Why Avoidant and Anxious Partners Find It Hard to Split Up

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There is a certain sort of relationship that is alternately passionate, fiery and painfully

unfulfillingand that tends to puzzle both outsiders and its participants; a relationship

between one person who is, as psychologists put it, anxiously attached and another who

is avoidantly attached. There is, in such couplings, a constant game of push and pull.

The anxiously attached party typically complainsmore or less loudlythat their partner

is not responsive enough: they accuse them of being emotionally distant, withholding,

cold and perhaps physically uninterested too. The avoidant lover, for their part, stays

relatively quiet but in their more fed-up moments, complains that the anxious party

is far too demanding, possiblymadand, as they put it pejoratively, ‘needy’.

One person seems to want far too much, the other far too little. Image result for william

eggleston The unhappiness unfolds in a cycle. At the start, the anxious partner loves the

avoidant one with great intensitybut, in time, also growing frustration. The dissatisfaction

grows ever more intense until, eventually one day, fed up with so much seeming rejection,

the anxious partner overcomes their fears, decides they need something better and tells

their lover that theyre off. At which point, the avoidant party undergoes a complete seachange.

Their greatest fear, that of being engulfed in love, disappears at a stroke and reveals

something that is normally utterly submerged in their character: a fear of being abandoned.

Wholly liberated from the threat of being engulfed (the anxious one may by now have

packed their bags), the avoidant one gives free reign to all their reserves of pent up

romanticism and ardourwhich feel utterly safe to bring out, now that there seems so

little danger of reciprocation. Despite their fury, the anxious person hears the honeyed

words and forthright promises, andafter some initial doubtscan’t help but be

won over. The formerly distant partner appears to have become, in the nick of time, as they’d

always wanted them to be, a warm soul. There is no reason not to return: after all, it’s

not that they didn’t love this person, it was the feeling they weren’t loved back

that was making things impossibleFor a time, there

is blissand it seems that the couple are headed for long-term happiness. Liberated

from their anxiety around engulfment, the avoidant partner gives free expression to

love; liberated from their fear of abandonment, the anxious one is left feeling secure and

trusting. But soon enough the problems return. Things become, as it were, too nice for the

avoidant partner. It seems the anxious one isn’t going to leave them any more, theyre

just going to stick around and seek ever greater closenessand so the old fear of engulfment

returns. They have no option but to start to pull away again and get distant, which

gradually proves intolerable once again to the anxious partner. Within weeks or months,

the pair are back in the same situation. Fierce arguments are back: the words needy and cold

are once more in circulation. It’s time for another crisis and another threat of departure.

It may go on like this for years, or a lifetimeFrom the outside, it is almost funny. From

the inside, it is hellish. There are a few ways out: the avoidant party can realise,

and learn to tolerate their fear of engulfment. The anxious party can grow conscious of their

unnatural pull towards unfulfilling people, refuse to go back after a crisis and seek

a future with more secure and reassuring sorts. Or, yet

more hopefully, both partners can acquire the vocabulary of attachment theory, come

to observe their repetitions, gain some insight into aspects of their childhoods that drive

them onand learn not to act out their compulsions. They can learn the games they

are unconsciously playingand then, to the relief of all who care for them and to

the redemption of their relationship, refuse to play them any longer.

Our book Sorrows of Love helps us handle the inevitabel sorrows of love.

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