Marriage Dilemmas-The Avoidance-Anxious Couple Dynamic

A couple named John and Elaine have been unhappy and frustrated in their marriage for a long time.

Elaine has been longing for emotional connection from John. She feels he simply will not talk about his feelings or express himself with her. When Elaine perceives that John withdraws and distances himself from her, she feel rejected, abandoned, and cheated of a more intimate relationship. She becomes irritable and anxious. She pushes on him to talk to her, to be more affectionate and lovey. He, in turn, resents the pressure, feels she is intrusive, needy and clingy and becomes even more remote. The circle goes on and on.

Their conundrum can be understood within the lense of what one can call an avoidant-anxious attachment dynamic. Just as Elaine craves warmth and affection, John needs private space and distance from the intensity of their interations.

The disparity and gap in the way they relate to each other goes back a long way into the attachment style they were exposed to as children. John was raised as an only child, in a family that was formal and distant in their relational style.His parents were career focused and rarely had time to be with their son. He had only a few cousins with whom he rarely played with. John was used to being by himself and got attached to his privacy. Although he loved Elaine, he generally avoided social gatherings and had few friends.

Elaine, on the other hand, came from a large, emeshed family with many extended family members. She is accostumed to being physically close and affectionate with her brothers, sisters, and cousins. When John withdraws, she feels very lonely and isolated. Her insecurities surface as she is now in a deprived situation without the emotional support that one nourished her. Jons’s lack of empathy for her, triggers off her insecurity and abandonment fear.

Both parties have fallen into a trap of exacerabing each other’s issues.

In essence, neither partner is at fault in the breakdown of their marriage. Understanding that both of them were acting in ways that contributed to the problem,neither one was able to blame or point fingers at the other. The treatment protocol is to get them both to step back and be more conscious of the roots of their disparate communication style. Then to find ways to crawl out of their respective blaming and finger pointing entrenchments.

The following are some sample treatment approaches I used to lessen the polarities and helplessness from both parties.: I got Elaine to slow down her intense reactions to feeling deprived and defeated when she felt abandoned by John. By understanding that John wasn’t rejecting her but responding to her in the only way he knew, she would be able to modify her fundamental attribution error that he didn’t love her. I got her to ask John for more affection and closeness without feeling the desperation of her deprived child ego state and without making him the bad guy, understanding that she was pushing him in a way that was too forceful, demanding and insensitive to his vulnerabilities.

I worked with John to understand the dynamics of Elaine’s needs for closeness and intimacy, given she longed for it and came from a family that was more fluid and available emotionally for her. I taught him how to ask for time-outs and privacy for himself without demeaning or pathologizing Elaine for her needs. We also worked in getting him to trust and reach out to her more often.

The couple has reported more trust and progress in taking in each other as a loving partner despite several bumps in the road. They have returned to therapy for tune-ups as old patterns are often hard to break.

This article was written from inspiration and tools gleamed from rreading a book called Attached, the New Science of Adult Attachmen and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love by Dr. Amire Levine and Rachal Heller.