs to be fully recognised (sensing the avoidant will not provide for them, at least initially) and so are less likely to voice them and engulf the avoidant. They may learn to get their needs met through non-demanding partners who fail to require real reciprocation, intimacy, conflict resolution and positive reinforcement, pursue indefinitely if they withdraw (the obsessive types who call twenty times a day), and give without being asked. An avoidant can receive love from these people without having to give too much back or show too much of themselves, accepting attention without providing emotional security- a classic and often long-standing (but without work unhappy) pairing of the anxious-avoidant relationship.
AVOIDANT - ANXIOUS PAIRING
Subconsciously, an avoidant feels reassured and in control by sensing the anxiously attached is unlikely to leave them even if they give little – and they would be right. Anxiously attached individuals, carrying their own childhood wounds, may act out (sulking, manipulating, criticising, becoming demanding or controlling), but will exist unhappily in a relationship and put up with a lot before choosing abandonment. Not having received consistency from caregivers, the anxiously attached expect to have to work to win love. They have trouble being single, can be rarely out of a relationship but are experts at picking those who won't love them, and can succumb to unhealthy or abusive relationships. The anxiety of an insecure attachment is enlivening and familiar to the anxiously attached, though it’s also uncomfortable and makes them more anxious. It validates their abandonment fears about relationships and beliefs about not being enough, lovable, or securely loved. So avoidants know that all they have to do to trigger their partner’s fear and reconciliation is threaten to leave. Subconsciously avoidants believe that being in control this way (in a way they could perhaps not be if with a secure partner) will allow them to escape being drained, engulfed, and controlled, and at a deeper level to avoid being left themselves. They also use the insecurity of anxious behaviours to validate their deeply held beliefs about how draining relationships are and the need for independence, and avoid the demand of a deeper connection. So for an avoidant this relationship both effectively satisfies their internal need for control (after the trauma of feeling out of control around caregivers in childhood) and confirms their worldview.
Consciously avoidants fear intimacy, but unconsciously they fear abandonment - the opposite of the anxiously attached (while the anxiously attached fear abandonment and believe they seek true intimacy, unconsciously they are actually attracted to avoidants because, like them, they are not used to it). Often these relationships can produce a lasting dysfunctional equilibrium as they fall into a pattern of chaser-chasee, which are roles both these types need in order to feel comfortable with intimacy, in a push-pull cycle with each is triggering the other’s attachment wounds. Unlike those securely attached, pursuers and distancers aren’t skilled at resolving disagreements. They tend to become defensive and attack or withdraw, escalating conflict. And in fact without the distancing, chase, conflict, or compulsive behaviour, i.e. in a secure relationship, both types would begin to feel depressed and empty due to being used to painful early attachments. Researchers found that avoidant individuals actually prefer anxiously attached people above all others, and vice versa. Each reaffirms the other’s beliefs about themselves and about relationships. The avoidants’ defensive self-perception that they are strong and independent is confirmed, as is the belief that others want to pull them into more closeness than they are comfortable with. The anxious types find that their perception of wanting to be closer than their partner can provide is confirmed, as is their anticipation of ultimately being let down by significant others. So, in a way, each style is drawn to reenact a familiar script over and over again. This kind of complementary dysfunction can lead to a stable relationship, but one where both partners stay in their insecure styles, with the preoccupied battling for every scrap of attention and the avoidant one only giving enough to confirm his view of attachment as a necessary evil.
Unconsciously seeking to repair their core wound, the anxiously attached may be attracted to the opportunity to prove to an abandoning-orientated (i.e. avoidant) type that they are worthy of not abandoning. This partial response of intermittent reinforcement is what they remember from significant caregivers, most typically their father, and the familiarity of this yearning is itself attractive. But avoidants can so rarely provide validation that the anxious partner becomes painfully locked into seeking validation they will never fully receive. Pursuers may confuse their longing and anxiety for love rather than realizing it’s their partner’s unavailability that is the problem. It’s not themselves or anything they did or could do to change that. They hang in and try harder, instead of facing the truth and cutting their losses. And avoidants need someone pursuing them to sustain their own emotional needs that they largely disown (such as support, safe attachment, validation, connectedness) and which wouldn’t be met by another avoider. They can feel safe they can receive validation while not showing too much of themselves - but their partner's pursuit only encourages them to push away further, bringing out yet more avoidant behaviours. A couple can get locked in this pattern, largely because they each see the other as the cause, rather than a pattern between them that simply needs addressing and can potentially be stepped away from while within the relationship - by fully recognising what is happening and better providing for each other's needs.
AVOIDANT - AVOIDANT PAIRING
While an uncommon pairing because of its inherent instability, it's possible for avoidants to form superficially functional relationships with other avoidants in the early stages, both providing the space, emotional unavailability and consequent pursuit the other enjoys. On the surface this might look like the ideal long-term partner - comfortably distant (if they can manage to still be reliably interested), unburdensome and inattentive to each other's needs. In particular this would satisfy core needs of volition/empowerment/control and privacy - both safeguarding from feelings of engulfment. Replicating the caregiver dynamic, if someone is fairly disinterested the avoidant could feel safe from being noticed too much or thought well of in ways they fear they'll disappoint. And they may have less fear of hurting each other with their actions and the guilt that would entail (although in reality capacity for hurt is equal, just expressed in different ways). So this may particularly appeal to avoidants whose caregivers who didn't pay attention to them - they unconsciously seek a parter who doesn't pay attention, to recreate that old hurt.
But these couples live very disconnected separate lives, coexisting fairly disinterestedly, do not give each other the positive reinforcement, interest and support they require or attend to the important emotional needs their partner struggles to access, sex tends to be impersonal, and the overall tone of the relationship is usually unhappy - they tend to keep each other at arm’s length, doing their own thing and remaining too afraid to show, discover and accept each other's inner world. Functional relationships require constant couples communication about needs, something neither is adept at. And for dating to progress, avoidants need someone willing to be vulnerable about their interest in them so they have something to react against, and someone to attend to their emotional needs they struggle to connect with; here with neither partner keen to express their feelings and needs or substantially attend to the other's, to increase intimacy that can move the couple towards feelings of love, and to resolve conflicts, these impersonal relationships can be full of suppression, unspoken frustrations, descend into unhealthy behaviours with both stonewalling or pushing the other away, easily fall apart and are the least likely of all pairings, hard to develop enough initial interest in each other to even get off the ground. Each operates uncollaboratively by protective instinct, and together they struggle to move the relationship up to the level of thinking like a team (interdependence). When relationship problems arise - as they inevitably do – both feel the need to retain control and struggle to show the vulnerability needed to fix things, neither is very good at reading what the other wants, nor wants to or understands how to resolve things. In this situation there isn't a partner willing/able to do the important communication and collaboration work, both have a sense of 'why bother?' and are inclined to just walk away, so these relationships end under even minor stress. To get through the rough patches, a successful couple really needs at least one partner who is willing to stick it out and make the effort to work through the tough times.
On a very unconscious level, to avoid engulfment the avoidant person ultimately desires a partner who is consistently present (ideally in another space) but rarely interacting directly (except on the avoidant’s instigation, which they can cope with), who does not really notice or need to fully know (and so expose) them, and expresses no great needs or demands. But in both types of insecure pairing above, the wished-for scenario is available only in the domain of one-sided attachment (i.e., parent-child relationship). It's not that either relationship couldn't be successful with work - and certainly many are (and without work others can be long-standing, even lifelong, though both not very happy within it). Everyone has a natural style and depending on how strongly each shows up on the attachment spectrum, certain attachment styles do not preclude good relationships - it just means couples have to take responsibility for how they might trigger each other and for good communication. But couples would need to each recognise and take responsibility for their own patterns and the self-abandonment it springs from, to be happy. Healthy romantic relationships require internal connection, acceptance and self-esteem so partners are no longer expected or wished to act as parents—to fulfil a long-unmet need. Essentially, avoidants would prefer things to stay always in the courtship phase, but relationships must become more intimate, with both feeling safe to express their needs, to believe those needs deserve to and will be respected, and to rely on each other, or they don’t survive.
Until avoidants can redress these unmet needs themselves rather than looking outside, and attend to their fears of engulfment and abandonment, they will be stuck on dating repeat. Because the more avoidant behaviours show up in the dating process, the more likely that person is to attract other insecure attachment styles (of which there are a greater number in the dating pool because secures tend to stay in relationships - "those past 40 who have never been able to get and keep a good relationship going, likely never will—unless of course they have realised they need to change and work hard on themselves."), or to bring insecure attachment out of more secure, better communicating partners . For instance, a man who is avoidant may be able to successfully shirk a secure woman’s pushes for increased intimacy. After which, the secure woman will accept the rejection and move on. But an anxious woman will only become more determined by a man who pushes her away. She’ll resort to calling him for weeks or months on end until he finally caves and commits to her. This gives the avoidant man the reassurance he needs that he can behave independently and the anxious partner will wait for him. Secures require more reciprocation in order to provide the validation avoidants require, and other avoidant partners would struggle to provide validation at all. Avoidants are also likely to be put off by a secure person's forthright, open requests and expectations to meet their needs, and secures not likely to hang on in the long term without their needs being met. So before they work on themselves, avoidant types can be so good at putting others off that oftentimes it’s only the anxious types who are willing to stick around and put in the extra effort to get them to open up.
The less avoidants feel someone needs them, the less potential they feel they have to feel guilty, which for them can be overwhelming. But everyone has needs - insecure styles simply don't believe they deserve for them to be recognised as much, so are better at suppressing their needs - which just means they come out in more unhealthy ways. The key to a successful relationship is not to find a partner who doesn't express their needs, but for us to work on ourselves so we can express our own, do not feel overwhelmed by the prospect of meeting a partner's needs - and with boundaries comfortable remaining close when we can't (with the skills to be effectively supportive but safe in the knowledge we can't and shouldn't always look to solve someone's problems).
Pairing with the securely attached
Many people with avoidant characteristics, however, have happy and fulfilling relationships through which they move towards a secure attachment pattern. It's possible to do this with any partner provided both are aware of their own attachment triggers and dedicated to putting in work, but an avoidant person's best bet is with a partner exhibiting some secure characteristics - comfortable resolving conflicts, addressing relationship challenges openly and non-defensively, comfortable with both intimacy and independence, able to show sympathy to avoidant behaviours and give the avoidant partner the space they need without pressure, but also confident articulating their needs and able to draw clear boundaries against mistreatment - if necessary walking away. However the opposite can also be true - in a relationship two people need to show up to do the work, and without awareness of the dynamics at work, it's possible and even common for the avoidant to start pulling out insecure elements in their previously secure partner. While research shows that an avoidant who enters a long-term relationship with a secure can be “raised up” to the level of the secure over an extended period of time, unfortunately, they are also capable of “bringing down” a secure to their level of insecurity if they’re not careful.
"The avoidant will tend to drive the secure partner toward attachment anxiety by failing to respond well to reasonable messages requesting reassurance and to show willingness to resolve relationship challenges together. An extremely secure partner can gradually change the insecure partner toward more security, but at great cost in patience and effort. If the avoidant recognizes the problem and takes some responsibility for trying to respond positively even when he doesn’t really feel like it, this can gradually reorient the avoidant partner toward more satisfying couples communication. If this does not happen, a Secure is more likely to give up on the relationship and move on"
However, be aware of falling into the myth that there is a perfect partner who can solve this (a common avoidant defence mechanism!). It is simply not the case. It is common, perhaps expected, for relationships to suffer from maladaptive patterns over time, and the push-pull dynamic is something it is easy and common to fall into. These patterns are fixable when both partners own their piece and do the work. So beware also of using attachment theory as another distancing tool to blame your partner and mark them 'unsuitable'. Attachment theory is simply a tool to recognise very changeable dynamics that partnerships can sometimes slip into. The important thing is internal ownership rather than the misnomer of roaming the world to find one of these magical partners called “secures” to resolve our problems (with whom there may well not be mutual attraction in the first place). We must locate the problem in the pattern and realise that changing our relationship to a partner is possible with ownership on both sides, rather than assign it to our partner. Many couples, for example, who take on anxious and avoidant roles, love each other deeply and are able to fix the pattern between them. These attachment styles are not essential traits but strategies that can be modified. Attraction between such partners does not rest on a confusion of chaotic feelings that come from attachment distress with genuine love, the idea of which is misleading and does not do justice to the meaningful and deep connection partners in this pattern have to each other. And fundamentally, people are also much more complex than simply their attachment patterns, and there are very many qualities that go into a good match. The problem is, the idea of work in relationships is one of the things that can send avoidants running for the hills - they don't understand how to do it, fear failure, and so it is often easier to use it as an excuse that things 'aren't working' (without really having tried) and a partner is once more 'not right' for them.
Beware: the limitations of partner choice
A secure partner may theoretically be ideal, but it is often the case that such a secure type may not be attractive - and for good reason. You would have a lot of difficulty through conscious intention somehow causing yourself to be interested in partners who do not register to your unconscious mind as exciting or familiar in any way. Every person has an early imprint or working model of what they find attractive and exciting, based on experiences with those closest to them. People who initially register as boring, unexciting or unattractive to us do so for an important reason—they are people whose “crazy” does not fit our “crazy” in a way that has the potential to heal us and teach us the most important lessons about ourselves that we need to learn. And we seek out people who have the capacity to understand our internal struggles. Accepting who we are drawn to and what it shows us about what we need is part of accepting ourselves as we are (while been willing to self-improve). In any case, half the population has an insecure style - and more in the dating pool because secures tend to stay in relationships, and everyone displays these traits at times. We are attracted to who we are attracted to, and there is no shame in that. But while embracing that, we can also be mindful to look out for characteristics we know could increase the chance of relationship success in the long-run - most importantly, a belief in putting teamwork into relationships when problems crop up, as they inevitably do.
It can be that as we work on ourselves to become more secure we naturally become more attracted to more secure partners, but if for example one tends to take on avoidant roles in relationships with partners who then respond more anxiously, there are a host of important questions to work through that won’t be resolved, but simply replicated, by switching partners. Such a person, to grow, needs to own that connecting to loving and desiring emotions is only possible for them at a distance, and they need to look inward to figure out what that is all about in order to stop acting in those ways. Could such a person operate the same way when a partner really rejects them, or would they in turn react anxiously themselves? How many times have we seen an avoidant person turn anxious when partners become truly unavailable, in the same way anxious types can become avoidant when actually presented with reliable love?
There are deeper dynamics responsible for attraction that cannot be resolved by switching partners. Insecure attachment styles are surface presentations of underlying dynamics that need to be worked through to be resolved. For example, if one felt unloved and constrained by either an overbearing or neglectful parent, happiness for that individual comes from finding a partner who at once resembles that familiar parent yet who is willing to expand and offer autonomy/care. What’s crucial is that the person in question does not simply desire autonomy/care from any random person— they desire it from someone whom they experienced as overbearing/neglectful. And you can bet your life that this individual will keep reenacting this scenario by picking overbearing/neglectful partners and then struggle to twist autonomy/care out of them. Both pieces are important— the familiar and the missing quality. The best chance for growth and contentment comes when partners who are excited by a familiar unconscious bond both own their part of the pattern and agree to do the work together.
The push-pull relationship and toxicity of
‘intermittent reinforcement’ (mixed messages)
The avoidant partner's fear of intimacy will engage when they are certain of the responding partner's affection. They will then start to fear being engulfed, that they will lose control and be trapped in a relationship. Alternatively the avoidant may start to feel triggered by a period of more intense closeness as they start to feel more vulnerable. It could be a conversation or situation that sets off an emotional trigger from their past that makes them feel insecure. This can be demonstrated when the avoidant partner seems to change mood quickly, pick fights, cancel dates last minute or after they disappear with no contact for days or even weeks. Deep down they fear that anyone who sees who they really are will eventually figure out that they are unlovable, so they prefer to not open themselves up.
The avoidant partner is now directly trying to counter their fear of intimacy. They will push back, withdraw and create distance to regain a sense of control over the situation. They may at this point seek out new relationships or if in a committed relationship start looking for affairs. They are essentially abandoning before they ever get a chance to be abandoned. The effects of abandonment on the responding partner will depend largely on how much fear of abandonment they developed during childhood. However, no one finds abandonment or rejection easy. Jovanna Casey's great article The Push-Me, Pull-You Dance explains:
'As an adult, when this abandonment fear gets activated, it means you’ve regressed to a child state. And you will do whatever you can to stop it. Perhaps you become desperate, subservient or clingy. You repeatedly ask, “Do you love me?” You do whatever you can to get someone to stay. If you are feeling alone, you might reach out to find anyone to temporarily fill that void, even if it is clearly a bad choice.'
The responding partner may try to cling, convince or manipulate the avoidant partner to stop them leaving. The avoidant will gain back a sense of power and control over the situation, along with a ego boost. This pulling by the responding partner whilst feeding the ego of the avoidant partner will also intensify their feelings of engulfment, meaning they will feel the need to get even further away. Now depending on when the avoidant has created enough distance for their fear of engulfment to subdue their sense of abandonment will replace it. They will be back seeking out the responding partner as a means to stop this new feeling of abandonment. The responding partner will be so relieved to have their own abandonment triggers calmed that they will likely bend over backwards to accommodate the returning avoidant partner. However, nothing has been done to resolve the issues and the avoidant will again distance when they feel the relationship deepening or when they are triggered. Each cycle repeated will often happen faster as both partners fears have been brought to the surface.
This toxic relationship pattern is addictive as it provides a form of intermittent reinforcement. The effects of intermittent reinforcement were discovered by psychologist Alfred Skinner, whilst testing the behaviour of mice. Mice where placed in a box with a lever, which would dispense food as a reward when pressed by the mice. If the food stopped coming out of the lever the mice would learn fairly quickly to stop pressing it, it was no longer giving them a reward. However, if the food was dispensed at random presses of the lever so that not every press dispensed food; the mice would find it extremely difficult to stop pressing the lever. They would press it compulsively even when the food had long stopped coming. The intermittent reinforcement had caused the mice to engage in behaviour which was extremely difficult for them to stop.
Unfortunately it has been discovered that more dopamine (pleasure hormones) are released with uncertain pleasure than constant pleasure. In early evolution this dopamine system helped keep humans alive as they were driven to constantly search for answers and try and understand the environment. Another factor is the stress of the unpredictability of the pattern. Rising stress-hormones cause us to become hyper-aware of the source of our stress. Therefore you are likely to focus more on an avoidant partner. Never knowing how they will react next will cause you to experience fear which also releases more dopamine. However, when your brain is activated in this way it shows similar activity to cocaine addicts in MRI scans. It helps explain why its so difficult to walk away from this toxic situation and why you often feel like you are going crazy!
Insecure attachment styles translate into some degree of codependency in relationships