Anxious-preoccupieds have a different reaction to a fearful-avoidant’s close-but-not-too-close approach to relationships.
Anxious-preoccupieds want to be close and they want contact, lots of it. When a fearful-avoidant pulls back to avoid getting ‘too close”, an anxious-preoccupied tries harder to get closer. When a fearful-avoidant pulls back on contact an anxious-preoccupied escalates it.
They don’t just send more texts, make more calls and show up uninvited, they also want to know why the avoidant is pulling away.
But fearful-avoidants take someone bombarding them with texts, calls and even showing up uninvited not as “I am feeling anxious and need you to reassure me everything is okay between us” but rather as “You are not giving me what I want” or “You are making me unhappy”. And because fearful-avoindants expect people they love and care about to leave eventually, they pull even further away.
When an avoidant pulls away many anxious attachers are like “I did this. I pushed him (or her) away”.
It’s true that attachment anxiety triggers attachment avoidance but sometimes you can be the most secure person and an avoidant will still pull away because that’s what avoidants do. They deactivate to avoid getting too close for their comfort.
Can the anxious attacher – avoidant dynamic be changed and the pattern of getting close and pushing away be broken? The answer is a strong yes.
It is important to point out that our attachment styles influence the way we think, feel and act in romantic relationships, but they are not neat little boxes that fit perfectly. Instead they are somewhat fluid with most insecurely attached people presenting a mixture of attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance at different times in a romantic relationship. For example, an anxious-preoccupied can sometimes exhibit an anxious-fearful attachment style and the other way around, and a fearful-avoidant can sometimes be a dismissive-avoidant or an anxious-fearful attacher. The primary attachment style will still be the most noticeable but from time to time other insecure attachment traits or behaviours show up too.
It’s also possible for an anxious attacher to be in a relationship and not experience attachment anxiety:
- If the relationship provides the stability, trust and security an anxious attacher needs.
- If an anxious attacher isn’t emotionally invested in the relationship and therefore not (or less) attached to the person they are with.
It doesn’t mean their attachment style has changed and they will no longer be anxious in relationships, it just means their attachment anxiety isn’t activated.
New studies on attachment styles also show that not everyone who had insecure parenting style grows up to be an insecurely attached adult and not all adults who had stable and nurturing parenting grow up to be securely attached adults. Since adult attachment is a relatively new field, more research needs to be done to understand the specific factors that cause some people to end up securely attached despite an insecure parenting style and some people to be insecurely attached despite being raised by stable and nurturing parents and caregivers.
What is known however is that our attachment style can be influenced later in life through circumstances, relationship experiences and personal growth efforts. A long-term relationship with a securely attached partner for example can transform someone with attachment anxiety or attachment avoidance to a securely attached partner. An affirming and nurturing relationship with a securely attached therapist, coach or mentor can also move one from an insecure attachment style to a secure one. In the attachment theory circles this is sometimes referred to as “earned-secure attachment”. Feel free to goggle and do your own research on “earned-secure attachment”.
The reason I felt it necessary to explain the fluid nature of attachment styles is that lately I have clients coming to me with “I am the anxious-preoccupied attacher you talk about in your articles and my ex the fearful-avoidant. He never knew his father and was raised by an alcoholic mother so he’s afraid to get close. What can I do to get him back?”
It’s very tempting to get fixated on ‘attachment styles” like it’s the magic wand you have been looking for to attract your ex back. It’s NOT.
- Knowing your own attachment style helps you understand why you do the things you do and avoid missteps that ruin your chances of getting back together.
- Understanding your ex’s attachment style helps you understand why your ex does the things they do and how you can connect (attach) safely.
- Understanding both of your attachment styles and how they interact helps you see that sometimes the way you interpret certain words, actions and situations is very different from the way your ex interprets them, reacts or responds. A good example is how each attachment style reacts or responds to a delayed response from their ex, or no response at all.
- Understanding both of your attachment styles also helps you accept that sometimes your words and actions cause your ex to be anxious, fearful or avoidant, but sometimes it has nothing to do with you, and not take your ex’s actions personally.
- Understanding both of your attachment styles also helps you determine how much contact with your ex is too much or too little. For example exes with anxious-preoccupied attachment want more contact and dismissive-avoidant exes want less contact. Where both exes have attachment anxiety, more contact is needed to feel connected and to fall in love while exes who both have attachment avoidance may need to contact each other less to avoid feeling overwhelmed and triggering a flight response.
The important thing to remember with attachment styles is that you can’t control or always predict what triggers the other person’s attachment style. The second important thing to remember is that you can’t and shouldn’t try to ‘fix” your ex ‘s attachement style, leave that to the professionals. The third important thing to remember is that at the end of the day, you can only love someone and show them that you love them, you can’t and shouldn’t try to make them return your love.
What you can do is work on your own anxious attachment style so your anxious behaviours don’t trigger attachment avoidance, and so that you can be the stable, secure and loving base an avoidant needs to feel secure.
I know I am treading on quick sand here because most ‘experts’ do not recommend a relationship with an avoidant and many advise to end the relationship and ‘find someone healthier” (see: Should Give Up On A Dismissive-Avoidant?)
My stand on relationships has always been that if the relationship is not abusive or toxic, and if there is more good than bad, it’s worth staying and doing everything you can to make it work… until it’s stark clear that no matter what you do, it will not work (See: Is Your Ex An Avoidant Or Just Not Interested?)