She sets her cup of coffee gently down on the table, careful to not let the hot contents spill over the sides. She lets go of the cup, but the muscles in her hands and her arms stay taut as she places them in her lap, one resting over the other.
Her voice almost seems steady, but there’s a lilt at the end of her words that betrays how hard she’s working to keep from letting the edge show. She speaks slowly, too carefully. She’s seething, I think to myself.
“I will never understand how he can just be silent like that. I’m trying to tell him how upset I am and he can’t even bring himself to acknowledge me. He just stares at his hands, like I’m not even there.”
He’s trying to look up now, but just like that day last week that she’s been describing, his eyes seem glued to his hands. He clears his throat. He looks toward my window. He’s acutely aware that two sets of eyes are on him, awaiting a response. Eventually he shrugs and I hear in his shoulders a silent plea to turn the heat down.
“Anything? Can you give me anything!?” she implores, her stiffness loosening as she turns her body more directly toward him. Her lip is starting to quiver. Here is the hurt, I think.
I’m pleading with him in my head to let his eyes meet hers, to let himself see her pain. I know in my soul that he’s the only one in this moment with the power to soothe her. I know that anything could do it: a loving look, reaching for her hand, moving closer to her on the couch.
Instead, he runs his hand through his hair and then pats his leg twice. He releases a big sigh as he looks at me with his eyebrows raised. “I think our time is just about up, right?”
One can barely have a conversation about relationships these days without the concept of attachment style being mentioned. With the rousing success of Amir Levine and Rachel Heller’s Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and the proliferation of content on the subject on TikTok and Instagram, more of us than ever will claim to know our attachment style.
In many ways, this revolution in awareness is a long time coming. The concept of attachment has been in play since the 1950s when psychologist John Bowlby developed the theory to explain one of the ways our early life experience shape our interactions with the world. Bowlby was a psychoanalyst, which means he was particularly interested in how, as babies and young children. our relationships with caregivers molded the way that we engaged in future relationships.
One of the core observations that Bowlby made was that when children were met with a lot of affection and responsiveness from their caregivers, they came to expect a healthy level of responsiveness from others. Because infancy and childhood are such critical times for laying down our mental tracks of what to expect, the quality of these interactions early on directly influenced what individuals came to anticipate in their human relationships.
As Bowlby investigated his ideas further, he was joined by Mary Ainsworth, a fellow psychologist who was also interested in understanding how children respond to their mothers, and what that meant for their futures. Ainsworth developed what was called the “Strange Situation Assessment,” one of the most notable studies in modern psychology.
In the Strange Situation, Ainsworth would have a 12 to 18 month old baby alone in a room with their mother. The child would be free to explore the room while their mother looked on. A stranger would then enter the room, talk to the mother, and approach the child while the mother would quietly leave. After a short period, the mother would re-enter the room and comfort the child.
If you feel a twinge of emotion in just reading about how that study ran, that’s a good sign. What Ainsworth was looking for was how babies responded to both being left in the room and to being reunited with their mother. The later-termed “securely attached” babies would demonstrate a particular response pattern: they felt upset when the mother left, skeptical of the stranger when the mother wasn’t present, and positive and happy when the mother returned.
Not all of the children had this secure response, however. The others fell into one of three categories, all falling under the umbrella of “insecurely attached.” First there were the ambivalently (also called “anxiously”) attached children. These babies became distraught when mom left, but then upon her return are ambivalent about letting themselves be soothed by her. They go to her initially, but then find themselves angry and almost pushing her away. It’s as if they are stuck between wanting her comfort but being afraid they will be left again.
Other children had what was called an “avoidant” response. This meant that they felt relatively little distress when mom left and engaged pleasantly with the stranger in the room. When mom returned, these babies didn’t show a lot of interest. It’s as if they’ve already learned to be relatively unaffected by their caregiver. Given that we are wired to be affected, this response style suggests that somewhere along the way, these kiddos recognized that they couldn’t rely on the caregiver’s presence for physical needs, emotional needs, or both. They also learned that not needing too much from their caregiver meant that the caregiver didn’t get turned off or scared off. So they stopped needing much. Or so they thought.
There’s a theory out there that people with anxious attachment tendencies are much more likely to seek out therapy. While I’ve never seen any actual data suggesting this, experience might point to the theory having legs. Struggling to trust your partner? Talk to a therapist. Can’t stop ruminating about bad things happening in your relationships? Talk to a therapist. Feeling devastated at the loss of that friendship or your last breakup? Talk to a therapist.
Adults with avoidant attachment tendencies, by virtue of their very style, might be less inclined to pour their hearts out to a stranger. And it’s not as if they are trying to actively reject the experience. They often just don’t think they really need it. They feel fine most of the time, after all. They don’t have many needs, and thus few issues in their relationships, at least as far as they can see.
It’s often only when there’s a threat of a meaningful relationship falling apart or a crisis that elicits some of the long-suppressed emotion that an avoidantly attached person will enter therapy.
Because therapy tends to be much more populated by the anxiously attached, therapists tend to get much more used to working with this crew. And because therapists are regularly bombarded with stories of how the “heartless” avoidantly attached partner rejected their client, therapists, in my opinion, start to collude with the idea that avoidants are bad people who need to change.
And so what happens too often is that an anxiously attached partner will go home from therapy feeling validated and affirmed by their therapist, something that might be missing at home. They feel vindicated in their frustrations toward their “mean” partner and might even lobe accusations at them. “Even my therapist thinks you don’t listen to me! At least I have her to care!”
Faced with even more emotional intensity and criticism and the feeling that they will never be able to get it right, the avoidant partner does what they do best. They shut down.
What we so often miss when we throw attachment theory around like a card game at a party is that both avoidant and anxious attachment were never meant to be “styles” at all. The developers of the model, and the multitudes of researchers since, were never trying to put people in boxes or predict a certain relational future. They wanted to describe the strategies that people use to get attachment needs met.
Thus, a better way of conceptualizing attachment would be to say that we can find ourselves using different “attachment strategies.” Even for the same person, their strategies might vary depending on the person and the context, though most of us tend to use a set of attachment strategies more often than the others.
Understanding our responses in relationships as strategies means reframing the idea of good guys and bad guys because we are all after the same thing. While avoidant strategies might not outwardly indicate as much of an interest in deep connection, it’s exactly what the avoidantly-oriented person needs. They are just far more terrified of it.
If you are in an anxious-avoidant pairing or partnership, the push and pull can feel intense. If you use anxious strategies more often, you probably find yourself feeling things like:
- Why do I just care so much about this relationship than her?
- How can he think this level of connection is okay?
- Why did she stop being romantic? Was it all just a ploy to get sex?
- Why hasn’t he called me back!?
- Why did I think this relationship would be any different?
It can feel rejecting and demoralizing to constantly wonder how your partner is feeling about you and whether they can be emotionally available and responsive to you. Really intense moments of disconnection can even induce what’s been called “primal panic,” a terrifying sense of being left alone and vulnerable.
If you are the one using avoidant strategies, you might be thinking:
- How does she not know I love her? I work so hard for us.
- Why can I never do anything right in his eyes?
- Will I ever be enough for her?
- I should have known that I’m not cut out for relationships.
- What’s wrong with me?
What you can hear beneath the surface for both types is exactly what connects them. There is a deep insecurity on both sides. They both worry that they cannot truly trust that their partner will be responsive, loving, and engaged with them. They both are terrified that they are not enough.
And given that neither partner, in most situations, is speaking into this fear directly, they both can come across as angry, shut down, fighting, or withdrawn.
The pairing of the anxiously and avoidantly-oriented person has sometimes been, unfairly in my opinion, called the “anxious-avoidant trap.” But the trap only comes when the two people are responding from their insecure attachment strategies without awareness and an intention to heal them.
What might be relieving to know is that there is no data to suggest that these relationships are doomed to fail. In fact, these pairings hold incredible potential for growth and development of each person and the partnership.
But as anyone who has done the work will tell you, it is, in fact, work.
It requires that the people in the relationship begin to recognize their own strategies and the reasons for them. This doesn’t necessitate an entire excavation of our early childhood history – though that can work as well; It just requires a willingness to start looking at what feels most uncomfortable.
When the work happens, the individuals in the relationship have the opportunity for something that they may have never before experienced – a deep connection, an opportunity to be truly known and loved, and trust that we can be held even in our darkest moments.
When I tell him that we actually have a few minutes left in the session, he draws in a sharp breath. I can tell that the fear center in his brain is urging him to run. The more logical part of his brain knows that running probably wouldn’t play well, so he stays seated and rubs his palms together.
“I know this is tough, but I also know that you can do this. Look at her and tell her how young, how overwhelmed you feel inside right now,” I urge him.
He’s fighting against the patterns that have been laid down in his brain over the past decades – the ones that tell him that he doesn’t need someone to hold space for his feelings, that if he tries that it will simply prove his greatest fear. It’s felt so much easier to disown his own needs. But he also knows that he’s here because he’s lonely. So profoundly lonely.
And so he wills himself to look at her, his eyes rising to hers, and he even puts a hand on her knee.
“When you get heated like this, it feels scary to me. I feel like I’ve failed you again and I want to crawl in a hole. But I know now that this is an old pattern, and one I want to stop. I want to be there for you. I don’t want to go silent.”
She draws in her own breath, searching his face for signs that she can trust what he’s saying. It’s new for him to talk this way, and she’s having to reorient herself. But she manages a half smile, and I see the bottoms of her eyes start to fill with tears.
They are starting to see that they want the exact same thing – to feel close, to feel seen, to make this love last. And they experience a glimmer of hope that this might actually be possible.