For a short recap, an attachment pattern is the way we get attached to someone in an intimate relationship, or, even more specific, the way we act when we start feeling close or intimate in a romantic relationship. Know how sometimes you just met someone and you are excited to be in a relationship, but the more intimate and vulnerable you become with them, the more you start acting in ways that changed from who you were when you did not feel as close to that person? That’s the attachment in action, and it was created in our early life by our caregiver. Some of us received a secure love and felt confident enough to explore the surroundings on their own, so they grew to have a secure attachment, some of us had caregivers who did not meet their emotional needs and have developed an avoidant attachment pattern, and some received an insecure love as infants, reason why they have an anxious attachment.
The more we get to understand these patterns, the more we can understand why some people act in certain ways. Some are not even aware of their attachment pattern and are just justifying it rationally – an anxiously attached person will say they are not getting enough love, so they are justified to always ask for more, and an avoidant partner will start looking for deal breakers as soon as they get close to a someone they start feeling intimate with, in order to end the relationship before they feel too vulnerable.
Having this inner preset that dictates our behavior is no easy thing, as ultimately everyone wants and deserves love as well a healthy and fulfilling relationship, and sometimes feel stuck not knowing how to get there. As mentioned before, with self-compassion we can become conscious of the patterns we have and lean towards learning how to earn a secure attachment.
Now let’s see what’s the language and behavior we need to learn in order to understand a bit better an attachment pattern in action. I personally like to see someone’s attachment pattern as their inner child and approach them as careful as I would approach a scared baby so I can find out what they’re scared of and eventually let them know they are safe.
The avoidant attachment
Whenever feeling too vulnerable towards someone, the avoidant will retreat by shutting down emotions or avoid getting too close, in an attempt to avoid vulnerability. As children, they might have experienced neglect or felt as their environment was an unsafe place for them to express themselves and their needs. This situation created for them the need to be extremely independent and heal they own wounds, knowing that asking for help from someone will be seen as inappropriate. This is the reason why they know asking for love will only make them hurt, as they never received it from their own caregivers. While having an argument they feel the same need of having some space – they cannot calm down within the discussion, so they need time and space in order to self-soothe themselves as they did back when they were infants as well.
What does an avoidant partner need in a relationship?
As mentioned, whenever having a discussion or fight, the avoidant partner might need to retreat in order to think clearly. In a relationship between a person with an anxious attachment and a person with an avoidant attachment, this action might trigger the fear of abandonment towards the anxious partner. With communication and understanding, both partners might understand that whenever things are escalating, they will need a break. By openly communicating the need for a calm conversation and avoiding saying hurtful things in the heat of the moment, both partners will see improvements in the confidence they have in the relationship. It’s important to set a time to revisit the conversation – might be a few minutes or an hour later, so things are not left unsolved. Of course, it takes time and practice to be able to do this, but by applying it you know you are actively taking steps towards a happy relationship, and who’s right or wrong doesn’t matter in the overall equation.
As the anxious partner to an avoidant one, patience is the number one skill you’ll learn along the way. The pushier an anxious person becomes, the more the avoidant person will try to run away. Learning to respect your partner’s needs for distance will only bring them closer and pushing them away when they need distance the most will only make them retreat even more.
As soon as you will practice giving them the needed space, you’ll be able to see them coming towards you when feeling safe. Just as a child who approaches a stranger who might look dangerous, the avoidant partner will explore how safe it is to get close to you. When you will not come towards them but will give them enough time and support to explore the surroundings, they will make the courage to come towards you and not run as they were used to do. Let your partner know you are safe to get close to, and that they can approach you whenever they feel confident.
The anxious attachment
A person with an anxious attachment is often characterized by the need for constant reassurance and approval. When feeling insecure in a relationship, their nervous system becomes hard to calm down and they find it even harder to self-soothe themselves, unlike the avoidant partners. They cannot stand uncertainty, so they reach out to their partners to emotionally regulate them. When they are not getting the needed reassurance, they might take actions that might seem counterintuitive like distancing themselves from their partners in order to get their partners to chase them, or escalate a fight in the need to get some certainty. The brain of an anxiously attached person often sounds like this “Please give us reassurance. Pick a fight, end the relationship, do anything for certainty, just don’t settle in this horrible uncertainty. ” They need to be certain they are loved, that they are cared for and that they are not in an unstable environment.
What does an anxious partner need in a relationship?
The people with an anxious attachment have learned to regulate their emotional distress by relying on a partner who has learned to be more responsive and emotionally available. Their parents and/or caregivers were inconsistently attuned to them. Attachment researchers describe the behavior of these adults, noting how at times they are nurturing, attuned and respond effectively to their child’s distress, while at other times they are intrusive, insensitive or emotionally unavailable. Therefore, when parents oscillated between these two different responses, their children become confused and insecure, not knowing what kind of treatment to expect.
These children often feel distrustful or suspicious of their parent, but they act clingy and desperate. They learn that the best way to get their needs met is to cling to their attachment figure and hope to get their emotional state regulated by the adult.
Therefore, what anxiously-attached people need is co-regulation. The inner child of an anxious person is the child who always wants attention and love. If you would be the parent, would you turn your back to the baby asking to be held? Of course not. This doesn’t mean that you will become their parent instead of their partner. But by letting them know how loved they are and how important they are to you, you are sustaining an important process for them to heal – co-regulation. You are letting them know you are there for them and are open to a calm, more rational discussion of the issue they might want to address, and that you are not going anywhere. People with an anxious attachment have a deep fear of abandonment, reason why any action that might lead to this conclusion will shake them to the core. This is mostly because when they were infants their life was depending on that adult, and their inner child still sees abandonment as a life-threatening issue.
As a partner, being able to feel empathy towards the inner child hiding inside your partner and understanding their attachment style might help you approach them with more compassion and love next time they feel hurt. Instead of digging more holes that push you further away from them, approach them with care and talk to their inner child, letting them know they are safe and genuinely cared for.