Why 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.