Escaping the trap of push-and-pull relationships.
Attachment styles are formed in childhood, when the early relationship between child and parent begins to take shape. Researchers have found that attachment patterns established during childhood tend to manifest themselves again adult relationships.
In short, the attachment pattern you form with your parents is replicated later in your romantic relationships.
Ever heard that we each crave the love that we know?
About 60% of people have a secure attachment style, meaning their parents represented a safe touch-base from which they set out to explore the world when they were children.
As adults, this lucky bunch is able to form secure relationships, meaning they are attuned to their partner’s needs as well as their own, and are also able to set healthy boundaries inside the relationship. Relationships between people with secure attachment styles will have their ups and downs, but those relationships are usually what we reference as healthy.
The rest of us are divided between anxious and avoidant (about 20% each).
Lisa Firestone Ph.D. explains how anxious and avoidant patterns are formed:
Anxious: “[…]when a parent is available and attuned at times and insensitive or intrusive at others, the child is more likely to experience an anxious ambivalent attachment pattern. An anxiously attached child can feel like they have to cling to their parent to get their needs met.”
In other words, an anxious attachment style is formed whenever a child’s emotional needs is not consistently met. The child is never sure about how her requests for emotional support will be received, since the response from her parents tends to be unreliable.
Avoidant: “This pattern of attachment develops when a child does not consistently feel safe, seen, or soothed by their parent and therefore becomes pseudo-independent.”
When it comes to forming an avoidant attachment pattern, the parents in this scenario are described by Dr. Lisa Firestone as “emotional deserts,” meaning they’re not very responsive. The result is a child who feels she has to either ignore her own emotional needs (since they’re inconvenient to her parents), or take care of them herself (since she can’t count on anyone else to help her with that).
The good news for those of us with a maladaptive attachment patterns (anxious or avoidant) is that it’s possible to work on changing towards secure. Therapy and self-reflection help a lot.
The bad news is that people with maladaptive attachment patterns tend to attract each other, especially when they’re not aware of which attachment pattern they have, or what that means in practical terms.
The match between someone who’s anxious and someone who’s avoidant doesn’t usually form the healthiest relationships.
How the anxious and the avoidant find each other
When they first get together, the anxious and the avoidant feel like the perfect match.
The anxious partner needs frequent validation. She needs to check with her partner constantly that he still loves her, cares for her, and considers her a priority. She sees it as investing in the relationship, as being all-in.
She blows the relationship out of proportion in her head. Love is everything, and doing everything together, texting all the time when you’re apart, and having long conversations about your feelings is what love is.
After they break up, he calls her needy.
The avoidant partner represents the other extreme. He’s too busy, he can’t be bothered. He’ll call later — maybe.
He takes care of his own emotional needs (or so he thinks), after all, so he doesn’t understand how someone could need that much reassurance that often.
After they break up, she tells her friends he was cold, self-centered, and immature.
(I’m using “him” and “her” because it reflects my personal experience, but gender doesn’t actually matter in determining anyone’s attachment pattern.)
I admit, I have first-hand experience on the (im)perfect combination between an anxious attachment style and a dismissive-avoidant attachment style.
When in a relationship, the avoidant partner’s elusiveness confirms the anxious partner’s need to push harder, to insist. The more the anxious partner insists, the more the avoidant partner feels his need for space is justified.
For a while, their characteristic behaviors justify each other, and they’re happy in their little dance — until they’re not.
My mind-blown moment
Identifying my attachment pattern as anxious-preoccupied has opened my eyes to my behavior in relationships. Understanding how someone with an avoidant attachment style can be so attractive to someone like me simply put my past relationships under a completely new light.
I can’t say it explains everything, because people are a bit more complex than their attachment styles, but I feel like it explains a lot.
I would get into relationships with a need to feel emotionally satisfied before I could do anything else — study, pursue a career, and even care for myself.
Feeling secure, to me, meant that I needed constant validation that the relationship mattered as much to my partner as it did to me. In other words, I needed to feel like it mattered more to him than anything else.
That meant that the more I needed my partner, the more he pulled away. The more he pulled away, the more I felt alone, empty, and insecure.
Whenever I fell into a relationship with an avoidant, I ended up subsisting on scraps of emotional attention, while expecting a full meal that would never come.
In the words of Dr. Lisa Firestone, the avoidant partner:
“[…] can appear to be more focused on themselves and to value their priorities above their partner’s. They can seem cool and removed, often showing annoyance or even disdain when their partner is expressing feelings or needs, believing their partner is being “childish” or “dramatic.” These reactions mimic the emotional desert in which they grew up.”
We’re not broken
Having a maladaptive attachment style doesn’t mean anyone’s broken.
It only means that some work is required in order to progress towards a secure attachment style, and to avoid the pain and heartbreak of a mismatch such as the ones I experienced.
Anxious and avoidants don’t always end up together, but knowing they are very likely to attract each other — and make each other very miserable — is reason enough to seek deeper knowledge of your attachment style.
In order to correct a maladaptive attachment style, self-awareness is the first step. By understanding your emotional needs and how you seek to fulfill them, you can make major progress in avoiding a push-and-pull type of relationship in favor of a more secure, well-balanced one.
Seeking the guidance of a qualified therapist is also an important step.
By Rae Gomes
Benu Lahiry is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist in San Francisco specializing in Couples Counseling Pacific Heights. Her work is especially helpful for people experiencing anxiety, depression, self-doubt, lack of motivation, and for couples with intimacy issues. She is experienced in many evidence-based therapy modalities, including attachment theory, cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic principles, mindfulness practices, and solution-focused therapy. Her therapeutic style is best described as warm, direct, and collaborative.