When I was a small child, my mom marveled at the fact that she could leave me practically anywhere or with anyone and I’d be fine. I wouldn’t cry for her when she left and I wouldn’t make a big deal when she returned. I was content. I was a good baby. No clinging, no separation anxiety, no tantrums. What more could a first-time mother ask for?
Now, as my second marriage is collapsing in on itself and I prepare once again for divorce, only this time with children involved, I wonder if maybe there was a clue to my relationship problems present from the very beginning of my life. Maybe being an easy baby wasn’t so great. Maybe I should have cried for my mother. Maybe if I’d been able to show my distress instead of adopting an air of indifference, I would have learned to ask for what I needed long ago. Maybe the independence and self-sufficiency that I value above many of my other traits is actually just my avoidance attachment style making itself visible.
I am fifty years old. I have had three significant intimate relationships in my life. The first was my high school boyfriend whom I married just months after graduation. Our relationship lasted ten years although it should have ended in the very first year. Before finally imploding, the relationship reached ridiculous levels of toxicity and abuse. When I fled, it was to save my sanity and my life.
My second significant relationship occurred in my late twenties. I had spent four long years dating casually and was aching to meet someone I could count on to be there for me when it mattered. The relationship started slowly and I let the walls I had built up after my abusive marriage crumble to the ground. I met his parents, he attended my high school reunion, I met his friends and he met mine. I was in love with him but he wouldn’t say the words. He told me that ours was the best relationship he had ever experienced and I thought he was the one, until he spent the weekend with an ex-girlfriend while I was out of town on a business trip. That was his way of breaking it off with me. Although it only lasted a year, it took me a very long time to get over that relationship. I questioned if I’d ever be able to trust again. I questioned if maybe there was just something wrong with me that made me unlovable.
My third relationship is the marriage that is now ending. I met my second husband two and a half years after that second relationship ended. I was in my early thirties and after too many dates and too many disappointments, I was shocked and thrilled to find myself involved in a whirlwind romance. From the day we met until the day our oldest daughter was born, less than two years had lapsed. It was as close to love at first sight as I have ever experienced, and it lasted nearly nineteen years. But if I’m honest with myself, our marriage reached its expiration date long before this past February. By our seventh anniversary we probably should have called it quits.
In the midst of this last painful ending, I went searching for answers. My trust levels have been at an all time low in recent weeks. I don’t trust myself to chose a dinner date much less a life partner! What was I doing wrong? Why couldn’t I find someone who could not only fall in love with me, but actually love me? Or even like me as a real person instead of an ideal?
I knew I couldn’t do this alone, that obviously hadn’t worked in the past, so I started seeing a therapist. After our first two sessions, she e-mailed me a book recommendation. She thought it might have the answers I was seeking.
The book she recommended was Attached. The New Science of Adult Attachment And How It Can Help You Find — And Keep — Love. The book goes into great detail about the characteristics of each attachment style (Avoidant, Anxious, and Secure) and does so without making the reader feel like they are wrong for not having a “secure” style. Authors Levine and Heller point out the benefits and challenges of each attachment style and give recommendations for finding suitable partners and dealing with differences.
A light bulb went off in my head as I read the description of an avoidant attachment style. It was me. Exactly like me. And my soon-to-be ex has an anxious style. This is probably the worst combination possible because each partner exacerbates the other’s natural tendencies in a negative way.
It is rare that couples with avoidant and anxious attachment styles can learn to accommodate each other enough to have a satisfying relationship. My therapist said it is a miracle that we lasted as long as we did. It comforts me on some level to know that we were doomed all along. At least it wasn’t me. Or not all me, anyway. It was us, just being us.
Suddenly incidents that had left me scratching my head over the years made perfect sense. When I thought I was reaching out to him and supporting him, he had felt abandoned. When he thought he was doing something loving for me, I felt misunderstood and trapped. When I didn’t smother him with physical affection, he punished me by leaving the house. Only he didn’t really want to leave, he wanted me to chase him. I didn’t chase him because it gave me the space I needed.
I finally had the proper lens through which to view our marriage. A lens of understanding and compassion. It allowed me to forgive both of us for our behavior during our relationship. I was finally able to understand how I could love someone so much and yet fail so miserably to communicate that love. I saw that it was possible for my husband to love me and yet feel unable to control his negative reactions. I suddenly realized why our attempts to talk it out were like pouring gasoline on a flame. We just didn’t understand each other, no matter how hard we tried. And God knows we tried.
Overview of Each Type
- Avoidant. In studies on infants and attachment, avoidant babies do not appear to be affected when they experience separation from their mother and they do not react much when reunited. They are cool cucumbers. However, their blood pressure rises and heart rate increases when their moms leave, just like anxious babies. They are good at pretending not to need anyone but the anxiety is there, under the surface. As adults, people with an avoidant style will employ tactics to place physical, emotional, financial, and sexual distance between them and their loved ones when they feel like they are getting too close. They naturally expect the worst from partners and have easier cognitive access to negative thoughts.
- Secure. People with a secure attachment style naturally expect the best from their partners and are not fearful of losing their love. They are comfortable with intimacy and closeness and have an ability to communicate their needs and respond to those of their partner. They are quick to forgive and view sex and intimacy as one.
- Anxious. People with an anxious attachment style are always on high alert for any sign that they are losing the love of their partner. This results in excessive attempts to reestablish contact with partners such as incessant calling, texting or emailing. They become distraught and jump to conclusions when their partner is unavailable. They are often fearful and jealous and may threaten to leave their partner in order to get the partner to chase after them or they may play mind games as a form of emotional manipulation when they feel they have been wronged.
Now that I have an understanding of my own attachment style, I realize that I will have to take responsibility for being aware of how others perceive my actions. I now understand how I naturally react to close emotional experiences can be confusing to other attachment styles and can be easily misinterpreted. It is up to me to communicate my feelings in a way that truly reflects what I am feeling inside, so that I do not hurt people without realizing it, and so that never again will I have to hear from someone I love, that I am “heartless.”
I am now aware that people with an anxious attachment style often try to hide their natural tendencies because they have been shamed in the past for being too “needy” or “clingy”. This is what my second husband did when we first met and I now know to be on the lookout for the telltale signs of an anxious attachment style so I can avoid another volatile and unsatisfying relationship.
I have always felt that dating was difficult and that good men were hard to find. I often felt desperately alone when single, yet claustrophobic when coupled. I find couples who hang all over each other and do everything together to be nauseating and unnatural. Now I know why.
I have never been able to properly explain to my partner how I can love them completely and want to be with them, but just sometimes. I have never been able to articulate how just knowing that they are there for me, even though we are not in close physical proximity, is often enough. Now I know that I was simply speaking a language that my anxious partners couldn’t understand.
The book made me feel less alone, more hopeful, and more normal. Now I understand that people with an anxious attachment style (like both of my husbands) will never “get” me. They will always feel neglected and unloved by me. They will constantly be disappointed in what I lack and that disappointment will turn ugly.
I also know that other people with an avoidant style (like my serious relationship between marriages) may not give me enough of what I want. They feel as cornered as I do when coupled yet lonely when they create too much distance. This explains why my boyfriend ended our relationship the way he did — it was shortly after I asked him if he loved me. Knowing this is a huge relief, now I don’t have to feel like there is something inherently wrong with me and that I am unlovable and disappointing.
If you are in a relationship that is forever spiraling out of control over seemingly minor issues, or if your partner is constantly jealous, emotionally manipulative, appears distant even when you are together, or needs more space than you would like, please read this book or find other resources on attachment theory. It may be that you simply have attachment styles that are not in sync.
Even if your relationship cannot be saved, you will feel a huge wave of relief wash over you when you realize that you are not simply bad at love. There are biological reasons for your behavior, and while this is not an excuse for abusive or cruel actions, at least you can stop beating yourself up about it and work to modify that behavior. Maybe you will get a little hope back. Maybe you will take another chance. And just maybe, you will find a love that works for you.