Understanding The Anxious-Avoidant Dating Cycle And How To Remove Yourself From It

Relationships take work, which is an old adage you've probably heard quite a few times by the time you've found yourself in a committed partnership with someone else. But the amount of work each respective relationship requires varies, and there are some dynamics that might add some extra layers to your relationship's workload. Attachment styles contribute to various dynamics that are either less work or more work, depending on the attachment styles of the people in the relationship and how those attachment styles fit together.

According to Psych Central, there are four primary attachment styles that include secure attachment — otherwise known as a healthy attachment development — and then three categories that some experts consider to be maladaptive attachment styles because they tend to become prevalent when core needs are missing from a person's childhood. Besides secure attachment, the other three attachment styles are disorganized attachment, avoidant attachment, and anxious attachment. When the latter two attachment styles, avoidant and anxious, come together in a relationship, this can create significant amounts of work because of how these styles push and pull against one another.

Fortunately, just because you develop one type of attachment style during your childhood and adolescent years doesn't mean you're destined to have that specific attachment style for your entire lifetime. With the right kind of work put in, you can remove yourself from the anxious-avoidant attachment cycle — particularly in the dating stage — and redirect your efforts toward finding relationships built upon mutually secure attachment.

Knowing about the anxious-avoidant dating cycle

The anxious and avoidant attachment styles are similar to oil and water — they might exist in the same container but never seamlessly blend together without the assistance of additional ingredients to merge the two substances. In the case of relationships, the additional ingredients are the awareness of what each attachment style looks like in practice, how the two clash with one another, and the work you can put in to help yourself identify when you're slipping into an anxious-avoidant dating cycle that isn't the healthy relationship you want to have.

Even though these two attachment styles couldn't be more different, they tend to gravitate toward one another in the attachment style version of opposites attracting, shares Growing Self founder Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. Unfortunately, opposites attracting in the anxious-avoidant cycle isn't the fairytale combination of opposites completing one another. Instead, when someone with an anxious attachment style and someone with an avoidant attachment style pair up, the dynamic between them can quickly become unhealthy.

The person with anxious attachment is likely to feel the need to constantly be in touch, blend all areas of life with their partner, and require constant reassurance of their partner's commitment. Working against the needs of the person with anxious attachment is the partner with avoidant attachment, since their tendencies likely skew toward needing a significant amount of space — especially when they begin to feel insecure, vulnerable, or rejected. This turns into a game of toxic tug-of-rope. 

Identifying the clash of attachment styles

When two people, one with anxious attachment and the other with avoidant attachment, begin interaction in a dating or relationship setting, there are some telltale signs that the anxious-avoidant cycle has begun. The partner with avoidant attachment is likely to stonewall during moments of conflict or tension, or otherwise engage in the silent treatment, per Psych Central. Conversely, the partner with anxious attachment is prone to becoming clingy and overly attached in a way that is much like the attachment style's namesake. If you notice that you become exceedingly anxious during moments of vulnerability or tension in your relationship and your partner turns away from you in response — or vice versa — then you may very well be noticing the initial signs of the anxious-avoidant dating cycle.

There's a good chance that during arguments with your partner, you'll feel like you're being drawn back to the past. Emotional experiences from your childhood may suddenly resurface and feel uncomfortably familiar. This is because attachment styles develop in childhood and are frequently a result of the forms of caregiving that children receive or how the individual child learned how to cope with conflict in their home. If you find yourself with an eerily familiar feeling of either lacking acceptance and anxiously yearning for it from your partner, or shutting your partner out completely, this is a pretty good indication that the anxious-avoidant cycle is rearing its head in your relationship.

How to exit the anxious-avoidant cycle

The reality of being in an anxious-avoidant cycle can be extremely stressful and emotionally draining, and it may even lead to negative impacts on other areas of your life, such as your job performance and social life. This is because the push and pull dynamic that identifies the anxious-avoidant cycle tends to produce significant conflict that goes unresolved, ultimately growing larger in the toll it takes on both people in the relationship.

Whether you've been in an anxious-avoidant cycle for a while or you're dating someone new only to realize that you're feeling the toxicity of the cycle activate, there are ways to exit the cycle and work toward creating healthy relationships in your life. Namely: You can either leave the relationship completely and seek new relationships, or you can work together with your partner to learn how to communicate with one another in a sustainable fashion. But the latter approach only works if both people are committed to putting in the work to learn new communication techniques and approaches.

One of the best ways to initiate the removal of the anxious-avoidant dating cycle is to first identify it. An effective method for identifying signs of the toxic cycle is keeping a journal in which you write down your feelings after conflict with your partner and document potential patterns to your arguments. A journal can help you identify your own behaviors and pinpoint potential triggers.

Identify what you need

In addition to helping you identify trends in your life and provide safe opportunities to process your feelings, journaling can also strengthen your connection with yourself and your needs. Should you notice that your journaling is indicating that the anxious-avoidant dating cycle may be present in your relationship, the next step is to pay attention to clues that point toward unfulfilled needs or vulnerable fears you may harbor.

For instance, someone with avoidant attachment may discover that they're deeply afraid of being abandoned because they were frequently left on their own as a child — therefore, they now stonewall and fend for themselves when the slightest hint of abandonment arises in their adult relationships, according to Psych Central. The person with anxious attachment may have had inconsistent caregiving as a child and grew up never knowing how their caregiver would react to situations, thus developing exacerbated anxiety around conflict with partners in adulthood.

Through a processing method like journaling or therapy, you can identify when your attachment style is triggered, what the symptoms of your attachment feel like to you, and what you are seeking during moments of conflict, like reassurance from your partner that they aren't going to abandon you simply because you've argued. Remember to take care of yourself as you delve into this work — it can be uncomfortable and vulnerable.

Establish a support system

As you conduct the work of learning about your respective attachment style, why you developed certain triggers, and what needs you have now in the present, you will want to surround yourself with a strong support network. If you and your partner are doing the work together to heal your relationship from the anxious-avoidant dating cycle, then you can support one another along the way. However, don't rely solely on your partner for support during this time, particularly as you both address how to replace anxious and avoidant reactions with secure, healthy communication approaches.

To have a sustainable and effective exit from the anxious-avoidant cycle — whether alongside a partner or on your own journey — make certain that you have external supporters and cheerleaders such as friends, family members, mentors, and clinical professionals like a therapist, counselor, psychiatrist, or another mental health practitioner. Finding a clinician who specializes in attachment styles is an excellent source of support as you deconstruct your tendencies toward anxious-avoidant cycles. 

Opening a clear pathway of communication with your partner is also equally as vital as doing your own work on your respective attachment habits. Since conflict within the anxious-avoidant cycle can be intense, set boundaries with your partner about how you will both respond to quell tension when it arises so that you don't encounter a full-throttle anxious-avoidant eruption. Changing lifelong attachment tendencies can be extremely difficult, so gift yourself grace and prioritize listening with empathy.

Be honest with yourself

Just as you give your partner grace and compassion, always remember to extend the same empathetic acceptance to yourself. If you're putting in the work to re-learn attachment habits and tendencies, you're already more courageous and committed to being your best self than you may realize at the moment. Of all the things you can do to exit an anxious-avoidant dating cycle, the most important thing you can do is listen to yourself.

Good Therapy describes the anxious-avoidant dating cycle as a "never-ending conflict," and that description isn't wrong. Anxious-avoidant arguments can be exceptionally draining, so even if you're putting in the work alongside your partner but finding yourself regularly emotionally exhausted, take the time to consider if the situation is continuing to deplete you.

There's a grieving process involved in removing yourself from the anxious-avoidant dating cycle since you've likely been trying to fulfill needs that weren't met during your childhood. While you grieve the needs that weren't met during your upbringing, you may also find yourself grieving the perfect relationship you've dreamt about since you were young. Those who have anxious or avoidant attachment styles were most likely dismissed or rejected by their caregivers to some degree, so many children who develop these specific attachment styles grow up fantasizing about having their needs met in the perfect future relationship. Through journaling, therapy, meditation, and other processing methods, try to discern if you're truly happy in the relationship. If you aren't, it's okay to leave. 

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.