Attachment Woes Between Anxious and Avoidant Partners
If real intimacy eludes you, find out why and how to get your needs met.
Posted August 2, 2020
The relationship duet is the dance of intimacy all couples do. One partner moves in, the other backs up. Partners may reverse roles, but always maintain a certain space between them. The unspoken agreement is that the Pursuer chases the Distancer forever, but never catch-up, and that the Distancer keeps running, but never really get away. They’re negotiating the emotional space between them.
We all have needs for both autonomy and intimacy — independence and dependency, yet simultaneously fear both being abandoned (acted by the Pursuer), and being too close (acted by the Distancer). Thus, we have the dilemma of intimacy: How can we be close enough to feel secure and safe, without feeling threatened by too much closeness?
The less room there is to navigate this distance, the more difficult the relationship. There is less anxiety, and hence less demand on the relationship to accommodate a narrow comfort zone.
Attachment theory has determined that the Pursuer has an anxious attachment style and that the emotionally unavailable partner has an avoidant style. Research suggests that these styles and intimacy problems originate in the relationship between the mother and infant. Babies and toddlers are dependent on the mothers’ empathy and regard for their needs and emotions in order to sense their “selves,” to feel whole. To an infant or toddler, physical or emotional abandonment, whether through neglect, illness, divorce, or death, threatens its existence, because of its dependency on the mother for validation and development of wholeness. Later, as an adult, being separations in intimate relationships are experienced as painful reminders of the earlier loss.
If the mother is ill, depressed, or lacks wholeness and self-esteem, there are no boundaries between her and her child. Rather than responding to her child, she projects, and sees her child only as an extension of herself, as an object to meet her own needs and feelings. She can’t value her child as a separate “self.” The child’s boundaries are violated, and its autonomy, feelings, thoughts, and/or body, are disrespected. Consequently, the child does not develop a healthy sense of self. Instead, he or she discovers that love and approval come with meeting the mother’s needs, and tunes into the mother’s responses and expectations. This also leads to shame and codependency. The child learns to please, perform, or rebel, but in either case gradually tunes out its own thoughts, needs, and feelings.
Later, intimacy may threaten the adult’s sense of autonomy or identity, or he or she may feel invaded, engulfed, controlled, shamed, and rejected. A person may feel both abandoned if his or her feelings and needs are not responded to, and at the same time, engulfed by the needs of his or her partner. In co-dependent relationships where there aren’t two separate, whole people coming together, true intimacy isn’t possible, because the fears of nonexistence and dissolution are strong.
We learned defenses as children in order to feel safe. As adults, these behaviors create problems and result in miscommunication. For instance, if you repress your anger to ensure closeness, you stand a good chance of alienating your partner, unaware that you may be expressing your anger indirectly. If you ignore your partner in order to create distance, you inadvertently devalue him or her, creating another problem.
Change and growth come in discovering your coping strategies and learning new responses and behaviors. Ask yourself: How do I create space in my relationships? How do I protect my autonomy? Do you criticize, blame, emotionally withdraw or use substances (e.g., food, drugs, alcohol) to create space, be left alone, or lessen intense feelings. Or do you avoid closeness or openness by joking around, showing off, giving advice, or by talking about others or impersonal subjects? Do you get overly involved with people outside your partnership (e.g., children, friends, affairs), or activities (e.g., work, sports, gambling, shopping)? These activities dilute the intimacy in the relationship.
On the other hand, ask: How do I create closeness? How do I ensure that I will be loved and not abandoned? Do you try to create closeness by giving up your autonomy, hobbies, friends or interests, by never disagreeing, by being seductive, or by care-taking and pleasing others?
When these behaviors are operating without awareness, you are not coming from a place of choice. When this happens you cannot communicate effectively, nor take into consideration your needs and the needs of your partner. Instead, the relationship is based upon unconscious manipulation of one another and can trigger your partner’s defensive reactions.
Relationships can serve as mirrors for unacknowledged or “disowned” parts of ourselves. Often people attract their opposite into their lives to make them whole. The Pursuer feels abandoned, but is unconscious that s/he is also afraid of closeness and relies on the Distancer to achieve enough space for the Pursuer’s needs for autonomy and independence. Similarly, the Distancer feels trapped, but is afraid of abandonment and cannot experience the wish for emotional closeness as his or her own. S/he would feel too vulnerable, so s/he needs a Pursuer to satisfy her or his intimacy needs.
Distancing is typical of narcissists. In a narcissist's mind, vulnerability is dangerous and avoided. They often play games to draw you in, but then distance themselves when the relationship gets closer. They may love bomb and then ghost you or become abusive. This is devasting for partners of narcissists.
The Distancer says of the Pursuer: “She (or He) is too demanding, too dependent, too emotional, or too needy.” And wonders “Can I love? Am I selfish? What I give seems never enough.”
The Pursuer says of the Distancer: “He (or She) is selfish, inconsiderate, inflexible, emotionally withdrawn, has to have things his way.” And wonders “Is there something wrong with me? Aren’t I lovable (pretty, thin, successful, smart) enough?”
They each blame one another and themselves. The Distancer feels guilty for not meeting the other’s needs, and the Pursuer feels angry for not getting his or her own needs met. In reality, the Distancer judges the part of him or herself that is needy, dependent, and vulnerable, and the Pursuer judges the part of him or herself that is selfish and independent, but each sees the part they don’t accept in themselves projected onto the other. Both need to embrace the dependent and independent, feminine, and masculine parts of themselves.
Without change, partners keep repeating a painful cycle of abandonment. The key to breaking their polarization is by becoming conscious of our needs and feelings, and risking what we fear most. It requires awareness of our coping behaviors and resisting the impulse to withdraw or pursue. It takes tremendous courage not to run when we feel too close, and not to pursue when we feel abandoned, but instead, learn to acknowledge and tolerate the emotions that arise.
This may trigger very early feelings of shame, terror, grief, emptiness, despair, and rage. With the help of a therapist, these feelings can be separated from the present circumstance, in which as adults our survival is no longer at stake. As the feelings are worked through, a less reactive, stronger sense of self develops, one that is not easily threatened or overwhelmed.
Partners can learn from each other and embrace their disowned needs. The Pursuer can emulate the Distancer’s ability to set limits, to take care of his/her own needs, to prioritize, to be less personally involved. The Distancer can learn from the Pursuer’s flexibility, ability to reach out and ask, to feel others, and to blend boundaries.
Each person must take responsibility for him or herself, rather than relying on their partner to take care of his or her needs for closeness or distance. The Pursuer must risk saying “No,” and tolerate the anxiety of separation, saying, “I can’t help you — I need to be alone.” The Distancer must risk saying, “I miss you, I need you.” In the movie, “The Doctor,” William Hurt plays a busy, successful doctor, whose wife feels neglected and abandoned. It’s only when Hurt gets brain cancer that he telling his wife that he needs her.
Each must learn to ask for togetherness and space directly, without feeling guilty, or controlling or blaming each other. When each is able to say, “Yes” and say “No,” without the fear of being overwhelmed by intimacy or abandoned by separation, they won’t trigger each other’s defensive reaction.
When they’re conscious of their individual needs, they can acknowledge their partner’s needs with respect. They can empathetically hear each other, and wait to have their need satisfied: “I understand and hear your need and its importance to you, but this is also important to me — can we find a way to compromise?” As couples do this, they will have more authentic intimacy, instead of being locked into an unconscious duet of approach-avoidance.
Relationships can be an exciting path to the unknown. Real intimacy requires courage — courage to open yourself up and to experience pain. The rewards are worth it, because it is a path of self-discovery and ultimately the divine as we open ourselves to one another. Just as the transition from dependence to autonomy can be frightening, so is the transition from independence to interdependence. Yet, it is an essential process in order to heal our wounds, become free of our past conditioning, and to allow us to truly live in the present. Get Conquering Shame and Codependency to overcome early conditioning that stands in the way of intimacy.
Copyright, Darlene Lancer, MFT, JD 1992