For the past few weeks, I have offered steps from psychologists and relationship experts that those who are insecurely attached can take to improve an anxious-avoidant relationship dynamic.
In short, attachment theory posits that individuals with avoidant attachment evade difficult conversations and vulnerable feelings, while those with anxious attachment tend to turn towards them to a degree that the avoidant partner can find overwhelming, responding with “fight” rather than “flight” as the avoidant does. At least outwardly, they seem to want more contact and connection than their partners do and feel less comfortable being alone. Avoidants, on the other hand, seem to need less of this and have a greater need for independence and autonomy. They’re more uncomfortable about being too enmeshed.
Relationships between anxious and avoidant personalities do not have to be doomed.
This week, I conclude with steps that both attachment styles can take to keep their relationship healthy.
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Have preventative conversations when you both are calm
As Self explains, attachment expert Dr. Amir Levine suggests to “work with, instead of against, your partner’s attachment,” and to “tend to their internal attachment system before it’s activated.” Dr. Levine recommends having [these] conversations before conflict comes up and has led the avoidant person to deactivate, similar to how instead of packing an earthquake kit while the earthquake’s happening, you’d prepare and assemble it in advance.
Open up about your pasts
One way to see beyond the hurt is to gain a better understanding of each other’s backgrounds — as often, both partners carry trauma or negative experiences that are influencing the way they behave in the present.
Michelle Obama wrote of her relationship with Barack Obama, “We’ve had to practice responding to each other in ways that take into account both of our histories, our different needs and ways of being. It’s always helped when we are able to name our feelings and situate some of our differences inside of personal history rather than present blame.”
In those moments you’re worked up and feeling like your partner is the enemy, bringing to mind that image of them as a child can soften you immediately. It can shift you into communicating with love — for both their younger self and yours — rather than from a place of fear.
Apologize after conflict
As psychologist Harriet Lerner put it in an episode of NPR’s Life Kit, “The need for apologies and repair is a singularly human one – both on the giving and receiving ends. We are hardwired to seek justice and fairness (however we see it), so the need to receive a sincere apology that’s due is deeply felt. We are also imperfect humans and prone to error and defensiveness, so the challenge of offering a heartfelt apology permeates almost every relationship.”
A healing apology expresses empathy and communicates awareness that we may have had our reasons for doing the thing — perhaps understandable and valid ones. Yet we still are able to acknowledge the unintended negative consequences of those good intentions. We’re willing to accommodate for both the validity of our perspective and the other person’s reality.
Lerner described a good apology as “when we take clear and direct responsibility without a hint of evasion, blaming, obfuscation, excuse-making and without bringing up the other person’s crime sheet.”
According to Lerner, it doesn’t include the word “but”; it offers to make amends; and it doesn’t overdo. Additionally, the words alone won’t cut it. It needs to be backed up with corrective action, Lerner says. For instance, let’s say your partner borrows your bike, breaks it, and says sorry. The sorry won’t mend your relationship if they took no steps to fix the bike thereafter.
When I give an apology that I really mean, and the other person does too, I feel cleaner inside. It feels like we grow closer. Empathy, rather than fear of punishment, is in my mind and what leads to the most meaningful and lasting behavioral changes for all couples, anxious-avoidant included.
Know that the real work comes in the aftermath of a fight
This can be challenging, because the avoidant tendency is to, well – avoid conflict. According to the Free to Attach Project, “Conflicts are often left unresolved because the resolution itself often brings a couple closer together – a scenario that, however unconsciously, the avoidant person wants to avoid. Failure to negotiate is a strategy to block intimacy – ‘I don’t care about your needs”‘— but learning to successfully negotiate together is vital for relationships to survive.”
Overall, though, consistent intent is what matters. All relationships will have conflict. It makes a crucial difference if both are open to talking once things calm down. Rather than hold onto resentment, instead they lean into reconciliation. That willingness is the life force of a relationship.
It’s lovely when two people leave a disagreement with complete understanding. This doesn’t always happen though — and that’s okay. What matters is a pattern of working towards that understanding, even if you can’t reach an immediate resolution. What matters is knowing that no one will behave perfectly all the time, that we’ll falter occasionally, then do the best we can to repair and learn. Deepen the connection and hone the communication to prevent similar conflicts from recurring. Nip it in the bud as early as we can.
I love what therapist Julie Menanno, who goes by the handle @thesecurerelationship on Instagram, recommends: “Next time you’re in an argument with your partner, try these simple words: ‘I see where you’re coming from. You make sense to me. And I love you very, very much.’ You might see something magical happen.”
Security falls along a spectrum. It’s one thing if a partner falls very far to one end of that spectrum and is uninterested in moving closer to the middle. “Every relationship is like a dance, and no matter how much work I do, I will always show up slightly more anxious,” wrote Jessica Baum, founder of the Relationship Institute of Palm Beach. “So it’s still important to choose your partner wisely. And if you work on your internal world and pick partners that are more secure, without the dismissive qualities of an avoidant, you stand a better chance at a healthy relationship.”
On the other hand, even the primarily secure may experience moments of insecurity. Too often we treat security like a fixed trait rather than the fluid state that it is. And as psychologist Yulit Price wrote on Instagram, “Healthy relationships do not require two ‘already healed’ humans, they require two humans who are ready to work with their attachment histories, for a viable, long-term, healthy relationship.”
Anxiouses and avoidants can work towards security with each other inside a partnership. They can grow with one another and acknowledge that security is a climate created by two people, that it can flourish when both are on board and when both wholeheartedly believe that what you put in affects what you get out.