Question: Can secure attachment and avoidant attachment work or will an avoidant make a securely attached ex anxious?
I’m FA/DA and have for a while tried to get back with my DA ex, but after reading watching YouTube videos and reading article including yours, I’m not sure if trying to get him back is what is healthy for me at this time. I think it’s best for me to spend my time and energy healing from the breakup and working on my attachment style so I’m more secure for my next partner.
The reason I’m writing to you is because I’ve noticed that in many of your articles, you talk about anxious-avoidant relationships but there is no advice for someone like me with FA attachment trying to attract a DA ex. I understand that this is the most common pairing, but I also wonder if an avoidant ex can make a secure attachment anxious? I’m working on becoming more secure and just want to know if secure attachment and avoidant attachment work or if it’s a waste of time.
Yangki’s Answer: First of all, working on becoming securely attached is never a waste of time. But I think I understand your concern that even if you become secure the relationship with a dismissive avoidant may not work, and that’s a legitimate concern. As you know with all relationships, there are no guarantee only an increased chance that it’ll work.
Can secure attachment and avoidant attachment work? Yes secure attachment and avoidant attachment can work, in fact secure attachment and avoidant attachment have a better chance of working than avoidant attachment and anxious attachment.
Before I answer if an avoidant ex can make a secure attachment anxious, it’s important that I explain why a secure attachment’s relationship or experience with an avoidant is different from an anxious attachment’s experience with a fearful avoidant, anxious experience with a dismissive avoidant or a fearful avoidant’s experience with a dismissive avoidant.
A complex programming that influences the way we think, feel and interact
Most of us, especially those new to attachment theory look at attachment styles as a bunch of personality traits, characteristic or behaviours summarized as “wants closeness/intimacy vs wants space”, or “opens up emotionally vs. emotionally closed off”.
I’ve asked new clients if they’ve heard of attachment styles and they immediately answer, “Yes, of course. I’ve read a lot about it including all your articles and I’ve also watched so many YouTube videos. But when I ask, “What’s your attachment style and do you know what your ex’ attachment style is?”, they respond with “I’m definitely anxious and my ex is… what’s the other one where they’re hot and cold?” or “I am anxious and my ex is some type of avoidant. She’s very independent”.
As a coach, it’s exciting to see many people take interest in attachment theory, but it’s also important we understand that attachment styles go much more deeper than just the behavior we associate with an anxious attachment or avoidant attachment style.
According to attachment theory, our attachment style is driven by mental representations of the original attachment experiences with caregivers. These mental representations create a complex programming known as an internal working model (IWM) or script. Our internal working models provide a template for how we 1) view ourselves, 2) view “the other” and 3) view the relationship between self and “the other”. It influences the way we think, feel, interact and build relationships with others. It also explains the differences in attachment styles.
All other attachment styles – anxious, fearful avoidant and dismissive avoidant – except for securely attachment have negative mental representations of the original attachment experiences with caregivers. This also means that they have insecure attachment internal working models and I’ve written articles on the insecure attachment internal working models of an anxious attachment, fearful avoidant attachment and dismissive avoidant attachment.
Why a secure attachment’s relationship or experience with an avoidant is different
With most relationships between an anxious attachment and an avoidant, things begin really well and get progressively worse, but with most relationships between an avoidant and someone with a secure attachment, things often get progressively better.
This has to do with the fact that people who have always been securely attached grow up with secure and positive mental representations of the original attachment experiences with caregivers and subsequently positive or secure attachment internal working models that make them comfortable enough with themselves, comfortable with closeness and comfortable with their partner needing space. When their needs aren’t met in the relationship, they’re able to communicate their feelings and needs openly, honestly, appropriately and constructively which in turn strengthen their attachments bonds and make their relationships healthy and safe. They have no fear of rejection or abandonment and do not obsess about someone leaving and do not have an exit strategy.
People who have always been securely attached also known as continuous attachment style or continuous secures also have no problem with being vulnerable because they trust that they can count on the people they’re close to and are able to hold a safe space for others to be vulnerable because they’re trustworthy and reliable themselves.
This doesn’t mean that continuous secures won’t and don’t have problems in their relationships. I’m careful not to give the impression that securely attached are super-mates who do no wrong, because they’re not. It means that securely attached have thinking patterns, beliefs, emotional coping strategies, communication skills and behaviours that help them maintain a positive outlook that they can work through their issues and create safe and secure relationships.
Earned secure attachment, emotional liabilities and trauma triggers
People who earned a secure attachment later in life are not different from secures who have always been securely attached except for the early negative relationship experiences with attachment figures and/or attachment-related trauma.
For people new to attachment styles, “earned security” or “earned secure attachment” is when you have an insecure attachment from childhood experiences but become secure either through long-term relationship(s) with secure individuals also know as secure base or attachment stabilizers, therapy, or intense self-work. The implicit assumption of earned security is that one has faced their deep inner pain and/or traumatic childhood experiences – recognized, acknowledged, processed and overcome their negative original attachment programming (thinking patterns, beliefs and behaviours).
Also when someone who had a secure attachment from childhood experiences emotional, physical or sexual abuse as an adult, or goes some an experiences that significantly changes their view of Self or close relationships, it can affect their attachment style and make them either anxious or avoidant depending on the nature, intensity and how long the abuse or experience lasted. These people often have to work through the trauma or attachment changing experience to regain their secure attachment.
While the concepts of continuous secure attachment vs earned secure attachment are still relatively new to the field of attachment and there is limited research conducted on how they operate or on the quality of their romantic relationships, some attachment and early childhood trauma experts have suggested that it is entirely possible to be well down the path toward earned security yet still also get triggered from past traumas.
High stress conditions can trigger anxious reactions and responses
Because people with earned secure attachment experienced significantly more negative attachment interactions or attachment trauma than continuous secure attachment, they’ve had emotional challenges and emotional liabilities that they’ve had to work through. In especially high stress conditions and/or depression these trauma triggers can elicit anxious or avoidant reactions and responses in someone with earned security. Meaning, even having done work on their attachment tendencies and changed the quality of their relationships, someone with earned security can become anxious with an avoidant and avoidant with someone with an anxious attachment.
This is why it’s important for people who just became securely attachment to always remember that they may still have the same thinking patterns, beliefs and behaviours that they’ve always had but now have the awareness to recognize those thoughts and thinking patterns and better tools for processing and overcoming their insecure attachment tendencies. And to remember to be patient and have empathy for their changing selves when they don’t always act secure. Just because you become anxious or avoidant every now and then doesn’t mean you haven’t earned your secure attachment.
It’s also important for people who just became securely attachment to recognize and acknowledge when they’re being “dragged back” to insecure attachment.
Can an avoidant ex make a secure attachment anxious?
The answer is yes. Someone with a secure attachment especially someone who recently earned their secure attachment can become anxious with an avoidant and avoidant with someone with an anxious attachment. But research after research actually shows that a secure attachment has a positive impact on avoidants and people with an anxious attachment. As avoidants or anxious attachment felt more positively about themselves, about their partner and about the relationship, they acted and functioned differently from their attachment style. Instead of avoidants making secures more anxious, secures made avoidants more secure.
This makes sense because if an insecure attachment style is driven by insecure mental representations of childhood attachment figures, having a secure attachment figure over time changes the insecure mental representations which in turn changes internal working models and how one views the Self, views “the other” and views the relationship between self and “the other”.
Securely attached do not stay too long in an unhealthy or toxic relationship
Also given the fact that securely attached do not stay too long in an unhealthy or toxic relationship, there is not enough information or real-life experiences to definitively say an avoidant ex can make a secure attachment anxious.
It’s mostly people with an anxious attachment and some fearful avoidants, and a few dismissive avoidants who stay too long in an unhealthy and toxic relationship that everyone sees is unhealthy and toxic and sometimes they themselves know is negatively affecting their mental and emotional health. By the time they leave or the other person ends the relationship, the damage is done.
Someone with a secure attachment will do their best to provide safety and security to an avoidant or anxious partner. They are securely attached and have the emotional and communication tools and skills to be attachment and relationship stabilizers or secure base providers. But if:
1) An avoidant or anxious attachment’s insecurities and unhealthy behaviours get worse and not better, and the insecure partner refuses to get help, and/or
2) Someone with a secure attachment feels that being in the relationship hurts both people more than not being in it;
Someone with a secure attachment will leave the unhealthy and toxic dynamic. In fact, unhealthy attachment dynamics makes securely attached so uncomfortable that a day in an unhealthy and toxic relationship is too long.
Avoidants and anxious attachment recreate original attachment trauma
Another reason why there is not enough information or real-life experiences to definitively say an avoidant ex can make a secure attachment anxious is that secures tend to date, develop relationships, fall in love and marry other secures, and stay married. They’re usually protected from the experiences of being with an avoidant or someone with an anxious attachment.
Even securely attached who are single or become single aren’t single for long. Everyone is looking for someone securely attached, and they get grabbed off the market as soon as they become available. This leaves anxious attachment to avoidants and avoidants to anxious attachment; and there is real life evidence and scientific research that shows that anxious attachment are drawn to avoidants and vice versa.
Some attachment scholars suggest that both people with an anxious attachment and avoidants are drawn to each other because of the familiar dynamics and/or as an attempt to heal their attachment related trauma. What happens very often is that they just confirm their already existing beliefs and expectations of Self, the other and close relationships in general.
The responsibility of making the person we love feel safe goes both ways
So maybe the question is not “Does an avoidant make us more anxious”, the question is “Does a relationship with an avoidant focus the light on our attachment trauma and if so, what do we do about it? Do we continue to blame avoidants for us not doing the work we need to do to reprogram our internal working models and anxious attachment style, or do we do the work and change our relationship experiences?”
Same question goes to avoidants, “Do you continue to blame people with an anxious attachment for being needy and for making you want to distance and/or avoid committed relationships, or do you take responsibility and accountability for your maladaptive coping strategies, do the work so you are able to create a safe and secure relationship where an anxious attachment or fearful avoidant doesn’t have to constantly be afraid of your rejection, and worry that you’ll abandon them or not be there for them when they need you (like you always do).”
The responsibility of making the person we love feel safe and secure goes both ways. For example, if your ex has an anxious attachment or is an anxious avoidant (fearful avoidant) and from past experience know that they’ll get anxious, worried and feel rejected and abandoned if they don’t hear from you and when you finally get to talk to them, they’ll be upset and that’ll make you upset too, then text them back even if it’s just to tell them you’re busy and can’t talk at the moment. You’ll both be happier, and the relationship will have less problems if you don’t give them a chance to be anxious, worried or feel rejected and abandoned.