Is it possible to make an avoidant and anxious attachment relationship work? What are the best tips to improve an avoidant-anxious relationship?
When an avoidant and anxious attacher date, it often results in conflict. However, avoidant and anxious attachment relationships are possible with some extra work.
Here are the best tips to make an avoidant and anxious relationship work.
How Avoidant and Anxious Relationships Can Work
Although avoidant and anxious attachments face abundant conflicts, that doesn’t mean the only solution is to break up. Typically, an anxious-avoidant pairing can succeed if the anxious partner makes frequent concessions and lets the avoidant partner run the show—or determine how and when intimacy is achieved. (See “When to Lower Your Expectations” below.)
However, there are two healthier ways for anxious-avoidant couples to achieve a happier ending—if they’re both willing to make an effort. Both partners can: 1) find good role models and mimic their behavior, and 2) take a good hard look at their past relationships.
1. Find Good Role Models and Copy Them
Research tells us that it’s possible for someone’s attachment style to change over time—for example, an avoidant or anxious partner could become more secure. One way this can occur is through “security priming,” which is essentially role-modeling of how secure people interact and behave.
First, both the avoidant and anxious partner must each find a role model—someone who has a comfortable and secure way of dealing with their romantic partner. It might be a friend, a coworker, or a sibling. The avoidant or anxious partner thinks about that role model’s specific behaviors and actions in response to a variety of life situations. For example, how do they behave when their partner feels bad? When do they respond directly to their partner’s behavior or words, and when do they turn the other cheek?
Even Pets Make Great Relationship Role Models
Surprisingly, the secure role model could even be a favorite pet. Most of us have an extremely secure relationship with our pets. Even when they exhibit bad behaviors—like chewing on the new leather couch or barking at 5 a.m.—we love them anyway. We don’t resent them for wanting our attention all the time. We don’t hold grudges for the mistakes they’ve made. And even when we’re in a terrible mood, we’re always happy to see them. Our relationships with our pets may be an ideal inspiration for our intimate relationships with humans.
2. Inventory Your Behavior in Past Relationships
If you’re trying to improve who you are in a relationship today, it’s worth looking back at your relationship history. Based on the previous chapters, you already know your attachment style. The next step is to dig a little deeper and examine how your attachment style has played out in your past relationships. Looking at your past romantic relationships through the lens of attachment theory can help you understand what’s going on in your present relationship. Follow these steps:
- First, list the names of your last three romantic partners, both long-term partners and also people you dated for a shorter period of time.
- Make a brief list of what stands out about those relationships—vivid recollections of the time you shared. It’s best to come up with specific scenarios rather than general impressions. Ideally, come up with similar scenarios for each relationship. (For example, if you lived with all three partners, think about how you felt immediately after you moved in together.)
- Ask yourself how you responded in those scenarios. Did you feel sad, resentful, pressured, angry, inferior, worthless, aloof? How did you behave—for example, did you pick a fight, threaten to leave, make yourself busy or unavailable, withdraw from physical contact, make critical comments, stop listening to your partner, or look for ways to make your partner jealous?
- Once you’ve done this exercise for three past romantic partners, look for recurrent patterns. Examine those events from an attachment perspective. Can you see how your attachment style figured into what you did, said, felt, or believed?
- Now that you’ve examined your romantic history, do you see any ways in which your attachment style is hindering your ability to have a good relationship right now?
- Think about the secure role model you’ve chosen to emulate. How would he or she have behaved in those scenarios with your past partners? How would he or she advise you to behave?
Finding Stability in an Unstable Partnership
Even when anxious and avoidant partners try their hardest to improve their relationship, it doesn’t always work. A couple may stay together for years but remain stuck in an ongoing battle over security and closeness. If this is true for your relationship, it’s helpful to remember that becoming more secure isn’t a once-and-done achievement; it’s an ongoing process. It’s also helpful to know that your struggles aren’t due to a personality disorder on either partner’s part. Both of you can find comfort in knowing that your differences are based on differing attachment systems.
The anxious partner in particular can benefit from this knowledge since it’s especially easy for them to feel unworthy and inadequate—after all, their beloved keeps pushing them away, and rejection has become the norm. If you’re the anxious partner, keep in mind that the rejection isn’t about you. You’ll stop finding fault with yourself and feeling disappointed all the time.
If you’re in a long-term relationship with frequent attachment clashes and there’s been little or no improvement over the years, you may face a tough, life-altering choice—lower your expectations or walk away from the person you’ve loved for years.
When to Lower Your Expectations
Some couples do find ways to peacefully coexist within anxious-avoidant partnerships. Most often this occurs when the anxious partner simply accepts the relationship’s limitations and lowers their expectations of their avoidant partner. This sounds like “lowering the bar,” and it is. But for some anxious partners in anxious-avoidant pairings, forfeiting their dreams of deep, comforting intimacy is better than living with chronic arguments and tears.
Achieving this delicate equilibrium requires the following strategies:
- The anxious partner must stop trying to “change” the avoidant partner and instead just accept them as they are.
- The anxious partner must stop feeling offended when the avoidant partner pushes them away.
- The anxious partner must stop hoping to share every activity with their partner and instead learn to do things solo or with other friends.
- The anxious partner must learn to overlook what the avoidant partner won’t do and instead be grateful for what he or she will do.
Cautionary Words: Recognize Your Inevitable Future
If you’re just entering into an anxious-avoidant relationship, recognize that this is your window of opportunity to decide whether you can live with this kind of unequal partnership.
- First, determine whether the struggles you’re facing as a new couple are attachment-related or non-attachment-related.
- If it’s the latter, the two of you will find a way to work together to find resolutions to your differences.
- If it’s the former, the stakes are much higher: Either the two of you will endure decades of irreconcilable strife, or one of you will be forced to lower your expectations and live a life of compromise (or you’ll eventually break up).
As harsh as that sounds, it’s much better to face reality early on. Try to quiet down your attachment system, and use logic to decide whether you’re comfortable with the inevitable conflict of an anxious-avoidant partnership. For some people, it’s manageable, but for most, it’s not.