The Anxious-Avoidant Trap

anxious-avoidant-attachmentWhy are people who long for closeness in relationships attracted to their complete opposites: people who prefer their independence and distance? And why are the resulting relationships unsatisfying and prone to failure?

Attachment science defines a person with a strong desire for intimacy and preoccupation with their relationships as anxious. Anxious people are sensitive to perceived threats to the intimacy of their relationships. On the opposite end of the spectrum are avoidant people. Avoidants wish to reduce closeness and intimacy in order to maintain their autonomy. They are less aware of the needs of their partner.

It would seem people with such differing needs would avoid each other, but the opposite happens. Studies have shown that in a classic case of “opposites attract”, there is a mutual attraction between avoidant and anxious people. Each has particular reasons for attraction, as outlined in the book Attached:

Why the Avoidant is Attracted to the Anxious:

  • The avoidant has built up an idea of themselves as being more capable and self-sufficient than other people. They believe that people want to “trap” them and create more intimacy than they are comfortable with. With an anxious partner their beliefs are confirmed.
  • Due to their defense mechanism of self-sufficiency, the avoidant likes to feel psychologically stronger than their partner. They can not feel stronger than another avoidant or a secure partner who would not be bothered by their behavior. They can only feel this way with an anxious partner.

Why the Anxious is Attracted to the Avoidant:

  • The anxious person’s defense mechanism is likewise supported. The anxious person believes that they want more closeness than their partner is capable of. In addition, they believe they will be let down or hurt by their partner; this is the inevitable result when they pair with an avoidant.
  • The anxious person tends to idolize avoidant tendencies. Self-sufficiency, independence, less need for another person — these are the qualities the anxious person wishes they had.
  • The anxious person, being addicted to passion, mistakes the mixed signals sent by the avoidant for sparks of love. They think the avoidant might be coming around to loving them as they feel they should be, but the avoidant is just unsure what to do: they want to be in a relationship, yet they want to keep their independence.

Some signs that you are in the anxious-avoidant trap are extreme highs and lows in the relationship, a feeling that your relationship is uncertain, and if you’re the anxious partner, a feeling that things get worse the closer you become to your partner.

Relationships between anxious and avoidant people tend to be very unstable. Even if the relationship lasts, it is stormy and unsatisfying for both partners. The avoidant person has little desire to resolve issues — doing so would create more intimacy. So the anxious person ends up conceding to the avoidant in the Anxious-Avoidant Tug of War. Any hope for a better relationship is never realized.

See also:

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46 thoughts on “The Anxious-Avoidant Trap

  1. Hmm, I don’t really know what to say to this since I’m neither according to the test.. I guess try to get a feel for the person before getting too drawn in?

  2. Nkosazana,

    Yes, that’s a good strategy… actually one I plan on covering soon — how to know which style you’re dealing with. :)

    But it’s tricky because it isn’t always obvious. At the beginning, the avoidant type can appear to want to be close, like they are all about the relationship, etc. Then later on send mixed signals, in an on-and-off manner. And the anxious type can play it cool at the outset because they are aware of being perceived as “clingy”, but later show that they are very concerned with the relationship.

  3. Well.. It seems like dating is getting waaaaaaaaaaaay to complicated lol. You need a manual to see if a guy is right for you :)

  4. This post gives me food for thought. I always feel like men think I’m creepy and trying to “trap” them because 1) I am a generous spirit by nature and nurture and 2) I wear my heart on my sleeve, so you always know how I feel. Maybe I’ve just spent too much time with avoidants ….

  5. Sherry,

    Did you take the Attachment Styles questionnaire? It’s linked to in the post in the “See also” section.

    And, yup, there are lots of avoidants in the dating world. I’ve dated [more than] my share as well.

  6. I’m so an avoidant. Didn’t even need to take the test. I love helping people, having relationships(friends, lovers), but you nailed it Alee, when you wrote this to nkosazanaswe : “At the beginning, the avoidant type can appear to want to be close, like they are all about the relationship, etc. Then later on send mixed signals, in an on-and-off manner”.
    All of this: “The anxious person tends to idolize avoidant tendencies. Self-sufficiency, independence, less need for another person — these are the qualities the anxious person wishes they had”, ties into another post you did about attracting users. Will find it and get my thoughts together……

  7. I went and took it. I am a low anxiety-low avoidance type. It says on the results that folks like me tend to have relatively enduring and satisfying relationships (giggles).

  8. There are just way too many avoidants on the dating market, I think. Their relationships are short-term ones, and even when in relationship, many cheat. So it’s not a difficult to find one.

    Also, yes, some anxious people, particularly women, DO idolize avoidant traits. Part might be because they admire them, and would love to be like the avoidants they date, but I think there is a cultural (media?) thing about it, especially for women. You see, there’s this popular narrative of a self-sufficient, avoidant, bad guy, who is transformed by a love of a nice, good girl. This narrative is so popular, that goes beyond mere story or a movie plot. It’s one of the main female fantasies, I think, transforming a bad guy and making him fall in love with you (and making him commit).

    Needless to say, this narrative is very harmful. Women, stop. Don’t do this. It doesn’t work like that in reality. It just doesn’t. People can change, but it doesn’t work this way. Do this, and you’ll end up badly hurt. (Been there, done that). It never works. Avoidant types are not to be idolized or admired. At the end of the day, why would avoidant traits be praised as good and positive. Isn’t being able to show and experience emotions, closeness and commitment better? No matter what media tells you, there’s nothing special about bad boys (they are not even good in bed, because they usually don’t try or care about your needs). So all in all, while I am not against dating avoidants (they are people like any other: some are good, others are bad), avoidant traits are not to be praised or admired. Seriously.

    Oooh, I think I got an idea for my next blog post.

  9. Sherry,

    So you’re a secure type? Hmmm, well I guess this post doesn’t apply to you as much, depending on your anxiety score. But I think it still applies to those with secure styles. Sometimes they let people “be” when they should just let them go because the person is not right for them.

    Mira,

    How did you know avoidants are more likely to cheat than the other styles? :)

    I agree that there is a cultural influence. I was going to write about that in the future; anxious types (especially women) trying to “transform” avoidant types (you people keep reading my mind! :P)

    “Isn’t being able to show and experience emotions, closeness and commitment better?”

    There are good and bad aspects of that. Sometimes emotions can be overwhelming.

    “I think I got an idea for my next blog post.”

    Our posts might be similar! Actually, maybe not since I’ll be using relationship science terminology to explain it all.

  10. Amen Mira! For men the ego trip is the thrill of the chase, and for women it is taming the bad boy. Bad boys have NEVER been interesting to me because what does it take to be a bad boy – turn off the brain waves and let the testosterone take over. Boring. Unsophisticated.

  11. Sherry,

    “what does it take to be a bad boy – turn off the brain waves and let the testosterone take over. Boring. Unsophisticated.”

    LOL.

    I prefer geeks to bad boys. But based on my experience, ‘geek’ and ‘bad boy’ aren’t necessarily dichotomous…

  12. “foosrock, for some reason I was thinking you were avoidant. I don’t know why though, really”.
    That’s because you’re so bloody intuitive. Bet you can tell how I’m doing from reading my post. You and Mira scare me a bit……

  13. Meaning that both geeks and bad boys allow their hormones to rule them. I had never thought of it that way …

  14. Yes, geeks can be bad boys, so everything I wrote applies to them too. (Though it might be a bit more difficult to realize you’re dealing with a bad boy if he’s a geek).

  15. foosrock,

    I am? I’d like to think so. :)

    Sherry,

    I was thinking more of what Mira said — that geeks can be bad boys. Actually, I’m pretty certain the ultra-avoidant guy I mentioned in a previous post was both a geek and a bad boy.

  16. yesterday when I read the comments in your PUA article I thought you missed a chance to tell that guy who really really wanted persistence to be a virtue about the “anxious avoidant trap”. As foosrock! says, you are intuitive (pisces) so I came back here to check the concept again and now I’m not sure. I think it is a special case because the chaser becomes anxious (preoccupied) and the chasee acts avoidant (maybe even becomes avoidant?)

    Do you have any other thoughts on this trap? If two people get into this trap is it possible for them to find a way to relate without the trap?

  17. Tim,

    I’m thinking of doing a follow-up on the anxious-avoidant trap: how to successfully be in an anxious-avoidant relationship.

    I’ve been in several of these types of relationships and my personal recommendation is not to attempt a relationship with an avoidant if you have an anxious attachment style. A trap is exactly what it is — the two want completely different things in relationships and have different needs so both end up unsatisfied despite being attracted to each other.

    However, I know some people want to pursue these relationships and/or are already in a committed relationship of this kind. So I’ll offer some tips based on what I’ve learned and experienced.

  18. I think I met one of these dudes before when I started dating again. But then again he also had narcissistic personality disorder I think and I had already gotten rid of one of those with my ex-husband. That I picked up on faster than the avoidant thing. After that he was outta there.

  19. Another situation that seems related to this trap is when one person wants to end a relationship and the other doesn’t. Then the one who is getting broken up with can become anxious and preoccupied while the other becomes avoidant.
    I know that these styles are long-lasting but I see a lot of value in looking at how the situation can change people.

    Eugenia – I can see tossing a narcissist, that would get pretty boring but the avoidant I’m not so sure. I guess it depends on how avoidant they are.

  20. Eugenia, you probably did meet one since there are plenty of avoidants out on the dating scene.

    Tim,

    Well, yeeaahhh. :)

    But the attachment styles are about a person’s general relationships style, not how they are in one situation or point in time. Needless to say, any one person can exhibit behavior that could fit into either of the 3 (4) styles. But what is their usual, general approach? That’s their relationship attachment style.

  21. Maybe I am being a behaviorist here but then wouldn’t that mean that tips and techniques that help the people with these styles could help these other people in their given situation? (I know, I should drink the coffee first, then write)
    And conversely, the tips that help the people in these situations would have some relevance to the people with the styles.

    For example, if some guy is being really persistent maybe the woman could say to him “did you ever break up with someone and she wouldn’t let you go? that is how stubborn you are being right now” I think the guy might better understand the limits of persistence if he had had that break up experience.

    and on the topic of break-ups. I think the one initiating the break up would do well to understand they are acting as an avoidant and the other could be falling in to the trap. Maybe even discuss it with them.

    btw, its ok if you don’t like my situational psychology because I think astrology is more useful anyway! :)

  22. Tim,

    Yes, understanding the various attachment styles could help a person in understanding certain situations from another’s viewpoint.

    I’m so-so on psychology as a discipline, but I like studying the human mind.

  23. It makes me sad because I am the anxious one in my marriage who just wanted to feel safe by my avoidant husband and also realized that me the anxious one subconsciously never felt good about myself or deserved someone special who truly loved me. I picked someone who is avoidant and overlooked and put the blinders on just to be safe. It hurts so much to be in this kind of relationship and it doesn’t help that he is also 16 years older than i am. Theresa

  24. Hi Theresa,

    Thanks for your story. I hope you two can work something out in your relationship or you find a more fulfilling one. The anxious-avoidant trap can be painful indeed.

  25. I have just recently figured out I’m an anxious and my bf is an avoidant. I talked to him about this article tonight and explained that I have figured out what our relationship problem is. He is willing to look at some of the info I found, but I’m not sure how much of it would help. In the past he has said he has been willing to work on things, but I’m not sure he knows where to start. Do you think we are completely hopeless? Other than his lack of showing affection we get along great. Sex is great and we never argue.
    Happy to have found the answer, but sad to know things may never work out. I am willing to see get therapy to work on myself, but not sure he is.

  26. Hi Hannah,

    If he’s willing to work with you, that’s great. That’s a wonderful first step. I don’t think you.two are hopeless, just learn more about attachment styles and specifically what your two styles need to feel comfortable in a relationship.

    Anxious and avoidant certainly isn’t the easiest pairing but if you both work on things, you’ll do fine since your relationship is otherwise running smoothly.

  27. I think I am in this trap too… And i don ‘t believe breaking up is the solution but getting to understand my bf… I really enjoy the good times n bad times are just terrible!…sometimes i get to figure out the problem but it just hard at times.. Is there an advise about really understanding this avoidant types? Thanks

  28. Hi Foley, under See also, there is a link to the post “Top Ten Signs Your Partner is Avoidant”. It has some info on why avoidants behave the way they do.

    If you’re interested in improving your relationship, you can read “Anxious + Avoidant — Making It Work”, also in the See also section.

  29. i have been in my relationship for 7 years and i am an anxious lover while he is an avoidant lover and right now things are so crazy between us i know we love each other he even say he still in love but he’s very distant right now and i really hate that but after i have read about all the difference between the two i realize why my relation has became rocky and i see what i can do to fix and not have conflict between the two of us. Thanks for all your post i really just learned more about myself and my life long partner.

  30. mind you it took 5 years before we actually boiled up to a confliction that lead to us fighting as much as we do. I love to cuddle, kiss, hold, and just be all into my partner to show my love and appreciation while he will tell me he love me every so often but he dont like to kiss or holdhands or do things in that nature but he’ll get jealous if other men show interest in me..

  31. Thanks for your posts! I’m in a rocky state with my boyfriend currently and I feel really checked out of the relationship. I found a article about these attachments styles and I’m definitely the avoidant and my boyfriend is the anxious. It’s been very insightful to read these posts. It’s also helpful to know I’m not some type of weirdo because this has happened in all my relationships. I just get bored with the relationships after awhile. I begin to pull away and they try to get closer which becomes annoying to me and I pull away further. I can see it’s not a healthy relationship when both parties want different things. We’re having a talk tonight and I want to show him some of these posts so he understands as well.

  32. Hi Independent Mind,

    Glad you like the series.

    Yes, you sound like an avoidant. But it’s good you’re so self-aware and definitely having a talk about it can only help.

  33. Absolutely not – as the avoidant partner in a lesbian A-A relationship (as I’ve started refering to the cycle as), I will not give up hope and think it is grossly irresponsible of you to say “Any hope for a better relationship is never realized.” After about 1,000 self help books, I’ve come to realize that she is actually showing that she cares – not trying to trap me, and the only way I will be in a relationship at all is to let my guard down a little bit. She has come to realize that I need more space, and that I am showing her that I care, but how I feel when she holds on too tight. It’s not hopeless, but it has to be worth it, because it’s an enormous amount of work to make it work. Being in this kind of relationship, rocky as it still is makes me appreciate how 2 peoples’ worldviews can complement each other – not destroy!

  34. Linguanne,

    ‘Absolutely not – as the avoidant partner in a lesbian A-A relationship (as I’ve started refering to the cycle as), I will not give up hope and think it is grossly irresponsible of you to say “Any hope for a better relationship is never realized.” ‘

    The point is if you get caught in the anxious-avoidant trap then hope for a better relationship is never realized. If you’re more self-aware, and especially if you understand your attachment style, you can make it work. But it’s going to take a lot of work (1,000 self-help books?), work that most people don’t and won’t put in.

    But let’s just be honest here: the anxious-avoidant pairing isn’t usually the best. Sometimes they last pretty long, but they’re still rocky. This is evidenced by studies, my own experience, and the experience of the dozens of people who have emailed and commented me about this subject. Far and away, anxious partners get the short end of the stick in this pairing. I think it would be irresponsible to pretend otherwise.

  35. How can the avoidant partner learn to be more secure?
    I’m in this exact situation, and it’s crazy how exactly true this article is. I’m an anxious type, and my partner, an avoidant. But I do feel that he does have the capacity/ability to change, but neither of us know how to go about that.

    I really want to make it work with him, because when we’re good, we’re SO good, and he really is there for me and cares for me. I am taking steps to becoming a more secure person myself, but what can he do to become a little more comfortable with intimacy?

  36. Hi Moha,

    You asked:

    “How can the avoidant partner learn to be more secure?”

    The same way an anxious partner can: by practicing secure principles. That is, discussing issues they may have instead of avoiding, reassuring their partner, etc.

    I have another article in the “see also” section that discusses how anxious and avoidant partners can work on their relationship and become more secure.

  37. hi my names holly! im a female and i come under the love avoidant umbrella. i just wanted to know why its presumed that advoidants are attracted to love addicts? Cause im turned off by love adicts, anyone eles like this?
    Oh and also does the role of what love type you are change in different relationships? Say if i was partnered with another love avoidant…..and he was more…um avoidant then meh would i become the love adict?…..

  38. Hi Holly,

    I don’t know about “love addicts” but the anxious-avoidant attraction is well-documented, as far as relationship attachment styles go. It’s not always the case, simply fairly common.

    Various relationships can influence the way you express your relationship style. Some have said they have become more “anxious” when with an avoidant, even if they’re not usually an anxious type.

  39. I don’t know if anyone reads this anymore, but i need some advice. I am pretty sure i fell into the anxious avoidance trap. I fell in love with a guy that was avoidant. i am the “anxious” but i go to therapy weekly and am aware of my behaviors and worked so hard to fix them. He broke it off in a text message like 11 days ago after i yelled at him because he just goes off to LA for three days before he is about to work on a cruise ship for two and a half months. I felt as if he didn’t care and he tries to manipulate me and says that i am up and down all the time…I really believed that it was true and i was the one with the problem. Since we have not been in contact for a 11 days now i can see how i wasn’t really that up and down. I would have a problem and then when i wanted to talk about it he would say “i don’t know” “i don’t know” and just storm out so i would just push the issue aside so we wouldn’t fight. He would always say i wasn’t happy enough to see him and compare me to my dog. He would never call me his boyfriend either, but that obviously was not our situation. i am at the point where i miss him terribly, but i do want to call him. he ended it in a text and all i said was “i think you are right, i feel the same way” i just dont see how someone could be this cold.

  40. gabe,

    I still read this –and all comments. However, I’ve stopped giving advice on specific situations. I will say though that your situation seems like a closed deal. Call it history, cut your losses, and consider it a blessing.

  41. What you are describing in this post is essentially the love addict-love avoidant relationship. Your readers might find it useful to explore the underlying reasons for these behaviors.

    This site describes the love avoidant very well:

    http://suzannerucker.com/the-love-avoidant/

    And this the love addict:

    http://suzannerucker.com/can-you-really-be-addicted-to-love/

    (I have nothing to do with the site nor the counselor who owns the site. I am not even in the same country. I just think she describes these two behaviors very succinctly in layman’s terms.)

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