Let’s talk about the ambivalent and avoidant attachment connection and its relationship to toxicity and codependency.
I want to quickly review how each of these attachments forms. Then I will go into 3 tips for repairing attachment in a relationship that has an avoidant/ambivalent match up. (If you are looking for couples therapy and stumbled on this blog- you can check our landing page out at https://paxtherapy.com/couples-therapy-2/)
The Ambivalent Attachment
The ambivalent attachment forms when a caregiver gives mixed signals to a child. A caregiver may be preoccupied with their own worries, may not turn towards the child, and may have their own trauma history. It results in a scenario where the child seeks out the parent for love, attention, and/or soothing- but the parent is unavailable and pushes the child away. Sometimes the parent dotes copious (and often unwanted) attention to the child. This creates a situation where the child becomes unsure when their needs for attention and love will be met. As the child grows, the child worries about the parent being available when the child states their needs.
As an adult in a relationship, a person with an ambivalent attachment may be clingy and “needy” while seeking out attention. Then, when the person attains the level of intimacy and attention that they need- they often shut down, turn away from, and avoid intimacy. There is a fear that intimacy COULD be lost at any moment.
The Avoidant Attachment
The avoidant attachment forms when a child learns to not depend on the parent or adult caregiver. This attachment forms when a child reaches out to a parent or makes noise, cries for a need to be met by a caregiver, and/or the caregiver does not respond to the child. Sometimes, the caregiver will ignore the child. Sometimes, the caregiver mismatches what they give the child to the actual need of the child. This attachment happens when the attunement of the parent and child is not matched, or the parent is absent or unavailable.
As an adult in a relationship, this person avoids relying on others for their needs to be met. They take matters into their own hands. They avoid asking their partner for help. Sometimes, they avoid commitment or struggle with maintaining sexual intimacy and commitment. This person is avoiding intimacy because it feels like “all the eggs are in one basket”. They are fearful that the person can not really be trusted to take care of them, and therefore- why try?
The Ambivalent Avoidant Attachment Relationship
You know the 2 most common types of relationships are relationships categorized as secure-secure or Ambivalent- Avoidant. Yes. The ambivalent- avoidant attachment style in relationships is one of the MOST common styles of attachment.
To those of us in the field- it is an obvious match. This match is not destined for failure if the unhealthy pieces can be teased out (which we will go through in our 5 hacks).
The ambivalent attachment is HIGHLY loyal, trusting, and engaged with their partners. Many would, and do, sacrifice their own self and well-being for the sake of their partner. For an avoidant person- this is what their subconscious wants. They want someone to take care of them and their needs. Also, the avoidant attachment is resilient in the times that the ambivalent partner pushes them away. The can handle being pushed away. It’s what they were primed for.
These relationships often enter into a dance called “distancer-pursuer”. They exhaust and lead couples into patterns of interactions that are highly unhealthy. The ambivalent and avoidant match replays early developmental trauma over and over again.
SO, You’re Married and This is Your Attachment?
Well, it’s not too late. Here are 3 easy hacks to help start the repair of your attachment styles. These hacks are only meant for couples entering into safety through joint commitment to improve their relationship. If they are used in unsafe relationships- they will just replay the earlier attachment traumas.
This relationship hack sounds really easy once explained. It can be actually very difficult to accomplish in an avoidant/ambivalent relationship.
When both partners are calm, they begin maintaining eye contact with the other person for as long as possible- and despite the feelings that show up during the gaze. Partners can start with as little tolerable, gradually increase the time.
This activity re-creates the body sensations of an infant whose parent gazes at them lovingly. The body is re-learning its attachment and safety with another person. It shifts to the body awareness of secure attachment.
The 20-second hug:
Another relationship hack that sounds like it’s easy, and is easy to implement.
When a partner comes or goes at any point during the day, it is recommended that the partner who is staying in the home or is at home upon the arrival initiates a 20-second hug. The amount of time can extend beyond 20 seconds, but more importantly, the timing is the ability to sense when each partner’s body is physically relaxed in the arms of the other partner.
This is highly healing for those who have ambivalent and avoidant attachment styles. It, like the co-regulating gaze, is focused on regulating the body to the safety and comfort of the other person’s body. (Side tip, if you have a toddler who screams bloody murder all the time- THIS is an EXCELLENT way to help your child cope through a tantrum).
An oldie, but a goodie.
The number one issue that couples run into in ambivalent/avoidant relationships is that when they begin to feel the dance of distancer-pursuer… date nights STOP. This is the exact OPPOSITE of what is healing to this style of relationship.
Schedule date nights on a weekly or monthly basis where things are pre-paid, babysitters are paid, reservations are made, you are accountable to friends, etc. This makes a massive difference in the effectiveness of the date night.
By maintaining the schedule even when “things get in the way”, it gives a new experience to the partner. It says, even though I don’t really feel this right now- I am here for you. I want to be with you in this space, even though my subconscious is scared shitless that this relationship will fail.
When is Therapy Needed for the Relationship?
A lot of times, we get asked at what point a therapist should be brought in for support and guidance. The answer to that question is- AS SOON as the distancer-pursuer pattern is noticed. Most relationships who are struggling in the avoidant-ambivalent match up are struggling with significant trauma that is being triggered. It takes a therapist who specializes in attachment to be able to see how the relationship is functioning as a symptom of early trauma for both partners.
The 3 hacks we mentioned above seem very easy; however, their use and success often depend on a therapist helping a couple to troubleshoot how to use the techniques, and why couples stop using them.
Yes, therapy is costly with a specialized therapist, but divorce is far more expensive. I suggest seeking out a therapist who specializes in attachment, and body-based work in order to help heal the relationship. Other therapists may suggest you throw in the towel without looking at where each partner came from, and without attempting to heal it.