When to End an Anxious-Avoidant Relationship

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Attached" by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you in an anxious-avoidant relationship? Is your relationship becoming toxic? How do you know when to end a relationship?

Relationships between anxious attachers and avoidant attachers often cause conflict, and in some cases, toxicity and abuse. Below are the warning signs that your relationship has become toxic and it’s time to end it.

Continue reading to learn how to know when to end a relationship.

Ending Your Anxious-Avoidant Relationship

We’ve seen that anxious-avoidant relationships result in unavoidable conflict. In the worst-case scenario, the chronic clashes between anxious and avoidant partners escalate to the point that the relationship is toxic and destructive. This typically takes the form of verbal and emotional abuse. If it reaches this point, that’s how you know when to end the relationship.

Unfortunately, anxious-avoidant couples often have an extremely hard time finding the strength to break up even when the relationship has become harmful.  

Avoidants May Withhold Sex 

A common sign that an anxious-avoidant relationship is veering toward toxicity is the couple’s sex life—or lack of it. For starters, avoidant attachers are more likely to cheat on their partners than secure or anxious attachers. But even when an avoidant partner is faithful, sex may become problematic because the avoidant will withhold it from their anxious partner. This may not be a conscious choice; the avoidant partner will just lose sexual interest in their partner. This in turn elevates the anxious partner’s anxiety. 

Consciously or unconsciously, the avoidant is trying to do what he or she does in every scenario: Prevent the possibility of closeness. Meanwhile the anxious partner is simply trying to do what he or she does in every scenario: Find comfort in some type of positive affirmation from their avoidant partner. 

Avoidants See Their Anxious Partners as the Enemy  

Another sign that it’s time to end a relationship is that the avoidant partner’s behavior may be completely different with the anxious partner than it is with the rest of the world. For example, if Suzy is an avoidant, everyone in the neighborhood might think Suzy is the kindest person they know, but Suzy’s anxious partner Bob will be privy to a very different side of her. 

Suzy acts unkindly to Bob—and no one else—because she sees him as the enemy. He has gotten too close to her, and she feels suffocated. 

How to Know If Your Partnership Has Become Toxic 

If these statements apply to you and/or your relationship, your partnership has become harmful and possibly abusive:  

  1. You don’t want your friends and family to witness how your partner treats you. 
  2. Your partner has a reputation for being a wonderful human being—but this doesn’t match up with what you see.
  3. Your partner is more concerned about how strangers view him or her than how you do.
  4. Your partner is nicer to other people than he or she is to you. 
  5. Your partner dismisses your opinion or insults your intelligence.
  6. You don’t really know much about your partner’s life, so you feel you have to spy on them to find out. 
  7. You don’t feel confident that your partner would be there for you in an emergency situation. 

Why Is Breaking Up So Difficult?

If you’re in an anxious-avoidant pairing that has become abusive or damaging, the first step is to admit it. Many people feel ashamed of their predicament and try to brush it off by saying “no relationship is perfect” or “all couples have disagreements.”  

But even if you recognize the toxicity of your relationship, you still may find it nearly impossible to leave. And if you do leave, you’ll immediately want to run straight back to his or her arms. That’s due to the “rebound effect.”  

Evolution has wired our attachment system to prefer togetherness over going solo. Our brains’ emotional circuits send out a message of “ouch, Mayday, severe pain ahead!” when we consider the prospect of breaking up with our significant other. In fact, our brains register a relationship breakup the same way they register a hot stove we’re about to touch. The brain sends a “don’t-do-it” signal. 

From the standpoint of evolution, that’s a good strategy. Our brains want to encourage us to stay connected to another human being (after all, they just might save us from the saber-toothed tiger). But there are no predators threatening us, just an unhealthy relationship that needs to end. 

Unfortunately, once your brain registers the pain of the breakup, there’s a snowball effect: Your attachment system goes into overdrive, and your cognitive powers get hijacked. Suddenly you can remember only the good times you’ve shared with your ex; the bad times fade out of view. Now breaking up seems like a terrible idea, so you stay. Or if you’ve already broken up, you return for a “rebound.” 

When to End an Anxious-Avoidant Relationship

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Here's what you'll find in our full Attached summary:

  • Why your partner behaves the way they do
  • How your attachment style affects your relationship
  • How to distance yourself from unhealthy relationships

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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