In the last five to 10 years, attachment theory has been all over the internet. If you’re an LGBTQ+ individual with an interest in psychology or who has gone to therapy even a few times, chances are you’re familiar with it.
There’s more nuance to it, but for the sake of keeping things succinct: Attachment theory posits that individuals with avoidant attachment evade difficult conversations and vulnerable feelings, while those with anxious attachment tend to turn towards them to a degree that the avoidant partner can find overwhelming, responding with “fight” rather than “flight” as the avoidant does. At least outwardly, they seem to want more contact and connection than their partners do and feel less comfortable being alone.
Avoidants, on the other hand, seem to need less of this and have a greater need for independence and autonomy. They’re more uncomfortable about being too enmeshed.
Outside of conflict, two anxious and avoidant-leaning people may have a loving relationship. When in conflict though, the shields and weapons come out and the dysfunction appears. According to Julia Hogan, LPCP, “Our attachment styles are often most noticeable when we are facing some kind of conflict with another person, because that’s when our sense of safety and security feel most threatened.”
To the anxious, the avoidant appears cold and withholding. To the avoidant, the anxious appears intrusive and needy.
It’s estimated that 25 percent of the general population are anxious and 25 percent are avoidant, though according to Seattle Pacific University, “LGBTQ+ couples are slightly more likely to be insecurely attached,” meaning either anxious or avoidant.
Forging connection through healing & understanding
Though I once thought the styles were categorical, more recently I’ve come to acknowledge that few people are 100% clear-cut avoidant or anxious. People can feel more or less secure at different times, depending on the stressors they’re facing, their physical health, and how they’ve been sleeping, among other factors. Anxiously attached folks can occasionally respond in an avoidant way, and avoidants can occasionally respond in an anxious way.
Still, often relationships find one partner taking the anxious role, while the other takes the more avoidant role during conflict (or the dynamics switch throughout the course of the relationship). According to counselor Jeff Guenther, “Anxious and avoidant people often find themselves attracted to one another because they reinforce each others’ beliefs.”
It takes effort to get couples in anxious-avoidant relationships to function seamlessly. As counselor Jessica Baum put it, “Someone who loves connection and having their needs met is [generally] not a great match with someone who wants to be distanced.”
But it’s also not impossible, especially when two partners share chemistry, values, and interests when not triggered. Each can find ways to resolve their past pain and forge a healing connection.
Clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly acknowledges that “if a fearful-avoidant individual who is engaged in solid self-work connects with an anxiously attached person who is also mindful of personal wounds and needs, the relationship can develop slowly but surely in a safe, lovingly attached way that benefits both partners.”
Counselor Casey Tanner, who goes by the handle @queersextherapy on Instagram, acknowledges that her and her partner’s attachment styles ebb and flow, but that she is “solidly the more anxious one” while her partner leans somewhat more avoidant. Still, the two practice empathy and continually strive to work within an awareness of the other’s respective style. They’ve learned the language of the other’s attachment so that they’re less likely to misinterpret one another.
Tanner wrote in an Instagram post:
“I’ve learned that when Mal gets quiet during conflict, it’s not because she’s not invested or has had ‘too much’ of me. Rather, she’s working very hard in those moments to find words that are going to accurately represent her feelings. Sometimes, she’s spending time in silence rehearsing what happened between us to figure out what went wrong. I’ve learned I can be supportive by letting her take her time.”
“I’ve started to understand that when it’s hard for her to tell me what she needs, it’s not because she doesn’t trust me or thinks I’m not capable of meeting them. Instead, she’s trying to talk herself out of her needs all together, doubting whether or not they’re ‘worth bringing up.’ I’ve come to understand that the needs she chooses not to express are not about me, and not mine to solve.”
I think it’s common in the face of conflict to launch into binary thinking, quickly applying our pre-existing lens to any and all situations. Threat or friend — into the box the other person goes, instantly. Anxiouses and avoidants tend to polarize each other in this way, often. In doing this, they stay stuck in an unsatisfying dynamic where neither’s needs are being met. When each is convinced the problem lies fully in the other person, they’re less likely to work on their own contribution.
Tanner’s advice breaks with the polarizing tendency often found in attachment literature,presenting a newer and more hopeful path.
Check back next week for specifics backed by relationship experts and psychologists on what can be done on both ends.