Learning about your attachment style (aka how you relate to others) can be quite the game-changer for your relationships. As a refresher, there are three attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant. The secure attachment style feels safe and confident in their relationships, while anxious types constantly seek reassurance, and avoidant types—you guessed it—tend to run away from close connections.
Unfortunately, clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, says we are often drawn to people and relationships that exacerbate, rather than heal, our attachment styles, which can explain why anxiously attached people gravitate towards avoidant attachers. As you can imagine, when one partner needs connection, and the other rejects it, the two can get stuck in an anxious-avoidant dating trap.
What is the anxious-avoidant dating trap?
"The anxious-avoidant dating trap involves a destructive, no-win cycle between the anxious, connection-seeking partner and the avoidant, connection-resisting partner," Dr. Manly explains. "The anxious partner's core desire is to achieve closeness and intimacy, while the avoidant partner's inherent need is to maintain a sense of independence."
So what does that cycle look like exactly? Sara Stanizai, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Prospect Therapy, says it usually goes something like this: "The anxious person pursues intimacy through closeness and reassurance, and the avoidant person interprets these signals as threatening, annoying, or misses the cues altogether; this increases stress for both partners in the relationship."
That said, this doesn't mean that the avoidant person doesn't pursue intimacy. It just means they do it their way. "By taking space and meeting their own needs independently, it allows them to show up in the relationship and give from their overflow rather than out of obligation," Stanizai says of the avoidant partner. "This is interpreted by the anxious partner as disconnection or dissatisfaction with the relationship when that isn't necessarily the case."
In other words, the signals get crossed, and when they do, Dr. Manly adds that the anxious partner then tries to repair the rupture. But in their true fashion, the avoidant partner remains detached, cold, and angry. Eventually, Dr. Manly says the partners usually reconnect. Still, the underlying issues go unresolved, perpetuating the anxious-avoidant dating trap leaving both partners feeling unsatisfied with the negative relationship dynamics.
Signs you're caught in the anxious-avoidant dating trap
1. You identify with the anxious or avoidant attachment style
To determine if you’re indeed stuck in an anxious-avoidant relationship, one of you has to be the anxious attacher and the other the avoidant one. Dr. Manly says one sign that you’re an anxious attacher stuck in the anxious-avoidant dating trap is if you feel chronically uneasy and unseen by your partner because they resist the emotional connection, such as constantly favoring other activities over spending quality time with you.
On the other hand, if you're the avoidant one, Dr. Manly says you likely consider yourself a "lone wolf" or an independent type and find that your partner's need for attention and connection makes you feel angry and claustrophobic.
2. You have the same fight over and over again without resolution
If you find that you and your partner are repeatedly having the same issue without any resolutions, Stanizai says that's a big sign that you're caught in the anxious-avoidant cycle. This is especially true, she says, if the fight is about not feeling heard or understood, fear of being too demanding, feeling pressured, fear of disappointing the other, or feeling vaguely guilty. Similarly, Stanizai adds if you feel like you're always asking for the same thing in the relationship and those needs are not being met, that is also a sign that you may be trapped in the cycle.
3. There's a lack of trust in the relationship
Lack of trust in the relationship is another red flag to look for when it comes to an anxious-avoidant dating trap. Stanizai says it's about more than just not trusting the other person to be faithful. She explains that it applies to any kind of trust, such as if you trust they'll show up for you when you need them. She adds that fear is also a form of mistrust that can present itself in sneaky ways. For example, she says the anxious partner may fear their partner will let them down by not texting them good morning every day, which may result in not asking them for things or coming to them when they're in distress.
How to stop the anxious-avoidant cycle
1. View the situation without judgement
If you're stuck in the anxious-avoidant dating trap, Dr. Manly first recommends taking a step back and viewing the situation non-judgmentally to gain perspective. "Whether you're the anxious or avoidant one in the relationship, it's important not to blame yourself," she says. "Attachment issues are a result of patterns unconsciously adopted in childhood; you didn't select your attachment style as a child—it selected you." The good news, Dr. Manly says, attachment patterns can be changed, but it does require conscious effort and often psychotherapy to shift the patterns.
2. Focus on repair after conflict
Disagreements between couples are inevitable, Stanizai says, but they're not often truly resolved, meaning you both feel like the issue was put to rest or you feel more love, appreciation, and closeness with your partner, in an anxious-avoidant relationship. She says practicing repair is one of the best ways to break the anxious-avoidant cycle. "Repair means both people feel heard and understood—that their partner can demonstrate empathy for how they felt," she explains. "It doesn't mean that you agree or that the problem won't come back up again later. Neither of those is necessary for a good repair. In fact, most problems in a relationship are recurrent, but the way you repair is what will keep your relationship strong."
3. Embrace your needs
Another key to breaking free from the anxious-avoidant dating trap is owning your attachment style. "Discuss the needs you each have, and don't stop with the list of demands," Stanizai says. "Look at why those things are important to you." For example, she says if receiving a good morning text is one of your needs, get curious about why that matters to you. Maybe you like to know your partner is thinking about you and that you matter to them when you're not around. Communicating this deeper need to your partner gives them flexibility to meet the need in other ways, which brings us to the last tip.
4. Let your partner meet those needs
"Be willing to let your partner meet those needs in a way that feels comfortable to them," Stanizai says. "This is part of compromise." Using the above example, maybe your partner has busy mornings and doesn't have the time to send that good morning text, but their afternoons are wide open, and they can text you then. With that in mind, Stanizai emphasizes that it's not about overriding your preferences, but instead not getting so entrenched in your frustrations that you become so specific about what you will accept. In other words, be flexible. Together you can come up with something that works for both of you and break free of the anxious-avoidant cycle for good.
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