Attachment theory has become a prominent way many of us get more understanding about our adult relationships — why we feel like we need our partners so badly, or why we feel so suffocated by too much closeness. Attachment theory — and an understanding of our unique attachment styles — also helps us understand why those two types of people often end up dating each other, with disastrous results.
Anxiously and avoidantly attached people are often drawn to each other because it feels familiar and replicates patterns they may already associate with love and affection based on their childhoods, which initially feels like compatibility. But these patterns feed on each other over time, leaving both partners unhappy and unfulfilled regardless of how much they love each other and want it to work. So how do you break the cycle?
Recognize the Cycle as it’s Happening
Very basically, our attachment styles inform how we regulate our emotions — in layman’s terms, how we handle intense or difficult feelings when they come up. People with secure attachment can pretty ably use a combination of working through their feelings on their own with coping strategies and reaching out to loved ones or professionals for support, and end up feeling more or less settled down even if they’re unhappy for the situation. Anxiously attached people rely very heavily on support from others to deal with difficult emotions, and may be at a loss for how to soothe themselves on their own if they can’t get support from a friend, partner, family member or therapist. People with avoidant attachment, conversely, have a very difficult time sharing their feelings with others and prefer to completely withdraw to deal with their emotions, primarily choosing to self-regulate rather than reaching out to co-regulate with others.
In a relationship setting, anxiously attached people may want a lot of closeness from their partner in good times and a lot of support and processing from their partner when times are hard. The avoidant partner, in return, may tentatively enjoy the closeness when the relationship is happy, but feel suffocated and overwhelmed by the support expected if anything goes wrong — which causes them to withdraw, the worst possible outcome for the anxious partner. The more one partner tries to push for what they need – attention or space, conversely – the more it triggers their partner, who digs their heels in even harder.
This is a painful pattern, but one as old as time itself. The first step to interrupting it is to name what’s actually happening — your attachment patterns, which are not good or bad in and of themselves, are triggering each other. As long as you both keep blaming each other (or yourselves) for not simply having different needs — why can’t she just offer to come over when I tell her I had a bad day? Or Why can’t I stop being so needy? — it’s impossible to end the cycle.
Work On Your Own Skills
Generally speaking, avoidantly attached people benefit from working on co-regulating — addressing their feelings in connection with other people — and anxiously attached people benefit from working on skills for self-regulating — skills to manage the intensity of their feelings and soothe their fears on their own, with their own coping mechanisms. By building both of these skills on their own, both partners can reduce the frequency and intensity of the push/pull cycle they get caught in.
Of course, deciding to work on something and making it happen are very different — how do you go about actually shifting the way you’ve dealt with your emotions your whole life? Therapy is a great option for making this process less intimidating; working in tandem with a professional who knows these issues inside and out means you don’t have to figure it out all on your own. Individual therapy is great, and couples therapy or coaching can also be enormously helpful in having a third party identify the ways these patterns are showing up in your relationship.
Whether in therapy or not, it’s also helpful to start small and work incrementally. Trying to make any lifestyle change overnight is often setting yourself up for failure — someone who hasn’t exercised in years deciding to hit the gym for an hour every single day will end up feeling like a failure three days in. Instead, think of small ways to practice the skills that will be helpful in your relationship — instead of spilling your life story and committing to unlimited emotional intimacy to your partner, practice offering more small talk about your day and asking genuine mundane questions about theirs and see how it feels; tiny moments of vulnerability. You don’t need to swear to yourself you’ll deal with all your problems on your own; the next time you have a stressful day at work, make a list of three things you’ll try to self-soothe on your own before you pick up the phone to call your partner.
Practice Secure Conflict
Not only do the things we fight about stem from our attachment styles, but the way we fight about them does too. When upset or feeling insecure about the relationship, anxiously attached people tend to become increasingly insistent about their desire for connection and to talk it through — calling or texting constantly, picking a fight to try to get them to engage, asking endless questions or acting out and trying to provoke jealousy to get a reaction. Avoidantly attached people tend to withdraw — they may walk out, refuse to discuss an issue, ignore their partner, say they need space or even minimize or belittle their partner’s feelings, telling them they’re overreacting to try to end the issue.
In the vein of faking it until you make it, even if you’re still in a place to want to react in these ways, practice trying to model a different behavior as a way to invite your partner to do the same — the situation can’t change unless you do. Notice when you want to stop texting your partner just to see if they care about not hearing from you all day, and choose to instead say “I’m feeling disconnected and a little lonely this week; is there a good time we can make plans to hang out?” When you feel overwhelmed by all the texts in your notifications and want to say “I’m at work, can’t talk” and turn off your phone, try making a different choice — maybe there’s a middle ground that can work for both of you, like saying you are at work right now and want to be able to give your partner’s feelings your full attention; maybe you can agree on a time to talk on the phone the next day so you can hear more about it.