Ashera is a Marriage and Family Therapist with an extensive background in sexual health education. You can ask her stuff anonymously and she won’t get weirded out. Seriously, try her. Send your queries through our anonymous contact form here.
I am an anxious-attachment type and the guy I’m seeing is the anxious-avoidant type. We are crazy into each other and both in therapy. Can we have a healthy relationship? What can we do to keep things healthy?
– Anxious Lady
Dear Anxious Lady,
Ah, the spiral dance of the attachment styles! This relationship has the potential to be very fulfilling for both of you in the long run, or extraordinarily painful. That’s sort of the gamble we all take when we date. Luckily, you have the insight to recognize that you attach differently and are both working on it. But let’s back up for a moment.
For those who have missed some of my previous essays, “attachment” refers to how people experience love (or at least think they do). It all depends on how we connected with our caregivers as babies, and if we trusted that they would return to meet our needs. Securely attached people don’t lose their shit when their partner doesn’t text them back immediately. They might grow concerned if it’s been an uncharacteristically long time, but once contact is restored they go back to being peachy keen.
As the dear writer knows all too well, anxiously attached people get really freaked out when they can’t reach their partner. They tend to come on strong and want to hold onto their relationship with a deathlike grip out of fear that their partner won’t return. The anxiously attached are likely to text, “are you dead” after a half hour of no response, half kidding and angry, half legit concerned that their partner has befallen some terrible fate. In their heart of hearts, they do not trust that people will be there for them.
Avoidant people, like your boo, also don’t believe people will not be there for them, but they act out in the opposite direction. They build emotional walls that are sky high. They tend to keep their relationships pretty surface and are likely to ghost. Things are fine until they feel vulnerable.
The cruel twist is that these two attachment styles dig each other a lot at first, but it can get toxic real quick. The anxious will follow the avoidant into the depths of hell, which the avoidant likes at first, but then it gets too serious for them and they pull away FAST. This can go back and forth until the couple ends up resenting each other enough to finally call it quits.
But it doesn’t have to be that way! There is hope!
You both are already beginning to do the legwork of being in therapy, which is great. Attachment styles are not set in stone and they can be altered through hard work. A big pitfall to watch out for is the old pursuit-withdrawal cycle, where (probably the anxious) person starts to smother the avoidant, who responds to that like, “Oh, fuck no.” Feeling that type of way, they naturally become distant. The anxious then is like “Attention, but like, more of it,” and clings harder. The avoidant runs for the hills.
For the anxious partner, learning to give the avoidant space can be hard, but it’s so necessary. The avoidant partner is not going to open up to you about everything immediately, and that’s okay. They’re making sure they can trust you before they give you access to all the things that could potentially hurt them. It doesn’t mean they don’t dig you, it just means that creating safety for them is going to feel foreign at first.
The anxious partner is saying, “But I am safe!” and you might be. But they don’t know that for sure yet. When they do open up, it will be worth the wait.
For the avoidant partner, learning to not sabotage a good thing is their greatest challenge. They are really good at rationalizing why a relationship won’t work to justify their fear that their partner will let them down. If they leave first, they can’t be the one who was left. “It was them, not me.”
For this to work, you’ll both need to compromise and practice good boundary setting. It’s not okay for you to blow him up, but it’s also not fair for him to leave you hanging. There will probably be little conflicts about this, but I hope that you can find a middle ground.
You are never without hope.