If you’re experiencing conflict with your partner, and you’re not sure why you keep clashing, you may not realize that you have clashing or opposing attachment styles. If you have an anxious attachment style, you might struggle to make it work with someone who has an avoidant attachment style, and vice versa.
The attachment theory is a very resourceful psychological theory that pertains to human relationships and human interactions.
Decades of scientific research has gone into understanding attachment theory. The attachment theory was first developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth and psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1950s. Much literature has been based on their theories of attachment styles.
The attachment theory is one of the most advanced and one of the most accurate relationship sciences out there, and psychologists and counselors reference it in couples therapy and individual counseling all the time.
A person’s attachment style is shaped by their early childhood experiences, based on how their caregivers such as their mother and father cared for them, or in some cases, neglected them.
In addition to early childhood experiences, general life experiences (including trauma that occurs when you’re an adult) can also impact your attachment style.
What are the Different Attachment Styles?
The four main attachment styles are:
- Anxious attachment style
- Avoidant attachment style
- Fearful-avoidant attachment style
- Secure attachment style
These attachment styles impact us as adults, and one of the adult experiences impacted the most by attachment styles is adult relationships.
In this article, we’re going to focus on two clashing attachment styles: anxious attachment style vs avoidant attachment style.
We’ll be referencing one of the most renowned books on attachment theory out there. The book is entitled, Attached, and it was written by Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel Heller.
Dr. Amir Levine, is an adult, child and adolescent psychiatrist and neuroscientist.
Rachel Heller holds a master’s degree in social-organizational psychology from Columbia University.
In their book, they explain that those with an anxious attachment style tend to be too preoccupied with their relationships, often worrying about their partner’s ability to love them back, and being anxious about where they stand in their partner’s eyes.
Those with an avoidant attachment style tend to equate intimacy with a loss of independence, and they tend to try to minimize closeness with various distancing strategies.
Before we get into why these two attachment styles struggle to be in a relationship with each other, let’s define both anxious attachment style and avoidant attachment style in more detail.
Anxious Attachment Style Explained
Those who have an anxious attachment style typically know that’s their attachment style. However, with the help of Levine and Heller’s book Attached, which bases its questionnaire on the updated Experience in Close Relationships (ECR) questionnaire from Kelly Brennan, Catherine Clark, and Phillip Shaver, you can decipher your attachment style. The updated questionnaire was developed by Chris Fraley, Niels Waller, and Kelly Brennan, and it is called the ECR-R questionnaire. Levine and Heller modified it for adult relationships.
Below are some signs that you might have an anxious attachment style:
- Constant desire for contact with your partner.
- Jumping to the worst conclusions when you don’t hear from them.
- Hypersensitivity to perceived rejection.
- Often worrying that your partner will stop loving you.
- Fantasizing about how great your relationship could be if your partner would just let you in a little more, and make you feel more secure.
- Fear of abandonment.
- Constantly being preoccupied with your partner or always worrying about them or the relationship.
- Consistent need for intimacy and closeness.
- You enjoy sharing your innermost feelings and having deep conversations with your partner.
- You’re comfortable being vulnerable with your partner.
- Often worrying that your partner will lose interest in you, and they’ll become interested in someone else.
- Fear that if your partner leaves you, you won’t be able to find someone else.
- Anxiety about not being good enough, smart enough, good-looking enough, etc.
- If you notice your partner checking out singles, you become anxious or depressed.
- You find yourself searching for ways to get closer to your partner.
Someone with an anxious attachment style is probably better off dating someone with a secure attachment style, because those with a secure attachment style are comfortable with intimacy, and recognize the positives of being close with someone.
If someone with an anxious attachment style tries to date someone with an avoidant attachment style, their partner’s avoidant personality will only exacerbate their anxiety.
This dynamic could easily become a toxic relationship.
There are many reasons why an avoidant is not a good match for someone with an anxious attachment style, but first, let’s define the avoidant attachment style.
Avoidant Attachment Style Explained
Do you have an avoidant attachment style? The closer your partner wants to get to you, the more you have the urge to run away? If you have an avoidant personality, you likely have an avoidant attachment style.
Courtesy of Levine and Heller and my own research and interpretation, below are some signs that you have an avoidant attachment style:
- Your independence is much more important to you than falling in love or being in a relationship.
- You have a hard time letting someone get close, and you’d rather keep them at arm’s length.
- You find yourself often more attracted to unavailable people, rather than the person who is available to you and wants a relationship with you.
- It makes you nervous when your partner gets too close, or develops strong feelings for you.
- Sometimes, when you get who you want, you’re not so sure you want that person anymore.
- Your partners tend to always want to get more intimate than you’re comfortable with.
- You’re uncomfortable being vulnerable with your partner, and if you ever are, it’ll be on your terms.
- You prefer not to share your innermost feelings or the darkest depths of your psyche with your partner.
- You have difficulty expressing your needs or wants to your partner in a clear manner.
- Instead of communicating, you tend to stonewall your partner, shut down, or go silent.
- You tend to keep those interested in you guessing, by acting aloof and not being very communicative about what they mean to you.
- You prefer casual relationships with uncommitted partners over intimate relationships with one partner.
- You’re afraid of having someone depend on you.
- If you notice your partner checking out other singles, you feel relieved at the thought that they may not require being monogamous. You might feel a small pang of jealousy, but it is fleeting.
- The closer someone tries to get to you, the more you find yourself turned off or having the urge to leave.
- Despite there being many things you could do together with your partner, you find excuses to do those things alone instead.
- You often use emotional and physical distancing strategies with the person you’re dating (such as keeping a lot of your thoughts to yourself, not seeing them very often, not calling them very often, etc.)
- You tend to idealize your ex and have thoughts such as, “I don’t think I’ll ever feel that way about another partner ever again.”
- It’s difficult for you to trust the person you’re dating.
- You tend to focus on the negatives of being in a relationship, and you downplay all the positives about being in a loving partnership.
Levine and Heller describe those with an avoidant attachment style as those who tend to keep love at arm’s length.
This type of behavior is very distressing to those with an anxious attachment style who crave a close connection. (If their partner was less avoidant, they’d likely have less conflict because they’d feel more secure, and more emotionally safe.)
Levine and Heller explain that avoidants tend to devalue the relationship they’re in, and they often instead reminisce about a long-lost love, which is referred to as The Phantom Ex Phenomenon.
Levine and Heller explain in Attached that the reason why avoidants tend to put their ex on a pedestal is because, “Once at a safe distance, the threat of intimacy is gone, and you no longer feel the need to suppress your true feelings. You can then recall all of your ex’s great qualities, convincing yourself that he or she was the best partner you ever had.”
In other words, an ex who is no longer interested in you, the avoidant, is the ex you’ll never stop thinking about.
On a similar note, Levine and Heller ask the potentially avoidant reader, “Have you ever gone out with someone who you think is amazing, but as you start to get closer, you become overwhelmed with the feeling that s/he isn’t actually so hot after all?” To explain this phenomenon, Levine and Heller go on to say, “What you don’t realize is this surge of negativity could in fact be a deactivating strategy, unconsciously triggered to turn off your attachment needs.”
In other words, avoidants need to rewire their brain to stop only wanting what they can’t have, and start appreciating genuine connections while they’re happening. This involves a lot of inner work, and it’s best to see a qualified therapist – even if it’s just for a couple of sessions to get some strategies from them.
Learning deactivating strategies could help an avoidant stop pushing love away. Be aware that your brain could be playing tricks on you, and as Levine and Heller explain, “Remember that you need intimacy, despite being uncomfortable with it.” If you only allow intimacy to take place on your terms, it’s not real intimacy, and it won’t be the kind of intimacy you truly need.
The Anxious-Avoidant Trap
We’ve already explained that someone with an anxious attachment style should probably not date someone with an avoidant attachment style. Although an avoidant can get help to become someone with a secure attachment style, and so can someone with an anxious attachment style, this takes time. Until a secure attachment style is earned, and an anxious or avoidant attachment style is unlearned, it’s not wise to attempt being in a relationship with each other.
What happens when anxious individuals try to date avoidants? Levine and Heller call this the ‘anxious-avoidant trap’:
“While one partner truly wants intimacy, the other feels very uncomfortable when things become too close.”
Or, what often happens from my experience, is that avoidants want intimacy – but only on their terms. They say when, they say how, and it becomes distressing for the other party. It’s very common for someone with an avoidant attachment style to withdraw after a period of closeness, despite perhaps being aware of how hurtful their withdrawal will be to their partner. The period of closeness was perceived as a threat by the avoidant, so they withdraw to keep love at arm’s length.
Levine and Heller call this the “incongruent intimacy needs” that occur when someone with an anxious attachment style tries to date an avoidant, and it can lead to a lot of hurt feelings, depression, conflict, and misunderstandings. This is because their need for closeness and intimacy is incompatible. One tends to seek proximity, and the other tends to seek distance.
When an avoidant dates an anxious partner, they’ll notice fights generally have an underlying theme of a point of contention regarding the amount of intimacy between the two of them.
Sometimes, when these two individuals with opposing attachment styles truly want to be with each other, they’ll be wise enough to attend couples counseling. A qualified counselor can help each of them unlearn their unhealthy attachment style behaviors, first by understanding why it’s happening, and then with strategies to unlearn the unhealthy attachment style.
Attachment styles can change, and even if you’ve had the same attachment style all your life, you can unlearn it if you set out to do so for the sake of your future relationships.
Levine and Heller explain that a secure attachment style can be learned and, “Priming for security can be as simple as thinking about secure people around you, and how they behave in relationships.” Your relationship with your pet could even be an example of your capabilities of being in a secure relationship. Once you prime yourself for security by thinking about these sorts of examples, you’re ready to start applying it to your own adult relationships.
Why Don’t Avoidants Date Other Avoidants?
An avoidant rarely dates another avoidant, because someone with an avoidant attachment style enjoys feeling strong and independent. They often enjoy having the upper hand.
The avoidant cannot feel strong and independent if the person they’re dating shares the same avoidant tendencies as they do. They feel better when they’re pushing away someone with an anxious attachment style, for example, as this distancing act and withholding dance makes them feel more independent, more powerful, safer, and more in control.
In the book Attached, Levine and Heller explain, “Avoidants feel independent and powerful only to the extent that their partner feels needy . . . ” So, this explains why avoidants tend to choose anxious partners. They’ll always have the upper hand. Levine and Heller go on to explain,
“The anxious partner is usually the one who has to make concessions and accept the rules imposed by the avoidant partner.”
This may be because the anxious individuals tend to be more anxious to resolve conflict in an effort to be close to their partner, so they’re more willing to sacrifice their needs and make concessions. The avoidant personality type doesn’t tend to be as anxious to ‘make it work’.
Is Your Attachment Style Genetic?
Your DNA does impact your attachment style to some degree. For example, it can be in your DNA to be more of a ‘worrier’. For more information on certain behavioral and personality traits that you’re genetically more likely to have, take a DNA test from CirlceDNA. Note that one’s attachment style is primarily based on upbringing and life experiences, but various personality traits associated with anxiety or avoidance are in part genetic.
1. Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love by Amir Levine, M.D., and Rachel S.F. Heller, M.A.
2. A REVIEW OF ATTACHMENT THEORY IN THE CONTEXT OF ADOLESCENT PARENTING https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3051370/