Anxious-Avoidant Attachment & What To Do About It
[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]
“Have you heard about attachment styles?” my therapist asks, interjecting one of my signature rants about how fucked up the male species is. I was expressing how uncertain I felt in my relationship, how I craved more intimacy while simultaneously enjoyed physical distance between me and my partner. I’m independent to a flaw and pursue many hobbies that can be done by myself. At the same time, I can feel lonely and isolated, craving deeper connections but not enough to fully generate them.
“Sort of,” I answered. “But I always thought they were kind of bullshit. Like astrology.” He chuckles, which makes me happy. Humor is an easy buffer—a fact I know well. Humor is a tool I’ve implemented for a long time to heighten my likability while maintaining emotional distance. My self-awareness of this has done little to change my behavior, and I figure it’s better to be a little fucked up and likable rather than to be simply fucked up.
“Attachment theory began in the 1950’s,” therapist tells me. “And it’s been validated by countless researchers. Knowing your attachment style can’t fix your relationship woes, but it may help you become aware of your behaviors, and eventually, change them.”
He has a tiny, two-drawer filing cabinet on wheels from which he occasionally extracts informational handouts. The last one he gave me had the face of a small boy crying splayed across the page along with the unfortunate title, “Coping with Emotional Distress.” No one wants to walk out of a psychiatrist’s office holding a pamphlet that basically screams, “I DON’T KNOW HOW TO REGULATE MY EMOTIONS!” I kept it in the bottom of my knapsack for a week before reading its crumpled pages in the privacy of my bedroom.
This time, he proffers a small, folded pamphlet with “Attachment Styles” typed neatly across the page. “Take this home and fill it out,” he tells me, “we’ll talk about your results next week.”
After completing the assessment, I learn I’m something called “anxious-avoidant,” which is basically two bad attachment styles smashed into one. My results literally read, “A person with anxious-avoidant attachment lives in an ambivalent state, in which they are afraid of being both too close or too distant from others…The person they want to go to for safety is the same person they are frightened to be close to. As a result, they have no organized strategy for getting their needs met by others.” That last line hit a soft spot in my stomach: months ago, when I was using Bumble to get back in the dating scene, one of the questions I answered was, “Who holds you accountable?” and my not-so-cryptic answer was, “Myself.” A verifiable anxious-avoidant, scouring the dark world of online dating for a boring date and a free glass of chardonnay. (Read more about all the attachment types HERE.)
When I brought my results to my therapist the following week, he was not shocked, to say the least. I ignored his knowing look and asked what I thought would be an easy question to answer, “So, where do these attachment styles come from exactly?”
“They are, first and foremost, formed in infancy,” therapist replies, “and can be reinforced or un-enforced throughout one’s formative years.” What he meant is that I could fully and completely blame by parents (not really). “Anxious-avoidant attachment styles are a doozy,” he says.
And here’s why: anxious attachment styles are formed in childhood by infants who receive love and care unpredictably. These people often have a positive view of others, but a negative view of themselves. They depend heavily on others for their own self-esteem. In contrast, avoidant attachment styles are developed by infants who only have some of their needs met. For instance, they may be fed enough but not held enough. Avoidant types have a positive view of themselves and a negative view of others. They are astutely independent and don’t rely on others for emotional support.
I’m at a bit of a loss here. My therapist assures me that, “attachment styles can change. It’s fully possible to develop a healthy, secure style.”
“How? I ask, so bluntly that therapist laughs out loud. He smiles in the way therapists smile when they can tell their patient is finally catching on. When the veil starts to lift, when the dots start to connect, when we finally start to move out of our own way. I’m at once a frustrated driver and the pedestrian who decides to stop in the middle of the street to send a text. I’m both the lazy employee and the exasperated manager. I am the child who craved attention and the child who wriggled away from a comforting embrace.
I feel a memory knocking on the door of my conscience: growing up, I was obsessed with crafting. This may have been a side effect of having little else to do, but I crafted consistently and with gusto. I painted rocks, completed innumerable paint-by-numbers, learned to sew, learned to weave, learned to bead, and knit and watercolor and macramé. One Christmas, my mother gave me tea towels with quaint birds outlined in the corners, and fabric paint with which I was to color in the quaint birds. I set about my task with concentration, spreading my project across many days to make the craft “last” before I was forced to find a new one.
One day after school, I arrived home to an empty house and slowly began completing one of the bird tea towels. But almost immediately, I ruined the whole thing by squeezing a huge, ugly glob of green paint over a large portion of the quaint bird, not on purpose. Many people wouldn’t care, and many more would probably start over with a new towel. But little 10-year-old-me was distraught. I remember crying on the staircase until my mother came home and comforted me, assuring me that the towel didn’t matter and that everything would be okay.
I shared this memory with therapist, who simply said, “It sounds like you wanted to paint the towel well, and the failure to do so was devastating. Maybe,” and here he leaned closer to me, “you got the message somewhere along the way that achieving things would earn you the love you craved but couldn’t access elsewhere. Or, wouldn’t let yourself access elsewhere.”
At this exact moment, I desperately wanted to punch him in the face. I wanted the words he said to not be true so badly that I knew they must be true. That’s the difficult part about therapy; it isn’t a place to go and vent frustration, though that is part of it. It’s a place where we decode our broken bits, greet them with love, and begin the long process of un-breaking ourselves. I knew he was right, and the desire to do well, to achieve things and be recognized for achievement, turns out to be one of the most telling signs of anxious-avoidant attachment.
I'm not exactly sure how to go about fixing this, but as therapist assures me, knowing my style and wanting to change it is a critical first step. It will take a bit of re-calibration, a whole lot of self-love, and practice. Practice recognizing my anxious-avoidant behaviors, nipping them in the bud, and feeling uncomfortable for a while. Practice engaging in healthy, secure relationships, setting boundaries and knowing that nothing bad will happen. As a kitschy poster over therapist's grey, plastic couch reads, "nothing in this life is permanent."
P.S. To find out your own attachment style, take sort-of-free online quiz HERE.