Imagine feeling lonely inside and craving love and affection. Then you meet someone wonderful. You are full of joy and excitement. Now you can feel whole and good as you know you should! You have never heard the term anxious-avoidant attachment in adults, however, it does exist.
But several months later, when your romantic partner throws his or her arms around you and tells you that (s)he loves you, you experience a flood of anxiety and sense of impending doom. You try to act happy because you know that is how a “normal” person would feel. But you have a hard time hiding your anxiety. You try to fix it by explaining, but this effort only makes you sound off balance and needy. Across the coming weeks, you feel increasingly trapped, start to pick up on signs that your partner is having second thoughts, and get that awful feeling in your gut…you know…the one you spend your whole life trying to avoid. As the relationship begins to implode you just want to scream, “what the heck just happened?!”
What happened is that you ran straight into your defensive wall; that part of your personality that is trying to protect you and keep you safe. Of course, this defence is not a rational process; it is housed deep in the emotional centres of your brain and is automatically triggered by signals from the environment. It does not care about your rational thought processes or your adult need for love and affection. It would rather be sad and lonely.
Attachment theory can give us an even deeper insight into this process. In childhood, the attachment system increases anxiety when the young person stays too far away from the parent; the resulting discomfort then impels the child to re-establish proximity. Imagine what happens, however, when the parent you are seeking comfort from is himself frightening or frightened. If the parent yells at the approaching child, or even worse becomes physically abusive, then this “attachment figure” is just as scary as whatever the child was running from in the first place.
A mother or father who never experiences hugs and kisses while growing up will not naturally hug and kiss their children and so when I asked my mother why was she not the hugging type when we were growing up she said, “because you did not like to be hugged”. A terrified parent (who may herself be an abuse victim) also cannot adequately soothe a distressed child. In either case, the attachment system does not serve its intended function. The child cannot escape the anxiety coming from the environment and cannot be soothed by the parent. To make matters worse, the parent’s behaviour might increase the child’s anxiety and impel the child to once again approach the scary parent.
Anxious avoidant attachment in adults did not just develop as an adult but started way before that, children can be seen to approach the parent, only to freeze and withdraw or wander about aimlessly. In a like vane, as adults they will simultaneously desire closeness and intimacy and approach potential attachment figures (close friends or romantic partners) but then become extremely uncomfortable when they get too close to those partners and withdraw; hence the message given to others is “come here and go away.”
Anxious avoidant attachment
Of course, the person with this “fearful” attachment style is not likely to be fully conscious that he/she is enacting this process and may feel extremely misunderstood and victimized in professional, friendship and romantic relationships. This person may not perceive that (s)he is the one doing the distancing and rejecting.
If you see yourself in these descriptions and patterns, take heart. The defensive process is a normal reaction to a situational stressor in childhood. The situational stressor may have been physical abuse or assault (big “T” trauma) or angry hostility and scary parental behaviour (little “t” trauma). Scary parental behaviour doesn’t even mean that the parent was overtly threatening. A very depressed or mentally ill parent who is emotionally unexpressive will be frightening because the child knows that the parent cannot provide protection or comfort.
The work by Dr Ed Tronic with young children using the “Still Face Paradigm” (click here to link to YouTube video) provides an excellent example of the effects of parental unresponsiveness and apathy. When parents do not accurately reflect and validate their children’s emotional experiences, the children become emotionally dysregulated. If this pattern is maintained over an extended period, it could have a lifelong impact on the developing person’s neurology and ability to accurately perceive and regulate emotions or sustain healthy and mutually reciprocal relationships. Watch this video.
Once you understand why your adult emotions are so dis-regulated (anxious-avoidant attachment in adults) and why you feel “crazy” in relationships, you can start the process of living with intent and you can refuse to let the process continue disrupting your relationships.