I don’t think I’ve ever fully considered myself an anxious person. Despite my tendency to overthink, worry, and wonder, I manage my life with confidence, and I keep my cool in a crisis. The anxiety, ever-present, bubbles unseen beneath the surface.
I’m self-aware enough to know the anxiety is present, but I haven’t defined myself by it, which is probably why I never looked too long at attachment theory when I was becoming a therapist. I committed it to memory, but I kept it one step removed from myself. I didn’t learn about it and think I have an anxious attachment. I thought I was managing my life just fine.
But I am, in fact, a person with an anxious attachment from early childhood. It has, in fact, impacted my interpersonal relationships. Those are the facts. And when an anxious person falls for an avoidant one … it doesn’t often end well.
Attachment Styles — A Summary
There are several different attachment styles. We all have one. Secure attachment is the one we all want. People who have this attachment style had parents that were responsive to their needs without being helicopter parents. There was balance, security, and a sense of physical and emotional safety, but there was also room to learn and grow in a loving, supportive environment.
We can learn to cultivate secure attachment, but some people are lucky enough to have received this gift as a child. It fits them naturally, and they don’t have to work hard to have it.
Then, there are the anxiously attached, the fearful-avoidantly (dismissive avoidantly) attached, and the avoidantly attached. We’re the products of families that put the fun in dysfunctional. We either had authoritarian, permissive, or absent parenting. We grew up with insecurity rather than security. It’s unsurprising that this impacts our adult relationships.
Of course, I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I fell full-stop, head-over-heels in love with a person with avoidant attachment. I wasn’t thinking about attachment style or the way it impacts relationships. I didn’t yet see the pitfalls.
I only saw the possibilities. I knew neither of us came from a perfect, stable background, but I imagined that we were both committed to personal growth, overcoming our challenges, and — most importantly of all — to maintaining the health of the relationship. It’s not that I thought love could conquer all. I just thought that being committed to love could be a powerful motivator for overcoming challenges.
Before I go any further, I should state that I cannot say unequivocally what it is to experience avoidant attachment — or any other attachment style other than my own. I haven’t walked a mile in those shoes. But I can share what I know from an academic standpoint about other attachment styles while sharing my experience with my own.
Challenges of Attachment in Adult Relationships
There are challenges any time we partner another person with a different attachment style. Unless we’re a secure partner dating a secure partner, we’re absolutely going to experience some friction within the relationship that’s directly related to our childhood experiences. This is normal and to be expected.
When an anxious person falls for an avoidant one, it won’t be easy. This is one of the most challenging relationship pairings. On the one hand, there’s a partner who is constantly looking for reassurance in the relationship. On the other, there’s a person who fears intimacy and is uncomfortable with offering relational reassurance. One person feels insecure, and the other feels smothered by their partner’s needs.
Love can be there, but it can get lost in translation. The avoidant partner keeps looking for more space, creating distance in the relationship. The anxious partner keeps trying to pull them closer to soothe themselves that the love is still there. It creates an unintentional tug of war, and it often causes conflict in the relationship.
The truth is that it’s easy to blame the avoidants because they’re the ones obviously pulling away. Yet, when it comes to attachment style, it’s not about blame. None of us would choose a fear of intimacy or an overwhelming insecurity. Given the choice, we would all like to feel safe in the knowledge that we are loved for who we are without strings attached.
There is no one to blame when it comes to relationship challenges created by attachment issues. And yet, that doesn’t mean we don’t have the responsibility for addressing our own attachment style. That’s the realization I came to when I considered what it must have been like for an avoidant person to date, well, me.
What’s It Like Dating an Anxiously Attached Person
Instead of being hyper-focused on my experience dating someone avoidant, I turned the tables. It wasn’t a comfortable moment for me, but I know it was necessary.
I thought about what it must be like to love someone who is never quite convinced that you do. I thought about how defeating it must have been to think you were showing and giving love and affection only to find the object of that attention requesting more and more reassurance. I considered what it must have felt like to need space and freedom only to find that the other person kept interpreting that as signs you wanted to leave them rather than signs you wanted to soothe yourself.
I wasn’t trying to make the breakdown of the relationship my fault. Instead, I was looking for my responsibility. I was being accountable for my behavior. I may not consider myself an anxious person, but I am an anxiously attached one who is slowly learning how to cultivate secure attachment within relationships.
I had always looked at the other side, my side. I had focused on all the ways I’d reached out for comfort only to encounter rejection. To be fair, these experiences are just as valid — but they aren’t the whole story. They don’t characterize the full relationship.
This is what happens when an anxious person falls for an avoidant one. You end up with two entirely different experiences. One person feels smothered, and the other feels abandoned. Love, if it ever existed at all, gets lost in the visceral experience of attachment conflict.
How to Partner Someone with a Different Attachment Style
We might think that there’s nothing we can do. Our attachment styles don’t mesh, so it must all end. Yet, there are many things we can do when we fall for people with another attachment style.
We Can Be Accountable
The first thing we need to do is find our accountability. We can’t change the other person, their background, or their behavior. We can choose to take a hard look at our own.
It wasn’t his job to constantly soothe me. I also have to admit that I didn’t do a good job of asking for exactly what it is that I needed. I can look back and see that I kept reacting to triggers in the relationship rather than acknowledging them and responding to them intentionally.
Seeing all of this has helped me learn to be a better partner and more secure person. I still have anxious attachment tendencies, but I pause and breathe when they hit. I apply logic to the fears I experience rather than simply reacting to them.
We Can Educate Ourselves
I could have sent former partners information about their attachment issues. But that’s not my role in a relationship. Instead, I found that I needed to educate myself about my own attachment but then take the extra step to learn about theirs — not to teach them but to adapt my own behavior.
I know about anxious attachment. I’m well-versed in it. I didn’t know as much about what it’s like to be avoidant. As I read through information about this attachment style, I could see all the ways I’d inadvertently triggered avoidant responses. I also learned that there were ways I could be more sensitive in relationships with people of other attachment styles.
Ideally, both partners would be open to learning about each other’s attachment tendencies and figuring out how best to navigate them, but we can’t force this to happen either. We can still take the time to learn how attachment in childhood impacts adult relationships so that we can better understand ourselves and be more sensitive partners, too.
We Can Communicate More Effectively
My anxious attachment is a big reason I have trouble advocating for my needs. There are layers to why I am the way I am — and the same is true for us all. It’s hard to ask for what I want when I have a fear that the very act of asking will open me up to rejection. Yet, communication is key in all our relationships.
I often look back and see ways that I could have asked directly for reassurance. I could have talked more honestly about my needs and my fears. I can see how I avoided certain topics because I was so afraid that addressing them would create issues, and yet not addressing them was an issue all its own.
It might be difficult for anxious people to date avoidant people or for secure people to date fearful-avoidants or for avoidant people to date each other. That doesn’t mean these are impossible pairings. It does mean that there are challenges we ignore at our own peril.
It’s important to be able to talk out not only why we are the way we are but also to communicate about what we need so that no one feels smothered or abandoned. Learning to navigate attachment is an important part of becoming a better partner. We can get mad that the other person reacts the way they do, we can even get mad at ourselves for our own impulses, or we can find compassion and learn to be sensitive to attachment issues.
When an Anxious Person Falls for an Avoidant One
I’m learning how to be more secure, but my default is anxious. I accept that about myself. It’s still hard for me to ask for what I need, but now at least I try. It’s still hard for me to speak up when I’m feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, but I still do.
When an anxious person falls for an avoidant one, it doesn’t have to end in disaster. It all depends on what we do about it. I didn’t set out to fall in love with someone whose attachment style was a world away from mine. I didn’t intentionally seek out conflicts in my past relationships. I just loved — and hoped it would be enough.
But I’ve learned since then that love isn’t enough. There has to be a mutual commitment to that love, a desire to work through whatever challenges come up.
I believe that one day I will love someone who will love me through the anxiety I try so hard to manage. I will love them through whatever challenges they bring to the table. It won’t be perfect. It might not even be easy, but attachment styles don’t have to predict the ending.
We can be accountable, educate ourselves, and communicate effectively. While love isn’t enough on its own, it can certainly be the motivation we need to show a little compassion to ourselves and our partners as we navigate attachment differences.
Originally published on Medium