Here’s a scenario: imagine you, A, are in a relationship with someone, B. You’ve been dating for a little while now and all you want to do is just to get closer to B and be more intimate—you want to know more about B and spend more time with them. Except, the trouble is that B always seems to get a bit distant when you try to get closer, there’s seemingly always an emotional wall that’s in the way, and they’re a bit reluctant to open up and be more vulnerable with you.
Sounds familiar? It’s a pretty popular trope in movies and television shows—take Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big as an example. We’ve probably all at some point experienced some kind of relationship like that, where A wears their heart on their sleeves and is wanting deeper emotional intimacy, and B wants more space and is reluctant to get too close. This is the tumultuous relationship between someone who is high in anxious attachment and someone who is high in avoidant attachment. But firstly, what are attachment styles?
The essence of attachment theory is that everyone has a system that keeps us close to our caregivers, partners, or close others, when coming across threats. Through our interactions with these people, we develop a guide to how to behave and what to expect in our relationships in different contexts—these guides are different for everyone depending on our own individual experiences. What’s important is that these expectations and behaviours are rooted in past experiences of intimate relationships, so they’re only really activated in relationship contexts. There are various dimensions of attachment, but I’ll only be focusing on the anxious and avoidant attachment styles in this column.
People who score highly on attachment anxiety are extremely invested in their relationships and they have a greater desire to experience closeness and security with their partners, but they worry that their partners don’t love them or that they’d scare their partners away with how close they want to get. On the other hand, people who score highly on attachment avoidance say they’re less invested in their relationships, and prefer to be independent because they’re uncomfortable with depending on people or letting people get too close as they find it hard to trust others.
You probably already get the gist of the relationship dynamic. It’s a turbulent one because A and B have completely opposite outlooks on relationships. So, the question you might have right now is why do they get into relationships together? Well, the thing is A and B might enjoy each other’s company at first precisely because of their differences. B doesn’t have to share or disclose much because A is doing the talking and self-disclosing. A likes this because B is listening and giving them attention, and they will put in more effort to keep this interest going so they don’t lose B. But the issue is that the amount of effort B puts into the relationship isn’t the same as A, and if A were to want more closeness to B, B may end up withdrawing. The only way to get B to come back is for A to dial it back a notch, but A can only do this with the reassurance from B that they’re not going to leave.
Unfortunately, people such as A actually like ‘the chase.’ Playing ‘hard to get’ heightens their need for closeness and security, which means they’ll continue pursuing closeness in the relationship. And when they finally get that closeness, it’s extremely rewarding, which makes this problematic because it’s misconstrued as a ‘high’ and so it can become an addictive pattern to fall into. This is similar to a point that I made in an earlier column, where I mentioned that if you’re someone who needs strong assurances that your partner is deeply committed to you and they won’t leave, you should ideally be after people who would give that to you and not the opposite. Obviously, that’s easier said than done—old habits die hard after all.
If you’ve been reading this and thinking that some of that sounds a lot like you, don’t worry (and don’t be too eager to self-diagnose!). Attachment styles are malleable and they shift depending on what your current partner is like with you. So, if you think you’re stuck being someone who’s always worrying if your partner loves you as much as you love them, that can change when you’re in the right company. Similarly though, if you’re with someone right now who’s making you feel more anxious or avoidant than normal when you’re in the relationship, it’s a good idea to re-evaluate and reconsider your relationship with them.