For a lot of us, partnership is the ground of fulfillment. Sometimes, this means the worst possibility we can envision is a partner making a choice that removes them from our lives. It is a possibility so gutting that we live constantly on edge, prepared for a catastrophe, mitigating it constantly. When we’ve had histories of being abandoned, it can become a lynchpin in our life’s narrative. Like a phantom that constantly threatens to burn down the house we built after spending infinite small moments, talking ourselves out of the impossibility of building it. When the need for a partnership is so excruciating, so central to whether we find life worth living, the possibility of loss can be devastating. It is experienced as a threat of a piece of ourselves being cut out, not knowing whether the rest of us will remain alive with the void that it leaves.
This becomes even harder when our partner is avoidant of conflict, avoidant of their own emotions and lacks the readiness to create a resonance about how to grow out of what is holding the avoidance in place. They may have their reasons; they can range from being not ready for the intimacy or intensity we offer, fear of vulnerability, past issues with being abandoned or traumatized, inability to attune to whether staying is truly nurturing them, to feeling unable or unwilling to receive our love in the way that it is given.
But the catch-22 here is brutal; the more they push away, the more we want to hold them close. When we sense their presence fading, panic takes root, and we can’t avoid the reflex of holding them tighter, even if the sand keeps slipping through our fingers. How they cope with feeling unsafe or ungrounded is at odds with how we cope with it; so they avoid, we hold, and the holding makes them avoid more, and we hold tighter. This creates a perpetual feedback loop where one partner cannot enter the field of the relationship with an experience of genuine presence, a sense that they are really here in this body, in this interaction: the other cannot leave it but is nonetheless completely fried by it.
One component remains to complete the tangle of it all: our partner explicitly says they want to leave to regain control over their own anxiety. This creates the feeling that being alone is just on the other side of one conflict, one incident of unhappiness, one moment of giving up. This can lead to a climate of unintentional tyranny. Neither can feel safe when the other is about to do the most stressful thing they can currently imagine. One is terrified of being left. The other is terrified of being held tighter, wanting to escape the hold. This breeds recurrent situations that feed back into each other. The relationship then reaches a stagnation point because the person who is feeling unsafe and neglected cannot be honest or ask to be held. They would rather have inadequate presence than nothing at all.
Every one of us has a specific style in which we relate to our partners, especially during stressful moments, or in moments of conflict. The dynamic described above is a prevalent one, where an anxiously attached individual and an avoidantly attached individual are in a partnership.
Understanding Avoidant Attachment
Avoidant attachment styles typically develop in early childhood as a result of inconsistent or unresponsive caregiving, although they can result from traumatic relational attachment at later stages as well. When a child's needs for comfort, affection, and security are consistently met, they develop a secure attachment style. However, when caregivers are emotionally unavailable, neglectful, or inconsistent in their responses, children may develop avoidant attachment styles as a coping mechanism. Avoidant individuals typically learn to suppress their natural attachment needs and emotions to protect themselves from potential rejection or disappointment. It can also stem from gender-based emotional conditioning (such as masculinity being associated with the suppression of emotions), or receiving messaging throughout childhood to be wary of emotional intimacy or otherwise be untrusting of others. They may believe that expressing vulnerability or relying on others can lead to disappointment, or is an expression of weakness. So they develop self-reliance as a way to cope. This coping mechanism allows them to maintain a sense of control and independence in their relationships.
Some common coping mechanisms of avoidant individuals include:
Emotional detachment: Avoidant individuals often keep their emotions at a distance and avoid deep emotional connections. They may downplay or dismiss their own feelings and become uncomfortable when others express intense emotions.
Independence and self-sufficiency: Avoidant individuals prioritize their independence and self-reliance. They may be hesitant to ask for help or support from others, as they prefer to rely on themselves. This may also be due to their lack of trust in people in general.
Maintaining distance: Avoidant individuals tend to create emotional and physical distance in their relationships. They may avoid intimacy, closeness, or commitment, as it can trigger their fear of being suffocated or losing their autonomy.
Intellectualization: Rather than delving into their emotions, avoidant individuals may rely on rationalization and analysis to understand and navigate their relationships. They may intellectualize their emotions as a way to keep them at a safe distance, in effect being prevented from feeling the fullness of their emotions and embodying them. This can also prevent them from experiencing a compassionate view towards their distress. They may also talk themselves out of their experiences so they expect others to do the same under the guise of being “rational”.
Focus on self-validation: Avoidant individuals often seek validation and approval from within themselves rather than relying on others. They may have high self-esteem and prioritize personal achievements and individual pursuits, which may come at the cost of the attention they feel willing to provide for their partners. Their focus on the “self” may remove them from the position of being able to set aside their own perceptions and empathize.
Understanding Anxious Attachment
Anxious attachment styles also develop in early childhood as a result of inconsistent or unpredictable caregiving. When caregivers are inconsistently available or responsive to a child's needs, the child may develop an anxious attachment style as a way to seek reassurance and attention. They can also be inadvertently conditioned to respond this way due to high levels of uncertainty and lack of safety in previous relationships. Individuals with an anxious attachment style often have a heightened fear of abandonment and a strong desire for closeness and intimacy. They may constantly seek reassurance and validation from their partners and may become anxious or distressed when their needs are not met.
The coping mechanisms associated with anxious attachment style include:
Hyper-awareness & hypervigilance toward others: Anxious individuals tend to be highly attuned to their partner's behavior and emotions. They may constantly monitor their partner's actions for signs of rejection or withdrawal, and interpret even minor changes as indicators of a potential threat to the relationship. This may also be a trauma response from past relationships where they needed to be hypervigilant for their emotional and physical safety.
Seeking reassurance: Anxious individuals often seek frequent reassurance and validation from their partners to alleviate their fears of abandonment. They may constantly seek verbal or physical reassurances of love and commitment.
Heightened sensitivity to rejection: Anxious individuals have a heightened sensitivity to rejection or perceived criticism. They may be quick to interpret neutral or ambiguous situations as signs of rejection or disinterest, leading to increased anxiety and insecurity.
Fear of abandonment: Anxious individuals may have an intense fear of being abandoned or left alone. This fear can drive clingy or needy behavior, as they try to maintain constant closeness and connection with their partners.
Overthinking and catastrophizing: Anxious individuals often engage in overthinking and catastrophic thoughts about the relationship. They may ruminate on past interactions, create worst-case scenarios, and anticipate rejection or abandonment, even when there is no evidence to support such fears.
People-pleasing: Anxious individuals may engage in people-pleasing behavior, going to great lengths to meet their partner's needs and avoid conflict or rejection. They may sacrifice their own needs and desires in an attempt to keep the relationship secure.
People with anxious attachment styles often find people with avoidant attachment styles, partly because they are both relatively secure in the relationship until the coping style is activated. And partly because complementarity (for better or worse) seems to be a tendency of how relationships manifest. Both partners may inadvertently trigger each other’s insecurities, leading to a cycle of push-and-pull, emotional distancing, and frustration. Once these patterns are activated, partners can struggle with intimacy. Anxious partners may deeply fear abandonment and seek reassurance and closeness to alleviate anxiety. Avoidant partners may verbalize a desire to leave to regain control of their own anxiety or to soothe themselves by remembering that leaving is always an option.
The inadvertent pain this inflicts on the anxious partner cannot be overstated. They can never quite feel safe in knowing that what they’re saying is the right thing. It becomes replaced with the fear of saying the wrong thing – which may make the other actually mean it when they say, “I don’t want to be here anymore”. So they walk on eggshells, micromanaging their words and actions, losing their authentic presence in the field of the relationship. This is the downstream suffering wrought by the inability of each to engage with their own suffering. When the avoidant partner is unsure whether to stay or not because they cannot feel the full extent of their comfort or discomfort, there is a holding pattern with no resolution. They may also avoid imagining life without the other, keeping themselves at a distance that feels safe for them but highly distressing to the anxious partner. The inconsistency that comes with cycling between attachment and detachment can push the other’s nervous system to its limits. The uncertainty and unpredictability of the avoidant partner’s behavior can trigger a constant state of hypervigilance and anticipation in the anxious partner, which can tax the nervous system and result in chronic stress. Inconsistent behavior undermines the establishment of a secure and reliable connection, which can create a further cycle of distrust, amplifying anxiety and emotional instability. This can lead to cognitive impairment, difficulties with concentration, memory, decision-making, and problem-solving. The cognitive load of managing the relational uncertainties can deplete mental and emotional resources, affecting other areas of functioning.
The way out of this dynamic is to focus on what ties it together – mutually resonant anxiety. While they are expressed in opposite directions, in actuality, they arise in dependence upon each other – neither can exist without the other providing a canvas. Knowing this, we can find a common ground of compassion – realizing that the source of both partners’ behavior is their own expression of intense fear and anxiety.
Attempting to attune to our partner can be a portal into attuning to ourselves. We cannot empathize with another person’s emotions without first feeling our own. Accessing this common ground of compassion can show us that there is a oneness hidden behind how issues are manifesting, because we see that they come from the same place.
The process of healing the dynamic begins by both genuinely discovering whether they want to stay together out of a desire for partnership, or are driven by the need to avoid abandonment, or the fear of being alone. This can then pave the road to feel their respective, desperate fears, with awareness that the other is feeling their own version of it; where both have the same core energy. By allowing themselves to breathe in their partner’s suffering as their own, they open the door to resonance. This allows them to truly understand what the other needs from them and meet them in the middle.
The avoidant partner can start to understand that their need for space and distance is being misinterpreted as a lack of interest or rejection, but also that avoiding processing their distress will perpetuate the discomfort. The anxious partner can learn to recognize and manage their anxiety as catastrophizing of the current fear response but also accept that their need for safety through assurance is a reasonable demand of their nervous system. When this mutually beneficial feedback loop takes hold, the anxiety that pushes the avoidant partner to avoid vulnerability and commitment is calmed, and the need to threaten to leave softens, which further softens the need for the other to hold on.
The establishment of this resonance is a blueprint of the therapeutic process. The mutual acceptance and attunement to what is ultimately a shared goal – the reduction of one’s own distress. This road can be unbearably rocky, but we can make it easier by addressing factors that created their anxious and avoidant responses, and treating them with compassion. Seeking therapy and relationship coaching is especially beneficial, and this dynamic benefits from the mediation of neutral, well-trained guidance.
The more I work in the therapeutic/coaching space, the more I find that compassion and empathy are the real foundation on which resolution is built. When space is held for the connection that underlies this, as partners, we can move towards dancing together into ourselves, into what holds us back from being fully present with each other. We can choose not to dance alone by dancing together while understanding what holds us and our partners back from dancing freely. The oneness that this opens up is foundational!
Schedule a free discovery meeting to learn more about my services or to set up a personal guided process for yourself and your partner(s)!
Parthasarathy Vaidya is a Life Alignment-focused coach who operates under the knowledge that every individual possesses the power to heal what is out of balance, as long as the root causes and factors are brought into awareness. He aims to help you tap into these unconscious antecedents, and hold space for you to shift them, both in your mind and energy. He wants to help you move past the destabilization resulting from traumatic experiences and mental health crises, towards restructuring your life based on your highest potential.