Anxious, avoidant and secure: common thoughts, emotions and reactions
The last two essays have been a summary of the information about attachment models in adult relationships from the book Attached. In this essay I’ll continue to explore this dynamic.
To summarise the three types of attachment:
1. Anxious people are often preoccupied with thier relationships and tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back.
2. Avoidant people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and commonly try to minimise closeness.
3. Secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving.
A few people are anxious/avoidant, but this is more rare.
As I’ve read this book it has been like a map of my inner world laid out. Theories which might be abstract resonate so much with my experience of intimacy and I have recognised patterns of behaviour that feel so personal but from the perspective of this theory are simply how a person with anxious attachment will respond to intimacy. In Buddhism a central reflection is that the sense of being a unique and fixed individual is a misconception. Our sense of self arises from the interaction we have with stimuli from the world around us and from how we interact with our thoughts, which creates our perception of the world.
Recognising that the patterns of mental activity that feel so personal are in fact a pattern shared with many others helps to lessen the belief that this is somehow uniquely my experience. Certainly it is what I am experiencing, but it is not unique to me. Seeing this helps to lessen the emotional charge that makes it feel so much like a personal failure to have these ways of responding to a situation.
One area that particularly struck me was the description of typical thoughts, emotions and reactions for each type. See if you recognise yourself here!
Common thoughts, emotions and reactions for the anxious type
- Mind reading “that’s it, I just know they’ve had enough of me and will never want to see me again”
- I’ll never find anyone else.
- I knew this was too good to last.
- All or nothing thinking: I’ve ruined it all, there’s nothing I can do to mend this.
- I knew something would go wrong: nothing ever works out right for me.
- I have to see him/her right now.
- S/he’d better come crawling back asking for forgiveness or they can forget about me forever.
- Perhaps if I look really gorgeous or act seductive things will work out.
- S/he is so amazing why would s/he want to be with me anyway?
- Remembering all the good things your partner has ever done or said after a fight
- Recalling only the bad things your partner has ever done or said during a fight.
Emotions: sad and/or fearful, resentful, frustrated, depressed, hopeless, jealous, despairing guilty, self-loathing, rejected, uncertain, misunderstood.
When an anxious type fears a loss of intimacy they will seek closeness and this may well manifest as acting out to try and get the reassurance or attention they long for. These are protest behaviours, similar to a child having a tantrum to get its parent’s attention. These behaviours are automatic and are not considered actions but a knee jerk response to the fear of abandonment. They occur when your anxious attachment has been triggered by your partner’s real or perceived withdrawal of affection or availability:
- Excessive attempts to re-establish contact: Calling, texting or emailing many times, waiting for a call or text
- Withdrawing: sitting silently “engrossed” in the paper or some other activity, turning your back on your partner
- Keeping score: noting how long it took for them to reply to a text and leaving it exactly the same amount of time.
- Acting hostile: Rolling your eyes as they speak, getting up and walking away while they are talking.
- Threatening to leave: “we’re not getting along, I don’t think I can do this any more”. Rather than being a true expression of a wish to separate this comes from a place of wanting your partner to say how much they love you and will never leave. You’ll be devastated if they actually agree with you!
- Manipulations: acting busy or unapproachable, ignoring phone calls, saying you have plans when you don’t.
Common thoughts, emotions and reactions for the avoidant type
- All or nothing thinking: I knew s/he wasn’t right for me, this proves it!
- Overgeneralising: I knew I wasn’t made to be in a close relationship!
- S/he’s taking over my life, I can’t take it!
- Now I have to do everything his/her way; the price is too high.
- I need to get out of here, I feel suffocated.
- If s/he were “the one” this kind of thing wouldn’t happen.
- When I was with (the idealised ex) this wouldn’t have happened.
- Malicious intent: s/he’s really out to annoy me, it’s so obvious…
- S/he just wants to tie me down, this isn’t true love.
- Fantasising about having sex with other people.
- I’ll be better off on my own.
- Ugh s/he’s so needy! It’s pathetic.
Emotions: withdrawn, frustrated, angry, pressured, unappreciated, misunderstood, resentful, hostile, aloof, empty, tense, contemptuous, scornful, distrustful.
When an avoidant type feels their partner is too demanding of their attention they will seek distance. They require solitude and a sense of their own autonomy in order to feel comfortable. If they are dating an anxious person this need for space will often be pressed in on by the anxious type’s need for reassurance: wanting to text, to hold hands, to cuddle up. In response to this perceived neediness of the partner and to re-establish their own space avoidants will use deactivating strategies to keep their partner at a distance or to disengage from them. One thing the author says is that avoidants do want intimacy, but they find it hard to admit as for them intimacy means being overwhelmed by the other so their actions are intended to allow for just as much connection as they feel comfortable with, whilst maintaining a feeling of distance and independence. For this reason avoidants rarely date each other as there is nothing to bring them together.
- Saying (or thinking) “I’m not ready to commit” – but staying together nonetheless, sometimes for years.
- Focusing on small imperfections in your partner: the way s/he talks, dresses, eats or…..and allowing it to get in the way of your romantic feelings.
- Pining after an ex-girlfriend-boyfriednd, thinking that they were the one you should have stayed with and comparing your present partner unfavourable to them – (the phantom ex)
- Flirting with others – a hurtful way to introduce insecurity into the relationship.
- Not saying “I love you” – while implying that you do have feelings toward the other person.
- Pulling away when things are going well (e.g. not calling for several days after an intimate date).
- Forming relationships with an impossible future, such as with someone who is married.
- “Checking out mentally” when your partner is talking to you.
- Keeping secrets and leaving things foggy – to maintain your feeling of independence.
- Avoiding closeness – e.g. not wanting to share the same bed, not wanting to have sex, walking several strides ahead of your partner.
The emotional advantages of dating a secure partner
For the sake of brevity I am not listing the traits of the secure type. Basically they will not take on the blame for what happens and stay open to the other rather than becoming critical or acting out. I was talking to a friend who took the test and come out as secure. As we talked about the different dynamics of the anxious type he said that if someone comes across as needing contact to reassure them after a few dates: holding hands, texting etc, then his response is to find it endearing and sweet. Very different to the avoidant who will see it as an imposition and will disengage. This short conversation with my friend confirmed the author’s assertion that an ideal partner for an anxious type is a secure:
As an anxious type you:
- want closeness and intimacy and a secure person is comfortable with this and will not push you away.
- are very sensitive to any signs of rejection and a secure person is very consistent and reliable.
- find it hard to tell your partner directly what you need and what’s bothering you whilst a secure person sees your well being as a top priority and do their best to read your verbal and non verbal cues.
- need to be reassured and feel loved and a secure person feels comfortable telling you how they feel, very early on, in a consistent manner.
- need to know exactly where you stand in the relationship and a secure person is very stable, they also feel comfortable with commitment.
Anxious and avoidants find it difficult to create a relationship that nourishes them both as there is a conflict between what they are both looking for. As an anxious person you:
- want closeness and intimacy whilst avoidants want to maintain some distance (emotional or physical)
- are very sensitive to any signs of rejection whilst an avoidant sends mixed signals that often come across as rejecting.
- find it hard to tell them directly what you need and what’s bothering you whilst the avoidant is bad at reading your verbal and non verbal cues and don’t think it’s their responsibility to do so.
- need to be reassured and feel loved whilst an avoidant tends to put you down to create distance.
- need to know exactly where you stand in the relationship whilst an avoidant prefers to keep things fuzzy.
Last week’s essay looked at actions avoidants and anxious people could take to work with their tendencies. The main one for an avoidant is to find a secure partner, as a secure person will be comfortable with exploring the dynamic and talking things through rather than going into protest behaviour as the anxious type would do. Alternatively, if an avoidant and anxious person are dating, for it to work both the avoidant and anxious partner need to become very self aware and recognise their dynamic and how that impacts on the relationship, and to then reach a compromise that works for both partners.
Working with the challenges of being in an anxious-avoidant relationship
The final chapter in the book covers how people can work with being in an anxious-avoidant relationship. It may be you have identified that your current relationship is this type of dynamic and want to work with it. The key points the author suggests are:
1. Clarity: write out a list recurrent patterns in your relationship and the situations that trigger them. Write down your reactions and thoughts. Identify if your actions and those of your partner are secure, anxious or avoidant and reflect on how you loose out by going along with your habitual strategies (if you are not secure). Use effective communication with your partner to resolve any conflicting desires you both have in the relationship.
2. Using effective communication to choose the right partner or to communicate with your current partner. As this is a chapel in itself, I’ll leave it to be the topic of next week’s essay.