dusyfunctional attachment

Anxious-Preoccupied: Stuck on the Dismissive?

Preoccupied-Dismissive Pairing: Quicksand?

Preoccupied-Dismissive Pairing: Quicksand?

The Anxious-Preoccupied are frequently attracted to the intermittent reinforcement provided by the Avoidant, especially the apparently cool and self-sufficient Dismissive variety. I go into this at some length in the book:

Anxious-preoccupied types do poorly with each other—two needy, clingy people who do manage to calm each other’s insecurities exist as couples, but it’s rare, and the resulting relationship is closer to unhealthy codependence; neither will be strengthened by the bond. A mildly Preoccupied person can last with a mildly Avoidant sort, but the relationship tends to be unhappy as the bond is based on the unmet neediness of the Preoccupied and the willingness of the Avoidant to accept the attention without providing emotional security. A preoccupied person is much better off with a Secure who can gradually calm the preoccupied person’s insecurities by steady love and support, as in this case:

The preoccupied wife who had ambivalent attachment to her parent cannot believe her husband when he says, despite their fights and mutual dissatisfactions, that he genuinely loves her and wants to stay with her. She cannot assimilate it to her worldview, her internal model. She is sure he will abandon her, either because he already wants to or because her impossible and anxious neediness will eventually drive him out. But his steadfastness over the years builds her trust. It causes her to remember her relationship with a great uncle, whose love was precious and unwavering, and to think more and more about him and how good she felt about herself around him. Gradually, she assimilates her marriage to this model, and it becomes more central. Feeling more secure, she now finds herself freer to reflect on the past.[1]

Though it appears a preoccupied person might be better off with a secure partner, some research indicates that in this case opposites attract:

A number of studies have looked into the question of whether we are attracted to people based on their attachment style or ours. Two researchers in the field of adult attachment, Paula Pietromonaco, of the University of Massachusetts, and Katherine Carnelley, of the University of Southampton in the UK, found that avoidant individuals actually prefer anxiously attached people. Another study, by Jeffry Simpson of the University of Minnesota, showed that anxious women are more likely to date avoidant men. Is it possible, then, that people who guard their independence with ferocity would seek the partners most likely to impinge on their autonomy? Or that people who seek closeness are attracted to people who want to push them away? And if so, why? Pietromonaco and Carnelley believe that these attachment styles actually complement each other in a way. Each reaffirms the other’s beliefs about themselves and about relationships. The avoidants’ defensive self-perception that they are strong and independent is confirmed, as is the belief that others want to pull them into more closeness than they are comfortable with. The anxious types find that their perception of wanting more intimacy than their partner can provide is confirmed, as is their anticipation of ultimately being let down by significant others. So, in a way, each style is drawn to reenact a familiar script over and over again.[2]

This kind of complementary dysfunction can lead to a stable relationship, but one where both partners stay in their insecure styles, with the preoccupied battling for every scrap of attention and the avoidant one only giving enough to confirm his view of attachment as a necessary evil. These attractions are based on re-enacting the dysfunctional touch and response cycles of their early childhoods, and generally these couples report they are together despite their unhappiness.

Levine and Heller point out that the slights and intermittent reinforcement of the attractive avoidant male often trigger activation of the attachment system—producing intrigue and sparks. So what if he only answers your text messages days later, if at all? He’s hot and just hard-to-get enough that you really want him! This is the terrible mistake so many make: they meet a secure guy and it’s all so drama-free that they think he’s dull:

If you are anxious, the reverse of what happens when you meet someone avoidant happens when you meet someone secure. The messages that come across from someone secure are very honest, straightforward, and consistent. Secures are not afraid of intimacy and know they are worthy of love. They don’t have to beat around the bush or play hard to get. Ambiguous messages are out of the mix, as are tension and suspense. As a result, your attachment system remains relatively calm. Because you are used to equating an activated attachment system with love, you conclude that this can’t be “the one” because no bells are going off. You associate a calm attachment system with boredom and indifference. Because of this fallacy you might let the perfect partner pass you by.[3]

So armed with foreknowledge, a wise preoccupied person will seek out a Secure and avoid the sometimes attractive but ultimately unsupportive Avoidant of both flavors, as well as other Preoccupieds, who are likely to be the worst partners of all for them.

The relationships between Anxious-Preoccupied and Avoidant partners are especially problematic, because their mutually-reinforcing insecurities can lead to a stable but unhappy partnership that does little to help them grow more secure but can go on for years.

Remember that while attachment types are relatively fixed characteristics, almost everyone can display insecurities when the situation is stressful or their partner is triggering them: as when the Avoidant are withholding responses, creating anxiety in their partner; or when the Anxious-Preoccupied are peppering their normally Secure partner with demands for response, creating a desire to distance from excessive clinginess.

The Anxious-Preoccupied are driven by their need for attachment to jump quickly into relationships and to immediately see the latest one as the solution to their problems. They feel safe when their desired partner is near and reassuring, and anxious when apart, or when messages aren’t replied to immediately. While a Secure will assume the lack of response means their partner is simply busy or away from the phone, an Anxious-Preoccupied person will start to worry and wonder if something has gone wrong with their relationship. Since they are so concerned about their relationships, they will then act — with more and increasingly demanding messages and even more obsessive worry if there is no response.

The Preoccupied think that because they put their relationships above all other priorities, and work hard to maintain contact and do things for their partner, that they are owed the same level of attention and devotion. This level of commitment would be admirable if it came after a long relationship of mutual support and knowledge, but the Preoccupied tend to rope someone into partnership and start acting as if it was eternal and perfectly intimate long before they have really come to know and understand their latest partner-victim. In other words, they use their new partner to fill the hole in their attachment security without a true knowledge and appreciation of the partner’s history and feelings. This is self-centered and shows that real empathy can only be fully exercised from a secure base.

This entitlement attitude (“I am a devoted partner so I am owed the attention I deserve!”) leads to disappointment and anger when no real person can instantly be as thoughtful and devoted as the Preoccupied would require. The Preoccupied spend much time obsessing about these unintended slights and going over every detail of interactions in their heads, making up scenarios where they lose their partner, and then being tempted to make another play for reassurance. The anxiety they feel and the demands they make without regard to their partner’s state of mind or current ability to respond ultimately can drive away partners and friends.

The increasing percentage of Dismissives in the dating pool as time goes on means that older Preoccupieds will encounter more Dismissives than any other type. The intermittent reinforcement provided by a Dismissive — sometimes they will respond reassuringly, sometimes not — means that when the attachment system of the Preoccupied goes on alert, it finds its challenging match in the Dismissive’s refusal to play along. To some Preoccupieds this partial response is what they remember from significant caregivers, most typically their father, and the familiarity of this yearning is itself attractive.

The Dismissive, on the other hand, expects partners to be too demanding and troublesome, and that too confirms their view of others. One might expect Dismissives to seek out partners who are happy to accept greater distance in partnership, but that is not how it works out in practice; it as as if the Dismissive is most comfortable exercising the balance of power in the relationship, holding their struggling partner at a distance and just providing enough attention and reassurance to keep them on the hook.

Since they are reinforcing each other’s view of others, neither will get any more secure with time; the Dismissive will accuse their partner of being clingy or needy, while the Preoccupied will accuse their partner of being too distant and uncaring. They are fulfilling each other’s basic need to have a partner, but the partnership will always be troubled by their complementary insecurities. Yet it is more likely to be stable than a Preoccupied-Preoccupied partnership.

The single Preoccupied person would be wise to resist the tendency to fall for a Dismissive. This can be avoided by noting the red flags of the avoidant: not responding reassuringly to simple in-person requests, not showing much interest and concern for your feelings, and having a history of bad or no relationships. Superficial looks and accomplishments should not be seen as indicating that your new prospect is a success in emotional or relationship spheres. Always remember when you meet someone intriguing that you know next to nothing about their personality until you have seen them in many situations over many months. Don’t try to have a Significant relationship with someone until you have enough history with that person to be able to rely on their feelings for you. Remind yourself that there are many possible partners out there, and don’t settle emotionally on someone who may not be right for you just because they have shown you a little attention. It is meaningless unless it is sustained and reliable.

[1] Karen, p. 404
[2] Levine, Amir; Heller, Rachel (2010-12-30). Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love. p/ 91, Penguin Group US
[3] Levine and Heller, p. 96

[Note: if you arrived here looking for insight into a dismissive or fearful-avoidant spouse or lover, I’ve just published a book on the topic: Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) a Dismissive Partner. Right now available only from Amazon Kindle for $3.99 (or local currency equivalent), but by Oct. 15th a paperback should also be available.]

More reading on this topic:

“Why We Are Attracted to Bad Partners (Who Resemble a Parent)”
Dismissive-Avoidants as Parents
“Avoidant: Emotions Repressed Beneath Conscious Level”
“Anxious-Preoccupied / Dismissive-Avoidant Couples: the Silent Treatment”
““Bad Boyfriends” – Useful for Improving Current Relationships”
“Dating Pool Danger: Harder to Find Good Partners After 30”

More on Attachment and Personality Types:

What Attachment Type Are You?
Type: Secure
Type: Anxious-Preoccupied
Type: Dismissive-Avoidant
Type: Fearful-Avoidant (aka Anxious-Avoidant)
Avoidant: Emotions Repressed Beneath Conscious Level
Serial Monogamy: the Fearful-Avoidant Do It Faster
Anxious-Preoccupied: Stuck on the Dismissive?
Anxious-Preoccupied / Dismissive-Avoidant Couples: the Silent Treatment
nxious-Preoccupied: Clingy and Insecure Relationship Example
Domestic Violence: Ray and Janay Rice
Malignant Narcissists
Teaching Narcissists to Activate Empathy
Histrionic Personality: Seductive, Dramatic, Theatrical
Life Is Unfair! The Great Chain of Dysfunction Ends With You.
Love Songs of the Secure Attachment Type
On Addiction and the Urge to Rescue
Sale! Sale! Sale! – “Bad Boyfriends” for Kindle, $2.99
Controlling Your Inner Critic: Subpersonalities
“Big Bang Theory” — Aspergers and Emotional/Social Intelligence
Porn Addiction and NoFAP
Introverts in Management