by Mike Thomas
The non-clinical population has an even amount of male and female people with anxious attachment, as well as those with avoidant attachment. The differences in gender are nuanced, but for the sake of understanding attachment from a human perspective, it’s important to step outside of the need to separate men and women’s differences, and step into the human nervous system free of gender distinctions...from there we can look at differences, but connection must be made first in order to cultivate safety in the nervous systems of BOTH partners. This is an art form that requires tremendous patience, but the payoff is well worth it.
Stan Tatkin suggests a method called “catch and release” for anxious partners who have avoidant partners who seem to be “too distant.”
The avoidant partner is far more aggravated physiologically in connection than anxious partners...but they are generally unaware of this emotionally and physiologically. Although the anxious partner has awareness of this dysregulation when apart from their partner, they must learn to “self-regulate” when away from their partner as part of their growth toward secure functioning. The avoidant partner cannot self-regulate as effectively, or at all, and so they must “auto-regulate,” which is an adaptation to an unconscious terror in relational connection, as they generally experienced some form of neglect to develop avoidant patterns in the first place.
Anxious patterns of adaptation come from having most attachment needs met during their attachment period, but inconsistently. As a result, their attachment systems are hyperactive and sensitive, and often their fears in adulthood relationships are a “replaying” of that early experience of perceived rejection.
Avoidant patterns come from complete disconnection from the parental caregiver... so in order to keep from going insane, they dissociate and disconnect, as that experience of emotional isolation and perceived abandonment is too painful to manage before autonomous neurological function is possible.
“Self-regulation” is the process of regulating the nervous system without an attachment figure/partner present (as is also the case in adult relationships). This is so an individual can regulate their nervous systems until co-regulation can resume when connection is again possible. Through healthy and secure parenting, the child learns this autonomy of self-regulation through the parent consistently demonstrating that they are available for the child while they become more and more capable of emboldened exploration, knowing their “safe haven” is also a “launching pad” of autonomy. Secure functioning people can do this flexibly, and easily support a partner who needs space to self-regulate or to auto-regulate. Either way, a secure functioning partnership has the flexibility based on whatever needs arise.
Anxious functioning partners need to practice this skill in order to learn how to develop the neurological autonomy that they didn’t develop during infancy with their caregiver, who wasn’t consistently available to bolster the appropriate autonomous development. Anxious attachers therefore are lacking that critical aspect of knowing their safe haven is available to help them become more secure in developing autonomy, as co-regulation with an attachment figure is FAR superior to self-regulation for the nervous system.
The avoidant partner in adulthood uses a completely different process called “auto-regulation,” and it is a form of regulation that happens in isolation, but it is not as effective as co-regulation with a partner. They learned to do this auto-regulation as an adaptation from having little to no co-regulation from their attachment figure (the parent might be avoidant and unaware there is any issue, but simply cannot effectively attune emotionally to their infant). The child and adult with avoidant attachment patterns has unconsciously adapted to emotional isolation and neglect, and so they are NOT capable of “self-regulation,” for the purpose of TEMPORARILY regulating until co-regulation is available. Instead, they “auto-regulate,” which is a period of regulation in solitude that has no intention to resume “co-regulation” once connection with their attachment figure is available...because their experience with needing regulation outside themselves was terrifying, and therefore dissociation and numbness was actually adaptive.
Since “auto-regulation” has no such intention/purpose to resume co-regulation (the association with co-regulation is abandonment), they seek autonomy without awareness that they are getting gradually drained of energy and resources over time...and they believe that relational connection is dangerous and costly. But since auto-regulation is ineffective longterm, avoidant partners NEED their partner to “catch and release” by reconnecting briefly, and demonstrating that it’s ok to auto-regulate but only connecting briefly, then separating again. For a partner with secure functioning attachment, this is completely manageable, and so they can appropriately connect and release, gradually demonstrating safety by allowing the avoidant partner to be alone (which is their perceived safety), yet that period of connection can gradually increase, allowing the avoidant partner the capacity to learn safety in co-regulation...and eventually self-regulation (which has the capacity and intention to reconnect in co-regulation).
This presents an apparent problem for the anxious partner, who has an unconscious “self-defeating” approach, assuming that disconnection means that it will stay that way. Their deepest unconscious fear is abandonment as well, but they’re consciously aware of this process...leaving them in the position to aggravate the avoidant partner by demonstrating a lack of safety in insisting on connection at the level they perceive they need NOW.
This might work during the first year of the “infatuation stage” of relationship, when both partners APPEAR secure from increased pleasure and motivation hormones, BUT REDUCED serotonin...which reduces the capacity to think clearly. Once that wears off (approximately 6-12 months), the insecure attachment patterns arise, and the anxious-avoidant dance begins. Cultivating safety fur one another is absolutely critical for the relationship to survive this emergence of their “complimentary” attachment patterns.
So the anxious partner must learn to self-regulate, “catch and release” their avoidant partner, and support both themselves in learning that connection will be there later, AND allowing the avoidant partner to be alone as often as they need. Only then will the avoidant partner eventually become capable to feeling safe in connection. This is ANYTHING but easy, but it is more than possible. Both partners simply need to learn to communicate on a nervous system level: body language! Tone of voice DOES MATTER! Who’s right about the current argument? It makes no difference. What matters is how to co-regulate effectively, because this will allow both partners optimum nervous system function. Safety in the nervous system must become priority.
It often doesn’t feel fair. The avoidant partner is often labeled as being “insensitive,” which is true! It’s an adaptation to a deep unconscious pain and feeling of lacking safety around connection. But it’s not intentional, and avoidant partners actually need connection too...they just need to be shown that their temporary safe space of being alone is accepted and respected, as they truly will connect more deeply over time if given the appropriate space to heal. Alternating between being supported to be alone when needed, as well as short periods of connection will do the trick. Then these periods of connection will gradually increase in time and comfort...but ONLY if it’s slow as the avoidant partner needs.
Think of approaching a deer in the wild...an avoidant partner truly needs that kind of patience to feel safe. It’s an art, and that’s what you unconsciously sign up for with an avoidant partner! They truly need a loving and flexible partner to heal...otherwise they will continue to feel unsafe in connection.
The anxious partner is typically more aware of emotions and sensations that can lead to secure functioning, and they are usually more expressed about what’s going on inside themselves...but with a strong negativity bias and often a victim mentality. The avoidant partner is typically less aware of the emotions and sensations that can lead to secure functioning, but they are far more capable of staying grounded about practical behavior to cultivate secure functioning.
They need one another. The anxious partner is the navigator of their relational car because of the ability to see, and the avoidant partner is the driver because of the ability to drive without looking at all the obstacles in the way...when you drive, you must look where you want to go, not at what you might hit. The partnership can be a navigator screaming about what’s coming, and distracting the driver, and it can also be the driver trying to drive with a blindfold on...or avoid even getting into the vehicle, insisting that running is more efficient to travel across the country.
To do this relational dance well, there needs to be an intention of both partners to honor the strengths of the other, while also honoring their partner’s unique needs for safety. The anxious partner must honor the avoidant for their ability to drive once they feel safe enough to get into the car, which they will do willingly and with joy once they are allowed to CHOOSE to get into the car as they feel safe to connect. The avoidant partner must also accept support from the more perceptive anxious partner in order to navigate with growing empathy. The result is that both partners can then learn to cultivate the strengths of the other...but this process can only BEGIN once they are both honored fir their unique needs to experience neurological safety.
Do this process well, and the anxious partner will have the deepest and most tender love and adoration from their avoidant partner. If the anxious partner ignores this, the avoidant partner will continue to perceive relational connection as dangerous, and the anxious partner will continue to perpetuate the pattern of being abandoned...it’s not easy to own this self-defeating pattern of pushing a partner away through “smothering them.” I should know, I have anxious attachment patterns. I also have developed avoidant qualities over the years through the sheer pain of unmet needs from unconsciously self-sabotaging my relationships.
Get resourced with friends, try EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy), and be gentle with yourself as well. The good news is that an anxious partner has far more awareness of the attachment system through sensitivity. The challenge for the anxious partner is learning to create safety OUTSIDE of connection, so that the avoidant partner can truly feel safe in relational connection...which is what BOTH PARTNERS truly want and need to regulate effectively, through “co-regulation.”
Ultimately, BOTH partners want and need connection, and co-regulation in connection is FAR superior to doing it alone. Avoidant partners tend to be great at autonomy, but suffer unconsciously on a level that is far more devastating to overall health than the anxious partner’s patterns, due to their lack of awareness of their nervous system cues communicating dysfunction. Anxious partners tend to be far more aware of their needs and feelings, but also tend to self-sabotage through negativity bias. They both need what the other has. At some point, connection needs to be more important than doing it the way that feels comfortable...but the only way their unconscious parts will be willing us if they feel safe. The take-away message? Cultivating safety in ourselves and our partners MUST take priority if we are to cross this abyss of disconnection.
What’s more important to you? Being right? Or being happy?
Know Yourself and Be Empowered,
Mike Thomas, Educator, Writer, HFL Empowerment Coach, Holistic Fitness Trainer, and Spiritual Strategist is the innovator and co-owner of Holistic Fitness Lifestyle and has been trained and certified by Dr. Matt James, of The Empowerment Partnership, and Board Certified by the Association for Integrative Psychology as a Master Practitioner of Neuro Linguistic Programming, Master Practitioner of Hypnosis and Mental Emotional Release® Therapy.