Why are healthy, mutually satisfying relationships so difficult to attain and sustain? Wouldn’t it be easier just to live among the plants and animals on a desert island? Before you answer in the affirmative, consider science.
Human beings are neurobiologically created to live in connection with each other. That is a scientifically proven fact. Yet, relationships, which beget connection, are not for the faint of heart.
Relationships can bring us love, laughter, and unbridled joy and fulfillment. And relationships can also subject us to sorrow and pain. Most relationships generally are not exclusively either-or situations, they are both-and. Joy and heartache.
This is because we’re not perfect. Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors sometimes go off-kilter. Our family histories and life experiences have a lot to do with that. It’s that experiential ledger, formed in our developmental years, that determines our adult attachment style.
Attachment Styles Matter
People who exhibit secure attachment are usually confident, communicative, and relaxed. They are comfortable in their own skin: secure. People who have insecure attachment styles are typically divided into anxious or avoidant sub-categories. Relationships in which one party is anxious and the other is avoidant can be especially challenging. The dance that ensues between them is referred to as the anxious-avoidant trap.
While we usually default to exploring the anxious-avoidant trap in romantic relationships, it happens equally as often in friendships and families. The avoidant person fears the pain of disappointment – of being forsaken – so they withdraw from connection. They’ve been there before – too many times – in childhood or in previous adult relationships. To avoid feeling that pain again, they vanish and wrap themselves inside a cocoon of numbness: If I strike first, before you can hurt me, I can’t be hurt. While the avoidant person craves closeness as much as the anxious person, they are also frightened by it, so they avoid becoming too emotionally attached.
The anxious person longs for deep, persistent closeness. Anything less is a personal affront. Anxiously attached people have a lot in common with those who feel victimhood: Why me? What’s wrong with me? Why won’t you give me what I need? Am I asking so much of you? And because the avoidant party doesn’t live up to their expectations, the anxious person becomes hurt, sad, and angry. They fear rejection, disinterest, and abandonment. Sometimes they lash out or become passive-aggressive. The connection they have is never enough. Their need for closeness can become insatiable. Always more.
The anxious-avoidant dance becomes a predictable pattern – a vicious cycle of unhappiness. So, if it’s a pattern that is predictable, then why are we surprised – why do we react emotionally –when what has happened before happens again and again? Because we repeat it, until we figure out how to adjust our expectations and change the way we respond to trigger points. We need to learn how to slow down and process our feelings.
Effective Communication Makes a Difference
We need to communicate. If you’re avoidant and you know your anxious partner or friend craves connection, connect with them. If you don’t have the bandwidth, a simple text message can suffice: Hey, just thinking about you. I’ve got my hands full right now but look forward to connecting with you as soon as I can. That’s not so hard, is it? And then follow up when you’re able. And anxious individuals need to try to learn not to take things so personally. It’s not always about you. Life happens. People have a lot on their plate – things you’re probably not even aware of. So, breathe, and give your avoidant relationship partner some grace.
Many of us lead busy lives with demanding and frustrating jobs, precarious relationships, kids, family responsibilities, and a slew of activities – too many demands on our time. Sometimes our busyness provides cover. It gives us an excuse to disconnect from those we love and the intensity of our feelings. And so, too many relationships appear lopsided – inequitable – and the cycle is exasperating and exhausting.
You’re Not the Boss of Me
There are no easy answers. And try as we might, we can’t change or control anyone. If we think we can, we’re fooling ourselves. I am the only person I am in control of. I have no dominion over other people or outside forces. I can, however, control how I perceive and respond to events and circumstances as they occur. I can also work to tamp down my reactivity and slow down enough to allow myself to reframe or alter my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
In the final analysis, a relationship is like any living organism. Without nourishment and nurturance, it will eventually shrivel and die. But given the proper attention and care, it becomes fortified. The participants grow stronger, more self-and-other aware, more sensitive, determined, loving, and grateful for each other. As difficult as it can be to achieve, all relationships – even anxious-avoidant ones – present the potential for us to experience love, belonging, meaning, joy, and fulfillment.
The next time you fantasize about that desert island, invite someone you love to join you.