This article will:
- Explain what an anxious-avoidant relationship is.
- Provide you examples
- Give you the tools to fix the anxious-avoidant trap
- The Anxious Avoidant Trap
- Why Anxious & Avoidant End Up Together
- 4 Signs of Anxious Avoidant Relationship
- The Anxious Type Loses
- Anxious-Avoidant Attachment Examples
- Overcoming The Anxious Avoidant Trap
- Don’t Confuse The Trap For These
The Anxious Avoidant Trap
The anxious-avoidant relationship, AKA “anxious-avoidant trap”, is one of the most common forms of dysfunctional relationships.
It binds together the anxious and the avoidant, the two most antithetical attachment styles.
The anxious-avoidant attachment makes for a terrible relationship because, at its core, the two have opposing approaches to intimacy.
The anxious moves towards intimacy, and the avoidant moves away from intimacy to regain his space. The anxious need intimacy, and the avoidant needs to maintain independence.
Here is how the trap unfolds on a loop:
#1. Anxious Moves Towards
The anxious type needs and craves lots of intimacy.
And when he doesn’t get it, his attachment system activates. In very simple terms, that basically means that he needs to get closer to his partner, both physically and emotionally.
#2. Avoidant Moves Away
The problem is that the avoidant partner reacts in the opposite way.
Avoidants get easily overloaded with too much intimacy and need to regain their space and autonomy by moving away.
When their partner gets too close or stays close for too long, avoidants start to pull away.
#3. Argument Ensues
When the avoidant partner moves away, the anxious partner starts arguments to get the attention they are lacking.
Arguments are often a front that doesn’t address the real issue: the lack of intimacy.
Indeed, anxious types are often afraid of asking for intimacy because they’re concerned their partner doesn’t feel the same way.
Often, they do feel the same way, but they just express their love in very different and sometimes incompatible ways.
On the other hand, the avoidant doesn’t address the issues because, well… The avoidant doesn’t want to solve the issue!
Solving the issue would be easy, but it would mean giving up the physical and emotional buffer that they need.
Indeed, sometimes the avoidants enjoy the fights. Not that he likes the fights per se, but he enjoys what the fights can provide him: a good excuse to get more time on his own.
And if she complains, an easy excuse for him:
you started the fight darling and you were rather nasty, now leave me alone!
Arguments Don’t Get Solved Easily
During fights, anxious people tend to get flooded (basically, “overwhelmed”, read more on flooding) and to focus on the negatives.
They overreact and say things they regret (read cruelty and criticism).
After the argument, the opposite happens: the anxious person regrets what they said and focuses on the positives of their partner. Now the anxious person wants to mend things and get close again.
But avoidants react differently: after an argument, they turn off their attachment system and only remember the negatives.
Now they want to stay away.. For a while.
Which makes a reconciliation not always straightforward.
When reconciliation finally happens, it usually doesn’t last long.
It’s called the “anxious-avoidant trap”, but it should be called the “anxious-avoidant cycle” instead. Because it is indeed a repeated pattern, on a loop.
Notice the pattern below: it’s obvious that the unhappy moments far outweigh the positive ones. But still, couples stay together for far longer than the relationship’s health would warrant—we’ll discuss why later on.
See that caption?
That caption is exactly what an ex-girlfriend of mine once told me.
I’m too much for you and you’re not enough for me.
It still rings in my ear.
Back then I didn’t know about attachment styles, and yet I felt that with one single sentence she had fully summarized all our issues.
That’s indeed a great summary of the anxious-avoidant trap.
Now, would you like to take a guess as to who was the anxious and who was the avoidant in that relationship?
Why Anxious & Avoidant End Up Together
If the anxious and avoidants are not compatible, why do they end up together so often?
Here are the main reasons:
1. Anxious types think it’s love
Some sources, like Amir Levine, say that the anxious type confuses the ups and downs of their activated attachment system for “real love”.
It’s important to notice here that the emotional ups and downs are the exact reason why the anxious partner is so attached to the avoidant.
Adelyn Birch says that the emotional peak and the intermittent rewards produce the strongest bond—the strongest dysfunctional bond, in some cases-.
And the opposite is also true.
When anxious types meet a secure partner—a partner who’s honest, direct, and emotionally present—they find him more boring.
They don’t feel the “spark” they get with the avoidant and they think that “it must not be real love” -but it’s worth repeating that it’s not really a spark with the anxious: it’s just an activated attachment system going awry-.
It’s a bit like for the ass*ole / nice guy thing where women sometimes find the latter too “plain” and boring.
Avoidants are not the same as ass*oles, but they overlap sometimes and many often (mistakenly) equate the two.
2. Emotional codependency
Some avoidants get their sense of self-esteem when they compare their independence and “power” to how much their partner needs them.
This means that some avoidants only feel strong and independent with a partner who needs and pleads for them.
A sad reality for some people: is that they feel strongly about the weaknesses of others.
And that’s one of the reasons why avoidants do not date each other: they don’t get the kicks of being the strong and dominant ones in the relationship.
In the most extreme cases, this can devolve into a codependent relationship.
3. A question of Numbers
Only 25% of the population is avoidant.
Yet you will meet avoidant attachment types much more often than the raw numbers would suggest.
It’s because they are more often on the single market, they are more likely to “look around” when in relationships and they don’t date other avoidants.
And they often end up with, guess whom? The anxious, of course.
Gender of Anxious & Avoidants?
Studies show there are more women who are anxious and more men who are avoidants.
This means the chances of the woman being anxious and the man being avoidant are much higher.
This is not to say that there are no anxious men or avoidant women. There are, and below is a video example.
4 Signs of Anxious Avoidant Relationship
By now, you probably know if you are or if you’ve ever been in an anxious-avoidant attachment.
Here are a few more signs for you:
- Roller-Coaster Effect
There’s a constant alternation of great times followed by bad ones. Like in the circle above, and that’s why the anxious-avoidant attachment is also called the anxious-avoidant trap.
- Constant feeling of instability
Anxious-avoidant relationships often last as long as secure ones. But there’s always an element of uncertainty, which leads to dissatisfaction among both partners.
- You feel treated badly
It’s crazy for the anxious attachment type that the avoidant partner treats them more poorly than people who are not as close. But that’s how it can end up being for the most avoidant types out there: the closest person can be the biggest threat for them.
- You feel trapped
Deep down, you know that this partner and this relationship are not right for you. Yet it’s hard for you to leave. But whether you are aware of it or not, all the ups and downs are actually addictive.
The Anxious Type Loses
Since anxious-avoidant relationships often last a long time, it’s normal to ask: what happens?
Who gets the upper hand?
Does the avoidant get the distance he wants, or does the anxious person get the intimacy they need?
Well, in a way, neither wins.
Anxious-avoidant relationships indeed tend to be less satisfactory to both partners. But in the bleakness of the overall relationship, it’s the anxious who loses the most.
Indeed, after every fight, it’s the anxious that has to make concessions to the avoidant to reconcile and re-establish a minimum of intimacy.
And she is the one who has to settle for the little intimacy that the avoidant will dish out.
This is really not an ideal situation.
For the anxious, the relationship is mostly a barren desert of unmet needs with small oases of reconciliation (and again, it’s worth repeating: the rare emotional rewards make people addicted in a similar fashion that drugs make us addicted).
And if you’re anxious, you might want to ask yourself: Could it be that you can do better than that?
Anxious-Avoidant Attachment Examples
Now, we’ve talked a lot about theory.
Wouldn’t it be cool to have a few examples of Anxious, Avoidant relationships in real life?
Well, I’m glad you asked.
Here I break down three famous movies with my own annotation so you can see exactly what we’re talking about (I just love great real-life examples to make everything clear :).
#1. Five Easy Pieces
He is the avoidant type, and she is the anxious type.
#2. 500 Days of Summer
As we’ve said, the anxious-avoidant attachment is more typical with him as the avoidant, but there are plenty of relationships where the roles invert (will put the video example back up as soon as I can).
#3. La Dolce Vita
La Dolce Vita presents the typical fight-reconciliation loop of the anxious-avoidant attachment, with a touch of borderline personality disorder as well:
Overcoming The Anxious Avoidant Trap
What should you do when you are in an anxious-avoidant trap?
That’s the million-dollar question, and the answer to that, without knowing your situation, can only be “it’s difficult to say”.
But here are some truths that can help you decide on the best course of action:
1. The Relationship Can Last Long
If the anxious needs for intimacy are not too big and the avoidant needs for independence are not extreme, the relationship can hum along.
Indeed, as perverse as that might sound, anxious and avoidant relationships tend to be long-lasting.
Part of the reason is that the ups and downs are addictive, and some anxious people believe they might not be able to find “so much love” with someone else (don’t fall for that BS).
However, long-lasting is NOT synonymous with good or healthy. And as we saw earlier, the anxious partner tends to lose out.
So make sure you take the necessary precautions.
2. Be Careful You Don’t Become The Enemy
In some anxious avoidant relationships, the avoidant partner will become perennially annoyed with the anxious partner.
We have seen that example in the video above with Jack Nicholson (look at it again, it’s really good to explain that dynamic).
It’s also possible that the avoidant partner will start seeing the anxious partner as an enemy. They will keep secrets, stop confiding, and actively avoid their spouses.
To avoid it, try to grant the avoidant partner some of his much-needed breaks and avoid thinking in terms of “I’m right, he needs fixing”.
3. Assess Your Options
Try to detach yourself emotionally and make an assessment of your options.
Here are a couple of helpful articles:
4. Don’t Take the Blame!
Many anxious types cannot understand why their avoidant partners are moving away.
They feel rejected, they take the blame, and their self-esteem tanks (read how low self-esteem can open the doors to abuse).
Don’t fall for that trap: it’s not you. And it’s not your partner either, in a way. It’s simply that you are both wired in a way that makes you two, shall we say, “wired for drama”.
And sure, brain wiring does change and you can change it… But that’s not to say that it’s easy.
5. Make More Friends
There can be more hidden issues compounding anxious avoidant relationships.
But a more common and benign “aggravating circumstance” is the mismatch in the extroversion scale. For example, the avoidant might also be an introvert or an anxious extrovert.
I have already talked about the issues that extroversion mismatch creates with flatmates, where it ends up looking a lot like an anxious-avoidant relationship.
But the good news if the anxious is also extroverted is that it’s easier to quickly improve the relationship.
And you do it by increasing the anxious’ social life.
More friends and acquaintances will help the anxious get her fill of “human connections” outside the relationship while also giving some more time off to the avoidant.
Just watch out that one of those connections doesn’t become an emotional affair :)-.
6. Focus on Quality, Not Quantity
Learning to bond and connect with people is a life skill.
It’s a skill that makes great relationships and that can also help in the anxious-avoidant relationship.
How can it help?
Here is how: if the avoidant learns to be fully present, to build a human bond and connection, and to really care about the partner, then chances are that less time together will actually be needed for the avoidant.
Result: more quality time for the anxious and more lonely time for the avoidant.
And there are no risks of going wrong or overdoing it here: a focus on quality time can never go wrong.
7. Try This Crazy Move!
Have your avoidant (or anxious) partner read this article, which will probably be an eye-opener.
After all, one of the reasons why it’s so difficult for many couples to survive the anxious avoidant trap is that neither can understand what’s happening, and they both end up blaming each other.
Then tell him, tactfully, that you are worried your relationship isn’t going to last unless you two make the necessary changes.
If he is in it and acts on it, it’s a very good sign you can fix it.
Don’t Confuse The Trap For These
There are more relationship issues that can compound or be confused with the anxious avoidant attachment.
On top of the extroversion/introversion mismatch we have seen, here are a few:
1. As*holes Are Not Avoidant
Anxious, avoidant attachment is a common relationship.
And it’s what some people sometimes mistake for “being in a relationship with an ass*ole”.
But while the two can overlap, such as when you have an avoidant who is also an as*hole, an avoidant is not necessarily an as*hole (and vice versa).
Indeed, many avoidants can also be “nice guys“. And people who look at your relationship from the outside might even be surprised at your issues with “such a nice guy”, which increases the risks that the anxious self-blames BTW.
If you are interested, read more here:
If I had to pick a partner for an anxious woman, I’d actually pick an ass*ole for her over an avoidant.
2. Borderline Personality Disorder
The anxious partner might be confused or also present traits of borderline personality disorder.
BPs also switch from fears of abandonment to engulfment, but the swings tend to be wilder and more dramatic.
For more information on BPs, read:
The avoidant might also be emotionally unavailable because of trauma or personality.
The Godfather is an example of an emotionally unavailable man, as would be Mr. Big from Sex & The City.
Emotionally unavailable men do miss their partners and do want intimacy. But then they also miss their freedom and independence. Or their guard goes up again and takes the distance again.
Of course, they might pop back into your life just when you need them the least:
3. Highly Sensitive People
Similar to introverts, highly sensitive people have a very sensitive nervous system, which causes them to pick up cues from the environment that most other people miss.
However, they also get overwhelmed easily, which means they need to take “breaks” and sit down in the quietness of their own space, both mentally and physically, sometimes actually sitting down in a dark, quiet room-.
Highly sensitive people can replicate the anxious avoidant trap by getting close and then needing “time off”.
This is more of a benign type of emotional roller coaster, though.
Read more on HSPs here:
4. Manipulative Relationships
This is a minority of cases, but I need to raise the red flag.
It’s a sad reality of life that there are some sick people who purposefully dish out intermittent rewards to make people dependent and addicted.
These relationships might look similar to anxious-avoidant relationships as they also present high emotional highs and deep throughs.
The difference is that they are more extreme, and the avoidant is not so much an avoidant as he is an abuser, a “dark psychologist“, a manipulator… Or call him, as you prefer, an asshole, anyway.
Chances are this is not your case, but making sure won’t hurt.
Here are a few articles:
If you suspect this might be the case, I recommend taking the situation very seriously.
You might want to talk to a therapist or someone who knows how to interpret the signs.
This article shows you the inner dynamics of the anxious-avoidant relationship.
As a recovering avoidant myself, I know this dynamic all too well, and I can empathize with you and your difficulties.
It’s not a great relationship, especially for the anxious partner.
However, whether you are the avoidant or the anxious, the good news is that it’s possible to become more secure in your attachment. And it’s also possible to improve your anxious-avoidant relationship.