Anxious Plus Avoidant: An Insecurely Attached Relationship

Erin Snow LMFT

You met at a friend’s New Year’s Eve party. It was instant fireworks. The two of you literally locked eyes from across the room and the next thing you knew, you’d spent the entire evening together. You talked and danced, and it felt like you’d known each other for years. He made you feel so seen and heard, said all the right things. You felt beautiful. Things moved quickly because you both absolutely loved being around each other. It was hot, adventurous, and fun. You felt like you finally found the person you’d been looking for all your life. It was hard to ever get him off your mind, to the point that not a whole lot else mattered.

After some time, the topic of moving in together was casually thrown around at dinner, but no decisions were made. The next day, you noticed he didn’t text you good morning. Then he was vague and short throughout the day. You thought you must’ve said something to upset him, but he assured you everything was fine.

He remained distant after that until it seemed that what was once a burning flame was a smoldering pile of ashes. You were left running every possible scenario through your head. Something must have happened. It was so perfect. “What is wrong with me?” you asked yourself. “Is he with someone else?” Your heart was breaking.

This story describes an all-too-common experience in a couple where an insecure attachment style is in play. And it can happen between any two humans seeking connection and romance.

What is an attachment style, you ask? Well, attachment styles are the single most widely studied relationship construct from birth until death. One thing we know for certain is that our attachment style begins to form in infancy and is relatively cemented before our adolescent years. For example, children with consistent, loving caregivers who are available and safe most often grow up with a secure attachment style, especially if there isn’t other trauma. As both children and adults, they are able to engage in relationships with sound boundaries, open communication, and trust. They can love without an overwhelm of fear because, with or without this relationship, they know they will be OK.

Then there are the rest of us—the insecurely attached.

To keep it simple, I will focus here on the anxious and avoidant attachment styles, each of which is represented in the story above. Oddly enough, both styles have similar fears—abandonment and rejection—although those fears are expressed on wildly different ends of the spectrum.

In the story, the woman is the anxiously attached partner. Anxiously attached people often worry that they care about someone more than they are cared for. They have a lot of fear of losing the connection, which can result in insecure thoughts over their behavior or appearance. They can have overwhelming feelings early on and seek to make a commitment quickly. They are quick to give up their own life for their connection to the other person. They may be acutely aware of their neediness and might hide those feelings and let them build. The connection to their partner makes them feel whole.

Meanwhile, the man in the scenario is avoidantly attached. He starts out the same as the woman, with a strong desire for connection, but his fears cause him to pull away when the relationship gets too serious. When moving in together came up in conversation, he started to feel smothered and overwhelmed, and he backed away, quite possibly dreading from that moment on any type of continued emotional closeness with the woman.  

The tricky part of this scenario is that both the anxious and the avoidant individuals want connection. Especially in the beginning. They can both rush in and enjoy the quick, hot and heavy excitement of new love. The problem is, as the anxious person moves closer to commitment, the avoidant person runs for the hills.

Both parties in this equation fear rejection and abandonment, but, as stated above, their fear shows up differently. One holds on with increasing tightness while the other pulls away. This dynamic eventually feels like a run and chase game where no one’s needs are met.

Anxious plus avoidant is unfortunately the most common pairing of attachment styles, leading to a lot of couples struggling to figure out how to be happy. For such couples, the journey toward a more securely attached relationship is a challenging one, but it can certainly be done.

Developing secure attachment in such a relationship involves first acknowledging the fears each person has and how they manifest in the relationship. Then both individuals must communicate those feelings when they come up and ask for what they need. The true growth, of course, is in each individual’s healing, which occurs when they process their early-life wounds and show up for themselves in a way that expresses self-love and wholeness. With this work, an anxious and an avoidant can become two complete, whole individuals who can securely attach to one another and have true intimacy.

* * * * * * * * * *

If you or someone you care about wants to become more securely attached, Seeking Integrity can help. Whether you are an addict or a betrayed partner, our low-cost online workgroups are a great option. Our next Betrayed Partners workgroup starts March 1, 2023. Click here for information. Our next online workgroup for sex addicts starts March 4, 2023. Click here for information