anxious avoidant relationship

Are you struggling to fix an anxious-avoidant relationship? 

I hear you. Relationships with insecure  partners are difficult because of their unpredictability. I always get asked: “How can I fix my anxious-avoidant relationship?” and “When should I leave them?”

If you’re feeling like you’re always chasing a partner or being chased, you might be caught up in a toxic relationship pattern due to avoidant or anxious behaviors.

So, can anxious and avoidant relationships work? Here’s what you need to know. 

What is an anxious-avoidant relationship?

Let’s begin with the basics.

Anxious-avoidant relationships can be explained through attachment theory

This theory consists of four attachment styles (anxious, avoidant, disorganized, and secure). These unique styles are often formed as children and continue to affect us in our adult romantic relationships.

So they essentially become the blueprints for how we give and receive love. 

Attachment styles fall into the primary categories of secure or insecure. 

Those with insecure attachment styles are usually classified as anxious or avoidant -- or both.

attachment styles

We can surmise that:

  • Anxious adults struggle with feelings of unworthiness and a desire for approval and stability.
  • Avoidant adults avoid commitment because they are afraid of being emotionally smothered or over-controlled, and have a desire for personal freedom and autonomy.

I like to call Anxious people “Open Hearts”, Avoidant types “Rolling Stones” and Disorganized, “fearful avoidant” individuals --“Spice of Lifers.” 

That’s because “anxious” and “avoidant” sound way too judgy and can be self-fulfilling. (And who needs judgment in their lives?)

 Additionally, these labels don’t adequately describe what they are labeling. If you are going to call a group of people “anxious” because they “reach for” connection when threatened, and hold it in opposition to a group of people you call “Avoidant” because they tend to “move away” when feeling threatened, you are suggesting anxious people never demonstrate avoidance, and avoidant people never demonstrate anxiety-- but they do. 

Sometimes anxiously reaching for someone to fill up the void inside, is a way of avoiding a bigger inner emotional issue. And avoidant partners are avoidant because they are avoiding anxiety! They wouldn’t be avoidant if they didn’t have anxiety.  To specify...

Open Hearts are partners who try hard to impress their partners, and are capable of tremendous generosity, as well as big emotional highs and lows, but no matter what they do, it seems to push others away. 

Rolling Stones are dismissive-avoidant. They’re cut off from their emotions and it’s hard for them to reach deep, loving, and reciprocal emotions. They can also seem to be selfish, but they perceive it as self-preservation. 

Spice of Lifers, again, are fearful-avoidant. They’re suspicious and distrustful of other people’s emotions and their own ability to sustain a healthy romantic relationship. They also want connection, while at the same time are terrified of it. So they send a lot of mixed signals, and are typically very confused and doubting.

As you can see, It’s important to understand your attachment style and that of your partner. Why? Because understanding them is key to improving your relationships. 

Here are some signs that will tell you if you’re either an avoidant or anxious partner in a relationship. 

How do anxious and avoidant partners behave in relationships?

Have you ever thought:

"I know this relationship is unhealthy, but I cannot leave this person.”

“I’m afraid of being alone. This is the best I can do.”

“There’s so much potential here - we are so good together… sometimes.”

“If only my partner wasn’t afraid of love… eventually they’ll come around.”

“No one else could love them like I do.”

If the answer is yes, you’re likely an anxious partner in a relationship. 

anxious in relationships

Or perhaps you ARE the avoidant partner. Do you feel things like:

“I think I love them, but why do I feel like they’re trying to control me?”

“The closer we get, the more bored and less attracted I feel. I want a challenge.”

“They deserve someone better. I can’t return that kind of selflessness.”

“I’m doing them a favor by leaving now. I’m just not cut out for relationships.”

Sound familiar? You’re probably an avoidant type in a relationship. 

avoidant in relationships

But how do avoidant and anxious partners attract each other? That’s what we’ll look at next.

Are avoidant and anxiously attached individuals attracted to each other?

In short, yes. We tend to pair with people who confirm our pre-existing beliefs about relationships. It’s called “confirmation bias.”

And confirmation bias can be bad for relationships.

This means that anxious types pair with avoidant individuals because avoidant people behave in a dismissive way. In the same sense, avoidant people attract anxious partners who make them feel smothered. This confirms their belief in what a relationship should look like. 

However, that doesn’t mean that this is a case of “opposites attract” (as most people think). Instead, it’s a case of “like-sees-like.” 

Let me explain.

Anxious people choose partners that won’t give them what they want. As a result, they cling to them which means they never have to surrender to the act of receiving (which requires a letting go of control and embracing the unknown). They also never have to confront the fear of being seen for who they truly are, and then being rejected for their unworthiness or not-good-enoughness. 

In other words, they choose partners that don’t look too closely. And so, they are kept safely spinning their wheels in a relationship pattern that they are familiar with: I call it “the validation trap.” 

The validation trap is a cyclical pattern of needing to prove yourself to someone else, in order to gain approval, and experience a validating affirmation of your worthiness, which you probably never received as a child. 

It’s hard to break out of this pattern, because if you do, you don’t know who you are, or how to defend your “right” to be who you are, need what you need, or want what you want. In other words, it requires an overhaul of your sense of self and identity. No easy task!

On the other hand, avoidant individuals truly are anxious. If they didn’t feel anxious, they wouldn’t be avoidant. 

But avoidant individuals have varying degrees of awareness surrounding their anxiety, what they think it is, and how they arrived at it. Usually, their anxiety stems from one of two experiences: emotional dismissal, and/or emotional confusion. 

If a Rolling Stone is dismissive avoidant, they usually were taught to systematically repress and cut themselves off from their emotions, and so they struggle with accessing them, which makes them unaware of them. 

So, these dismissive folks (Rolling Stones) tend to fear and avoid self reflection. They attribute most of their inner conflicts to physical ailments, and/or external circumstances. 

Fearfully avoidant individuals (Spice of Lifers) are typically aware of their inner conflict, but they experience a lot of confusion around their emotions, and struggle to control them. 

That is because they likely experienced trauma as a child, or experienced a lot of mixed signals around how to deal with emotions, growing up. So they swing from being emotionally explosive, to rigidly locking them down.

Ultimately, we are trying to get the relationship we didn’t get as children. Our wounded inner child is often aroused and stimulated in these types of relationships.

Well-known relationship expert, Harville Hendrix, explains this spark of attraction as meeting your “Imago” partner. An Imago partner is someone whom you instinctively know will replicate your past attachment relationships.

Subconsciously, you’re trying to “correct” what went wrong in your past. 

But instead of fixing anything, you’re continuing the cycle. Here’s what I mean by that. 

What does it feel like to date an anxious or avoidant partner?

Do you feel like you’re always dating the same type of person? Maybe you find yourself back in the same old patterns, with partners that:

  • Don’t appreciate you and take your generosity for granted
  • Show up with fireworks one day and then disappear without explanation the next
  • Treat you like an intimate partner, but don’t give you any physical intimacy
  • Only seem interested in sex, but exclude you from other aspects of their lives
  • Avoid labeling the relationship and make you feel neurotic for needing it
  • Behave in a needlessly secretive fashion
  • Ignore you for weeks then text “miss you” at 2am 

On the other hand, maybe your partner is:

  • Intrusive while monitoring every move you make
  • Extremely demanding and never gives you any space
  • Sensitive, taking everything personally and over-analyzing what you say
  • Negative and interprets most situations as such
  • Controlling and presses for too much too fast
  • Disrespectful of your boundaries or a need for space
  • Expecting you to read their mind and blows up when you don't
  • Hot one minute and cold the next

If you date people who continuously show these qualities, you may be caught in an anxious-avoidant relationship cycle. It’s a roller coaster relationship fueled by insecure attachment styles. I call it "the anxious-avoidant trap."

anxious-avoidant relationship trap

The anxious-avoidant trap is a situation in which we find ourselves caught in unhealthy, push-pull relationships. Fortunately, you can spot the anxious-avoidant trap and correct it. Like I discuss in this short video: 

 

Before we discuss how to fix this toxic relationship trap, let’s examine exactly what these types of relationships look like.

How anxious-avoidants fail to break the cycle

Katie and John’s relationship has the distinctively addictive push-pull of an anxious-avoidant relationship. 

It’s on-again and off-again with a “rollercoaster” quality to it.

That’s what my student Stacy felt, too, before she joined my program Healing Attachment Wounds. Her 17-year marriage had ended and she found herself in a complicated relationship: 

An anxious-avoidant relationship has intoxicating highs and intolerable lows fueled by an insecure attachment dynamic.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Both insecure attachment styles are trying to create a sense of security through controlling their external conditions. 

This extends to controlling the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of their partners. 

Let’s look at what this means in terms of anxious and avoidant partners’ behavior in relationships.

Anxious partners implement “protest behaviors” to try to establish or re-establish connection in an insecure relationship. Some signs of protest behaviors include:

  1. Excessive contact followed by punitive withdrawal
  2. Keeping score in the relationship
  3. Acting hostile
  4. Various forms of emotional manipulation

Avoidant partners, on the other hand, will exert a sense of control by practicing detachment and using deactivating strategies. These behaviors might include:

  1. Their words and their actions don’t match up. (For example, Verbally expressing an avoidance of commitment, but acting committed or vice versa.)
  2. Focusing on their partner’s flaws
  3. Pining for the “one that got away”, rather than being fully present in the current relationship.
  4. Avoiding emotional intimacy in a current relationship, by avoiding labeling the relationship, for example.
  5. Hyper or hyposexuality. For example, maybe they’re hot and heavy with you, but exclude you from the rest of their life. Or, maybe you’re stuck in the friendzone, but the chemistry is amazing.

However, these emotional defenses don’t work. Instead, they just feed the cycle. 

So, now you know what an anxious-avoidant relationship is and how it leads couples into a trap. 

But can an anxious-avoidant relationship work? That’s what we’ll look at next. 

Can an anxious-avoidant relationship work?

Time for the big question: 

Can an anxious and avoidant relationship succeed?

Yes, but it does require work. 

Take my student Amanda. She was hitting a rough patch in her 9-year marriage and knew things needed to change. After enrolling in my course Healing Attachment Wounds she understood the push-pull dynamic of her relationship.

By understanding her and her husband's attachment styles she was able to step back and observe her own behavior, rather than act in the moment. 

You need to understand how to communicate your needs without triggering a partner’s emotional defenses, like the ones I listed above, to succeed in your relationships. 

But how? You’re not a love guru or expert therapist. In fact, you’re probably fed up trying to fix relationship after relationship.

Here are the steps to take to communicate better in your relationships. 

Communicate without triggering your partner

Knowing your partner’s attachment style can help you both communicate. 

It lets you understand what specific verbal statements to avoid in conversation.

When communications turn into arguments, it’s easy to rub against the rawest parts of one another. 

Inevitably, you get caught in an unavoidable downward spiral.

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) pioneer Sue Johnson refers to this downward spiral as “Demon Dialogues.” 

The first step to avoiding these is recognizing that these dialogues are a broken bridge between the head and heart. Fix the bridge by connecting back in with your heart. The head will follow. 

How can you better communicate? It begins with recognizing their verbal triggers and learning how to actively avoid them.

How to treat avoidant partners

It might help to first take an inventory of what statements and actions trigger you or your partner the most.

I polled 200 members of my online community to find out more about how individuals struggling with insecure attachment experience feeling triggered. 

And I discovered that they really need to feel safe, in love. Also, depending on a person's attachment style, certain phrases might be particularly annoying.

Let’s break it down by their attachment types.

How to treat Rolling Stones

For avoidant Rolling Stones, they might feel triggered by phrases like:

"I know you better than you know yourself."

"You wouldn't say/need/do that, if you really love me."

"Nothing is wrong, I'm fine."

"If I have to ask, then it doesn't count."

"Keeping [insert anything] private means you're lying/cheating on me."

“If you can’t figure that out, then you don’t know me at all.”

Rember, Rolling Stones want more space because it helps them preserve their connections. Help them feel the reassurances they are looking for with these tips.

Say: “We have talked about this, you have told me the ways that being in a relationship can be difficult for you. I understand that this is not about me. Do what you need to do. I'll be here.”

Ask if they could express themselves and their needs more clearly, while staying in a loving mindset.

Help them feel reassurance that the relationship matters and is worth the effort.

Find common ground around whatever issue or situation is at hand.

Show respect and acknowledge their behavior.

Understand that they feel rejected or unloved in some way.

Show consistency by following up with them, but don’t chase them because too many messages can keep them frozen.

Be there for them in a more gentle and balanced way. Even if they need space, tell them you’re not going anywhere.

Prove you don’t want to change or control them by pointing out specific things that you love about them. 

 

How to treat Spice of Lifers

The other avoidant type, Spice of Lifers, can also feel annoyed by any or all of the above. The difference is that they also express frustration around statements that hint at taking away their control or questioning it. 

They might also detest statements that are intentionally ambiguous, because they can leave them questioning their own intuition and reality. (That said, they might utter those statements themselves).

Spice of Lifers might feel triggered when told phrases like:

“You’re way too intense. You’ve lost control of yourself.”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about, I know what’s going on here.”

“You’ll just mess it up, let me do it for you.”

“You love me, you just don’t know it yet.”

“Maybe one day we’ll be together for real. Right now, I just don’t know.”

“You’re so amazing, but I don’t think you’ll ever be satisfied.”

“You haven’t given us a real chance, you’re just responding to your past trauma.”

“I love you, but I could never truly be with you.”

Unfortunately, reassuring Spice of Lifers can be very difficult. Their attachment style is literally defined by an inability to self-soothe and an inability to receive soothing from others. This is often the result of trauma, which we will discuss more in a moment.

How to decrease avoidant attachment

People can change their attachment styles over time. That can mean a decrease in attachment avoidance.

One experiment studied couples who participated in a series of brief activities. Those that performed activities designed to increase closeness and intimacy showed a decrease in avoidant attachment. Those same people rated their relationships as higher-quality than before the experiment.

To benefit from this, connect with your avoidant partner through activities that appear to be long-lasting. 

For example, take turns answering intimate and thoughtful questions with your avoidant partner. Simply open up a bit and encourage them to do the same.

Unfortunately, this study did not have the same positive effect on anxious individuals. So how do you treat an anxious partner? That’s next.

How to treat an anxious partner

For anxious Open Hearts, they might be triggered or rattled when a partner says things like:

"Love is not enough, but I still love you.”

“I am sorry you feel that way."

"I don't know what you're so upset about, it's not that big of a deal."

"I need some time alone to think about it."

"I don't know why I feel that way, the chemistry just must be off."

*Silence*

Here are some reassurances that anxious types are looking for:

“It’s alright, we’ll get through this.”

Pull them close into a hug and tell them it will be okay.

Use a calming voice and listen to them, showing you’re not scared of their feelings.

Reaffirm that what they say and think is important to you. 

When they cry, just let them. Maybe hold them while they do it.

That’s how you communicate with both avoidant and anxious partners. But how do you finally end the anxious-avoidant dance? That’s next. 

Ending the anxious-avoidant dance

Ready to end the anxious-avoidant cycle?

Here’s the thing: 

You need to start by paying attention to how YOU show up.

Sure, it all doesn’t come down on you. Your partner also has to want to change.

You can start by setting clear boundaries. This will help you find a way out from all the mixed signals in insecure relationships. 

How? Here are four ways to establish boundaries and successfully stop the dance to fix your anxious-avoidant relationship.

  1. Figure out what you want. If that’s too hard at first, figure out what you don’t want and look at the opposite. 

Ask yourself:

What doesn’t feel good to you in your relationship?

What feelings or behaviors do you wish would replace that condition?

Don’t just think about it. Write it down. Draw it out. Make these thoughts real in some way. Already, you have started to establish boundaries. 

  1. Be the braver partner. Want to know where the relationship is going? Decide where YOU want it to go, first. Want to know what someone is feeling? Decide how YOU are feeling and create space for the other person’s feelings without judgment. 

In short, be the change you want to see. Your partner will either fall in line, or they will fall away. If that happens, the best thing you can do is let them go. It’s a hard truth, but it is in alignment with your highest good. More on that later.

  1. Stop operating from a place of “perceived potential.” So often, we hold onto things (people, places, jobs, ideas, identities) that no longer serve us because we think there is “so much potential” in them. Of course there is, but you can’t chase a fantasy.

It’s easy to focus on the idea of a happy ending, but you’re constructing your own reality. The problem is that you cannot control your partner’s reality. Therein, lies the seeds of both your discontent. It’s a paradox of the potential of love and unconditional love.

Instead think, how effectively has that potential being realized? 

  1. Stop avoiding your own problems by trying to solve someone else’s. This goes for individuals with all insecure attachment styles. We tend to project our own inner conflict outwards onto the people closest to us. Why? It is easier than confronting it within ourselves.

For example, Open Heart, anxious partners will ask countless friends to help them interpret a partner’s behavior before and after they ask their partner directly for an explanation. They think that whatever their partners say is inadequate.

What I mean is that the hole we are trying to fill is bottomless, so long as we keep looking for something outside of ourselves to fill it. If you work on yourself, you may find better success with your partner.

Now you know how to treat your anxious partner and finally break free from the anxious-avoidant relationship cycle. What’s next?

Moving forward from the anxious-avoidant relationship cycle

Once you finally break free from the cycle, now what? People with secure attachment styles have more stable and long-lasting relationships. So, can you cultivate a more secure attachment style?

To put it briefly, yes. You can achieve a secure attachment style, even quickly. I talk more about it here: 

If you’re trying to find security fast, you have to shift your perceptions of what it means to be “secure.”

Being secure does not mean that the worry is not there. 

It means you have more spaciousness inside to buffer the effect of the worry. 

But say you’ve done it all. You’ve shown up. You’ve set boundaries. But nothing happens.

When is it time to leave your partner? Here’s what you need to know. 

When to leave an anxious-avoidant relationship

You love your partner and want the relationship to work, but how much is too much? How do you know when to break up with an anxious-avoidant person?

Really, you must choose what’s best for you. Sometimes, that means leaving them. It’s not healthy for anyone to stay in a toxic relationship.

It’s an effective strategy to treat your partner according to their attachment style, but sometimes it’s not enough. 

Unfortunately, some relationships are incurably incompatible.

How to know for sure if you’re not compatible

Anxious-avoidant relationships can work, but sometimes couples are simply incompatible.

Mismatched needs and values may not be deal breakers on their own, but they can be if you add attachment fears into the mix. 

Now you have damaging, defensive communication going on.

You must be emotionally honest with yourself - and your partner. It is the only way to expose true attachment insecurity and incurable incompatibility. 

Remember? Communication is key.

For a dive into this topic, this video explains it all.

Is the potential you see in your relationship valid?

You’re probably holding onto this relationship because you see the potential in it. You must accept whether the potential is actually being realized. 

You can control your reality, but not theirs.

This freewill might not be what you’re hoping for, but it’s the same freedom that lets us be who we are. If we cannot be who we are, we cannot truly love or accept love.

In other words, we have to let go of our own grand notion that we possess any control over others. Because, no one has that power over us either.

This concept is explained deeper in this short video: 

Stop thinking: What would they do without me? Would an avoidant even miss me?

Instead, ask yourself: How do YOU feel? And, how could you feel?

Analyze how YOU are feeling & listen to your body

Here’s an easy way to figure it out. Stop and ask yourself, truthfully:

  • Does this person contribute to your sense of purpose?
  • Do you see yourself as happy with this person in the future?
  • Do you feel safe speaking your mind?
  • Are they generous in spirit?
  • Do they have similar long-term goals?
  • Do you have similar values?
  • Can they communicate about sex with you?

If you’re answering these questions negatively, you have your answer. I believe the body knows when it’s time to let go. 

As a Reiki practitioner, I would also encourage you to decipher when to leave a toxic relationship by listening to your chakras. Here’s a video clip to help you with this.

In the end, if your partner has no willingness to change, they probably won’t. It’s not easy to make an avoidant partner recognize your love. If you are showing up for your partner, they must show up for you.

With these strategies, you can overcome your fears to walk away from a relationship that isn’t serving you. The motivation to save a relationship must ultimately come from both partners, not just you.

Over to you!

There you go. Now you know what an anxious-avoidant relationship is, how to fix the relationship, how to treat an avoidant or anxious partner, and how and when to walk away..

Anxious-avoidant relationships can work, they just need partners who understand what each other needs.

Now, I’d love to hear from you!

Let me know in the comments below: 

What did you learn today?

4 Comments

  1. jillian on July 17, 2021 at 2:19 pm

    Hi, I really identify with this article. The triggering phrases of rolling stone and open heart are missing. How can I find out about that?

    • Briana MacWilliam on August 6, 2021 at 11:56 pm

      Thank you for commenting. Those are included in the blog post above. You have to continue scrolling.

      For avoidant Rolling Stones, they might feel triggered by phrases like:

      “I know you better than you know yourself.”

      “You wouldn’t say/need/do that, if you really love me.”

      “Nothing is wrong, I’m fine.”

      “If I have to ask, then it doesn’t count.”

      “Keeping [insert anything] private means you’re lying/cheating on me.”

      “If you can’t figure that out, then you don’t know me at all.”

      Remember, Rolling Stones want more space because it helps them preserve their connections. Help them feel the reassurances they are looking for with these tips.

      For anxious Open Hearts, they might be triggered or rattled when a partner says things like:

      “Love is not enough, but I still love you.”

      “I am sorry you feel that way.”

      “I don’t know what you’re so upset about, it’s not that big of a deal.”

      “I need some time alone to think about it.”

      “I don’t know why I feel that way, the chemistry just must be off.”

      *Silence*

      I hope it helps!

  2. Kim on July 24, 2021 at 8:33 pm

    This was an amazing eye opener.
    I’ve learned my anxious attachments come from over giving to keep others happy to avoid conflict.
    It has been a very unhealthy lifestyle I’ve lived most of my life and I realize without reciprocation from my partner I have not failed the relationship but rather felt exhausted feeling i must turn flips giving them what they need to feel loved. The other side of this problem is exactly what you mentioned, resentment.
    I’m tired emotionally and feel asking for reciprocation ends in insults and blame that I am overreacting or to clingy.
    I’ve also felt by watching my parents you should stay and do what is right regardless of the efforts from the other partner. This never felt right with me and now I see the repeated pattern in my own relationships.
    Maybe you truly do have to kiss a million frogs to find that reciprocation but you have shown me love will never be just enough reason to stay where you feel your cup remains empty when both people aren’t pouring into one another.
    I have been searching to understand this for almost 20yrs because I feel I have failed every man who needed my love and support but couldn’t give it in return. Though it does hurt to see it end, I’m actually excited to feel what I always knew was true about recognizing true love and commitment. We are accountable for what we choose to settle for.
    Thank you.

    • Briana MacWilliam on August 6, 2021 at 11:51 pm

      Thank you for your comment and sharing the details of your experience. I am glad you like the content and that it was helpful for you!

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