Avoidant/Anxious relationships: Why the Attraction is So Strong

There is a natural attraction between those with an anxious and those with an avoidant attachment style. You might think that this is one of nature’s cruel tricks. There is no one more triggering to an anxiously attached person than someone avoidant. There is similarly no one who can push an avoidant person’s buttons quite like someone with an anxious attachment stye.

I still remember the sinking feeling in my stomach when the topic of attachment came up on my second date with my current partner. We found out that he was avoidant and I was anxious. It was an unsurprising and disconcerting realization for both of us. We had been in enough anxious/avoidant relationships to know how they tended to go.

Did we walk away? Of course not. The attraction was strong and we were naive. Like any newly enamoured couple we also thought that we were different—the exception to the rule.

If you have been in one of these relationships I do not have to explain how painful and challenging they can be. Some of us may leave and swear off people with insecure attachment styles— becoming keen observers of the “red flags.” Some of us give in to the pull and stay in these relationships, despite the challenges. The natural attraction that exists between the anxious and avoidant has always bewildered me. Why would we be attracted to someone who is going to make love so damn hard?

They just “fit”

There are some relationships where we click with another person instantaneously. That “click” feels good and for some people, it is a good sign. It can be an indicator that we have met someone we are compatible with and chances of a secure, healthy relationship are high. With an anxious and avoidant pair, however, the chemistry we experience may have more to do with our attachment wounds than compatibility.

It is as if there is something about them—often unexplainable—that we have spent a long time searching for. For me, there was something about avoidant partners that challenged me. It is not that I liked the challenge, it was that I didn’t know what love felt like without it. Unconsciously, I was attracted to avoidant partners because they were more familiar to me. In a way, they felt like home.

In the words of Diane Poole Heller in her book The Power of Attachment:

“We can be unconsciously attracted to people who fit our relational template from childhood, and like puzzle pieces, we may connect with someone in a relationship who “fits” and who eventually triggers us to feel our unresolved issues with our parents.”

We have good reason to avoid acknowledging the root of why we are attracted to people who are so triggering for us. The root can be an attachment wound, which can bring us back to some of the most vulnerable and tender moments of our lives. Yet, in the famous words of Carl Jung:

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

They balance you emotionally and energetically

The avoidant and anxious attachment styles can actually balance each other out quite well, especially in the early stages of dating. What one lacks, the other makes up for effortlessly. It can make the first few dates between an anxious and avoidant feel easy and comfortable. There might be a sense of finally finding something that feels right.

This can be explained using Kurt Lewin’s “field theory,” which is applied to dating by Dr. Hal Shorey in his article “The Field of Play: Anxious and Avoidant Attachment on Dates”:

“In a one-on-one dating situation, the field is the emotional/energy space around and between two people. What the energy in the space seeks is balance. In other words, the total amount of emotional energy in the space will remain constant. If one person withdraws energy from the space, the other person will make up for it by putting more energy into the space.”

Someone with an anxious attachment style tends to be other-focused whereas someone with an avoidant attachment style leans towards independence and self-focus. This means if someone who is avoidant withdraws, the anxious person will happily fill the space. At first, the push/pull dynamic might not be noticeable and instead, it can feel like we have found our perfect match.

Eventually, this dynamic becomes problematic. The anxious person may become aware that they are putting more energy into the relationship and push for more closeness from their avoidant partner. This push tends to not feel safe for the avoidant person and can lead to them pulling away. Anyone who has been in one of these relationships knows how challenging it can be to break the cycle of push and pull.

They can be our greatest teacher

Although I didn’t want to believe it, there was a lot I had to learn from my avoidant partners. I was overly dependent in my relationships, didn’t know how to self-soothe, and had no idea what a boundary was until I was in my late 20s. Someone who is avoidant tends to be independent, know how to self-soothe, and have excellent boundaries. I had teachers in my bed for years but I was too stubborn to admit they had something to teach me.

Instead of learning from them, I pushed them. I refused to acknowledge that maybe closeness—something that came easily for me—was just as challenging for them as separateness was for me. We were both at opposite ends of a spectrum of connection, refusing to meet each other half way.

In the words of Diane Poole Heller:

“It can be tricky when avoidants and ambivalents get together, especially if there’s a big variance in commitment to the relationship. When things get rocky, avoidants typically find relief and safety in isolation and distance, whereas ambivalents want more closeness. It takes a lot of education, compassionate awareness and commitment to bridge these gaps because they tend to trigger each other toward their most painful wounds and increase insecurity versus diminish it.”

I think the key here is that there is not a “big variance in commitment to the relationship.” At the end of the day, these types of relationships take a lot of work. There is no way around it. They require both people to look inwards and own how their attachment style is impacting their ability to give and receive love. If we find someone who is open to working at the relationship, an avoidant/anxious match can provide opportunity for deep healing and growth.

Just because the pull between the avoidant and anxious can be explained, doesn’t mean the relationships are going to be any easier. How do we know when the initial attraction is worth hanging on to? I honestly don’t know. The answer is going to be unique for each person, and each relationship, and is really only something we can figure out for ourselves.

There is nothing more human than the desire to connect and for some of us, our desire can lead us into relationships that have the potential to push us to our breaking point. There have been moments in my relationships where I think about giving up. I’m not going to lie and tell you I have it all figured out and that our anxious/avoidant relationship is perfect. It is far from perfect. It is worth it, though, and I’m incredibly grateful to my past self for not walking away after that second date.

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