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The Anxious-Avoidant Trap and How to Escape It

Do you find yourself starting a new relationship only to find that you’re having the same problems as you did in your last one? Or having the same complaints about all of your partners?

It’s easy to worry that you’re the problem, but there might be something much simpler going on. You might be falling into the anxious-avoidant trap.

This is where we are attracted to people who want different things out of a relationship than we do and who have very different ways of dealing with problems. We find ourselves having the same problems (and trying to deal with them in the same way) over and over. 

In this article, we’ll look at what the anxious-avoidant trap is, why it is so common, and give you some helpful ideas about how to fix it in your current relationship or avoid it in the future.

What Are Anxious and Avoidant Attachment Styles?

Your attachment style is the way you relate to the people you’re closest to; your best friends, close family, and your partner. Approximately half the population has a secure attachment style. The remainder have one of the insecure attachment styles1.

There are 3 insecure attachment styles:

  • Anxious 
  • Avoidant 
  • Disorganized

Your attachment style is based largely on the way you were treated as a child. Children depend on the adults around them to protect them and help them learn about the world around them.

If your parents and close adults were responsive to your needs and were always there to reassure and help you, you probably developed a secure attachment style. If they weren’t (for whatever reason), you may have developed one of the insecure attachment styles2.

An anxious attachment style is a type of insecure attachment where you seek out support, affection, and reassurance. Someone with an anxious attachment style doesn’t trust that other people will be there for them. They worry about being rejected and seek comfort from others.

The other main insecure attachment style is avoidant attachment. If you have an avoidant attachment style, you believe that you can’t rely on other people and so you try to keep yourself apart from them. You pull away from others and avoid close emotional connections.

Disorganized attachment is very rare and it usually stems from some form of neglect or abuse. It is normally necessary to work with a trained professional to overcome the challenges of a disorganized attachment style.

What Is the Anxious-Avoidant Trap?

The anxious-avoidant trap is a way of describing a common relationship pattern that can be hurtful for the people involved. It’s when one person in a relationship has an anxious attachment style and the other has an avoidant attachment.

You might think that such pairings are unlikely, but it’s actually really common.

People with an anxious attachment style are often attracted to those with an avoidant style and vice versa. Especially at the start of a relationship, some of the characteristics of the attachment styles can be irresistible to the other side3.

For example, an avoidantly attached person might ask their partner lots of questions. To the anxiously attached person, this feels like their partner is really interested in them and connected. To the avoidantly attached person, it’s actually a way of keeping their own thoughts and feelings private.

Both sides think they’re on the same page when they actually have completely different perceptions and expectations of the relationship.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t tend to make for easy relationships, especially as time goes on. The two attachment styles push in opposite directions, exacerbating both people’s fears and worries.

The anxiously attached person looks for reassurance and comfort from the avoidantly attached person. This leads the avoidantly attached person to feel pressured and they pull away in response. The anxiously attached person feels their partner pull away and so they try to pull closer.

This creates a vicious circle; the anxious-avoidant trap.

Lots of people fall into the anxious-avoidant trap, so don’t feel bad if this sounds like you. One of the reasons it’s so common is that we are attracted to what feels familiar, even if we know it’s not healthy for us. If we’ve had these kinds of relationships before, it becomes a part of what we subconsciously expect (and even look for) in a relationship.

Just because you’ve fallen into the anxious-avoidant trap before doesn’t mean you’re doomed to repeat it forever. Let’s look at how we can avoid the anxious-avoidant trap.

How to Make Anxious-Avoidant Relationships Work

Relationships between people with anxious and avoidant attachment styles may often be difficult but that doesn’t mean that they can’t work. They can, but both parties will have to work at it a little bit. Here’s how.

1. Start with communication

Communication is key to a successful relationship, and that’s even more true when you’re facing difficulties based on fundamental differences in how you both approach relationships.

Rather than avoiding difficult topics, try to have open, honest conversations about how you feel and how you interpret each other’s actions. This lays a great foundation for you to work together to solve problems.

The person with an anxious attachment style will usually find it easier to talk about their feelings than the avoidantly-attached person. Try to use I statements and talk about your feelings, rather than complaining about what your partner is doing.

Make space for your partner to talk about their feelings as well. The person with an avoidant attachment style might need encouragement to talk about the pressure that they’re feeling.

Really listen to what your partner tells you about their feelings and take it seriously. The anxiously attached person might find it hard to accept that their partner feels pressured. Their partner might not understand how uncomfortable a lack of reassurance can be.

2. Focus on self-reflection

focus on self-reflection

Before we can make important changes to ourselves and our relationships, we need to really understand our thoughts and feelings.

Spend some time thinking about how you think about your relationship and the things that are important to you. Journaling can be very helpful for self-reflection, as you can look back at your past thoughts and feelings and see how they change over time4.

As part of your self-reflection, try looking for areas where you are making assumptions about what someone else is thinking or feeling. It’s normal to think “I know they think x because they did …” but that doesn’t mean you’re right.

People with anxious and avoidant attachments often draw completely different conclusions about what a particular behavior means. For example, asking someone to let you know they get home safely is a sign of affection for someone with an anxious style but can feel controlling if you have an avoidant style.

Taking the time to understand the assumptions you are making about yourself and your partner can help you to make changes in your relationship.

3. Learn more about your attachment style

Although all self-reflection is valuable, you might want to spend a bit more time thinking about your own attachment style and where it comes from.

Although we shouldn’t rely on online quizzes to ‘diagnose’ ourselves, there are several great versions that can give you a rough idea of what kinds of attachment issues you might have. 

Try taking several different tests if possible. That can give you a better idea of whether your result is fairly robust or whether it might have more to do with the test itself.

Once you know your own attachment style, you can then start to think about where it came from. Most of us learned our attachment style as children, based on how effectively our needs were met.

Try spending some time thinking about the ways your parents reacted to you and your needs, and maybe also consider how they behaved with each other. Did you feel protected and cared for? Were you sure that someone would always be there if you needed them?

Try talking to your partner about anything you realize about your attachment style. It can help them to better understand how to relate to you. 

For example, if your anxious attachment style leads you to be jealous a lot, your partner might feel less upset or attacked if you explain that it stems from your childhood, rather than being about them.

If possible, encourage your partner to understand their attachment style as well. It can be much easier to make changes if you and your partner are working together as a team. Although this is the ideal option, your partner might not be keen to take part.

If that’s the case, don’t worry. You can’t control their choices and that’s ok. 

4. Make allowances for each other

If you’re going to make an anxious-avoidant relationship work, you are both going to need to work on your own issues, but you will also need to be generous toward each other. If you each take the mindset of “we both need to ‘fix’ ourselves and then it’ll all be fine”, you’re headed for trouble.

Having a safe and supportive relationship is part of what you need to become more securely attached. None of us come into a relationship ‘fixed’ or ‘perfect’. Instead, work together to create a relationship that works for both of you. This means making allowances.

Making allowances for each other means balancing your needs with those of your partner. If an avoidant partner needs space, both people need to find a way to fulfill that need without hurting the anxiously attached partner.

The avoidantly attached person might promise to text their partner to say they need to withdraw and to send them a single message each night to show they’re not angry. In exchange, the anxiously attached partner might agree not to text or call and to wait until the other person is ready to talk more.

This gives the anxiously attached person something to hold on to (“they messaged me tonight so I know they’re not angry and they do still love me”) and it lets the avoidantly attached person feel in control of their own time and attention because they’ve made an explicit agreement.

This is only an example, and it wouldn’t work for all anxious-avoidant couples. The key is to understand what each of you needs to feel safe and to be creative to find ways to fulfill both people’s needs.

5. Remember that there’s no objective ‘wrong’

Making allowances for each other sounds easy, but people in the anxious-avoidant trap can often find it surprisingly difficult. Even though they love each other, it can be hard to accept the other person’s needs as legitimate.

Both types of insecure attachment tend to believe that their approach is ‘right’.

Someone with an anxious attachment style believes that a relationship should involve reassurance and displays of affection.

Someone with an avoidant attachment style believes that a relationship should include space for each person to have privacy and pursue individual interests.

They’re both right, kind of. Great relationships do include all of those things. The problem is that both sides can start to think that the other needs are somehow ‘wrong’. Someone with an anxious attachment can feel that a need for space is unhealthy. Someone with an avoidant attachment makes the same assumption about a need for reassurance.

If we believe that the other person’s needs are illegitimate, it’s difficult to make allowances for them. If you want to create a harmonious partnership, remind yourself that both of your needs are just as valid as each other’s.

6. Have a wide support network

have a wide support network

One of the difficulties of trying to ‘fix’ an anxious-avoidant relationship is that both sides feel a huge amount of pressure. Try to give yourself some breathing space by building strong relationships with the other people in your lives.

This might mean having close friends you trust and can rely on. If you’re close to your family, they might be a source of comfort and support.

For someone with an anxious attachment style, having a wider support network can help you feel more self-sufficient. You can have some of your needs met through the other people in your life, meaning you don’t feel so dependent on your partner.

For someone with an avoidant attachment style, a wider support network gives you more space to be yourself. You may feel less smothered, reducing the tension in your relationship.

Having a wide social network doesn’t mean replacing your partner as a form of support. It’s about having support from your friends and your partner. It also gives you more opportunities to learn to rely on and trust other people.

7. Learn to be ok with difficult emotions

It’s easy to think that having a secure attachment style means that you don’t have to deal with painful emotions, such as jealousy, fear, or rejection. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. People with a secure attachment style still have a full range of difficult emotions. They just deal with them differently.

Both anxious and avoidant attachment styles develop as a way to avoid painful emotions, but they do it in different ways5.

An anxious attachment style tries to avoid feelings of insecurity by seeking reassurance from others. An avoidant attachment style avoids the pain of rejection by not allowing others close enough to hurt.

Rather than trying to avoid these feelings, securely attached people accept them. They obviously don’t like feeling insecure or rejected but they’re not afraid of it and they don’t try to avoid those painful feelings.

People with insecure attachment styles often need to practice ‘sitting with’ painful emotions. This means not just distracting yourself or trying to do something to make the feeling go away.

Start small. Look out for difficult emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, etc. When you feel these emotions, try spending a few seconds noticing what it’s like to feel this way. You might notice tension in your body. You might feel that your mind wants to jump to other things. You might start ‘rationalizing’ and trying to convince yourself that you don’t feel bad.

Once you can tolerate feeling difficult emotions for a few seconds, try building up to a minute before you start to distract yourself. Then two minutes.

The more you practice accepting negative emotions, the less scary they become. This then lets you feel safe enough to stop some of the behaviors you’ve learned but which make an anxious-avoidant relationship so difficult.

8. Understand patterns from your past

The anxious-avoidant trap is a response to the way you’ve been treated in the past. You’ve learned to behave in this way in an attempt to get your needs met, and so has your partner.

If we want to move away from this cycle, we need to recognize when we’re following the same old patterns. Try to be alert for times that you’re responding according to your long-term patterns as this is often a warning sign.

We don’t always notice the patterns in our own behavior. If you have close friends who have known you for a long time, try asking them to point out some of your relationship habits. 

Both sides of the anxious-avoidant trap can have patterns of ‘acting out’. They just look slightly different.

If you have an anxious attachment, you might start finding fault with your partner as soon as the relationship gets serious. This gives you an excuse to decide that it’s not going to work out and so end the relationship.

If you have an anxious attachment style, you might become convinced that your partner is cheating without any evidence and start an argument about it. Subconsciously, you’re hoping for reassurance of how much you mean to them. Unfortunately, this damages trust in the relationship, leaving you even more insecure.

Once you notice these patterns from your past, try to keep an eye out for them in your current relationship. If you feel yourself finding fault or becoming jealous, for example, you could say to yourself “I think this is that same pattern playing over again. I want something different this time”. You can then try to think of different ways to deal with your feelings.

9. Address your own attachment needs

Most of the tips we’re giving here are designed to help you move towards a more secure attachment style. If you and your partner both work on your own attachment needs, you won’t be in the anxious-avoidant trap anymore. You’ll be in a secure-secure relationship.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work quite like that. Your partner might not be ready or able to work on their attachment style right now. That’s ok.

Both sides of the anxious-avoidant trap contribute to the difficult situation, even though they don’t mean to. You can’t force your partner to work on their attachment issues, but you can decide to work on your own.

Making a concerted effort to work towards a more secure attachment style will have an impact on your relationship. By changing your behavior, you will naturally change the dynamic between you both. You can still escape the anxious-avoidant trap if only one of you becomes more secure.

Be aware that your partner might not be entirely supportive of the changes you are making. They might be comfortable with the current situation and find it hard when things start to feel different. Be compassionate about that. Moving beyond the familiar is difficult, even if you’re moving to a better situation.

Being compassionate about their discomfort shouldn’t mean you stop working on your own attachment needs, though. This is valuable for you as an individual and will be important for the rest of your life.

Try saying “I’m sorry this is difficult for you. Working on my attachment style is really important to me and it’s already helping me feel better about myself and how I interact with the people I care about, including you. If there’s anything you would like to ask or talk about, I’m always here.”

10. Consider therapy

consider therapy

Tackling attachment issues can be tricky. You often need to unpack beliefs about yourself and others that you’ve held since childhood.

Often, working with a specialist relationship coach or qualified therapist can make the journey much easier. They can help you recognize some of the thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that are contributing to your anxious-avoidant trap and suggest ways to deal with them.

If your partner is willing, you could consider couples therapy. This could be in addition to individual counseling or as an alternative.

Whether you work with a coach, therapist, or alone, make sure that you have a good support network around you and that you’re ready to reach out for help if you need it.

FAQs

How do you break an anxious-avoidant cycle?

Breaking the anxious-avoidant cycle usually means healing some of your personal attachment issues and learning to be more securely attached. Both sides will need to compromise. The anxiously-attached partner will need to learn to give more space and the avoidantly-attached partner will need to reach out more.

Can avoidant and anxious be together?

Yes, but you might need to work at it. These relationships can be full of ‘spark’ but it will take honest communication, respect, and change on both sides. Both people will need to work on their own attachment issues and be willing to help the other person to resolve their difficulties.

What does an anxious-avoidant relationship look like?

An anxious-avoidant relationship typically has a lot of conflict. You might break up and get back together repeatedly. There is a feeling of push-pull with one person wanting more closeness and the other pulling away.

Conclusion

Was this list helpful for you? Escaping the anxious-avoidant trap can help you find a warm, loving relationship that lets you thrive; the kind of relationship you deserve

Have you escaped the anxious-avoidant trap? Do you have any top tips? Let us know your thoughts in the comments. Please share this article if you found it helpful, especially if you know someone who’s stuck in the anxious-avoidant trap.

5 Sources:
  1. Amir Levine, & Heller, R. (2011). Attached : the new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find--and keep--love. Tarcherperigee.
  2. ‌Bretherton, I. (1985). Attachment Theory: Retrospect and Prospect. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 50(1/2), 3. https://doi.org/10.2307/3333824
  3. ‌Morgan, H. J., & Shaver, P. R. (1999). Attachment Processes and Commitment to Romantic Relationships. Handbook of Interpersonal Commitment and Relationship Stability, 109–124. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4615-4773-0_6
  4. ‌Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing About Emotional Experiences as a Therapeutic Process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162–166. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.1997.tb00403.x
  5. Cassidy, J., Shaver, P. R., Mikulincer, M., & Lavy, S. (2009). Experimentally Induced Security Influences Responses to Psychological Pain. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 28(4), 463–478. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2009.28.4.463
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