I wrote recently about attachment styles and how they come into play during relationships. In that post, I mentioned that the most difficult combination occurs when a person with anxious attachment is in a relationship with someone whose attachment style is avoidant. Anxious types, fueled by an insatiable emotional hunger, seek that closeness from their avoidant partner, who feels smothered and pulls away. No one is happy. Both are resentful. This is especially true in times of extreme stress, when the stakes are high.
In fact, periods of extreme stress can actually cause some people with otherwise secure attachment to behave as though they are anxiously attached. I have seen this pattern produced reliably in poly relationships, particularly when a new partner is introduced, especially if it’s the first one introduced into a newly opened relationship. Taking on a new partner and establishing that first emotional connection is A LOT. That’s going to throw even people who are normally very securely attached into an anxious attachment cycle as it all reads as “threat” to our brains.
Many couples benefit from reconnecting after time apart, spending time together so that the anxious partner can be reassured, the emotional connection in the preexisting relationship reaffirmed (note: the optimal way to reconnect depends largely on your preferred love languages). However, if the other partner is avoidant in their coping and benefits more from time alone and reflection, thereby delaying that reconnection, things can become quite harrowing for the partner with anxious anxious attachment.
Empathy, from both partners, is key in bridging the gap between anxious attachment and avoidant attachment. If you are the anxious partner, you should give the avoidant partner the space they ask for, take care of yourself, get support from friends, and try to imagine the avoidant partner’s position in a way that is mutually favorable. Instead of feeling bad or guilty that your requests for reassurance are causing your partner stress, instead realize that the situation only causes the avoidant stress because they care about you. Think of it this way: Avoidants only avoid situations they find difficult, and if they didn’t actually care about you, it wouldn’t be a difficult situation, and they wouldn’t need to avoid you. It’s paradoxical but true. Often avoidant types are just as afraid/stressed as anxious types, just showing it in a different way.
If at all possible, once the avoidant partner no longer needs space, the anxious partner should let the avoidant partner take the lead in raising the issues. It’s tough, but the more you push, the worse it’s going to be and the harder it will be to actually reconnect. Model the empathy that you need from them by striving to understand and accept their point of view (this makes it easier for them to reciprocate in turn, by offering you the kind of support that matters to you).
If any bad behavior needs to be addressed (such as any agreement violations or deception to aid their avoidance, present in some but not all cases), then don’t lead with that but instead wait until the lines of communication have been firmly reestablished before raising them. It will do no good to have them clam up again instantly out of defensiveness before you’ve barely had time to say hello.
If you are the avoidant partner, please provide that reassurance as soon as you are able to, ideally in the anxious partner’s preferred love language. And when you do, be as non-judgemental and non-blaming as possible about any insecure feelings the anxious partner may have felt in the interim or may currently be feeling. Their emotional process and coping behaviors are different from yours, but they are just as valid.
It’s important to keep in mind that just because our needs may look different from those of others’ at any given time that it doesn’t make those needs less valid or mean that one person’s way of dealing with stressful situations is any better or worse than any other. Still, it’s important to find that happy middle ground so that you can work together to have the best relationship possible, especially in times of emotional crisis.